Last week we learned in the news that the latest Norwegian venture in the Arctic is the official opening of the “Global Seed Vault” by the Prime Minister of Norway, Jens Stoltenberg on February 26th in Svalbard (aka Spitsbergen), an island north of Norway not far from the North Pole. (If you’re really interested, you can watch the webcast of the opening here. You can also check some NYTimes pics here.)
The seed vault, cited as a massive icebox inside a mountain, aims “to store duplicates of seeds from seed collections from around the globe.” And why? “If seeds are lost, e.g. as a result of natural disasters, war or simply a lack of resources, the seed collections may be reestablished using seeds from Svalbard.” Stoltenberg himself declared that storing seeds in subzero temperatures was “to use harsh climate to serve the humanity,” and that the vault is “our insurance policy.” In this way, he noted, “we take care of the biological diversity of the world.” The goal is to collect and store 4.5 million seed samples in the vault.
At the official opening, there were several other dignitaries with the Prime Minister. For the President of the European Commission Jose Barroso, the storage represents the “frozen garden of Eden.” Jacques Diouf, the General Director of FAO also joined in to praise the vault together with many others. After the speeches, Mr. Stoltenberg unlocked the vault together with the African Nobel Peace Prize-winning environmentalist Wangari Maathai and placed the first seeds in the vault.
I was most surprised, however, to see the world renowned Sami musician Mari Boine performing at the opening. What was her role in the opening? Just to add colour or exotic, local flavour? For the Norwegian MC of the ceremony, Mari Boine was incomprehensible – whatever that’s supposed to mean. All you can think that Norwegians haven’t really caught that well yet with the ‘politically correct’ bandwagon. Such Freudian slips – the Sami remain incomprehensible to the Norwegian, and perhaps it’s not only a matter of language – aren’t generally viewed badly. Incomprehensible or not, but they usually want us for some colour (and Mari certainly did it, again wearing a Kautokeino gákti!). I was surprised to see Mari Boine had agreed to represent that colourful exotic side of Norway. I was also surprised, perhaps wrongly, because an (idealistic) assumption that indigenous people should be a bit more critical of these kind of ventures, considering.
Celebrations in an ice cave inside the mountain (the tunnel leading to the cave is 120 meters long, leading to three chambers) aside, not everybody is applauding at the opening of the vault. GRAIN, an international NGO promoting the sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity, points out: “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.”
According to GRAIN, protecting biological diversity by relying on depositing seeds in frozen safe-boxes is not an answer and should not viewed as such. Thousands of seeds have died in the already existing ex-situ storages that number more than a thousand around the world. In other words, seed or gene banks such as the one in Svalbard cannot solve the challenge alone. Moreover, it is a strategy riddled with inherent problems. For GRAIN it is, above all, 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.”
The other serious concern has to do with intellectual property rights. GRAIN notes that once the seeds arrrive in the seed storage, they supposedly become part of ‘the public domain’ or even ‘the national sovereignty.’ In this context, the parties that negotiate intellectual property rights are governments and seed industry, not farmers or the original seed owners. However, access is probably the biggest issue with the Arctic seed bank. GRAIN points out: “As a rule, only depositors can access their own collections at Svalbard, or give permission for someone else to. With parcels of CGIAR [the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research that already runs 15 global genebanks for the world’s most widely used staple food crops] 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.”
Who is then likely to benefit from this ‘global seed vault’? Jose Barroso is convinced the global seed vault is going to help particularly the developing countries. GRAIN thinks otherwise: “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.”
Cary Fowler, head of the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT), in charge of the global seed vault, however, disagrees with this kind of criticism. In an interview with Inter Press Service he maintains that it “seriously misrepresents the purpose and workings of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and portrays the GCDT in an inaccurate, misleading and unflattering manner. The Seed Vault has been welcomed by over 165 countries and the Food and Agricultural Organizations (FAO)’s Commission on Genetic Resources, and it is already being used by developed and developing countries and by NGO seed savers (though not by corporations).”
GRAIN is not alone, however, with its criticism. According to the IPS story, the “Bangalore-based GREEN Foundation, which won the United Nations’ Equator Prize in 2004 for its work on seed conservation on farms through community seed-bank networks, run mainly by women, says the vault’s claim to protect genetic biodiversity is more ‘illusion than reality’.”
Vanaja Ramprasad, founder-director of the GREEN Foundation points out: “It is already a decade since the UNCED in Rio de Janeiro and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) realized that gene banks had their own limitations, starting from major power breakdowns, to excluding farmers’ access to these banks, to realising that seeds conserved under freeze conditions did not evolve when grown under changed environmental conditions. It is a sad commentary on the science behind the assumption that the world’s food is secure inside a freezer.”
P.V. Satheesh, founder of the Hyderabad-based Deccan Development Society (DDS), in turn “does not believe that the scientific community can save crop diversity by cold-storage systems.” She notes that “Global seed wealth can survive only in the farms and homes of global rural communities. The GSV takes away these seeds from the farmer and breaks the first link in the food chain.” DDS works in rural empowerment of poor dalit women, and conserves indigenous cereals.
What then should and needs to be done to truly foster and protect biodiversity and farmers’ intellectual property? According to GRAIN, what’s needed is nothing more or less than a change in the global agribusiness and agricultural policy: “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.”
In the midst of the hullaballoo in the Arctic ice tunnel, a piece of related news is being lost, or at least not delivered as effectively. After some surfing, one finds not only a pretty wild conspiracy theory about the ‘doomsday seed vault’ but also news about the pledge made by the Norwegian government, starting in 2009, to contribute 0.1% of money spent on commercial seed sales in Norway to the International Treaty’s benefit-sharing fund for financing plant breeding in developing countries. According to the minister of agriculture and food, this can amount to a million dollars in ten years (which of course is not that much, considering that the vault’s price tag was millions. (According to NY Times, besides Norway’s own funding, money came from other governments and private donations, “including $20 million from Britain, $12 million from Australia, $11 million from Germany and $6.5 million from the United States.”) Norway is also challenging other OECD countries to do the same with their seed sales.
In the speech made at the opening conference (prior to the ceremony) the minister seems to be fully aware of the different dimensions of seed preservation and conservation of biodiversity: “We all know that the real work of selecting, conserving and improving crop diversity has taken place in farmer’s fields throughout millennia. The establishment of this vault does not curtail that effort at all. The Government of Norway is well aware of farmers’ contributions and, for us, it’s ‘pay back time’.”
The nature might have had its say too to this clearly a controversial issue. The global seed vault was constructed to Svalbard not only because of its freezing climate but also geological stability. However, just a few days prior to the opening ceremony, Svalbard was the center of the biggest earthquake in Norway’s history! And this was after a feasibility study assuring that “there is no volcanic or significant seismic activity” in the area.