Deep in the arctic, inside over 122 metres of rock, a huge cache of seeds is stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, in case of some global emergency. Today, the first of the seeds from that supply have arrived to replenish a collection sent away for safe keeping during Syria’s Civil War.
The plan was set in motion back in September, but the first samples actually arrived just today to research labs for the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Area (ICARDA) in Morocco and Lebannon — and though they may be the first, they’re far from the last.
What’s especially interesting about this shipment though, is the path these seeds took: Originally part of ICARDA’s regional collection, they first shipped them off to Svalbard over concerns that spreading conflict in Syria could take out their supply. Now, the seeds have been shipped back to ICARDA (which is now relocated in Lebanon and Morocco). They plan to make duplicates of the original seeds, before sending back another set of fail-safe boxes to Svalbard, in case of some other disaster. Essentially, Svalbard isn’t acting as just a seed vault for a global-scale disaster, it’s also acting as a seed vault to guard against a series of rolling disasters, including human made-ones, that hit in localised ways.
Svalbard has long-billed itself primarily as a “fail-safe” option — and many people have understood that to mean that the seed vault is there in case of some worldwide doomsday scenario. But as this first shipment shows, it is not just disasters on a global scale that can wipe out our food supply, a series of regional disasters will do the job just as well. That the first withdraw from the global seed bank was in response to the need for safe-keeping incredible volatility in a region tells us a lot about the kinds of problems we can expect in keeping a future food supply.
Top image: Global seed vault / Mari Tefre, Svalbard Globale frøhvelv