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February, 2018

The most important room in the world

This week I am visiting Svalbard to celebrate the 10 years anniversary of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It holds over 1 million seeds from all over the planet, and is probably the most important room in the world and secures our common future.

Dagfinn Høybråten
Photographer
Torfí Jóhannesson - norden.org

This is not my first visit to Svalbard and hopefully not the last. I am always fascinated to come here – there is no other place I feel as clearly the heartbeat of the planet, the seasons, the wildlife and yes – the climate change can also clearly be felt here.

Svalbard is the northernmost settlement in the world with a permanent civilian population. In a way we are at the end of the world, to be accurate it´s one of two ends, Arctic and Antarctica. They are both crucial callipers for the health and wellbeing of everything that lies between them.

The history of Svalbard is quite remarkable, considering its location and the harsh living conditions. It has been involved in most of the geopolitical events of recent centuries; the expansion of the colonial Britain and Netherlands; the two world wars, the cold war and the breakdown of the old Soviet Union. Also economically, Svalbard has mirrored the world at large, starting with exploitation of the natural resources – both the biological (the whales and walruses) and the coal mining. But later a growing service sector has evolved with tourism and research as the main pillars.

Ten years is not a long time in the history of Svalbard but it has been an eventful period in the history of the Global Seed Vault going from an empty hall to the permanent home of over one million seed samples from all over the world.

The Global Seed Vault is truly unique, like so many things in Svalbard. It represents an offer to the world from Norway, from the Crop Trust and from the Nordic Cooperation. An offer to safeguard one of the most valuable and precious assets of our civilization – the plant genetic resources – or what we commonly just call: “seeds“. And now, 10 years after its formal opening, we can claim that the world has accepted our offer. The Svalbard Seed Vault now contains more than 40% of all the seed collections of the world gene banks. And this is just the beginning - we would like to see back-ups of all available seed accessions here in Svalbard. I believe this is not only possible, but both realistic and necessary.

NordGen (Nordic Genetic Resource Center) plays an important part in this work. Although Nordic cooperation on gene preservation dates back almost 40 years it is exactly 10 years now since several Nordic activities were collected under NordGen.

Nowhere else in the world has a group of countries pooled their plant genetic resources and placed them under a common administration and made them freely accessible. There are many reasons for why this is possible here in the Nordic countries but many of them have something to do with trust. We trust each other – we trust our politicians and we have confidence in the future.

At time being, NordGen holds a collection of 35.000 accessions dedicated to the origin and development of the Nordic agriculture. In addition of being a traditional gen bank, NordGen also collects and co-ordinates the Nordic expertize on genetic resources in crop wild relatives, forests and husbandry animals and carries out a range of research and development projects in these sectors. The excellent work that this Nordic institution does in managing the seed vault is not only beneficiary for the Nordics. Here the whole world benefits.

Nowhere else in the world has a group of countries pooled their plant genetic resources and placed them under a common administration and made them freely accessible. There are many reasons for why this is possible here in the Nordic countries but many of them have something to do with trust. We trust each other – we trust our politicians and we have confidence in the future.

But confidence in the future may never be blind. We must be aware that the future holds uncertainties, changing climate, plant and animal epidemics, social unrest – all of which can threaten our way of life. It is therefore, the operation of the Svalbard Seed Vault is so important, because it offers a long lasting security in an ever changing world.

I spent much of my childhood at my grandfather’s farm south of Oslo, which for nearly 40 years now has been my home in Norway. And I have the memories of the grass under my bare feet and of the taste of sweet berries and bitter vegetables and the view of colorful pastures. Much of this is gone. The climate is now different, the technology is different and the plants in our fields and in our vegetable garden are different. Therefore, it is so important – and so reassuring to know – that the seeds from my childhood are kept safe in Svalbard. To know, that all the diversity of all the farms in the world are potentially kept here. And if we ever need or want to bring those characteristics alive again, we can! Yes we can!

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Dagfinn Høybråten