In 2008 on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, the world’s largest collection of agricultural biodiversity opened. It now holds over 1 million packets of seeds. The structure was built underneath the permafrost so it could withstand the challenges of disasters either man made or natural, but even this construction can’t withstand the changes brought about by global warming. Melting permafrost made its way into the tunnel but fortunately did not breach the actual vault.
The importance of the seed bank can’t be over-emphasised. Over the past 50 years, with agricultural and technological changes, seed biodiversity has decreased to a point where only about 30 crops provide 95% of human food energy needs. In China, only 10% of the rice varieties that were used in the 1950’s are now grown. In the US, they have lost over 90% of their fruit and vegetable varieties since the 1950’s. This monoculture leaves our food supplies more susceptible to threats.
A temperature of -18ºC is required for optimal storage of the seeds, which are stored and sealed in custom made three-ply foil packages. The packages are sealed inside boxes and stored on shelves inside the vault. The low temperature and moisture levels inside the Vault ensure low metabolic activity, keeping the seeds viable for long periods of time. This however, presumes that the temperatures will stay cold enough and that we will always have a permafrost sufficient to keep them safe.
As we see our polar caps melt away, more quickly than predicted only 20 years ago, and our seas rising, it is important that our seeds are able to keep up with extremes in temperature change. Storing them may not be enough. Some small seedsaver groups are breeding from seeds that are showing themselves capable of withstanding temperatures more extreme than they have been used to. These will feed us long after some of the seeds under the ice are brought out.
When they are frozen, seeds go into the vault with genetics conditioned to the period they were grown, when they come out, climates will not be the same and if they can’t survive they are useless. More farming will have to be moved indoors or underground. The pollution cost of running these farms will add to the already existing pollution causing more warming, unless CO2 harvesting and recycling, or something similar is adopted globally.
Environmental changes and loss in seed biodiversity highlights the importance of the permaculture ethos of caring for the planet and its inhabitants. Permaculture Sydney West, on a small scale, have been trialling seeds to live under more extreme temperatures than they normally do, these seeds are then distributed among members to continue the ‘toughening up’ process. It especially highlights the importance of the work performed by Annette and her Seed Savers. Maintaining this biodiversity may hold the answer to future unknown agricultural problems.
Article by Theresa Wong