FOOD SECURITYNorway's Seed Vault Protecting Africa's Food Supply

By Ludger Schadomsky

Published 14 November 2023

African scientists have preserved precious seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, deep in Norway’s Arctic permafrost. The vault preserves food for disaster scenarios.

We have received 60 boxes of seeds from 15 seed banks around the world,” said Asmund Asdal, a Norwegian biologist who looks after the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway

The boxes are sealed, and we are now scanning them in the airport’s security system to make sure they only contain seeds.”

For 15 years, plant DNA has been stored here in the permafrost of Spitsbergen Island in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago at minus 18 degrees Celsius (around zero Fahrenheit). The vault is designed to protect the world’s food supply from a doomsday-like catastrophe and preserve it for future generations.

There are now 1.2 million samples: sorghum, wheat, beans, maize, and more recently, German vegetables.

As so often in recent years, Asdal drove out on a frosty morning to the airport of the world’s northernmost city, Longyearbyen, a small piece of civilization in the middle of the Arctic Ocean located almost 1,500 kilometers (around 930 miles) from the North Pole.

Today, Asdal’s mission is to seal 12,000 valuable crop seeds from all over the world 130 meters deep in the Arctic seed vault.

Mayowa Olubiyi, a plant scientist from Nigeria, is standing with Asdal in front of the airport’s X-ray machine this morning. Olubiyi is the representative of the National Center for Genetic Resources and Biotechnology in the Nigerian city of Ibadan.

So here I am, thousands of kilometers away from Ibadan and my fields,” he beamed. “This really is a great day for me, I’m over the moon.”

The plant scientist has transported in his luggage cowpeas, sorghum and okra — staple foods for millions of Africans.

His Zambian colleague Graybill Munkombwe nods knowingly as he heaves boxes of seeds onto the conveyor belt.

They contain seeds from southern Africa: Sorghum, beans and rice, “plant material that our farmers have been using for generations — not only as food, but also for medicinal and cultural purposes.”

Storing them here in the vault means preserving our national heritage,” said Munkombwe. “If anything bad happens at home, we can fall back on the duplicates that are stored here.”

Svalbard ‘Safest Place in the World’ — for How Much Longer?
Svalbard is an ideal storage place for seeds for a number of reasons.

Norway is not involved in any war. According to the Svalbard Treaty signed in 1920, Svalbard is a demilitarized zone. The region is geomorphically stable; there are no earthquakes or volcanoes. In addition, the seed vault is located 130 meters above sea level, which protects it from floods.