About 1,000 kilometres south of the North Pole lies Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago. Home to roughly 2,600 people, it also has another, larger, more famous population: that of 1,057,151 seeds.
This is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV), an effort to preserve seeds from around the globe that could eventually be lost as a result of natural or human factors. The vault’s inventory includes everything from African varieties of wheat and rice to European and South American varieties of lettuce and barley.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), more than 75 per cent of genetic diversity has been lost because of farmers transitioning to varieties of high-yield, genetically uniform crops.
In 2015, groups belonging to Parque de la Papa, a Peruvian organization that aims to preserve agricultural diversity and Indigenous culture, deposited 750 seeds of differing varieties of potatoes in the Svalbard seed vault, the first Indigenous group to do so. Last February, the Cherokee Nation became the first U.S. Indigenous group to make a deposit.
In fact, Indigenous people have long preserved seeds because they have important cultural ties within the community.
“There’s this very strong relationship that people have with seeds,” said Alejandro Argumedo, director of programs at the U.S.-based Swift Foundation, which aims to preserve biocultural diversity. “In the place where I come from, for instance, seeds are considered to have feelings and heart. And so you’ve got to treat them with lots of love.”
It’s a deeply reciprocal relationship, he said.
“There’s this big difference between just looking at seeds like biological materials that are important for farming,” said Argumedo, who is Quechua from Ayacucho, Peru. “Indigenous people see them more as members of an extended family and to which you have to [tend] with care. Because there will be a reciprocity — they will be providing you … food, will be caring about you.”
Argumedo cites the “qachun waqachi” potato variety used in a marriage ritual, where the bride (“qachun” in the Quechua language) gently peels the potato to show her love and caring for her husband-to-be as well as for Pacha Mama, or Mother Earth.
“The ritual articulates the Andean belief that love and respect between humans depends on and is nurtured by the land and epitomizes the commitment of couples to protect their seeds and food systems,” he said.
Terrylynn Brant, a Mohawk seed keeper from Ohsweken, Ont., has dedicated her life to this effort.
“I do a lot of work that supports other faith keepers in the work that they do. I support healers, seers, people like that … because sometimes people need to use a certain food for a certain ceremony,” she said. “I treat [seeds] with honour and respect.”
Argumedo said that the preservation of specific seeds is important in Indigenous communities where rituals require the best, purest form of seed.
“People are more interested in different features or characteristics of the seed. So people do selection for cultural reasons. And many of those traits are associated with taste, are associated with the colour and shape, because they will be used in rituals or social gatherings to create community cohesion,” he said.
“And if you want to have a better relationship with your neighbours, you better have the right seeds, because you will be offering it as a way of respect.”
Hannes Dempewolf, senior scientist and head of global initiatives at Crop Trust, a German-based organization that’s involved with the Svalbard seed vault, said there’s another important reason for preserving genetic diversity of seeds.
“Every seed, every variety is unique in itself,” he said. “They have a unique set of genes that we have no idea what they could be useful for in the future.”
— Nicole Mortillaro