On the side of a snowy mountain stands a strange concrete parallelepiped with a futuristic look. No, you’re not dreaming: here, in the middle of nowhere – or rather on the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago in Norway, the white paradise of well-equipped adventurers and polar bears – lies the one of humanity’s most precious treasures, the fruit of 15,000 years of agriculture. If the “world seed bank” keeps its heavy metal door closed to the public, here it is, however, opening in front of you…
Of the dozens of seed banks that exist around the world, the one in Svalbard, buried under the permafrost, is by far the richest, with more than a million samples carefully sealed in vacuum bags and placed in boxes. adorned with the flag of their country of origin. By circulating among the rows, it is easy to spot (provided that you have revised your flags!) the contributions of Mongolia, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, or even Kenya.
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“It’s like in a cathedral“
On the occasion of its 15th anniversary, the Svalbard Global Seed Vaultco-managed by the Norwegian government, the company NordGen (Nordic gene bank) and the Crop Trust, offers a virtual visit free and open access. The interface gives the opportunity to circulate in the long corridors of the bank, and even within the three storage rooms planned to house some 3,000 boxes of seeds each – i.e. 4.5 million plant varieties in total – with the possibility of accessing explanations, textual or vocal, on specific points.
What about the soundscape and the sensations felt concretely in this inaccessible place? “It’s a bit like in a cathedral. The ceilings are high and when standing inside the mountain there is almost no noise. All you hear is yourself“, reports Lise Lykke Steffensen, executive director of NordGen, quoted by the Guardian. “When you open the door [des collections]it’s -18°C – the international standard for saving seeds – which is very, very cold“, she details.
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Valuable genes for resistance to extreme conditions
The location of the Bank of Svalbard owes nothing to chance, as it is the most northerly (northern) place in the world that is served by a scheduled flight. Pandemic, invasive species, droughts and other natural disasters… The facility has been designed to withstand anything outside its walls that could one day sweep away plant varieties crucial to human nutrition and their “cousins”. “savages (wild crop relatives in English), whose genetic heritage contains valuable genes for resistance to extreme conditions.
And the role of this structure is, unfortunately, not only hypothetical. Thus, after the destruction of the Aleppo seed bank during the civil war in Syria, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Arid Zone was able to replenish its stock thanks to a transfer of samples from Svalbard, illustrate the managers . An all the more valuable contribution to this region which was, let’s not forget, the cradle of human agriculture!
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If “Noah’s ark of plant biodiversity” is designed to last, this is not the case with seeds, which lose their ability to germinate after a certain time (a few decades, on average), which therefore makes it necessary to regularly renew stocks.
This week, the structure welcomed for the first time samples from Albania, Croatia, North Macedonia and Benin. “What is protected inside the vault is one of the most important global public goods we have on Earth. But we must protect them, secure them, and ensure that they are preserved in perpetuity.“, insists Stefan Schmitz, executive director of the Crop Trust.
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We can now visit (virtually) the “seed bank for the apocalypse” of Svalbard