Making a Withdrawal

Like a bank, only those who deposit seeds in the vault are able to take seeds out. The Global Seed Vault doesn’t own or govern the seeds within it. Any seeds donated are still owned by those that deposited them. This means that only the people who donated can have access to those seeds or allow others to borrow them.

When certain seeds are at the end of their life, a depositor can take them back out into the world to grow them and create fresh seeds. Then they will send some of those new seeds to the vault to make sure the variety is safe again.

Has anyone ever needed the seeds they’ve stored? Yes. Just ask Syria.

The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) used to be based in Aleppo, Syria. But in 2011, the country was on the brink of civil war. To protect seed diversity, ICARDA sent 100,000 types of seeds to Svalbard for safekeeping. This set included one of the largest collections of types of wheat in the world.

ICARDA set up new places to work in Morocco and Lebanon. Then in 2015, they asked Svalbard to return their seeds. ICARDA planted those seeds to get fresh ones, some of which they sent back to Svalbard.

Domestic Crops

The Svalbard seed bank can help us with future problems, too. There is a germ that hurts wheat called Ug99. It was first found in Uganda in 1999. This germ travels on spores in the wind. It is quickly spreading to other countries. It’s heading to India. It will move to Australia. Eventually, it will reach the United States. We need to have wheat that can resist this germ by the time it arrives.

That’s why a seed bank like the one in Svalbard is so important. It offers us protection against crop loss and loss of diversity. It also buys us time to solve problems like Ug99. Above all, the seed vault is in place if ever we face a global food crisis. For now, we store them—one seed packet at a time.


An ICARDA scientist looks at seed bank crops growing in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

From the Svalbard Vault

Bambara groundnuts

This legume is grown by farmers in Africa. It makes underground pods that contain nuts. The nuts can be eaten fresh. But they are usually dried and ground into a fine flour. The flour is used to make dumplings, cakes, and biscuits.

Pigeon peas

Pigeon peas have very deep tap roots. The root can break through hard soil. This plant brings up nutrients from deep underground. It makes the surface soil better. Pigeon peas are used to make dal, a main dish in India.

Black‑eyed peas

Black‑eyed peas are valued in Africa. They are able to handle partly hot and dry conditions. They also change nitrogen in soil into a form that living things can use. This helps make fields fertile again for other crops.