February 29, 2008

Faults in the Arctic Seed Vault

not everyone is celebrating Svalbard


Global Research, February 27, 2008

After months of extraordinary publicity, and with the apparently unanimous
support of the international scientific community, the "Global Seed Vault" was
officially opened today on an island in Svalbard, Norway. Nestled inside a
mountain, the Vault is basically a giant icebox able to hold 4.5 million seed
samples in cold storage for humanity's future needs. The idea is that if some
major disaster hits world agriculture, such as fallout from a nuclear war,
countries could turn to the Vault to pull out seeds to restart food production.
However, this "ultimate safety net" for the biodiversity that world farming
depends on is sadly just the latest move in a wider strategy to make ex situ
(off site) storage in seed banks the dominant – indeed, only – approach to crop
diversity conservation. It gives a false sense of security in a world where the
crop diversity present in the farmers' fields continues to be eroded and
destroyed at an ever-increasing rate and contributes to the access problems that
plague the international ex situ system.

Faulty assumptions

Cary Fowler, Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust and one of the main
proponents of the Vault, says that the initiative "will rescue the most globally
important developing-country collections of the world's 21 most important food
crops." While it's true that crop diversity needs to be rescued and protected,
as irreplaceable diversity is being lost at an alarming scale, relying solely on
burying seeds in freezers is no answer. The world currently has 1,500 ex situ
genebanks that are failing to save and preserve crop diversity. Thousands of
accessions have died in storage, as many have been rendered useless for lack of
basic information about the seeds, and countless others have lost their unique
characteristics or have been genetically contaminated during periodic grow-outs.
This has happened throughout the ex situ system, not just in genebanks of
developing countries. So the issue is not about being for or against genebanks,
it is about the sole reliance on one conservation strategy that, in itself, has
a lot of inherent problems.

The deeper problem with the single focus on ex situ seed storage, that the
Svalbard Vault reinforces, is that it is fundamentally unjust. It takes seeds of
unique plant varieties away from the farmers and communities who originally
created, selected, protected and shared those seeds and makes them inaccessible
to them. The logic is that as people's traditional varieties get replaced by
newer ones from research labs – seeds that are supposed to provide higher yields
to feed a growing population – the old ones have to be put away as "raw
material" for future plant breeding. This system forgets that farmers are the
world's original, and ongoing, plant breeders. To access the seeds, you have to
be integrated into a whole institutional framework that most farmers on the
planet simply don't even know about. Put simply, the whole ex situ strategy
caters to the needs of scientists, not farmers

In addition, the system operates under the assumption that once the farmers'
seeds enter a storage facility, they belong to someone else and negotiating
intellectual property and other rights over them is the business of governments
and the seed industry itself. In the case of most so-called public genebanks,
the seeds are said to become part of "the public domain" if not "national
sovereignty" (which increasingly translates to state ownership). The
Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which runs
about 15 global genebanks for the world's most widely used staple food crops,
has even set up a legal arrangement of "trusteeship" that it exercises over the
treasure chest of farmers' seeds that it holds "on behalf of" the international
community, under the auspices of the FAO. Yet they never asked the farmers whom
they took the seeds from in the first place if this was okay and they left
farmers totally out of the trusteeship equation.

The new Svalbard Vault lies squarely at the pinnacle of this faulty architecture
and false assumptions, inevitably exacerbating these problems. Because it is a
"doomsday" backup collection, it raises the stakes to new extremes. Nobody
really knows for sure if the Vault will be effective in keeping the seeds alive
and its security is untested. Just days before the opening of the Vault,
Svalbard was at the centre of the biggest earthquake in Norway's history, even
though the facility's feasibility study assured that "there is no volcanic or
significant seismic activity" in the area. But more troubling than any technical
matter is the issue of access, the keys to which are held by few hands.

Access and benefit ills

The Vault is not immune from the terrible controversies over access to and
benefits from the world's precious agricultural biodiversity. The Norwegian
government is ultimately responsible for the Vault and is currently regarded as
fair and trustworthy, but there is no guarantee that the country's policies
won't change. This is acknowledged by the Norwegian government itself, which has
provided agreements to be signed with depositors that last only ten years and
that include clauses allowing them to be terminated if policies change. Probably
more important, the Norwegian government will not be making decisions
autonomously. Decisions will be shared with the Global Crop Diversity Trust, a
private entity with strong private and corporate funding.

There are already some access issues with the Vault. For all practical purposes,
seeds cannot be stored in the Vault unless they come from genebanks that have
successfully duplicated their samples in another bank. More than this,
depositors are not allowed to put in seeds that are already stored in the Vault.
The Standard Depositor Agreement states that the "Depositor shall deposit only
samples of plant genetic resources that are, to the best of the Depositor's
knowledge,.. samples of plant genetic resources that have not yet been deposited
in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault" and that "the Depositor recognizes the right
of the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food to refuse to accept
samples for deposit or to terminate the deposit of samples already deposited if
the samples constitute duplicates of materials already held in deposit in the
Svalbard Global Seed Vault".

As a rule, only depositors can access their own collections at Svalbard, or give
permission for someone else to. With parcels of CGIAR seeds already arriving in
Norway, this means that the CGIAR Centres will be the depositors for most of the
seeds held in the Vault, giving them almost exclusive control over access.
Indeed, as the Seed Vault feasibility study indicates, it was "assumed that the
[Vault] would begin operations with a nucleus consisting of the CGIAR materials
and those of certain key national genebanks and that this (sic) 'founding
collections' would discourage subsequent unnecessary duplication of materials
within the Svalbard facility." Out of the 19 depositor institutes that have
registered with the Vault so far, only three are national seed banks from
developing countries. The Vault, then, is not a safe deposit box for just
anyone. It is mostly the CGIAR's private stash.

In practical terms this means that many developing countries that want to
duplicate their collections in Svalbard would not be able to do so directly. It
would be seen as a duplicate of what the CGIAR has already deposited. They will
not, therefore, have direct access to seeds in the Vault that may have been
collected from their country. This might not seem to pose many concerns right
now because governments have different backup sources for seeds but the context
would be vastly different under any doomsday scenario where decisions would have
to be taken over a critical, unique resource which suddenly only remains in
Svalbard. For farmers there is pretty much no possibility for direct access to
seeds in the Vault.

But doomsday aside, it is important to ask who really benefits from the ex situ
system that the Vault contributes to. As the few transnational seed corporations
that control over half the world's US$30 billion annual commercial seed market
are increasingly buying up public plant breeding programmes and governments are
pulling out of plant breeding, the ultimate beneficiaries will be the very same
corporations that are at the roots of crop diversity destruction.

Stop destroying diversity instead!

If governments were truly interested in conserving biodiversity for food and
agriculture, they would do two things. First, they would, as a central priority,
focus their efforts on supporting diversity in their countries' farms and
markets rather than only betting on big centralised genebanks. This means
leaving seeds in the hand of local farmers, with their active and innovative
farming practices, respecting and promoting the rights of communities to
conserve, produce, breed, exchange and sell seeds. But this won't happen until
governments turn agricultural policy and regulations upside down and stop
pushing for industrialisation and feeding corporate-controlled global markets at
the expense of letting farmers freely feed their own communities and countries.
This means making food sovereignty the foundation of farm policy instead of
continuously pushing agriculture further down the destructive path of
corporate-led global market integration.

Svalbard is about putting diversity away, in case of some hypothetic emergency.
The real urgency, however, is to let diversity live – in farms, in the hand of
farmers, and across people-controlled and community-oriented markets – today.

Going further:

Aasa Christine Stoltz, "Norway's biggest quake hits Svalbard archipelago,"
Reuters, 21 February 2008.

http://www.reuters.com/ article/environmentNews/idUSL2173668320080221

Norwegian government and the Svalbard vault:


Global Crop Diversity Trust and the Svalbard vault:

International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture


GRAIN, "The FAO seed treaty: from farmers' rights to breeders' privileges,"
Seedling, October 2005.


Center for International Environment and Development Studies et al, "Study to
assess the feasibility of establishing a Svalbard Arctic seed depository for the
international community", prepared for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the
Ministry of Agriculture and Food, 14 September 2004.

http://www.regjeringen.no/ en/dep/lmd/campain/svalbard-global-seed-vault/

Svalbard Global Seed Vault – Standard Depositor Agreement.
http://www.nordgen.org/ sgsv/index.php?page=depositor_guidelines


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