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7 min read City & Culture Environment

Seeds and the city

Words by Suzanna Knight

Deep inside a remote, snowy mountain, high above the Arctic Circle, seeds from all over the world are collected for safe-keeping inside a vault that was built to hold up to 4.5 million crop varieties. Because of the Arctic conditions, the seeds can be kept naturally frozen, far away from any natural or man-made disasters.

The reason for collecting these seeds, and for the existence of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, is fairly simple. Crop varieties and species can vanish due to anything from disease, flooding, drought, or war.

“Crop collections in seed banks around the globe are at great risk – threatened by natural disasters, inadequate funding, war, civil strife, and even poor conservation conditions…Having an insurance policy in place, like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, ensures we don’t lose these varieties forever,” explains Cierra Martin, Communications Assistant at the Svalbard vault. No matter where we live. No matter what lives we lead. No matter how different our lives are, we all need to eat. And almost everything we eat and drink has its basis in seeds,” Martin explains. adding that at the end of the day, these millions of seed varieties being saved are some of the world’s most important natural resources.

Strolling through big chain supermarkets back in the city, we can get everything our hearts desire. But it’s important to realise the availability of this immense variety depends on places like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and many other local seed vaults to be maintained in the future.

According to the National Geographic, almost 90 per cent of historic fruit and vegetable varieties have disappeared in the United States alone. The Philippines used to be home to thousands of varieties of rice, but there’s only about one hundred now. On a global scale, estimates reveal that more than half of the world’s food varieties have disappeared over the past century. To be fair, the plant world is always changing and evolving, and plants are able to adapt to a changing climate. Yet with climate change happening at far greater speeds than before, plants simply don’t have enough time to adapt. And without the means for proper food production and lush plant life, it would get hard for us to keep our heads above water. Literally.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault

If all of this sounds like the end of the world is near- take a deep breath, all is (mostly) well. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is commonly known as the ‘doomsday’ vault, but that reputation actually belittles its true purpose. Svalbard is meant as a back-up for much smaller, more local seed banks all over the world, in order to actively battle the loss of crop variety while it’s happening. Besides a global natural disaster, there are much smaller, seemingly insignificant threats that challenge future food production.

For example, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), which had been based in Aleppo, Syria since 1975, was forced to relocate to Lebanon due to the country’s ongoing war in 2012. The seed bank had already sent over small deposits of duplicate seeds to Svalbard before the war, and continued to do so after relocating in order to save these unique crops from being lost forever. Wanting to rebuild their previous collection in their new locations in Lebanon and Morocco, but unable to move their old collections out of Syria, the bank decided to withdraw about 116,00 seeds from Svalbard in order to start growing crops again and reestablish their original collection. Earlier this year the Crop Trust announced that a new and increased number of seeds were returned to the vault. With the help of the Svalbard Seed Vault, Syria and the city of Aleppo, as well as the rest of the world, managed to preserve these unique seeds from becoming extinct.

Besides growing your own varieties of vegetables and saving seeds, there are other ways to help preserve your country’s biodiversity and save local varieties of crops. According to Martin, the daily choices we make, even in the city, have a big impact on the preservation of seeds and biodiversity.

“To preserve crop diversity on a local level, or at the very least to keep a wider selection of it in the farmers’ fields, we as consumers should seek out, taste and consume those crops and crop varieties that are not the staple ones found in supermarkets. This could mean eating local varieties of fruits and vegetables grown by your local farmer, or eating seasonally in a way that follows natural seasonal cycles,” says Martin.

The choices we make, the things we eat, the way we cook in our own little kitchens – all of it affects the world around us on a much larger scale. Plus, choosing to cook something local, something different from the standard crops found in everyday recipes, only adds to the experience of eating, combining new tastes and delicious dishes with conscious choices to help build a sustainable future.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault
Svalbard Global Seed Vault
Svalbard Global Seed Vault
Svalbard Global Seed Vault