The Problem With the Doomsday Seed Vault

By Sarah Zhang on at

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is undeniably fascinating: the concrete slab that juts out of the barren snowscape may represent humanity’s last hope in an apocalypse. But recently, plant scientists have questioned its mission.

Is a remote refrigerator really the best way to preserve crop diversity? Over at the Guardian, Suzanne Goldberg has a lengthy piece on the controversy of the Svalbard seed vault. The lofty idea of a vault containing all the crops in the world is great in theory, but in practice, it devolves into a lot of petty political squabbling. There are already 865,000 samples in the place, but there are problems, writes Goldberg:

Almost every country in the world has deposited seeds – with some notable exceptions. Japan and China have yet to join in. India remains wary and, Fowler said, there are not enough specimens of green leafy vegetables, which are important staples in Africa. Italy has deposited only two samples, both of the maize used to make polenta, and there has been a drop-off in deposits from developing countries in the last two years, since the vault stopped paying for shipping.

At the other extreme, there has been the difficult matter of turning away potential deposits because they duplicated existing material. Some national seed banks have had to be told that their prized variety was surplus to requirements, and that a neighbouring country, possibly a rival, had got their deposit in first. Some crops cannot be stored in Svalbard, because they require different conditions. There are no bananas, apples, cassavas or tubers.

Others also argue that crops are living things, and locking them away in cold storage is a disservice. Because Svalbard’s vault is so inaccessible, scientists cannot test seeds every few years to confirm they are still viable. Moreover, the seeds are just sitting there, sucking up funds that could go toward vital research to identify traits for resistance to pests, drought, and heat. Svalbard has a valuable collection, but they’re just sitting on it.

It doesn’t seem like we should have to choose between a seed vault and active research, but the reality of funding is that scientists often do. Both have their merits, which you can read about over at The Guardian.

[The Guardian]

Top image: AP Photo/John McConnico