From the Ship

Åsmund Asdal: Safegarding Food for the Future One Seed at a Time

Jun 18, 2023

On June 5, Peace Boat’s 114th voyage reached the port of Longyearbyen of the Svalbard Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean.. Having the Operation and Management Coordinator of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Åsmund Asdal, on board as a guest educator made the highly anticipated visit even more exciting. Åsmund Asdal is a horticulturist and ecologist from Norway. Since the mid-1990s, he has worked in the field of plant genetic resources with a focus on projects on conservation and use of plant genetic resources on both a national and Nordic regional level. Since 2015, Åsmund has been the Coordinator of Operation and Management of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

While on board, Åsmund spoke to Peace Boat participants about The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, its mission and operation. Way up north, 1300 kilometers beyond the Arctic Circle in the permafrost, Svalbard Global Seed Vault is the world's largest secure seed storage. From all across the globe, crates of seeds are sent for safe and secure long-term storage in cold and dry rock vaults. The Seed Vault safeguards duplicates of over a million seed samples from almost every country in the world, with room for millions more. Its purpose is to backup genebank collections to secure the foundation of our future food supply.  Åsmund  explained to participants that plant genetic resources are the raw material for plant breeding and development of agriculture and food production and the reasons why it is necessary to preserve crop diversity, namely to sustain and increase food production; to adapt to climate change; to fight diseases and pests; to meet nutritional and other consumer demands and to sustain culture. 

Åsmund told participants that the Nordic Gene Bank was established in 1979 and the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen) was opened inv 2008. Its mission is the conservation and use of genetic resources for the Nordic countries. The center has a collection of 35,000 samples of more than 500 species/subspecies. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened in February 2008 in order to conserve security samples of seeds that are conserved in other genebanks around the world. It also works to raise public awareness about conservation and use of plant genetic resources. When then UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon visited the  Svalbard Global Seed Vault he called it ”A gift to humanity and a symbol of peace”

Weather conditions at the Vault can sometimes be harsh (From Åsmund Asdal presentation)

The Seed Vault, which was built and is owned by Norway, is the ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply, securing millions of seeds representing every important crop variety available in the world today and offering options for future generations to overcome the challenges of climate change and population growth. A temperature of −18°C is required for optimal storage of the seeds. Permafrost and thick rock ensure that the seed samples will remain frozen even without power. The seeds are sealed in custom-made three-ply foil packages, which are sealed inside boxes and stored on shelves inside the Seed Vault. The low temperature and moisture levels inside the Seed Vault keep the seeds viable for long periods of time.The vault is only opened three times a year at which time gene banks provide accession lists and send seed and NordGen staff go to Svalbard to take the seeds into the Vault. The deposits are confirmed to the depositing gene bank and the Seed Portal database is updated. 1,214,826  seeds are currently stored with 1,331,360 samples have been deposited and 116,534 seeds returned to their genebases. These include 6041 species from more than 200 countries of origin.  

Åsmund told participants about a success story showcasing the significance of the Seed Vault. ICARDA (The International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas) was the first genebank requesting seeds to be returned. Its headquarters and gene bank were formerly in Aleppo, Syria. ICARDA deposited 116,000 seed samples between 2008 and 2014. Then during the war in Syria made withdrawals from the vault in 2015, 2017 and 2019 in order to establish new genebanks in Lebanon and Morocco. These new genebanks then deposited 100,000 samples between 2017 and 2023. Seeds that would otherwise have been lost in Syria due to the conflict were conserved because of their duplicates in Svalbard Global Seed Vault. 

Over 1 million seed samples are stored in the vault