Science & Tech

The Doomsday Vault Feels the Heat

In Svalbard, Norway, the vault storing seeds of the most important crops in the world is in trouble. And that is not the most serious issue facing the world’s food security.

The Svalbard Seed Vault. Photo: Frode Ramone, CC

There is a major irony as to why the vault itself is in trouble. Its purpose was to bring together seed samples that could be protected regardless of what conditions human beings might create. Major wars, fires and even the threat of nuclear weapons were considered in planning the vault. However, none of those bigger threats are what is creating the current risk. Instead, climate change is the culprit, creating unexpected problems.

First, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is strategically located a 90-minute flight away from northern Norway – about as far north as one can travel commercially. The region is normally quite cold and dangerous to venture to without a car. The latter is both because of the cold temperatures and because there are polar bears there that could take down a human being in seconds.

The vault, run by NordGen (the Nordic gene bank), is located 100 meters inside the mountains. There are six steel doors meant to isolate the interior climate from the outside. That is good protection, of course. Another protection is that the vault building is located in a perennially-icy-cold area with layers of permafrost surrounding it. With global warming now kicking in with surprising ferocity in the Arctic, that design concept has proven faulty. Last year, the permafrost began a historic melting that is creating other hazards, such as the rapid release of methane into the atmosphere. It has also raised temperatures enough that the melting occurring outside the vault (something never expected by the planners) has resulted in leaks inside it.

The country of Norway, which already pays a major part of the bills for managing the vault, is now spending $20 million to shore up its construction and isolate it from further damage of this kind. Norway is also working to increase the resilience of the facility’s internal systems, which are designed to keep the seeds at –18°C (–4°F). As the Arctic heats up further – like it did this winter – more will likely have to be done to protect the vault’s interior from the unexpected warmth of the outside and to isolate the precious seeds from damage from that front.

An additional current concern about the seed vault is that global warming has created havoc with plants around the world. As a result, withdrawals of seeds from the vault have already been made (to replace lost field crops). More withdrawals will put the veryconcept of the seed bank at risk, especially if the rate of removal increases. Another problem created by climate change is that it may turn out that many of the seeds that have been so securely protected may not be sufficiently resilient to survive as the world continues to heat up. When the seed bank was initially planned, a narrow group of what were considered critical crops were sought out in seed form. That selection is growing, but the total supply is still limited. As Marie Haga, executive director of Crop Trust (a group devoted to supporting gene banks around the world), said, “biodiversity is the building block to develop new plants, and because of climate change, we’re in a terrible need to quickly develop new varieties. The climate is changing quicker than the plants can handle.”

Seed storage deep inside the vault. Photo: Dag Terje Filip Endresen, CC

It could be, then, that when the vault’s contents are needed most to help the world regrow lost crops on a large scale, there will not be enough biodiversity there to get us through the man-made crises going on outside the vault. To deal with that, Crop Trust is working to raise $850 million to finance programs to encourage biodiversity research in local facilities. That is a big increase from the current $285 million  of funding that Crop Trust currently has available, but it is hoped that more money will be secured thanks to an increased emphasis on requests for help from private business. The truth is that even with the best of vaults and the most involved planning for their contents, that is still not enough to protect the world’s food supply. As Patrick Mulvany, an agricultural expert and consultant in biodiversity and food supply, emphasized recently, more investment is needed to support farmers who are not receiving enough money to develop alternative varieties to support the future. Without that, Mulvany pointed out recently, “our future food is very insecure. You can have as many seeds as you want locked up in the vault here, but they deteriorate a little bit over time, and they aren’t adapting to climate and new social pressures.”

Another threat to the world’s food supply is the increasing use of genetically modified crops such as those produced by Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and Dow Chemical. Even without the risks of such crops to our health – because they are synthetically generated and have built-in liabilities of their own and even further because of the hazards of partner herbicides such as Monsanto’s proven-toxic glyphosate-rich Roundup – there is yet another major issue as GMOs continue to dominate the world’s seed use globally. That issue, which has already been demonstrated in events such as the decimation of Monsanto-developed GMO crops in India as pests evolved to target the narrow sets of crops planted throughout, is that the lack of biodiversity that the GMO industry depends on for its efficiencies and economies of scale makes the world even more vulnerable – not safer – over time.

The Svalbard seed vault – even under repair and with the need to support its mission more important than ever – just celebrated its 10th anniversary. In honor of that, gene banks from everywhere have made special deposits of new seeds. Those seed samples include staples such as rice, maize, lentils and eggplant in quantities that have pushed the vault’s stores to over one million seeds’ strong.

The vault is now looking to take that number even further, to two million.