The Sval­bard Global Seed Vault isn’t a “dooms­day” time cap­sule at the North Pole. But it’s very cool.

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Adrian Hig­gins

The Sval­bard Global Seed Vault is not ex­actly at the North Pole, but it’s nearer to it than just about any­where else, and well in­side the Arc­tic Cir­cle on the Nor­we­gian ar­chi­pel­ago of Sval­bard. This be­guil­ing struc­ture juts out from a moun­tain near the town of Longyear­byen, which is re­puted to be the north­ern­most per­ma­nent set­tle­ment on Earth and a place where res­i­dents must go about their busi­ness with ri­fles slung over their backs, on ac­count of the po­lar bears. The sun falls be­low the hori­zon on Nov. 14 and isn’t seen again un­til March 8.

It is pre­cisely this re­mote­ness and cold­ness that led sci­en­tist Cary Fowler and his col­leagues at the Global Crop Di­ver­sity Trust, now known as the Crop Trust, to per­suade the Nor­we­gian govern­ment to lo­cate the vault there. Al­most nine years af­ter it was built, the seed vault has taken on a mythic quality around the world, per­haps be­cause its en­trance — stark, geo­met­ric, be­jew­eled by a light sculp­ture by Nor­we­gian artist Dyveke Sanne — hints at some­thing not just hid­den but for­bid­den. Bauhaus meets Val­halla.

Fowler, with prin­ci­pal pho­tog­ra­pher Mari Te­fre, has just writ­ten a book on the vault that lifts the veil on the place — it’s not open to the pub­lic even though it quickly be­came the sec­ond most rec­og­nized struc­ture in Nor­way. The book is called “Seeds on Ice,” and if you’re still look­ing for a

gift for the gardener or gourmet in your life, this would work hand­somely.

Sval­bard’s be­guil­ing para­dox of fame and mys­tery in­evitably has spawned var­i­ous wacky con­spir­acy the­o­ries, in­clud­ing the idea that the vault is a top-se­cret NATO fa­cil­ity hous­ing a global eu­gen­ics project. Fowler hopes the book will dis­pel a more main­stream mis­ap­pre­hen­sion, that this is a dooms­day vault, a time cap­sule to un­lock af­ter a nu­clear Ar­maged­don.

The vault to­day houses more than half a bil­lion seeds rep­re­sent­ing 881,473 unique va­ri­eties of plants used to feed peo­ple. The seeds come from the ex­ist­ing seed banks in 233 coun­tries, and they are in­surance against the loss of an ir­re­place­able crop to some­thing as un­ex­cit­ing as a bud­get cri­sis in a poor coun­try (or a rich one) to, yes, a cat­a­clysmic nu­clear war.

Each seed has its own ge­netic makeup, and the value of these stocks is in their DNA. If a new dis­ease or pest were to wipe out a strain of wheat, for ex­am­ple, it’s prob­a­ble that the germ plasm at Sval­bard could be used to breed in re­sis­tance. Cli­mate change poses an­other tan­gi­ble threat, as ex­treme weather events, ris­ing wa­ters and shifts in tem­per­a­tures re­quire the de­vel­op­ment of new va­ri­eties to han­dle the chal­lenges.

In part, the Sval­bard vault is best un­der­stood by what it is not: It is not a vast sub­ter­ranean lab­o­ra­tory staffed with the world’s boffins in white coats, a la CERN or a James Bond movie. It is a hole in a moun­tain, a tun­nel that ex­tends a few hun­dred feet and ter­mi­nates in three cham­bers, each 90 feet long, 30 feet wide and 16 feet high. Only one is in use at the mo­ment.

It is sim­ple, rel­a­tively cheap to run, and de­signed to with­stand phys­i­cal calamity and hu­man in­ter­fer­ence. It is meant to last a thou­sand years or more.

It is not per­ma­nently staffed, though it is con­stantly mon­i­tored and the seeds are housed be­hind at least five locked doors. You couldn’t just show up and loi­ter with in­tent. You would be no­ticed by the lo­cal po­lice, or the con­trollers in the dis­tant air­port tower or the po­lar bears.

Nor is it a time cap­sule. The seeds are very much alive and avail­able for use to­day, if needed.

Un­for­tu­nately, that has come to pass with the tragedy that has be­fallen Aleppo. The Syr­ian city held the seed bank of the In­ter­na­tional Cen­ter for Agri­cul­tural Re­search in the Dry Ar­eas (ICARDA) and con­tained vi­tal stocks of such sta­ples as wheat, bar­ley, chick­peas and fava beans.

The staff there sent seeds to Sval­bard just months be­fore the en­gulf­ing civil war. Last year, Sval­bard re­turned many of the seeds to new ICARDA fa­cil­i­ties es­tab­lished in Morocco and Le­banon, where sci­en­tists and farm­ers are now grow­ing them to re­gen­er­ate seed.

The threats to our food sup­ply are often far less stark but no less real. Fowler says agri­cul­ture faces “its most se­vere set of chal­lenges since the Ne­olithic pe­riod.” Be­sides cli­mate change, this in­cludes the need to grow more food for a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion us­ing fewer re­sources. One con­tem­po­rary ap­proach to this is the de­vel­op­ment of ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied or­gan­isms by multi­na­tional biotech com­pa­nies. The vault doesn’t con­tain GMOs, though Fowler’s stance on this is not strictly in op­po­si­tion to trans­genic breed­ing. His in­ter­est, in­stead, is in con­serv­ing all the nat­u­ral ge­netic di­ver­sity em­bod­ied in these seeds as in­surance for our food sup­ply in the cen­turies to come.

In the early 1990s, Fowler, a na­tive Ten­nessean, was re­cruited by the U.N.’s Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion to over­see a re­view of the world’s crop di­ver­sity and found many na­tional seed col­lec­tions in dire states of stor­age and care. He has since left the di­rec­tor­ship of the Global Crop Di­ver­sity Trust, though he re­mains an ad­viser to the trust and is chair of the seed vault’s In­ter­na­tional Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil.

He says the Sval­bard vault could bring a more ra­tional sys­tem of seed con­ser­va­tion to seed banks around the world by re­liev­ing some of the pres­sure on na­tional col­lec­tions and the re­sources needed to main­tain them.

Fowler has been im­mersed in this field for decades, but Sval­bard made him re­al­ize, he said, that many of the world’s agri­cul­tural crops are not fa­mil­iar even to ex­perts. What, you might ask, is ses­ba­nia, or Chi­huahuan snout-bean or voa vanga?

The point is that tastes and crops change — how many gar­den­ers in the United States were grow­ing bok choy or arugula 50 years ago? “Peo­ple look at the seed vault and see it as a con­ser­va­tion ini­tia­tive,” he told me. “But those of us in the field have mul­ti­ple mo­ti­va­tions. The rea­son for want­ing to con­serve it isn’t to make us feel good but have it be of use in the fu­ture.”

Like the crys­talline, fiber-op­tic sculp­ture at its por­tal, the vault is a bea­con of op­ti­mism and comity in a world that may seem cold and dark. It is a gift to the en­tire hu­man fam­ily for gen­er­a­tions to come. Santa, an Arc­tic neigh­bor, no doubt would ap­prove.

Cary Fowler in the main seed vault. Its nat­u­ral year-round tem­per­a­ture is mi­nus-5 de­grees Cel­sius, or 23 de­grees Fahren­heit, but the air is fur­ther cooled to the op­ti­mum stor­age tem­per­a­ture of zero de­grees Fahren­heit. Photo by Jim Richard­son, pro­vided by Prospecta Press

Lo­cated not far from the North Pole, the Sval­bard Global Seed Vault safe­guards the agri­cul­tural plant col­lec­tions of more than 230 coun­tries. Mari Te­fre, pro­vided by Prospecta Press

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