Seeds Of Hope: Doomsday Cooperation Turns 10

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault celebrated its tenth birthday earlier this year. Significant milestones have been achieved over the decade, underpinned by successful global cooperation supporting the vault’s important objectives. At its heart, the seed vault aims to insure against natural and man-made disasters that may lead to food insecurity. Through its work, the seed vault has become a critical stakeholder in helping achieve Sustainable Development Goal 2 – Zero Hunger, Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture. And yet, though its benchmark achievements reflect a common and positive collective will, much more immediate action is needed to overcome acute food insecurity suffered by millions as a result of conflict.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, commonly referred to as the ‘Doomsday Vault,’ lies deep in the Arctic Circle. First opened in 2008, under a tripartite agreement between the Norwegian Government, The Crop Trust and the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen), the seed vault serves to “safeguard as much of the world’s unique crop genetic material as possible.”

Over the decade, the vault deposits have exceeded more than a million seeds, representing a vast slice of the world’s crop diversity. Deposits are accepted in compliance with the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food (also known as the International Seed Treaty) as first adopted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) in 2001. The aims of the treaty seek to observe “the enormous contribution of farmers to the diversity of crops that feed the world,” provide scientific material and access for researchers, and ensure the equitable distribution of benefits from agricultural crop sharing.

The achievements of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault are evidence that international cooperation can deliver positive sum-plus gains. Collaborative efforts towards growing the vault have also helped fortify international resolve to meet the Sustainable Development Goal of eradicating hunger (Goal 2) by protecting the diversity and nutritional value of crops. Holistically, the preservation of crop diversity is seen as essential for overcoming food insecurity, as it also promotes sustainable agricultural practices to better support agricultural producers to adapt to climate change and the degradation of crop lands.

However, while the sum balance of insuring against a catastrophic future event is a comprehensive step forward, millions of people are in need of immediate relief from acute food insecurity. According to the Food Security Information Network’s Global Report on Food Crises 2018, “Almost 124 million people across 51 countries and territories faced crisis levels of acute food insecurity or worse” in 2017. Food security is defined by the UNFAO as a state of being when “all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food.” The lack of food security is measured by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network in association with the World Food Programme.

Conflict, displacement and political insecurity are cited as the primary factors that trigger food insecurity. In these instances, the success of the arctic seed vault offers no comfort other than a distant hope that seeds may one day be used to promote agricultural production. For the present, however, political interventions to safeguard humanitarian access to food supply, and the promotion of dialogue to end hostilities, in compliance with international laws, must be pursued. Only once conflict is prevented from continuing can security in all its forms be allowed to flourish.

Through crop diversity, food security is an achievable goal that can support the Sustainable Development Goals of eradicating both hunger and poverty. However, for true ontological security to be realized across the international platform, conflict must be managed and prevented through open communication, political will and the observance of international laws.

Carolina Morison