The structure is designed to make you stop and think. And as my Russian driver informed me on the ride from the airport, it's about all a visitor like me was permitted to do. Entry to this facility is prohibited for the general public. Which only served to heighten my interest in this mysterious concrete aberration. And so during my three-week stay in Svalbard I was inspired to learn as much as I could about it. This post tells the story of what I learned about the Svalbard Global Seed Bank.
The Seed Vault is a strikingly simple structure. Constructed in 2008, it hosts three rooms at the end of a long tunnel that runs 130 m straight into a mountain just outside the city limits of Longyearbyen. In each of the three rooms there are boxes stacked to the ceiling containing millions of different varieties of seeds.
Its location is not only a good hangout for a Bond villain, it’s plainly practical if you’re in the business of seed storage. Svalbard has very stable geology and a dry, Arctic climate ideally suited for safely storing seeds. The island is on Norwegian territory and at 78 degrees North it’s about as far from political instability as you can get on this planet. The vault is dug deep into the permafrost and is capable of functioning safely in spite of power failure. And its mountainside perch is not just for looks - it puts the seeds clear of rising sea levels.
It's no secret that retreating sea ice has become a harbinger for climate change. For researchers like me who work with sea ice for a living, this recurring theme is seldom far from your mind. Whether it's tacitly implied in a report about ice conditions near offshore oil deposits for Statoil or bluntly asserted in a scientific journal article, the effects of global warming are dramatic in the Arctic. On the first day of my ten-day scientific expedition onboard the modern Norwegian government research vessel RV Polarsyssel, the well-known outspoken climate change scientist Peter Wadhams delivered a presentation about his ongoing research at Cambridge University. His work was about shrinking sea ice thickness and about how understanding of this phenomenon is critical in the effort understanding our changing climate. Equipped with a million dollar icelandic Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (aptly painted a metallic gold colour) and flanked by a multinational coterie of scientitists and technicians, his team represented the future of climate change science. At the end of his presentation, Peter segued into a slide displaying the front cover of his latest book, titled “A Farewell to Ice.” He announced his prediction that all but the most stubborn sea ice of the Central Arctic Basin would disappear entirely within the next few years, permanently disrupting the delicate thermodynamic balance of our planet with potentially devastating effects on climate worldwide. With an impish smile he asked if there were any questions.
One question which has been on the minds of farmers and food security experts worldwide is how climate change will affect agricultural crops required to feed the world's growing population. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Svalbard Seed Vault is the product of organizations with exactly this question in mind. It is jointly operated by a small consortium: the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food, The Crop Trust (an international group with crop diversity as its primary mandate), and the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre. The seeds within the vault are not just objects of fascination like trinkets in a museum - they hold answers to the questions surrounding breeding of future food crops for the uncertain generations to come. The Norwegian public owns the vault, and the national department of infrastructure manages its physical upkeep. When it comes to day-to-day operation, an international council is responsible for its supervision. It's superbly constructed, well-managed, and generously funded. It's a rare example of international cooperation and it places Norway as a committed leader in global food security in the face of future uncertainties like climate change.
During the research cruise, while I wasn’t on the ice working or on the bridge observing walruses loafing on drifting ice floes, I was reading the sole book that had I brought with me. I had grabbed it just before heading to the airport from a stack of books that I was determined to read and had never gotten around to starting. Coincidentally, though, this book was hugely helpful in my understanding of the importance of the Svalbard Seed Vault. Written by the New York chef Dan Barber, his work “The Third Plate” chronicles his own story of discovering how good farming is the key to good food served at his famous restaurant. And good farming, it turns out, often requires the practice of breeding seeds. Farmers are interested in seeds with good yield, good resistance to disease, and good fit to local climate, while chefs are interested in taste. Barber describes the future of food as a marriage of farmers and chefs. A marriage in the best sense of the words, he stresses, not in the sense that they set aside a 'date night once a week to talk,' as they so often do now in between busy weeks of restaurant service where the conversation ends at 'what's fresh?" The purpose of the marriage, Barber says, is to collaborate in order to create the best possible food products for both farmers and their farms, and chefs and their customers.
Selecting seeds for genetic potential is not a new concept. Farmers have played the role of plant breeders for over 10,000 years, when the very first farmers caught on to the idea that genetic variety was the key to taming wild species in order to grow predictable food crops. Seeds with different genetic traits are bred to suit local geography, climate, and taste. For millenia, every generation has left its mark, selecting the best seeds for further cultivation. Today the history of modern wheat tells the story of the history of the human species since the earliest days of agriculture. And to this day the same fundamental concept of plant breeding also applies. The only difference is that modern plant breeders have new concerns: climate change being one of them, coupled with population growth. Food crops of the future must be resistant to new hurdles such as drought, disease, and extreme storms. And on top of all this Barber argues in his book that modern breeding means seeking the best flavour, too. Seed banks come into the picture because they hold the genentic diversity that plant breeders and chefs need to work with. The issue is that many of these banks are threathened by a lack of resources, natural disasters, war, and civil unrest. That’s where the Svalbard Global Seed Vault comes into the picture. It’s the central repository of all the world’s seed banks. Just as farmers, plant breeders, and chefs look to seed banks for the future of good farming and good food, the seed banks look to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault as a symbol of hope for the future of seed crops. When a deposit is made by a seed bank to the Global Seed Vault, ownership remains with the depisting seed bank. Should the seed bank’s own stock run out or become inaccessible, its deposit can be withdrawn at any point in the future. Think of it as a Swiss bank containing the currency of global food security. Only it’s Norwegian and it’s carved into the side of an Arctic mountain.
Genetic diversity of seeds and plant breeding might have a whiff of scientific elitism about it, but evidence of its products are all around us and are grounded in every day agricultural practice. If you’ve ever reached for a loaf of spelt or emmer at your local bakery instead of a typical white loaf then you’ve dabbled with heritage grains that have been bred for modern demands of yield and taste. Kamut is another popular heritage grain, which is the US trademarked name of a grain based on an ancient Egyptian variety called Khorisan. These heritage grains are characteristically more robust than modern wheat and add a depth of flavour that chefs and bakers love. The yields of the old varieties are still not very good compared to modern wheat, though, which is the reason white flour is still king among crops. We have selected it to feed the most amount of people most efficiently from the smallest amount of land. As chefs like Dan Barber are quick to point out, though, the actual taste of the grain has not been considered in its modern history. The roller mill is proof of our obsession with yield over flavour. Once roller mills replaced stone mills, the nutty germ and fibrous outer bran of the wheat grain could easily be cast off and the white endosperm could be ground into a fine pure white flour. It persevered well - much better than the germ and bran - and therefore could withstand storage and transportation. And if ground harder, the additional starch damage meant the white flour could absorb more water. What’s more, milling became highly consolidated in favour of local grain economies and the local wheat varieties they fostered. Slowly we moved farther and farther away from the old wheat model. During WWII, for example, many nutrients like Calcium, Iron, and B-Vitamins were added to the white flour in order to supplement nutrition lost from decreased food supply. After the war, many places simply kept up this practice and willingly forgot that the whole grains simply left intact are a rich source of nutrients. France is one place that maintained its more traditional milling practice, grinding more softly in order to enable more extensible, “softer” flours for the types of products that have become favoured in their food culture.
Personally, I have experimented with heritage grains with tremendous success. My favourite came from a grain called einkorn, considered by plant experts to be the oldest cultivated form of wheat. It dates back some 10,000 years to agricultural land in the mountainous region of Kurdistan in Eastern Turkey. A small bag of it from my local specialty grocer, Food for Thought on Gower Street, set me back almost $15. The steep price per kilo, I later learned, was a result of its low yield - farmers and plant breeders are still keenly working on improving this with the help of seed banks. When I bought my einkorn, Lynn, the gregarious and bespecatacled local hero of the organic food aisle, said, “Please tell me what you do with this stuff because you’re the first person to buy it." I told her I would. Some weeks later I arrived back at the store with a slice of sprouted einkorn bread for her to try. She loved it, told me that she spread butter on it and it was delicious just like that. I had gotten the recipe from Chad Robertson’s biodynamic bread bible, Tartine No. 3. I had milled the einkorn grains in a coffee grinder and used 20% by weight in the bread (the remaining wheat lending enough gluten to provide structure that einkorn alone could never achieve). The taste was exceptional - nutty and sweet - and the texture, colour, and even smell was unlike anything I had experienced before.
Paradoxically, the old varieties of grains that I was learning to enjoy suddenly appeared to be the future of bread. From my own experience with modern heritage grains and with the foresight of chefs like Dan Barber and climate change scientists like Peter Wadhams, I saw the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in a new light. It holds the key to the future of seed crops and it fosters a network of farmers, scientists, chefs, and bakers who are hopeful about what this future will look like. It is certainly a structure designed to make you stop and think.
I'm Erik, the Burnt Chef. I'm a Finnish-born Newfoundlander living in Norway. I have a passion for cooking and a deep fascination for the culinary history of the North. Simplicity guides my cooking. Time, place, and history guide my storytelling. This is my personal blog about food.