Locked Out of the Vault

They call it the Doomsday Vault, a $9-million tomb carved into the Plataberget Mountains on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between Norway and the North Pole.

Built to withstand a nuclear holocaust, the facility serves as the central bank for more than 1,700 gene banks around the world. Photos of its entrance rising out of the side of an ice-covered mountain are symbolic of the global effort to preserve seeds that form the foundations of human food security.

The vault can store 4.5 million crop varieties judged important for food production and sustainable agriculture by the Crop Trust, an international group that runs the vault in conjunction with the Norwegian government. 


The seed deposits flow in from around the world, where they are preserved in custom-made three-ply foil packages at a temperature of -18 C. 


The Svalbard Seed Vault was designed to provide safekeeping for precious seeds that are vulnerable to natural catastrophes, war and avoidable disasters such as a faulty freezer or a lack of funding.

The Crop Trust said it is responding to a crisis threatening the foundation of our food.


“The loss of a crop variety is as irreversible as the extinction of a dinosaur, animal or any form of life...”

“Priority will be given to crops that are important for food production and sustainable agriculture,” according to an FAQ document on The Crop Trust’s website. 


Yet there are no genetically modified seeds protected in the Svalbard vault, even though GM crops account for 78 per cent of the world’s soybean acreage, 30 per cent of its corn and 29 per cent of its rapeseed/canola.


Grethe Helene Evjen, senior advisor to Norway’s ministry of agriculture and project manager of the Svenbald vault, said the vault was not intended to store GM crops or any of the other major crops being grown around the world today.

“The idea is to store seeds that are not in commercial use right now,” she said.

The vault is busy squirreling away seeds that were once used by farmers or of minor crops that have no commercial value. Those are the crops considered to be most vulnerable.

“It is those seeds that are no longer in use that can easily be lost,” said Evjen.

As well, the Svalbard vault is devoid of GM seeds because the facility has not been approved for storing such crops.

Norway is not part of the European Union but it follows the EU’s rules regarding GM crops. Those rules state that any facility storing such crops must meet certain regulatory requirements. The Svalbard vault has not been properly certified.

The final reason offered up by Evjen is that the seed technology companies themselves have no desire to store their seeds in the vault.


She believes that is because they would have to abide by The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which means they would have to share their seeds with the other farmers, researchers and breeders participating in the project.


Dominic Muyldermans, senior legal consultant with CropLife International, said it is incorrect to portray seed companies as opposed to the project in any way.


“Conservation of genetic diversity is definitely something that the CropLife member companies are fully supporting,” he said.


In fact, some CropLife companies have financially supported the Svalbard vault while others have contributed germplasm to the project.


Muyldermans takes umbrage with the popular notion that GM crops are somehow contributing to a reduction in genetic diversity, giving rise to the need for seed banks.


He noted that GM traits are introduced into a wide variety of germplasm and that companies have a vested interest in maintaining as much genetic diversity as possible because they may end up using some of those ancient crops in future breeding programs.


Muyldermans said the real reason there are no GM crops in the vault is because there is a “different biological reality” versus conventional crops. GM crops are made by inserting beneficial genetic traits or DNA into existing germplasm.


“You have the germplasm and you have the GM traits. One is not the same as the other and the focus is definitely on the germplasm when we talk about seed vaults,” he said.


The Svalbard vault could easily be storing some of the germplasm used in today’s GM crops, but it is not storing the GM traits.

That does not represent a threat to future food supply. Muyldermans said it is unlikely that GM crops could be wiped out by a natural or man-made disaster because they are grown all around the world and kept in breeding programs in a variety of locations.

But even if they were somehow obliterated, they could be recreated because while the DNA traits are not physically stored in a vault anywhere, they are described in publications and patents and could be reintroduced into suitable germplasm in the case of a disaster.

He said it is a misconception that seed companies are afraid of The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture because, while that treaty could apply to their germplasm, their traits are protected by another powerful law.

“Under most jurisdictions there is clear patent protection for specific traits,” said Muyldermans.

Evjen said there is one last compelling reason why there are no GM crops in the vault. No one has asked to store any there.

She thinks that could change. There may come a time when a company or gene bank asks to deposit a GM crop that is no longer in commercial use or is off-patent.

“I can’t really see any big issues why in the future these (GM seeds) should not be backed up in a seed vault,” said Evjen.

She said there are no plans to get the facility approved to store GM crops to prepare for that eventuality, but it is something that likely could be accomplished at some future date if required.

“That could be solved in one way or another,” said Evjen.

Contributor: Sean Pratt