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Martha Takes Us On an Adventure to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault

  • By Martha Stewart
  • Photos by Claire Takacs (Entrance to vault; Martha inside vault); Jake Ahles (Northern Lights); Michael Poliza (others)

In a remote bunker deep in the Arctic Circle, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault holds the world’s future: It stores and protects nearly a million food-seed varieties, from African black-eyed peas to South American potatoes. Martha visited, and takes us along on her eye-opening trip.

 

Right: Camera in hand, I head into the vault.

Last year was a very exciting travel year for me. Without a doubt, the highlight was February, when I traveled to Svalbard, Norway, an archipelago about 650 miles from the North Pole, and a week later ventured to Antarctica on a photography tour, coming very close to the South Pole. The back-to-back timing of these trips was challenging, but as I think back on them, it was incredible to go to the opposite ends of the globe within such a short period. The contrasts were so vivid, and the memories so intense, that I would do it all over again if I could.

Svalbard is surrounded by glaciers and home to approximately 1,200 people, 2,400 polar bears, and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the largest collection of food seeds in the world. To celebrate its 10th anniversary, the international conservation organization Crop Trust, which runs the vault along with Norway’s Ministry of Agriculture and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center, invited me there with a small group of entrepreneurs and environmentalists. American scientist Cary Fowler, often called the father of the bank, drafted the first global plan of action for the United Nations on the conservation and sustainability of plant genetic resources, which led to the founding of the vault. It now holds close to 1 million seed varieties, including 162,000 types of rice and 48,000 kinds of beans, and it has the capacity for millions more.

Our time there was filled with lectures, excursions, dinners, and, of course, a long visit in the subterranean space. We met with the trust’s current executive director, Marie Haga, and learned how this unique backup system for seed banks all over the world (there are more than 1,750 in total) will enable us to grow food in the wake of natural or human-made disaster. The seeds represent stability for our crops and hope for a future replete with variety and nourishment for everyone. Although it’s a seemingly impossible task, the trust’s dedicated team of scientists and researchers has collected seeds from almost every country in a relatively short period of time. We owe a debt of gratitude to this amazing group.

 

[HERE'S: What Else You Should Know About Seed Banks]

Cold Storage

Jutting out of the snow, the entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, in Norway, looks like a futuristic bastion from a science fiction movie. It leads into a subterranean mine built about 120 meters into the side of a mountain.

From left: Inside, about 500 seeds per variety are enclosed in foil packages, identified by country of origin, and stored in sealed containers. Low humidity and a cold temperature (–18 degrees Celsius) help keep them viable. Crop Trust is currently raising funds for an endowment to cement its future. To learn more, visit croptrust.org. Here I am inside the vault.

Top of the World

Svalbard lies between Norway’s mainland and the North Pole; the people who live there run scientific research projects, facilitate tour groups, and work in a coal mine.

The Explorers

From left: Our group poses under signs pointing toward London, Paris, Bangkok, and other faraway places. Dogsledding is still a common mode of transport in Svalbard; some of us got to drive teams of Alaskan huskies across the snow.

Green Phantoms

The Northern Lights, aka Aurora Borealis, were not as elusive in Norway as they often are at lower latitudes. We saw their magnificent gleam every night and early morning in the clear, star-strewn sky.