The Vault

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
In the Arctic Ocean, there’s a cluster of islands called Svalbard. The islands are technically part of Norway, but they’re much farther north than the mainland, like way, way up towards the North Pole. The landscape is icy and mountainous. And on one of the icy mountains of Svalbard is a very curious thing: a vault.

Ben Brock Johnson:
The entrance to the vault itself is small but striking. It’s like a manmade obelisk, sticking out of a glacier, on top of a mountain. Yes. The vault itself is inside a mountain.

Roman Mars:
That’s Ben Brock Johnson from the podcast “Endless Thread”, a show in which Ben and his co-host, Amory Sivertson tell stories that they find on Reddit. This week we’re featuring one of those stories. So I’m going to hand this one off to Ben and Amory.

Amory Sivertson:
This story has actually been posted a few times by different Redditors, but it’s about people who aren’t necessarily Redditors.

Marie Haga:
Haga. Marie Haga.

Amory Sivertson:
Do you think Marie Haga is a Redditor, Ben?

Ben Brock Johnson:
I don’t know, but she definitely knows how to talk to interviewers.

Marie Haga:
Do you want very short answers? Medium answers?

Ben Brock Johnson:
Marie Haga is a former Norwegian diplomat. She was a member of parliament in that country, a former minister of energy. Her current job is to manage one of the world’s most important vaults, maybe the most important vault in the world.

Marie Haga:
Let me take you on a little tour.

Ben Brock Johnson:
All right, Marie, lead us into this glacier mountain.

Marie Haga:
You open these metal doors.

Ben Brock Johnson:
It’s like something out of a science fiction novel.

Marie Haga:
And you walk 130 meters into the mountains through a tunnel.

Ben Brock Johnson:
The walls are covered in snow and ice. Heck, they look like they’re made out of snow and ice. There’s this big chamber.

Marie Haga:
That I normally call the cathedral. It’s painted white. It’s a lot of ice crystals there. In this big room, you see three doors. These doors lead into three vaults.

Ben Brock Johnson:
Vaults within the vault. What’s inside? The precious treasure that is stored on permafrost-y, reindeer-covered islands in the Arctic ocean by a bunch of Norwegians. Behind the iciest vault door at zero degrees Fahrenheit…

Marie Haga:
Boxes, boxes, boxes, and boxes of seeds.

Ben Brock Johnson:
Seeds. Inside of these metal envelopes, 500 seeds per envelope. The seeds are from all over the world and I mean all over the world. Every country. It’s part of something called the crop trust. The crop trust is like this massive backup for the planet’s food crops. There’s only one backup and this is it. It’s all thanks to a Russian guy with a crazy story. Don’t worry that’s coming. But right now, how about a list of seeds in the backup from Marie Haga, whose official title is Director of the Crop Trust.

Marie Haga:
So we are concerned to safeguard the 3000 varieties of coconuts or the four and a half thousand varieties of potatoes, the 35,000 varieties of corn, the 125,000 varieties of wheat, or the 200,000 varieties of rice, just to mention some examples.

Ben Brock Johnson:
There seems to be kind of a Noah’s Ark aspect to this.

Marie Haga:
That is actually a good description. It is kind of a Noah’s Ark of seeds. It is meant to be a backup if things go wrong around the world. And unfortunately, things do go wrong around the world occasionally.

Ben Brock Johnson:
Once a decade, Svalbard’s staff is supposed to take new seeds into the vault. This is going to happen just a few weeks after this episode comes out, on February 26th, 2018. Marie Haga and her team will disarm the vaults alarm systems (alarm beeping), turn on the lights to the long tunnel into the mountain (flicking of light switches), unlock and creak open the vaults big doors (creek of doors opening) and put more seeds inside.

Ben Brock Johnson:
Any country that wants to store seeds in the vaults can do it for free. Marie says in the vault, there is world peace. South Korea’s seeds sit next to North Korea’s seeds. There are seeds from Iraq sitting in the frigid silence, Afghanistan, Syria, seeds from Ukraine sit next to seeds from Russia. It’s almost like this is the one thing the whole world can get behind: protecting our food supply in case of an emergency, like a big emergency. This single backup, this planet’s worth of crop diversity, living in relative peace, under a mountain. The spirit of this has its origins in World War II, a global existential crisis like no other.

Ben Brock Johnson:
Svalbard story starts actually not too far away, in Russia. The guy you could call us Svalbard’s seed vaults’ grandfather was a man named Nikolay Vavilov.

Marie Haga:
I don’t know what the Crop Trust, my organization, would have been without Vavilov. He really explained to the world back in the early 1900’s how we globally are fully interdependent when it comes to two crops.

Ben Brock Johnson:
The crazy part of Vavilov’s story though is that this man, a giant in the world of crop genetics, was thrown in a Russian Gulag for his scientific principles. A bunch of his devoted coworkers had defend off rats and starvation to protect his life’s work. The richest seed supply the world had ever seen, hidden away, underground, in its own vault, in what is now the city of St Petersburg. Back then though, it had a different name, Leningrad. And Leningrad was under siege.

Ben Brock Johnson:
Okay. You know how people say so-and-so wrote the book on X? Well, agricultural ecologist, ethnobotanist and Franciscan brother Gary Nabhan wrote the book on our Russian botanist, Nikolay Vavilov.

Gary Nabhan:
Well, Vavilov was from a very well educated family in Russia. I think every one of his siblings became a scientist as well.

Ben Brock Johnson:
The book is called “Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine”. In the circle of life, Gary’s book shows that this Russian botanist and geneticist’s story really begins in famine, just like it ends.

Gary Nabhan:
He grew up in a period where Russia and Eastern Europe had suffered one famine after another due to inclement weather causing crop failures.

Ben Brock Johnson:
These famines that he grew up with, how serious were they?

Gary Nabhan:
They were of epic proportions, from the 1860s on. There were six major famines that killed over a half million people in Eastern Europe and Russia. So he grew up in this milieu, Tolstoy was writing about …

Ben Brock Johnson:
Vavilov’s upbringing around these horrendous crop failures and famines leads him to learn a ton about plants and botany. As he is doing his work as a botanist in the 1920s, he starts to get into this idea that collecting the plants or the seeds, preserving and understanding crop diversity around the world, might help fight off crop failures because he might be able to breed the plants and find certain strains that could resist bad weather and thus famine.

Gary Nabhan:
There were people with their eyes on the same prize earlier on in history. Thomas Jefferson, for example, who collected seeds and brought back cuttings of plants to the Americas. But Vavilov was the first one who had the education in what we would call evolutionary biology, how plants adapt to different climates and conditions. He had sort of this humanitarian set of values that underscored the way he did science in sort of a remarkable way. I mean, he really was a superstar up there with Charles Darwin and other people that we could mention.

Ben Brock Johnson:
So we’ve been talking about Nikolay Vavilov, who by many measures is one of the world’s seminal plant geneticists. But also a scientist who has a very pointed reason for his work. He doesn’t want any Russian, really any human, to die again because of famine. Over time, this remarkable humanitarian way of doing science gains Vavilov a lot of followers, both in terms of the science and his altruism.

Ben Brock Johnson:
Over his career, Vavilov does something that’s pretty incredible. He and his team of scientists gather hundreds of thousands of different kinds of seeds from 64 countries. It takes over 100 different expeditions to do this. He’s like Russia’s Indiana Jones of seed collection and he’s super charismatic. He’s handsome. He’s good at raising money. But he’s not without his detractors. Everybody famous has some haters and Vavilov has got a problem. That problem’s name is Trofim Lysenko.

Ben Brock Johnson:
Lysenko starts out as a student of Vavilov. Vavilov encourages him. But then Lysenko gets into this weird pseudoscience that rejects the idea of genetics. He becomes this anti-science-based agriculture guy, which is a little odd because he also becomes the head of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Lysenko doesn’t like Vavilov. They are rivals now. Lysenko gains the ear and the favor of Stalin. It’s August of 1940. you can almost guess what happens next.

Gary Nabhan:
Vavilov was out on another collecting expedition in the Caucuses, found what he believed was a new subspecies of wild wheat that could be very effective because it was so drought tolerant. As he was coming back to his vehicle, several black unmarked cars from the KGB or its predecessor showed up. Without talking to any of the other dozen scientists on the expedition, Vavilov was scuttled away and disappeared from public sight.

Ben Brock Johnson:
So Vavilov is thrown into a prison in Leningrad, a.k.a. St. Petersburg. His family doesn’t know where he is. His colleagues don’t know where he is. But they have a mission, Vavilov’s mission, of preserving and studying the world’s food crops, of killing off hunger forever. His mission has a headquarters. It’s this building at 44 Herson Street in St. Petersburg.

Gary Nabhan:
His staff sort of came together. They adored this man and said, “We can’t let anything happen to this collection. We don’t know what’s going to happen.” So they put three to five of their staffers on duty, 24 hours a day, and sealed off 18 rooms because there was another threat about to hit St. Petersburg.

Ben Brock Johnson:
The Siege of Leningrad starts in 1941, a year after Vavilov disappears into a Gulag. This prison is a stone’s throw from his family home. Vavilov’s family members pass by without even knowing he is right there in prison. The siege of Leningrad is unique in that it lasts almost the entire war, nearly 900 days. The city is cut off on the North by the Finnish army in the South by the Germans. At the time, it is one of the most destructive attacks on a major city in known history, constant bombing, lack of food and water. People actually rushed into the craters after bombs drop because water gathers in the craters. That’s how they get their water.

Ben Brock Johnson:
Through all of this, people are starving to death in Leningrad. Everyone, Russian soldiers, government officials, also the families of the scientists who are secretly protecting this massive seed bank. They are putting the location of the bank and the fact that it is full of food, seeds, rice, legumes in the metaphorical vault. They are not telling anyone and they are really freaking out by the way, because Hitler is rumored to be really focused on capturing the seeds in this seed bank as part of his world domination efforts. So it really is a high stakes mission.

Gary Nabhan:
So think of it, you’re starving to death. Your family is. You opt for staying in this very powerfully positioned, well-guarded building. Your weight is going down. Your immune system is going down. As one of the curators said, when someone asked him, “Was it hard for all of you to try to keep defending the seeds when you could have eaten them to improve your own personal health?”

Gary Nabhan:
He said, “Well, it was hard to wake up in the morning. It was hard to get on our feet because we were so weak. It was hard to get our clothes on because it was cold. But it was not hard to protect those seeds.”

Ben Brock Johnson:
Tell me the story about the pea collection curator.

Gary Nabhan:
Alexander Stchukin took care of peas, peanuts, and other legumes. He was one of the ones who died in the first year of the effects of starvation, with his seed envelopes in his hand. We know that other people died of diseases carried by rats that they were trying to evict from eating the seeds.

Gary Nabhan:
A rice collector named Dmitri Ivanov, he died within just a few feet of a thousand packets of rice that just by boiling up water, cooking the rice could have saved his life.

Ben Brock Johnson:
Overall, 12 scientists died protecting Vavilov’s life’s work during the siege of Leningrad, most of starvation. As for Vavilov, after a year and a half of eating frozen cabbage and moldy flour, he also died of starvation. He never made it out of the Gulag. But the seeds survived and so did the mission. The Svalbard Seed Vault in Norway is a direct descendant of Vavilov’s work. that building in St. Petersburg is now the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry.

Ben Brock Johnson:
You visited the seed vault in St. Petersburg a few years back. What was that like for you?

Gary Nabhan:
In my years of doing science, I’ve only wept twice. Once was in Hawaii when I saw 15 different endangered species, the last individual of many of those species, all sitting on one table in a nursery and there were none of those species left in the wild. I felt the same way when I saw the wall of photos of those 12 scientists, Russian scientists, who gave up their lives to save those seeds. I was brokenhearted.

Ben Brock Johnson:
What’d you see in their faces?

Gary Nabhan:
The best that any of us can hope to be on behalf of our fellow creatures.

Ben Brock Johnson:
Thanks so much for talking with us.

Gary Nabhan:
Thank you. Bless you for your good work.

Ben Brock Johnson:
So Amory, let’s go back to Marie Haga for a minute, whose team of scientists recently opened the Svalbard seed vault on that frozen island in the Arctic Ocean.

Amory Sivertson:
Yeah. So here’s a question, Ben. If these countries store the seeds there for free, who’s paying that Svalbard electric bill? Who pays for the seed vault to exist?

Ben Brock Johnson:
Great question. I asked Marie this.

Marie Haga:
Our organization is first and foremost funded by governments.

Ben Brock Johnson:
But increasingly, the Crop Trust is trying to work with the private sector. Marie gave me an example.

Marie Haga:
We have just developed a conservation for coffee. Coffee happens to be very climate-sensitive. That is why we think that the major coffee companies over the world should get involved in our work and also contribute to funding it.

Amory Sivertson:
I, for one, am very glad that the organization trying to protect the world’s food crops from a doomsday scenario is also working on keeping coffee around.

Ben Brock Johnson:
Yeah, I think we’re going to need coffee after the apocalypse. But for Marie, of course, it’s bigger than coffee.

Marie Haga:
You know, I consider it a great privilege to work on something so fundamentally important as safeguarding the diversity of crops. That job is really about safeguarding the basis for our food, now and tomorrow and forever.

Credits

Production

Hosted by Ben Brock Johnson, Endless Thread, a new podcast from WBUR and Reddit, delves into Reddit’s boundless communities to explore some of the most compelling stories the internet has to offer, including revelations about our shared experience and powerful, personal stories. Also, cat videos. This is a show for Reddit connoisseurs, skeptics, and the rest of us. Coda on ICARDA in Syria with Emmett Fitzgerald.

Comments (7)

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  1. Joshua Lipes

    Very cool episode, but I was surprised that it didn’t mention the water intrusion in 2016 that occurred as a result of higher-than-average global temperatures, and what improvements the Norwegians plan to make to improve the tunnel.

    1. Kim

      The water intrusion was probably not mentioned because it was a slight increase in frozen water inside the tunnel leading to the vault, not the vault itself.

      Water in the tunnel happens every year, regardless of temperature, it freezes and is broken apart and carried back out to ease access, not to keep it from reaching the vault (the vault is 450 feet further into the mountain). The changes they made to avoid future problems were limited to minor waterproofing of the tunnel and moving some electric installations to keep them from getting damaged by ice buildup. No changes were made to the vault itself.

  2. john

    At 7 minutes this story claims that 500k people died as a result of famines in Russia from 1860-1940. The figure is actually in the range of 10-16 million. Big error guys.

  3. Andy Cooper

    A great episode but this question comes to mind. If there is an apocalypse and there are a number of survivors, how do they access the vault?

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