More than a coffee table book: Seeds on Ice

Book review

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

Seeds on Ice

Seeds on Ice explores the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

At first glance one would take Seeds on Ice to be a coffee-table book, given its format and gorgeous, glossy color photos. But while skimming through the book, readers would soon change their minds. This book is a very serious scientific publication and should be required reading for anyone interested in the fate of our Planet Earth.

The book’s author is the esteemed scientist Cary Fowler, who is credited with the idea of creating the Svalbard Global Seed Vault to maintain worldwide crop diversity. The photographs were taken by Mari Tefre, who was given permission to document the construction of the vault, and Jim Richardson, a photographer for National Geographic.

In the foreword, Sir Peter Crane, who served as the dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies from 2009 to 2016, emphasizes the importance of the world of plants and the key role of the seed vault to secure plant diversity. We need water and food to survive. Plant diversity is a prerequisite for the global productivity of agriculture.

Fowler, in the preface, explains in eloquent terms why the seed vault in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard is of crucial importance to the survival of the human race: “A quiet rescue mission is under way. With growing evidence that unchecked climate change will seriously undermine food production and threaten the diversity of crops around the world, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault represents a major step toward ensuring—you might even say guaranteeing—the preservation of hundreds of thousands of unique crop varieties.”

The first chapter, “Svalbard: Journey to the Top of the World,” describes Svalbard, the location of the seed vault. It is a Norwegian group of islands in the Arctic Ocean north of mainland Norway, about 650 miles from the North Pole. The climate and terrain are extreme, but about 2,200 people live and work there. It is the northernmost place on Earth where people live year round. The photos of Svalbard in this chapter are absolutely breathtaking.

Chapter 2, “Seeds and Food,” focuses on the history of agriculture and the need for the seed vault to preserve seeds to guarantee the survival of plant diversity. Many seed genebanks can be found around the world, but they face many threats, including climate change, political instability, and disasters. This is the reason it is critically important to have a safe backup like Svalbard where crop diversity can be maintained.

Chapter 3, “The Svalbard Global Seed Vault,” describes the planning and construction of the seed vault. Why Svalbard? The Norwegians came up with the idea and approached the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome, offering to establish the “Svalbard International Seedbank.” Fowler convinced those considering Svalbard that seeds were the most important natural resource on earth and that Svalbard was the best place in the world to conserve them, more secure than any of the locations of existing seed genebanks around the world.

Chapter 4, “Step Inside,” gives the reader a tour of the vault, which is basically “a tunnel, a hole in the mountain, with seeds.” Located inside a frozen mountain, it has three vault rooms and, when the book went to press, they contained 881,473 unique seed samples, 563,272,050 seeds, and 5,128 species from all over the world.

The final chapter, “Looking Forward,” focuses on the future and is optimistic about the success of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Fowler concludes his book with these words:

“The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was not built in a spirit of pessimism. It was not built by people obsessed with ‘doomsday.’ It was conceptualized and constructed by optimists and pragmatists, by people who wanted to do something to preserve options so that humanity and its crops might be better prepared for change.”

Seeds on Ice: Svalbard and the Global Seed Vault, by Cary Fowler, was published in 2016 by Prospects Press.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 15, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784.4617.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.