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Very long long title of two rows

Words by
September 20, 2016
The mention of a doomsday vault probably conjures up images of an enormous panic room ready to protect inhabitants from a zombie takeover or apocalyptic alien invasion. And yes, that’s almost exactly what we’re talking about, except this doomsday vault doesn’t hold people, but rather the key to human civilization: seeds. On a remote island in Norway, nestled into layers of permafrost and sandstone rock, is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault where 864,309 seed samples are housed at -18 C. “The ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply,” claims The Global Crop Diversity Trust, the managing body of the Vault.

Seed banks aren’t new to the world, as scientists and agriculturalists and, most importantly, farmers have been saving and collecting seeds throughout time. But starting in the early-1900s organized action to preserve seeds over time meant the arrival of official seeds banks, with the first one being in Russia. The idea was to retain and catalog particular genetic information stored in seeds in a way that would ensure their safety in uncertain times. Conflicts, natural disasters, and genetic contamination were all used as motivation in keeping seeds safe. It seemed a noble quest to safeguard biodiversity, but not all were in favor.
Svalbard Seed Bank
photo ©flickr Salvard Seed Bank
The Svalbard Vault works like a back-up plan, with deposits coming from one of the 1,700 specific seed banks around the world.”
There was expressed concern beginning in the 1970s about the power dynamic in the storage of such crucial genetic material. As tiny as they are, each seed holds a lot of power. Genetic sequencing can be unlocked, studied and tested, and then further bred to create hybrid varieties or modified by companies to create GMOs. Seeds that were often gathered and collected in the global South were then stored and banked by countries and organizations in the global North. Environmentalist backlash was inevitable, as pushed for proper representation of farmers who would be the ones actually working with the seeds. It boiled down to a global argument over property rights, protection and proper legislation, that ended up in as a tense political discourse involving bodies such as the FAO, the United Nations, the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) and lobbyists from individual countries, companies and NGOs that continues today.

The Vault in Norway is now the largest global seed vault, with seeds being held from almost every country in the world. Among the countries that have yet to deposit, are China, Japan and India, and Italy only contributing two samples. Likewise, not all seeds can be stored effectively in the vault. The conditions are only optimal for some seeds, but crops like bananas, apples, potatoes and other tubers need their own specific state for conservation. The Svalbard Vault works like a back-up plan, with deposits coming from one of the 1,700 specific seed banks around the world. The list of crops being held is available globally, but once deposited, seeds can only be withdrawn by the same organization which deposited them in the first place. If another company or country is interested in getting copies of specific seeds, they need to make formal requests from the local seed banks.

Isolated in the freezing cold with its own team of technicians and security, the Vault is far removed from the global conversation around seeds and food security. There’s a constant clash around how to best protect biodiversity, and it comes from two differing opinions on how to save seeds: ex-situ or in-situ conservation. The Vault in Norway is the prime example ex-situ conservation. This means it is centralized conservation, out of place (seeds are held in locations away from their origins) and completely biological in scope. The seed in these locations is preserved as an object, rather than something living. It is valued for its genetic material, to be used, studied, perhaps manipulated down the road, but not as a life-form of its own. We don’t doubt the need for conservation of this sort, as it provides a safe, controlled environment for seed storage, something hard to come by across the globe.
But it’s this particular control that has us worried. Far from the fields and farmers who do our everyday growing, the seed vaults of the world and the Svalbard seed vault in particular are controlled and run by experts (scientists, technicians, bio-technology experts) and funded by private governments and organizations. The Svalbard Seed Vault was funded primarily by Norway, contributing $45m while America, Britain and Australia were the next biggest donors. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pledged almost $30m. Explicit concern has been expressed by nonprofits such as The Center for Food Safety, about the foundations close links to seed corporation Monsanto (who dominates the commercial seed market, owning about a quarter of the entire market and has a history of persecuting thousands of farmers for saving seeds.) Not only are these corporate ties worrisome, but so potentially is the amount of money being poured into this project.

When compared to the other policy of seed saving, in-situ or local conservation, the vast sums of money being poured into the conservation of seeds that may become unusable without further propagation or testing, seems overwhelming. In-situ conservation is seed saving literally at the ground level. It uses the method that farmers have been practicing for centuries: planting, choosing, and saving seeds. It’s a system that is designed around cultivation, for the practice of those that are farming. As opposed to the stagnant conservation of genetic material (a commodity driven practice) local or in-situ conservation celebrates seeds for the plants they produce and biodiversity as a living practice.