Seeds on Ice: Svalbard and the Global Seed Vault

In the modern industrialized world we rarely give much thought about the future availability of food. Domestic and international world disasters remind us about famines and starvation. Wars, terrorism and natural disasters cause displacement of people and destroy their access to farmland. In addition there are global concerns about GMOs. A doomsday vision was the incentive for the creation of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault aka The Doomsday Vault, which is located on one of the islands in the Norwegian archipelago. Millions of seeds are stored in cold vaults deeply buried in rock, and safeguard a growing collection.  Not only is it based on a possible doomsday scenario, but the project recognizes the need to maintain biodiversity of original plant materials. Fowler specifies that plant diversity is important because some varieties have unique properties which naturally ward off indigenous insects and vermin; food bearing plants do well in certain climates and soils; and not all grains which produce flour will be good for the same types of bread.  Therefore indigenous grains are important to regions within countries. The vault is there for a global disaster, but also for more current needs. In 2015, there was the first seed withdrawal, seeds originally deposited from a seed bank in Syria, were sent back to the region.

It is a beautiful book about a serious subject. Large in format with full-page color photographs of field crops, plants in test tubes, and the interior of the mammoth underground vault, where none of us will ever go. Photographs of the surrounding environment of the archipelago include glaciers, wildlife, and endless horizons of sky and sea, and are reminders of the earth's strength and vulnerability.

The author, Cary Fowler, is the former executive director of The Crop Trust, an independent international organization that provides support for the ongoing operations of the vault. Fowler discussed efforts to safeguard the sources of the world’s food supply on CBS's “Sunday Morning,” and took viewers inside the extraordinary seed vault. Here is the interview.