The Mysteries Locked Inside Nordic Seed Vaults
Oatly wants to uncover what those mysteries say about oats. So does the Nordic Genetic Resource Center. Can you guess what happens next?
APR 17, 2023
A long time ago (about 15 years), in a galaxy far, far away (Norway), a brutalist concrete vault was born from a mountain. In its depths lie the spare keys to our global food supply: seeds. Lots and lots of seeds--millions of them.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Longyearbyen evokes awe and bewilderment from both its visitors and anyone who can type “doomsday seed vault” into an image search. A fortress of biodiversity, the vault offers an insurance policy against global disasters that can endanger our food supply (see: climate change). Imagine it as the planet’s fallout shelter--only this is stocked with more than a million varieties of crop seeds rather than cans of green beans.
So, yeah, it’s kind of a big deal. The vault’s very existence shows what can be accomplished when nearly every country in the world works toward a common goal to refrigerate a bunch of seeds in a mountain. Plus, during its 15-year anniversary celebration in February, nearly two dozen local 15-year-olds went out there to take part in the ceremonies. That sort of party theme doesn’t grow on trees.
Such a spectacle needs keepers, of course--protectors of its powers. First is Norway, which built and owns the seed vault. Next is the Crop Trust, an international organization working to make available the world’s crop diversity. And finally there’s the Nordic Genetic Resource Center, better known as NordGen and barely known as a collaborator with Oatly. (Did you really think we weren’t going to make this about us?) A self-proclaimed “knowledge center for genetic resources,” NordGen comprises experts in the genetic diversity of plants and animals in the Nordic countries. Plus, it maintains more than 33,000 collections of its own seeds, making it the perfect ward of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
All of which makes it a perfect partner for Oatly. After all, we are from Sweden and Sweden is a Nordic country. That math is just too sound. And, like NordGen, we have a keen interest in understanding and promoting the genetic diversity of crops--mostly as it pertains to oats. Which we admit is very predictable.
OK, let’s stop here--because the rest of this feature dives into oat science and gets complex very fast. That’s actually why we led with the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It’s cool enough to compel anyone to click through, don’t you think? We agree. So, if you need to, please take a moment and behold its majesty once again before reading further.
Now back to science. What makes NordGen so special to Oatly is that it has a historical perspective of Nordic oats. In fact, it stores more than 1,000 oat accessions that give glimpses into the breeding history and untapped genetic potential of oats dating way back to the beginning of the 1900s.
Similar to the way the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is the keeper of countless stories found in its global seed varieties, NordGen tells stories from a specific region of the world widely considered to be quite good at growing oats. And our Oatly scientists--who love to overdo everything--want to pore over each chapter and each line of every one of those stories.
For those already tired of the “story” metaphor, Oatly scientists basically want to collect massive amounts of data and research about the genetic origins of Nordic oats to deepen our understanding of oats and find the varieties that best benefit our devoted oat drinkers. Which are the most nutritious? Which are the most sustainable? Which are the least susceptible to disease?
And they couldn’t do that by just dumping a bunch of oat seeds out on a table. Too many would roll off and fall on the floor--and they wouldn’t be able to find them. Instead, Oatly and NordGen came up with the bright idea to plant 750 oat accessions in the same field. (We were so excited by the idea that we eventually sent a photographer out to the field to document it.)
It was in the field where scientists got to see the genetic diversity of each oat accession come to life: variations in height, variations in color, variations in maturity and flowering time. Then they harvested the crops and headed to the lab to begin the long process of characterizing the seeds. From there will come the genotyping stage, otherwise known as going deep into the DNA sequence and origin of each harvested oat.
In the end, Oatly hopes to bring better oat-based products to you, the global masses. That’s why we get out of bed in the morning. For NordGen, though ... Remember when we described it as a “knowledge center for genetic resources”? Well, this collaboration will yield a lot of knowledge. And NordGen’s mission is not unlike the missions of the other 1,700 gene banks around the world: to conserve biodiversity and the genetic diversity of crops for their unique region.
NordGen doesn’t want to be a stuffy library of seeds and stories about seeds. It already has the Svalbard Global Seed Vault for that. Instead, it wants to show that it’s not only the keeper of oat history for the Nordics but also a crucial provider of public information on oat accessions that can help improve and evolve the crop around the world.
And we’re happy to play a part in its mission (not just because it makes us look good either).