Australia has made its largest deposit into the global seed vault in Svalbard, Norway, as part of the 10th anniversary of the facility dubbed the "Doomsday Vault". In February 2018, more than 30 crates containing 34,000 different types of grain and pasture seeds were delivered to one of the most remote places on Earth for safekeeping.

In the Australian Grains Genebank in Horsham in Victoria Different seeds are labelled for identification purposes. (Credit: ABC News, Kerry Staight)
In the Australian Grains Genebank in Horsham in Victoria Different seeds are labelled for identification purposes. (Credit: ABC News, Kerry Staight)

The vault, set deep into an icy mountain on Svalbard, half-way between mainland Norway and the North Pole, is a back-up facility that currently stores almost 900,000 different types of seeds. “When I went to Svalbard in 2014 it was really an overwhelming experience," said Sally Norton, who helped deposit the latest Australian collection on February 28. "There's agricultural diversity from around the world and this is agricultural history, so it was really surreal. "The seed vault is probably the only thing I know that's there for the greater good. There's no politics involved."

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a secure seed bank on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen near Longyearbyen in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago, about 1,300 km from the North Pole. The vault preserves a wide variety of plant seeds that are duplicate samples of seeds held in gene banks worldwide. The seed vault is an attempt to ensure against the loss of seeds in other genebanks during large-scale regional or global crises. (Credit: Wikipedia, Miksu)
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a secure seed bank on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen near Longyearbyen in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago, about 1,300 km from the North Pole. The vault preserves a wide variety of plant seeds that are duplicate samples of seeds held in gene banks worldwide. The seed vault is an attempt to ensure against the loss of seeds in other genebanks during large-scale regional or global crises. (Credit: Wikipedia, Miksu)

Ms Norton manages the Australian Grains Genebank at Horsham in Victoria, one of two national seed banks sending material to Norway. "If a natural disaster happens like a flood or bushfire comes through, if this building went up, if we didn't have it backed up anywhere it would be lost, and there's globally unique material within these walls," she said. The Grains Genebank is a library containing 150,000 different types of cereal, legume and oil seeds from all corners of the globe. Some are cultivated crops, while others are wild relatives that potentially date back thousands of years.

The Australian Grains Genebank contains 150,000 different seeds from around the world. (Credit: ABC News, Tony Hill)
The Australian Grains Genebank contains 150,000 different seeds from around the world. (Credit: ABC News, Tony Hill)

With arctic conditions not the norm in Horsham, Ms Norton relies on freezers set at -20 degrees Celsius to keep the seeds alive. "Grain crops like wheat and barley could potentially live for 100 years under these conditions," she said. "The high oil content seeds such as canola, mustards, peanuts and soybeans, they don't generally live as long so you might get 30 or 40 years out of those."  Unlike the Norwegian vault, which is purely a back-up facility, Australia's genebanks do more than store seeds, they also grow them out. That not only creates an eye-catching patchwork in the paddock at harvest, it also produces fresh seeds for the bank.

Plant breeders harvesting trial plots with small headers. (Credit: Carl Saville)
Plant breeders harvesting trial plots with small headers. (Credit: Carl Saville)

"Once seed arrives in our seedbank here we have to keep it alive forever, and that's a pretty big job," Ms Norton said. It is a job Steve Hughes, who runs the Australian Pastures Genebank in Adelaide, also relishes. "I've been to Turkey, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan collecting the seeds that are part of the collection," he said. "Overall, if you look at the scientists' efforts from the last 70 years, we've got seeds from about 150 different countries from around the world." Almost a third of that collection is about to be backed up in the Norwegian vault. "What we have made a significant effort to do is capture all the commercial varieties that farmers have grown over the last 50 to 100 years, so all the historical ones and all the ones that are currently grown," Mr Hughes said.

Biosecurity officers inspect seeds from Australian genebanks before they are sent to the global seed vault in Norway. (Credit: ABC News, Kerry Staight)
Biosecurity officers inspect seeds from Australian genebanks before they are sent to the global seed vault in Norway. (Credit: ABC News, Kerry Staight)

The Australian seed banks do not just preserve biodiversity, they also help advance agriculture. Plant breeders and researchers withdraw thousands of seed packets each year in the never-ending quest to breed better commercial crops. "Every year we're assessing something from disease resistance, heat tolerance or some other unique characteristic," said Haydn Kuchel, the chief executive officer of the country's biggest wheat breeding company Australian Grain Technologies. "It's not something we're using every day because the rest of our breeding process, which takes eight to 10 years, we have to sort all that genetics out, but they're really critical when we do need them." It is a farmer's resource grower and scientist Tony Gregson has had a closer look at than most. As well as visiting the global seed vault and being friends with its creator, he has played a major role in getting collections out of Australia and into the Norwegian facility. And despite serving on many local and international agricultural boards, it is his part in the preservation of something so small that he said was his biggest career achievement. "It helps Australian farmers, it helps the country, it helps global food security, so it ticks all the boxes," he said.

Source: Kerry Staight, ABC News