What if a big worldwide catastrophe resulted in the destruction of most of the plants on earth? How would mankind and animals move forward? What food would we eat?
Before you think that’s farfetched, think of the possibility of nuclear war. And think of dinosaurs. Scientists theorize that they all disappeared suddenly from a global disaster, leaving us with only some of their bones buried in the ground.
So what if something very unfortunate happened to plant life on earth? Many centuries of agricultural history and the improvement of seeds from both natural and man-made means from the time man began planting food on his own, would be lost.
That’s why close to a million plant seeds are locked up for safekeeping in the Svalbard global seed vault. Constructed at a cost of almost $9 million in 2008, the seed vault has room for 4.5 million seeds.
To set the records straight, human beings keeping seeds in secure structures as a preparation for doomsday, is nothing new. In fact there are several secure seed banks around the world, storing thousands of seeds just in case there’s an apocalypse. What makes the Svalbard seed vault stand out is that it represents a second layer of safety in food security preparations against global disaster.
This seed vault on the Norwegian island Spitsbergen, located in the arctic, is home to hundreds of thousands of seeds prepared for storage, from other secure seed banks around the world. It is an insurance against global disaster for those seed banks.
The Svalbard seed bank is truly a “bank”. The security for its precious contents is quite high. The vault is built into a mountain and deep into the frozen ground of the arctic. The storage rooms which lack oxygen in order to lengthen the lifespan of the seeds, keeps them frozen at the very cold temperature of −18 °C. And if the vault’s power were to fail, the seeds would still stay frozen for at least 200 years; some would last for thousands of years!
And just like money in bank accounts, Norway does not own the seeds. Every country or seed bank that makes a deposit, signs an agreement ensuring that their deposit does not transfer ownership of the seeds to Norway. The depositor owns the seeds deposited and no depositor is allowed to withdraw seeds deposited by others. The main difference the seed vault has from money banks is that seeds brought to the vault are for long term storage and permanent custody – until an apocalypse.
However, one withdrawal was made from the vault in September 2015 by a seed bank in the Middle East known as the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA). ICARDA, which had to relocate from Syria to Lebanon due to the Syrian war, was having difficulty transporting its entire seed collection to its new base. The Svalbard vault played quite a role for them at that moment.
Time Magazine included the Svalbard seed bank in its list of the best inventions of 2008. But for man’s own safety, we must probably hope that the Svalbard seed vault stays quite useless and no major withdrawals are made. Each withdrawal is likely to bode an unfortunate event. The first one has been due to the Syrian war which has outlasted World War II, killed over 400,000 and produced over 5 million refugees.