CELEBRATING THE 13TH OF ‘DOOMSDAY’ WITH WATERMELON AND STRAWBERRIES: Seed vault marks anniversary w/ small deposit, but officials say COVID-19 not affecting operations

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In a deed signalling, um, good news about doomsday, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault celebrated its 13th birthday during the past week with a deposit of watermelon, strawberries, pumpkins and other global crops that – unlike the arrival of global people here – wasn’t affected by the viral apocalypse of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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Boxes of seeds from this month’s deposit await placement on storage shelves in one of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault’s three storage rooms about 130 meters inside a mountain at the edge of Longyearbyen. Photo by Åsmund Asdal / NordGen.

The nearly 6,500 seed samples are from five gene banks on three continents, according to a statement published Sunday by Norway’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food. They include ICRISAT in India, the Julius Kühn Institute in Germany, AfricaRice in Côte d’Ivoire, the SADC Plant Genetic Resources Center in Zambia and the Mali National Gene Bank.

“This seed deposit is a small, but important step in achieving the UN Sustainability Goal by 2030,” Minister of Agriculture and Food Olaug Bollestad said in a prepared statement.

The low-key deposit, lacking the usual glare of the global media spotlight in addition to being relatively small in size, pales in comparison to the roughly 60,000 crop varieties deposited at a high-profile ceremony when Norwegian Prime Minister co-presided over an event featuring representatives from 36 gene banks on all seven continents.

That ceremony celebrated both the vault passing the one million seed sample mark, as well as the completion of a massive rebuilding of the entry portion of the vault to prevent water leakage that cost 200 million kroner, more than twice as much as the original cost of the facility.

Last year’s event, one of three deposits normally taking place each year, occurred just before the coronavirus was declared a pandemic, resulting in extreme measures to prevent the virus from reaching Svalbard including a total ban on non-permanent residents during the initial months. But the ministry notes that despite a resurgence of the virus this year in mutated forms and the renewal of some entry restrictions, the other two deposits this year are expected to take place as scheduled.

“The pandemic has not affected the operations at Svalbard Global Seed Vault, where two more seed deposits are planned for May and October 2021,” the ministry’s statement notes.

There are about 1,750 seed banks worldwide, but the Svalbard vault was designed as a “failsafe” in case those facilities suffer catastrophic losses. While news reports often refer to the facility as the “Doomsday Vault,” invoking imagery of nuclear war or a massive meteor strike, deposited seeds have already been used once to restore crops to Syria after a key gene banks there were destroyed by a years-long civil war.