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The Svalbard Vault
The Svalbard Vault
May 10, 2024

Two scientists who were instrumental in creating a back-up vault of the world’s crop seeds to protect global food security have been named the 2024 World Food Prize Laureates.


Dr. Geoffrey Hawtin OBE, founding director and executive board member at the Global Crop Diversity Trust, and Dr. Cary Fowler, currently the U.S. Special Envoy for Global Food Security, were chosen by the World Food Prize Laureate Selection Committee.


The two men played key roles in establishing the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which today holds 1.25 million seed samples of more than 6,000 plant species in an underground facility in the Arctic Circle. The repository, often referred to as the “Doomsday Vault,” opened in 2008 and stands as the last line of defense against threats to global food security, including pandemics and climate catastrophes.


Drs. Fowler and Hawtin also played pivotal roles in the development of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, or Plant Treaty, which was adopted in 2001, to facilitate the global movement of plant genetic resources. By codifying international agreements and mechanisms for the sharing of seeds, the treaty laid the foundations for the Svalbard seed vault.


The vault was the brainchild of Dr. Fowler, who wrote to Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to ask them to consider establishing such a facility during his time at CGIAR, the world’s largest publicly funded agricultural research organization. He was later invited to chair a committee to assess the feasibility of such a project and served as the first Chair of the Vault’s International Advisory Council.


Meanwhile, Dr. Hawtin served as a member of the original study team, scoping the viability of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and drew up its technical specifications. In 2004, Dr. Hawtin created the Global Crop Diversity Trust, or Crop Trust, which now finances the vault alongside the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center, NordGen.


Genebanks, including the Svalbard Vault, are crucial resources for crop scientists, who breed and develop improved varieties of the world’s most important food crops. Material held in genebanks contains beneficial traits with the potential to improve crops’ climate resilience, disease resistance, nutritional value and tolerance to increased salinity, which is increasingly valuable in the face of climate change.


Source:  World Food Prize May 9, 2024 news release


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Submitted by Karen Davidson on 10 May 2024