In February 2020, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault welcomes over 60,000 unique seed deposits from 35 seed-saving institutions for safekeeping. Out of the 35 institutions, seven will make their first-ever deposit—including the Cherokee Nation, which represents the first Native American tribe to store its biodiverse seeds in Norwegian facility.
“This group of depositors is nearly as diverse as the seeds in their shipments,” says Cierra Martin, Spokesperson for the Crop Trust. “This is the largest number of depositors to send seeds at one time since the Seed Vault opened in 2008.”
The Cherokee Nation is contributing nine varieties of seeds to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the 12th anniversary of the facility’s opening. The seeds include Cherokee Long Greasy Beans, Cherokee Candy Roaster Squash, and sacred Cherokee White Eagle Corn.
Martin notes that the contribution to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a secure secondary back-up to a great primary back-up: the Cherokee Nation Heirloom Garden and Native Plant Site hosts the Cherokee Nation Seed Bank which already saves seeds and distributes them among tribe members. “With this deposit, the Cherokee Nation can rest assured that whatever the future holds, they will always have a back-up to the invaluable material they cultivate in the seed vault, should the need ever arise,” Martin tells Food Tank.
With such culturally-significant seeds entering the vault, Martin reassures that the vault is secure not just for keeping certain crops safe, but also for keeping food traditions safe. “Each depositing institution still owns and controls access to the seeds they have deposited…meaning the depositors are the only ones who can withdraw their own seeds,” says Martin. For this reason, the seed vault may offer an opportunity for Indigenous groups and local communities who have endured national emergencies and threats to their cultural preservation.
The Cherokee Nation will add to over 1 million seeds already in the vault and mark the second contribution from an Indigenous community—the first coming from Indigenous Andean communities from the Parque de la Papa in Peru.
While many of the 35 depositors in February are established partners who have sent seeds before, the seed-saving institutions are sending new seed varieties that play roles in climate resilience.
“The deposit includes several crops that will be important for food production in the face of changing climates,” says Martin. These crops include legumes and cereals that thrive in harsh, dryland climates from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in India and coriander, barley, lentils, and wheat that survive dry areas from the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) in Morocco. The International Potato Center’s (CIP) seeds from crop wild relatives of roots and tubers will bring climate-resilient genetics developed over time from growing untouched in Peru.
“We’re fortunate and happy that all of these climate-tough crops—wild and domesticated—are now safety duplicated in Svalbard,” says Martin.
According to Martin, genebanks should send copies of their seeds in good times so that they’re prepared for bad times. “When disaster strikes, it may just be too late,” Martin tells Food Tank. Disaster may strike in the form of floods, fire, and earthquakes—and even economic and political problems that destroy germplasm backups in a single country.
The seeds from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault already helped Syria’s International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) recuperate genebank losses from civil war in 2015. That same year, Nepal’s National Agriculture Genetic Resources Center and Bioversity International deployed seeds from the vault to replenish seeds in earthquake-affected districts.
“What I think the next hot trend should be is seed bank to fork,” says Martin. “Seed banks are absolutely crucial for ensuring that we have food on our plates now and in the future, and we shouldn’t forget about the perhaps un-sexy but incredibly important work they are doing around the clock and around the globe.”
Photo courtesy of the Crop Trust.