Africa: Svalbard Seed Vault - Protecting Africa's Food Supply

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault on Spitsbergen Island in Norway's Svalbard archipelago (file photo).
13 November 2023

Deep in the Arctic permafrost, a special vault stores crop plant seeds from all over the world. In addition to climate change, political conflicts are threatening global crop biodiversity.

"We have received 60 boxes of seeds from 15 seed banks around the world," said Asmund Asdal, a Norwegian biologist who looks after the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

"The boxes are sealed and we are now scanning them in the airport's security system to make sure they only contain seeds."

For 15 years, plant DNA has been stored here in the permafrost of Spitsbergen Island in Norway's Svalbard archipelago at minus 18 degrees Celsius (around zero Fahrenheit) -- designed to protect the world's food supply from a doomsday-like catastrophe and preserve it for future generations.

There are now 1.2 million samples: Sorghum, wheat, beans, maize -- and more recently, German vegetables.

As so often in recent years, Asdal drove out on a frosty morning to the airport of the world's northernmost city, Longyearbyen, a small piece of civilization in the middle of the Arctic Ocean located almost 1,500 kilometers (around 930 miles) from the North Pole.

Today, Asdal's mission is to seal 12,000 valuable crop seeds from all over the world 130 meters deep in the Arctic seed vault.

Mayowa Olubiyi, a plant scientist from Nigeria, is standing with Asdal in front of the airport's X-ray machine this morning.

Olubiyi is the representative of the National Center for Genetic Resources and Biotechnology in the Nigerian city of Ibadan.

"So here I am, thousands of kilometers away from Ibadan and my fields," he beamed. "This really is a great day for me, I'm over the moon."

The plant scientist has transported cowpeas, sorghum and okra in his luggage -- staple foods for millions of Africans.

His Zambian colleague Graybill Munkombwe nods knowingly as he heaves boxes of seeds onto the conveyor belt.

They contain seeds from southern Africa: Sorghum, beans and rice, "plant material that our farmers have been using for generations -- not only as food, but also for medicinal and cultural purposes."

"Storing them here in the vault means preserving our national heritage," said Munkombwe. "If anything bad happens at home, we can fall back on the duplicates that are stored here."

Svalbard 'safest place in the world' - for how much longer?

Svalbard is an ideal storage place for seeds for a number of reasons.

Norway is not involved in any war. According to the Svalbard Treaty signed in 1920, Svalbard is a demilitarized zone. The region is geomorphically stable; there are no earthquakes or volcanoes. In addition, the seed vault is located 130 meters above sea level, which protects it from floods.

Arriving at the seed vault on the slopes lined with disused coal mines above Longyearbyen, Graybill Munkombwe zips up his thickly-lined winter jacket -- the temperature difference between his workplace in Lusaka and Svalbard today is 36 degrees.

Asmund Asdal unlocked the vault with a combination of numbers.

"So, here we are," he called out to the group of scientists who were crowding around the entrance to catch a rare glimpse inside the vault.

"It's fascinating to me that seed banks all over the world continue to trust us and send their seeds to us," said the 66-year-old biologist and agronomist. "And new ones keep coming in -- knowing full well that we take very good care of their material here."

Stefan Schmitz is the executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust Fund, or Crop Trust for short, based in the German city of Bonn.

The organization supports an entire network of gene banks that safeguard biodiversity in their respective regions -- including the African banks in Zambia and Nigeria, as well as Ghana, Kenya and Ethiopia.

Modern agriculture relies on selected seed varieties and breeds. However, the genetic diversity of the original plants is in danger of disappearing.

In order to tackle the challenge of global climate change, however, this diversity will be needed in the coming years, especially as the wild relatives are more resistant.

Or, in the words of Schmitz: "In times of climate change, we cannot afford to lose large quantities of this genetic diversity once and for all."

The experts at the Seed Vault experienced the consequences of climate change firsthand in 2016 when unusually heavy rainfall caused water to enter the front tunnel of the hermetically sealed vault.

Since then, additional safety precautions have been taken to avert any danger to the valuable seeds. "Now the vault is safer than ever before," insisted Asmund Asdal. But is that really the case?

The seed store and climate change, crises, disasters

Climate change is not the only threat to the unique plant diversity shown here in the permafrost of Svalbard. Botanists and biologists are also very concerned about the spiraling number of geopolitical upheavals.

Not so long ago, an important seed bank in Aleppo, Syria, was destroyed in the country's civil war. And more recently, seed deposits from Armenia have been delayed as a result of the latest political tensions in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Kuldeep Singh from the India-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) has also made the long journey to the Norwegian Arctic.

"In addition to climate change, political instability in particular harms genetic diversity," he said.

"We are monitoring this very closely. Israel, for example, has an outstanding seed bank. If something happens there in the current conflict, we could lose the entire stock," Singh added, referring to the Israel-Hamas war.

Stefan Schmitz from Crop Trust takes the same line: "Increasing conflicts all over the world, including in Africa, increase the pressure that everyone must be aware of: We must act quickly."

He is particularly concerned about the situation of seed banks in Africa.

"They are often not very well managed. They simply don't have the money or the staff," Sxhmitz explained. "This means that the treasures that are stored there could be lost at any time, and if they are lost, they could be destroyed."

Geopolitics even at the 78th latitude

How quickly global world politics can penetrate isolated Svalbard was quickly felt at the start of Russia's war in Ukraine.

When Russia launched its full-scale invastion of Ukraine in February 2022, around 400 Russians and Ukrainians were working in the Pyramiden and Barentsburg -- two communities in Svalbard run by the Russian state-owned company Trust Arcticugol.

Since then, around half of the workers have left Svalbard, partly because Norwegian tour operators have called for a boycott of Russian products and services.

Arctic neighbors Norway, Denmark (Greenland), Canada and the United States have been keeping a wary eye on Russia's raw material ambitions in the region since the start of the war.

"We do not consider the security of the Svalbard seed vault to be geopolitically endangered," explained the governor of Svalbard, Lars Fause, in a statement to DW.

But the Norwegian government's vault commissioner Greteh Evjen cannot hide her concern.

"We are monitoring the situation very closely, because at the moment we really don't know what else can happen in the world," said the Norwegian. "That's why we absolutely need duplicates for the seeds so that they are not stored in just one place."

"Even though many things seem uncertain right now, this place is definitely the best insurance," she added with a smile.

Edited by: Keith Walker

While you're here: Every weekday, we host AfricaLink, a podcast packed with news, politics, culture and more. You can listen and follow AfricaLink wherever you get your podcasts

AllAfrica publishes around 500 reports a day from more than 100 news organizations and over 500 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.