The idea surfaced over a decade ago. It was appealing and odd at the same time: gather a team of expert scientists, drill a 120-yard-long tunnel into the side of a frigid mountain, equip it with all manner of new technology and then place precious seeds from all around the world inside.
By doing so, the thinking went, agriculture would be protected from disasters, diversity of plant life would be saved and everyone would breathe a bit easier. And so the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the largest seed depository in the world, was built on a remote Norwegian island and the seed collections began to arrive.
Cary Fowler, an agriculture-steeped Tennessean turned executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, oversaw the process. Now a senior advisor to the trust, Fowler remains a passionate advocate for the vault and seed banks.
First interviewed by Delta Farm Press in 2005 when the project was still in the planning stages, Fowler spoke not only of the protection the vault would offer in doomsday scenarios but the fact that it had brought humankind together for a common cause. “In a way the vault provides an optimistic view of the future. Consider that countries would come together and do something like this. Can you think of any other issue where all countries are coming together to do something positive and long-term? How many examples jump to mind? Well, here's one.”
Fowler recently spoke to Farm Press again. Among his comments:
On his childhood…
“My maternal grandmother operated the family farm in Madison County, Tenn. I grew up with a grandmother that was really a farm manager.
“These were the old days and I remember when the first tractor came to the farm and half of the mules left the same day. There were tenant farmers and sharecroppers farming the land.
“So I had a close connection with farming. My father was a judge and about 30 years ago my parents bought a farm in Shelby County, which is still there. Certainly, agriculture was always in our blood.”
On the genesis of the Svalbard vault…
“In a sense, we had just had enough of experiencing the loss of crop diversity around the world. Most seed samples were held in seed banks around the world. Most people don’t realize, but virtually every country in the world has one or more seed banks. They store gigantic quantities of crop diversity in the form of seed, and it’s absolutely essential for agricultural progress for improvements in crop breeding programs.
“Losses occurred because facilities sometimes lacked proper funding or equipment. Other times losses happened due to warfare or a natural disaster. Every time these things happened, agriculture was experiencing loss. We were seeing unique varieties of agriculture crops simply lost. Any unique or important trait those seed samples might have had was gone forever.
“With the world we live in today -- increased need for production in the face of population growth, and with weather variability -- the loss was unacceptable. We need the seed resources because they provide options for agriculture in the future. We wanted to put an end to the loss of this genetic diversity and that was the motivation behind establishing the seed vault.”
Spitsbergen, a letter
Why was the island of Spitsbergen chosen for the vault?
“There were two important factors behind it. One, the five Nordic countries: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Finland, have a collective seed bank located in Sweden. In the 1980s, they put some of their seed samples in an abandoned coal mine in Svalbard, and I knew about that.
“Two, at the time, I was living in Norway as a university professor. Those two factors combined made me think that Svalbard was the place. I already knew a number of people in government in Norway. It’s a small country and I had enough connections in government to convince myself that if we put a proposal forward to the Norwegian government, it would at least be considered seriously. That was the beginning…
“So the government asked me to lead a feasibility study to really look into the possibility, because, frankly, at that point it was only an idea. Neither I, nor anyone, knew if this would work and we had a million questions.
“I didn’t think of it in historic terms. It’s true that there hadn’t been anything like it before, but to me, this was the next logical step to conserve diversity make it available for plant researchers and breeders now and in the future…
“A remote and cold location was only one factor in making a successful facility. There were potential spots in the Andes or Himalayas. With Norway, we had a trusted country internationally. They were also willing to finance the facility, backed by their own political and financial stability.”
On writing an unsigned letter…
“The first step was to convince a group of international agriculture research institutions to write a letter to the Norwegian government asking if they would look into the feasibility of establishing such a seed bank. The government contacted me when they received the letter and said they were taking the idea very seriously. They wanted an international committee to delve deeper and wanted me to head the committee.
“That’s when I had to come clean and basically say that I wrote the letter, but didn’t sign it. They just said, ‘Oh yes. We already know that.’ They said there was no conflict of interest and asked me, ‘Do you know the answer to your question regarding feasibility?’ I told them I didn’t know and that’s when I was appointed as committee head.
“I chose the committee members based on expertise. At that point, the media wasn’t interested and we didn’t think they’d ever be interested. It seemed like such a wild idea that I’m not sure any of us really thought it would ever come to pass.
“Even after we’d done all the work, and it would be hard to overstate the amount of detail we looked into -- building, function and management -- when we sat back to evaluate the whole package and asked ourselves if the plan was sound, we believed it was. But a group of experts agreeing on a plan is one thing; for the government to say the same thing is another. In other words, we didn’t really have lots of confidence that the Norwegian government would say yes.”
On the long-term viability of seed in the vault…
“If you want to conserve seed for a long time, there are two important factors. You want to dry it and reduce the moisture content, and you want to freeze it, ideally down to -18 C. When you do both of those, it reduces the biological activity in the seed, slowing down the aging process. Certainly different seeds will react differently to such regimes. At the low end, seeds with high oil content should be viable for decades to hundreds of years. But for something on the high end, like sorghum, you’re talking longevity of almost 20,000 years.
“With those lengths of time, people get the wrong idea and think of the seed vault as a time capsule where you put seeds in the vault and walk away. It’s not that at all but rather a living institution with things going in and out. Those estimates about how long particular seeds will last are useful to know, but in reality, when seed banks around the world use up supplies, it’s because they’re constantly giving samples to researchers. Diminished supplies force seed to be taken out and grown in order to replenish stock. When they get their new seed, they send a portion to Svalbard.”
More on Spitsbergen…
“Spitsbergen is a remarkably beautiful and exotic place. Eighty percent of the land is covered by glaciers. There are no trees, only a few grasses eaten by reindeer, a harsh climate, polar bears. There are three months a year of total darkness and three months of total light.
“If you go out exploring, it’s a place where you have to be careful. It’s one of the few places on Earth where you will realize in your bones that you are not in control. You’ll realize you are indeed small and vulnerable.
“There are a couple of settlements and small road network, but none of the roads connect to settlements. When you leave a settlement area, you’ll see warning signs because polar bears can be anywhere at any time. People going outside a settlement will typically take a gun along. There’s a small community near the seed vault called Longyearbyen of about 2,000 people.
“Here’s some perspective: If you are on the northern coast of Africa, on the Mediterranean Sea, and you fly to Oslo -- you’ll still only be little more than halfway to Spitsbergen. The last plane stop you get on to connect to Spitsbergen is already located 300 miles above the Arctic Circle and you still have almost two hours to go on a jet plane.”
Construction and routine
On the vault’s construction…
“Construction took eight months including tunneling. Boiled down, the vault is a long tunnel with a couple of tunneled out rooms at the very end. We designed it in a pragmatic way and when you walk inside, there is no pristine laboratory. It’s a very practical, low-cost, easily-maintained facility. It has one purpose and fulfills it rather well.
“The tunnels are chiseled from solid stone. We sprayed a concrete-plastic fiber on the walls to keep small stones and debris from falling. It also provided a bit more light against a darker stone. We do have a concrete and asphalt floor, but the rooms with the seed are also chiseled from solid rock, coated with the concrete spray.
“When you walk in the front door, it begins to get progressively colder as you walk down the tunnel. At the tunnel terminus, it’s a steady -4.5 or -5 C. We’ve lowered that with compressors to -18 for seed storage.
“If we had refrigeration problems, it would take a seriously long time for the facility to warm to -4.5 C. We’d basically have 30 years to fix the equipment before we’d even begin to have problems with the seed. Power comes from the village electrical grid powered by locally-mined coal.”
On the usual routine at the vault…
“The facility is not staffed on a daily basis. Local officials check on it virtually every day, but we also monitor it remotely. Several times a year new seed shipments come in, but otherwise we don’t really need to be there. That was part of the design: take advantage of the cold and reduce the human involvement. Humans make mistakes; stupidity comes into play.
“The annual upkeep is very small -- maybe in the $200,000-range. The natural resource within is the most valuable in the world, but the insurance cost is less than what a small art museum carries.
“We have three vault rooms at the end of the tunnel. There are only seeds in one room. We built this to last forever and have plenty of room for expansion.
“Air-locked doors lead from the tunnel to an incredibly cold room with eight rows of shelving filled with sealed boxes -- roughly the size of a packing box. The seed samples are in heat-sealed, foil packages. Each package holds 400 to 500 seeds and each box holds 400 to 500 packages.
“At the moment, we have samples from 834,000 crop varieties. We have over 100,000 varieties of rice and over 100,000 varieties of wheat.”
Optimism and a primal pull
On the vault and optimism…
“Something about it -- the location or the intention -- captured everyone’s imagination. I think people remain interested because the world is a dangerous place and when we read the morning paper, there’s plenty of reason to be depressed or cynical.
“But the seed vault is positive, long-term, and involves virtually every country in the world. I simply don’t know of many things like that.”
On the vault’s primal pull…
“There is something basic in the seed vault’s attraction -- high-brow, low-brow and all points between.
“I still get a tingling feeling every time I go down into the vault because it is an endeavor that will have a long-term impact on human society. It will ensure that agriculture has needed options in the future -- and that’s not trivial. I hope people get a sense of optimism from that. When I walk down there, it is still an emotional experience; and when it ceases to be, I’ll be dead.
“When I’m there at the vault, it stirs emotion to realize that each one of the 834,000 samples has an unbroken history of survival. If you think about the long history of agriculture back to Neolithic times, these seeds embody that history -- not just figuratively, but literally.
“These are seed varieties that survived disease. These are seeds that look and taste a certain way because our ancestors selected them just that way. It’s a biological and cultural history and these seeds are a record of that history. It’s a library of life. It’s not just the history.
“It would have been worth it to me if it were just a history but this is also a resource for the future. We’re talking about past, present and future and that separates the seed vault from other institutions and initiatives.”
On the reactions of those visiting the vault…
“When people leave the vault, and we’re walking out the tunnel, people will seem to be in a state of shock, almost beyond words.
“It’s very odd, because what did they see? They walked into a big room that’s as cold as you can imagine and have seen a bunch of boxes on a shelf. They never even saw a seed, but they know what’s inside the boxes and what it ultimately means: hope and security for the future.”