Google Maps search results for Svalbard make for an intriguing sight. This small Norwegian archipelago has the Greenland Sea on one side and the Arctic Ocean on the other. There are scattered patches of green—the mountains and fjords—that are easily overshadowed by the white, which represents the extreme Arctic climate in Svalbard. More than half of the archipelago is covered with glaciers.

On one of these islands, deep inside a sandstone mountain, a secure facility holds the future of the agricultural world’s genetic resources. With seed samples from more than 76 global depositor institutes, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located on the Spitzbergen island, practically holds the world’s agricultural history—and perhaps the future.

The vault, which completed 10 years in February, is owned by the Norwegian government. The facility is managed through an agreement between the Norwegian ministry of agriculture and food, the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen), and the Crop Trust (formerly known as the Global Crop Diversity Trust).

Speaking to Lounge in a Skype call, Åsmund Asdal, Svalbard Global Seed Vault coordinator, explains why there is a need to preserve new varieties of crops and seeds.

Åsmund Asdal, who has been the coordinator at Svalbard since 2015. Photo: AFP
Åsmund Asdal, who has been the coordinator at Svalbard since 2015. Photo: AFP

“Gene banks have been collecting seeds, multiplying and distributing them for breeding and research for more than 50 years. Some gene banks were established even before World War II. Genetic resources of crops are the raw material that agricultural breeders and researchers need to develop the varieties. We need these varieties because of climate change, increasing food production, dry and wet climate conditions, new plant diseases, and so on," says Asdal.

Asdal says the vault, described as everything from the “doomsday vault" to a “Noah’s Ark" for the world’s seeds, offers a safe place for duplicate samples of seeds that are conserved in gene banks across the world.

The seed vault follows a simple system. All gene banks that deposit their seeds still technically own them. They can withdraw them in case of an emergency. A recent example comes from war-stricken Syria, where the gene bank in Aleppo was left inaccessible in 2015. The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (Icarda), which handles the gene bank in Aleppo and other research centres globally, took seed samples that had been deposited at Svalbard to duplicate the seed collection in Aleppo at gene banks in Lebanon and Morocco. Once the fresh seeds were successfully regrown at these two locations, they were deposited again at Svalbard last year, with more seeds expected this year.

Variety of seeds stored at the vault. Photo: AFP
Variety of seeds stored at the vault. Photo: AFP

On its 10th anniversary, 77,671 seed samples were added to the vault. With this, the total number of samples deposited crossed one million—1,060,987. But, over the last three years, Icarda has withdrawn 92,430 seed samples for the gene banks at Morocco and Lebanon, bringing the current count of seed samples to 968,557.

“It’s quite a simple project in a big international system for improving agriculture," adds Asdal, who has been the coordinator since 2015.

Climate factor

The vault has been carved inside a mountain mass that has permafrost, with a temperature of minus 3-4 degrees Celsius. The seed storage area, comprising three halls, also has an additional cooling system, which keeps the temperature at minus 18 degrees Celsius.

The first portion of the vault is an artificially built tunnel that is not watertight and has experienced water-logging during rainfall or warmer seasons in recent years. But the Norwegian government, Asdal says, has now announced that it will spend around 100 million Norwegian krone (Rs6.5 crore) to make the tunnel watertight.

Will climate change have a big impact on the permafrost that naturally keeps the temperature inside the seed vault below absolute zero?

“Climate change is a large problem all over the world. Scientists have indicated that the Arctic region is facing more problems than other parts of the world. The Longyearbyen society, which is a village in Svalbard, faces problems since a lot of the buildings are built on permafrost. They are also affected by snow slides. But as far as the seed vault is concerned, we’ll probably need to have more electricity to keep the temperatures at minus 18 degrees Celsius. So, as long as there’s civilization, electricity and staff at Longyearbyen, I don’t see any problems for the vault," says Asdal.

Seed viability is another key factor. This basically refers to the ability of a seed to germinate, which can be affected by the surrounding environmental conditions. Apart from pathogens and plant diseases, moisture or excessive heat can fatally damage seeds.

“Seeds do not live forever. Gene banks regularly monitor the viability of their seeds. The storage conditions at Svalbard are the same as at these gene banks. When a gene bank tests their seeds and sees that a seed sample is going to lose viability, they’ll have to multiply and regenerate new seeds for themselves. They will also replace the same samples at Svalbard. We are not doing any testing at Svalbard," Asdal explains.

In simple words, testing the seeds for viability and germination is essentially the responsibility of the gene banks. In India, much of the onus is on the national seed bank in Delhi and Icrisat (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in Bengaluru.

Indian pigeon pea

Apart from the national seed bank at the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) in Delhi, India has its own mini version of the seed vault in Chang-La, about 75km from Leh. This national permafrost repository was started in 2009 by the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), in collaboration with the NBPGR.

While the national seed bank has more than 1,500 crop species in the form of almost 400,000 seeds, the repository at Chang-La holds close to 5,000 seed samples from different plant species.

“The seed lines at the gene bank at Pusa have a huge diversity of crops—rice, wheat, tuber crops, pulses, oilseeds, fruit crops and medicinal plants," says K.C. Bansal, former director, NBPGR.

Bansal was part of the delegation that carried the first official Indian deposit to the Svalbard seed vault in 2014. He was accompanied by Manas K. Mandal, then director general, life sciences, DRDO, and Ashish Bahuguna, then Union agricultural secretary. “The seed vault in Svalbard is an engineering marvel. The idea was to also see if we could build a similar gene bank on a small scale in the Himalayas," Bansal says.

The first deposit from India at Svalbard had the pigeon pea or arhar dal. “It’s one of the most prominent crops in our country. We had carried around 25 accession samples back then," he adds.

While there has been no word on a bigger repository, the DRDO did start an extreme altitude research centre in Chang-La in 2015. At 17,600ft above sea level, this is the world’s highest terrestrial research and development (R&D) centre, according to a Press Trust Of India report quoted in the Hindustan Times.

The report adds that the centre was established by the Defence Institute of High Altitude Research (Dihar), Leh, which is part of the DRDO. Apart from R&D work in food and agriculture, other life sciences activities that were proposed to be conducted at this centre included conservation of plant genetic resources, endangered extreme altitude medicinal plants, and soil-less micro-farming.

Bansal says building a facility similar to Svalbard isn’t an easy task. One of the most important things will be to have security from the point of view of electricity and energy conservation, since gene banks rely heavily on artificial cooling systems.

“The idea is still valid. (But) we’ll have to keep in mind the nearby border areas, and that the zone is highly seismic. All these angles are really important. Such a big project will need inputs from not only scientists, but engineers, earth sciences experts, and so on. Once the technology we have at our disposal matures, I am sure we’ll make more progress."

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