“Diversity for resilience is what it all comes down to”: Interview with Crop Trust’s Hannes Dempewolf

Today, I am speaking with Hannes Dempewolf, Senior Scientist and Head of Global Initiatives at Crop Trust, about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and the safeguarding of global crop diversity through the creation of a back-up archive of seeds from seed banks around the world.

(Archivoz) Can you give us a brief history of the Vault—its origins and originators, mission, etc.—and perhaps a brief glimpse into its future as well? If the situation develops as envisioned, by 2050—which seems to be a current benchmark for climate considerations—what will the Vault look like, contain, or have accomplished?

(H.D.) They say that success has many parents, and I think there are many people who feel they have been involved in the genesis of the idea, and later on in the construction of the vault, and that’s certainly true. The idea of storing seeds in Svalbard has been around for quite some time. Back in the ‘80s, the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen), which alongside the Norwegian government still continues to play a big role in managing the vault today, began to store some of their seeds as backups in abandoned mine shafts there. At that time there was, of course, no vault in that sense. A feasibility study was conducted in the early 90s to determine whether it would make sense to make this more international and allow other seed banks around the world to deposit there, but at the time it was decided that it wasn’t feasible, due in part to the nature of current political discourse regarding genetic resources.

Then, in 2004, the International Seed Treaty came along, an FAO plant treaty in which many countries around the world committed to work together to conserve global genetic resources represented by seeds. This provided an important international impetus to look again at the feasibility of building a facility at Svalbard for the purpose of backing up seed collections. This study, commissiones by the Norwegian government and conducted by Cary Fowler, recommended the establishment of the vault. Fowler later on became the first executive director of the Crop Trust.

The vault’s mission is to provide a backup for the all the world’s unique crop diversity housed in gene banks. We think in the world there are about 7 million accessions, or seed samples, housed in about 1700 seed banks around the world. About 2.2 million of those samples are unique. At the moment, in the vault we have just above 1 million seed samples, so you can do the math: we’re a little less than halfway there. By 2050, ideally the vault would store as close as possible to the full complement. There have been recent upgrades to “future-proof” the facility, in the hopes of creating a very stable environment that doesn’t require frequent intervention. While some technical intervention will always be necessary, the facility itself is equipped to withstand up to 2050 and many years beyond that.

(Archivoz) How many parties are represented in the contents of the Seed Vault? In general, what sort of response have you received from potential depositors, and why?

(H.D.) If you’re talking about the countries where the seeds were originally collected, there are 248, more than exist today. When the seeds were originally collected, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, countries existed which have since then either separated or joined together. If you add all these together, there are a huge number of countries represented in the Vault, in terms of original collecting location. However, many of these seeds are stored in seed banks in other countries and several of the depositors are also international seed banks, so the number of countries isn’t necessarily the most useful statistic to look at in terms of deposits. In terms of individual seed banks represented, there are 87 from around the world that have deposits at Svalbard. Several of these are international gene banks that are recognized as global common goods by the FAO Plant Treaty and do not belong to any particular country. This, of course, means that there are still many that do not use our facility.

Generally, the feedback has been very positive. The Vault is opened three or four times a year for new deposits, and each time there are more gene banks that want to make a deposit, which is great. A lot of the unique diversity in the world is held by gene banks in developing nations, and unfortunately they often don’t have the resources to conduct proper regeneration of duplicates, so although important, backups can’t always be a priority. So, there is a great need and opportunity for the Crop Trust to support developing nations in creating backups in the Vault.

There are, and always will be, countries who don’t feel confident enough in the Vault to make deposits. The depositors’ agreement is very clear, that ownership of and exclusive access to the seeds remains with the depositors, and that the agreement is backed by the Norwegian government, which has proven itself a reliable partner. However, for some parties these assurances are not enough, and they choose not to use the facility. Still, it remains open to anyone who wishes to use it.

(Archivoz) How does the sharing of seeds work in practice?

(H.D.) Access to the seeds is never provided by the Vault. It would only be provided by the original depositor. So, if you’re interested in a certain accession, a certain variety, you would go directly to the depositing seed bank and request it from there, and they would be obliged to share it with you. The treaty stipulates that they can charge you a small handling fee, but they cannot profit from the exchange. The seed has to be provided for free for the purpose of research and breeding. There are a few exceptions for direct use, but generally you can’t request large quantities of seeds to plant in your fields. Seed banks are not set up for that purpose; they distribute maybe one hundred seeds at a time, and you have to multiply them and produce a large enough number to actually work with. They are also not set up to provide seeds to home gardeners; if they accepted that sort of request on a regular basis, they would easily be overwhelmed. It’s really meant for research and breeding applications.

(Archivoz) The seed bank at Svalbard has been nicknamed the “Doomsday Vault.” Leaving aside any apocalyptic undertones, what sorts of scenarios for withdrawal/use of genetic deposits do you foresee? Can you share an example with us?

(H.D.) The Crop Trust doesn’t really like the “Doomsday” framing, because that’s not really what the seed vault was set up for. The seed vault was set up to provide active duplication for seed banks around the world. These seed banks face threats all the time, “little Doomsdays,” if you want to call it that. We’ve had electrical fires destroy collections. One of the most prominent and relevant examples is the inability of the seed bank in Aleppo in Syria to continue to operate due to civil unrest. They had to reestablish the bank in Lebanon and Morocco, and to do that they had to withdraw their backup materials from Svalbard. There were so many seeds that they couldn’t withdraw them in one go, because they didn’t have the space to replant them. As soon as the seeds arrive in their new location they have to regrow them in order to accumulate enough material to both create the new seed bank and redeposit them in the Seed Vault. It has been a multiyear process, starting in 2015, and is still ongoing.

(Archivoz) In 2016, the Vault dealt with limited flooding in its access tunnel due to the melting permafrost. As recently as July 25, 2020, record high temperatures were recorded on two consecutive days in Svalbard. Can you share a little about your approach to preservation: given that the threat to agriculture caused by global warming is one of your stated reasons for being, how do you keep the Vault safe from one of the very things against which it is intended as a safeguard?

(H.D.) When the Vault was first constructed, it was done so that the permafrost, which is the top layer of the ground and is permanently frozen, would refreeze upon completion. However, the summers were warmer than anticipated, and this never really happened, at least around the entrance tunnel. In 2016, not only was it quite warm, but there was an unusually heavy rainfall, which caused more extensive water intrusion into the tunnel. Although the seeds themselves were not actually threatened, it was clear that something had to be done. So, the Norwegian government decided to waterproof the entrance tunnel, at a cost of 20 million Euros, much more than the cost of original construction. Now, we’re looking at a facility that is really very secure and guarded against global warming.

It’s important to note that the areas in which the seeds are kept, which are three big chambers about 130 meters inside the mountain, are at a constant temperature of -4 degrees centigrade, and are cooled further to -18 degrees, the optimal storage temperature for seeds, by an artificial cooling system. So, even if the electrical cooling system were to fail, the seeds would remain naturally at -4 degrees at least, which, while not optimal, would keep the seeds frozen and viable for a very, very long time. Given that in the Arctic, there is no sun for several months out of the year, it is highly unlikely that the natural temperature inside the Vault would ever rise above this level, even if summer temperatures in Svalbard continue to increase.

(Archivoz) Licensing of digital content and its implications for open access to information is a source of heated discussion in the library world of late. In the context of global agriculture, the debate over seed patenting is perhaps a close analogue. How does this practice limit access to genetic information, and in what ways does the Global Seed Vault seek to address/overcome this concern?

The seeds deposited in the Vault have to be plant material useful for food and agriculture, and the original collection from which the backups are created has to be accessible for use. Seeds that are proprietary or patented in any way—in other words, seeds that are not provided for free for others to use—are not accepted. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, along with other instruments, provides a legal framework for seed sharing. The technical term is access and benefit sharing regimes. There are also some that are open to access without recourse to any legal requirements. The real requirement is that the material be available for further research and breeding. Under the International Treaty, if economic profit results from access to seeds through commercialization, then 0.075 percent of that profit must be paid back into the system via the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

There is also what we call the passport information that ideally goes along with every deposit: who collected it, when, and where; under what conditions; hopefully some sort of georeference data so it can be located on a GIS map. This is very important information; without it, often the seeds are useless, since it is impossible to determine where they come from or what they are. We ask that this information be made publicly available as well, and one of the systems in which it is kept is called Genesys, which is managed by the Crop Trust.

This, however, does not provide much information as to the characteristics of the seeds. As you can imagine, you can grow these seeds into plants and sequence their DNA. Seeds can also be described in terms of drought tolerance, disease resistance, and that sort of thing. This is also very valuable information, since someone who wants to use a particular seed to breed a strain resistant to certain diseases, for example, can know that a variety has been tested for that in the past and is in the seed bank ready for use. While this information is often also made public, there are discussions within the context of the Plant Treaty at the moment regarding its use. The question is whether the scope of a given treaty extends beyond the physical seed to the DNA itself. It would be inappropriate for the Crop Trust to engage in these discussions; as an element of the treaties themselves, we simply follow them as laid out.

(Archivoz) Cary Fowler, in the 2013 documentary Seed Battles, spoke of the vault as containing the history of agriculture, an idea which by definition includes the history of the people behind the practices. I’m intrigued by this intersection between genetic and cultural heritage: how do the contents of the vault reflect and define who we are as a species?

(H.D.) The Vault doesn’t really look at what information comes with the seeds; the facility is there to back up the material. The question is what kind of information is attached to the original collection in its original seed bank and whether they are keeping it. I would venture to say that the vast majority of seed banks around the world don’t have systems set up to capture traditional knowledge or this sort of cultural value. That has to do with the fact that a lot of those materials were collected in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when people just didn’t think to record that sort of thing.

However, that is an incredibly interesting area of thought. These seeds, especially for indigenous communities, often play important cultural roles. The varieties are often named: in Quechua culture in Peru, for example, they are referred to as family members. There’s been one really moving deposit of potato seeds to the Vault by a Quechua community. When they came to the Vault, they held a ceremony honoring the deposit, and it was a very emotional moment not only for them, but for us as well, seeing how much cultural value was attached. There is another example just this year of a deposit by an indigenous community, the Cherokee Nation. Their deposit, including beans with reference to the Trail of Tears, of course carries very deeply emotional connections that are of great meaning to them.

This often gets lost in our daily work, since we’re mainly natural science-driven, looking more at the breeding value of accessions, so the cultural value isn’t nearly as well documented as it should be in many cases. Unfortunately, a lot of the information around the cultural value and importance of seeds to particular communities is lost, because it wasn’t collected at the time they were deposited. Going forward, I think it’s important to make sure that indigenous communities that still have these traditions know that the Vault is also open to them.

(Archivoz) In a nutshell, why is what you are doing important?

(H.D.) To me, this is all about understanding the value and importance of diversity to building more resilient food systems. The conservation of the seeds we’ve been talking about is only useful if they are put to use—if they are utilized as part of more diverse agricultural production systems, if they are used to breed more resilient crops, and if they are used in the context of cultural applications and traditions. There’s so much value in that diversity that justifies its conservation. I think it is moving to think about that, but is also an important survival mechanism for us as a species to make sure that this diversity that we ourselves created over thousands of years continues to be preserved and used. Diversity for resilience is what it all comes down to.

Header Image: The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (photo by the Global Crop Diversity Trust).
Additional Image: 2018_02_24_Svalbard_anniversary_CT_7089 (photo by the Global Crop Diversity Trust).

Interview conducted by: Vance Woods

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