Future Humans Will Thank Us for Their Barley and Okra

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault now contains 800,000 types of plants including red okra that was reportedly passed down by generations of Cherokee and Japanese barleys used to make shochu. 
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The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (Reuters / Bob Strong)

The most biodiverse room in the world is carved into a mountain in an archipelago north of Scandinavia. It’s meters from one of the world’s most important satellite relay stations, and about 600 miles from the North Pole. 2,000 people inhabit the closest town.

The room is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and, this week, it turns six.

The Seed Vault, widely covered when it opened in 2008, has grown in the ensuing half-decade. Conceived as a “Fort Knox of Food,” the super-secure facility holds more than 800,000 seeds and specimens for food crops from around the world. Physically, it should be able withstand earthquakes, nuclear war, the ravages of climate change, and maybe even an asteroid collision.

Longyearbyen, the closest town to the seed vault and the administrative capital of Svalbard (Bjørn Christian Tørrissen / CC BY-SA)

The vault exists in a global network of regional seed vaults, and it’s part of a global effort to catalog and preserve the information of biodiversity as it decreases across the world. It’s also an exemplary piece of planning for the longest future foreseeable—for making as much knowledge available to our descendants.

“‘The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts,’” said the vault’s executive director in a 2010 conversation with The Atlantic, paraphrasing Paul Ehrlich. “That's what we're trying to do.”

Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which partners with Norway's government to operate the vault (Bob Strong / Reuters) 

The vault has no permanent staff and opens only to receive seed deposits or visitors (like former President Jimmy Carter). It opened this week, though, and accepted the most recent 20,000 seeds. Here’s a sampling of what it accepted.

Barley

Barley is the fourth-most produced cereal crop in the world, used in Japanese soup and spirits and the Tibetan staple tsampa. The Barley Germplasm Center of Okayama University holds thousands of varieties of the crop, but barley seeds must be chilled to survive. The 2011 Japanese earthquake—and the power outages that followed—convinced leaders of the seed bank that they might not always be able to refrigerate the seeds.

The scientists at Okayama University will donate 575 duplicates of barley crops they hold this week. More than 5,000 samples will eventually follow.

Wild Grains

In the vault, seeds are stored in black, stacked
boxes (Dag Terje Filip Endresen / Wikimedia)

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault preserves wild versions of crops in addition to the domesticated versions, because the variants may offer heat-, drought-, or disease-resistant genetic traits. From two seed vaults in Spain—the International Potato Center and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center—the vault accepted over 250 wild, inedible variants of potato or sweet potato. It also accepted almost 6,000 types of wheat and 2,000 types of corn.

Black Beans

Brazilian cooking uses the “basic” black bean—or feijão preto—in countless dishes and almost every meal. They’re especially crucial to feijoadaa beef and pork stew developed by slaves in the Portuguese colonies and now considered a national Brazilian dish. From Embrapa, a Brazilian agricultural research center, come more than 500 varieties of black bean.

U.S. Heirloom Seeds

The Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization that preserves and redistributes rare seed varieties between American farmers. This means it specializes in seeds with a story, and it’s crops like these that join the Svalbard vault: A red okra that was reportedly passed down by generations of Cherokee. A sorghum bred in the 19th century specifically to produce syrup. A cherry tomato that traveled across the Atlantic with a family emigrating from Hungary.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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