Q&A: Brian Lainoff on Svalbard Global Seed Vault rumors

Brian Lainoff, Crop Trust’s lead partnership coordinator. Photo by: Crop Trust

On May 20, a report from The Guardian sparked global concern for the security of more than 930,000 seed varieties housed in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Lying halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, on the island of Spitsbergen, the vault was established to be the world’s backup for crop collections and a critical element in global food security.

But reports of water leaking from melting permafrost due to rising temperatures led to panic that the seeds themselves were flooded and in danger.

As the news reports themselves made clear, that was never the case. While melting permafrost did enter the access tunnel to the vault, the vault itself was not breached and the seeds were never threatened. Melting permafrost and water intrusion are a normal part of life in such a harsh landscape.

Countries and donors contributing seeds to the vault were informed all seeds are safe, and there has been no ramifications for the vaults and its operations. But the panic has shown the importance of the facility and the role seed vaults play in maintaining a food security for the world.

Brian Lainoff, lead partnership coordinator for the Crop Trust, spoke to Devex about the situation. Here is the interview, edited for length and clarity.

Recent reports raised concerns that the Svalbard vault was struggling to deal with permafrost. Can you explain what the strategies in place are for ongoing maintenance and support required for structure in such harsh conditions?

Improvement measures are being implemented to prevent the season-dependent intrusion of water into the seed vault’s access tunnel. When water intrudes into the outer part of the seed vault, the water is immediately pumped out again by pumps that work around the clock.

Statsbygg [the Norwegian government's key adviser in construction and property affairs] has moved the transformer station out of the tunnel. This provides safer operation, easier maintenance and has removed a heat source.

Drainage ditches to be constructed and terrain levelling will take place on the mountainside above the seed vault to prevent melt water from Platåfjellet accumulating around the access tunnel and to protect against water intrusion resulting from any climate change

A waterproof wall will be constructed in the access tunnel as extra protection for the actual vault.

Alternatives to a new access tunnel to the seed vault will be explored to improve safety in a long-term perspective.

And the seeds will remain safe during implementation of the measures.

What is the annual investment put into this to monitor and support the structure and its content?

The annual costs to run the vault — for the power to run the cooling system, building management, managing the collection itself, and so on — are very low, at less than $500,000 a year.

The Royal Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Norway and the Crop Trust provide these funds. Statsbygg has additional resources now to monitor the snowmelt and temperatures within the mountain and implement any necessary improvement measures.

This is one of a number of seed vaults globally. Why is it important to have a vault in such a remote location and how does it work with other vaults to ensure all climates, conditions and seeds are supported?

Worldwide, more than 1,700 genebanks hold collections of food crops for safekeeping. Yet many of these are vulnerable, exposed not only to natural catastrophes and war, but also to avoidable disasters, such as lack of funding or poor management.

Something as mundane as a poorly functioning freezer can ruin an entire collection, and the loss of a crop variety is as irreversible as the extinction of a dinosaur, animal or any form of life.

It was the recognition of the vulnerability of the world’s genebanks that sparked the idea of establishing a global seed vault to serve as a backup storage facility. The purpose of the vault is to store duplicates, or backups, of seed samples from the world’s crop collections.

The Seed Vault, as the backup of crop collections, is in the Svalbard for a few reasons.

Svalbard is the farthest north a person can fly on a scheduled flight, offering a remote location that is nevertheless accessible.

The area is geologically stable and humidity levels are low.

While the entrance may be visible, the vault itself is over 100 meters into the mountain.

The vault is well above sea level, protected from ocean flooding according to worst case scenario sea level rises.

And the permafrost offers the Vault room with a natural freezing, providing a cost effective and fail-safe method to conserve seeds.

Australia, as an example, is one country with seeds in the Svalbard vault. How does the Svalbard vault operate in collaboration with regional seed protection and preservation methods?

As part of the Global System Project [a biodiversity strengthening mission supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Grains Research and Development Cooperation], the Crop Trust's mission is to ensure the conservation of crop diversity in a cost effective and rational manner. Collections are meant to safely duplicate their collections in two locations: On a different continent and at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, if the crop can be conserved as a seed.

Are there plans for additional seed vaults in similar harsh environments?

The Seed Vault is one-of-a-kind, and its mission is to provide a backup of all major seed collections — it would be inefficient to create another seed vault with the same purpose.

Norway’s Royal Ministry of Agriculture and Food and Statsbygg will be working together to ensure that every effort is made to protect the vault from water intrusion and ensure that it is safe for the future.

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About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.

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