Controversy With The Doomsday Vault

Front entrance of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.  Photo by Mari Tefre.

Front entrance of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Photo by Mari Tefre.

saving seeds is a noble enterprise especially in this day and age of rapidly declining biodiversity and increased reliance on monocrops

Saving seeds has been a noble enterprise for centuries and has taken on greater significance in food production in this day and age of rapidly declining biodiversity, increased climate pressure and reliance on monocrops.

As National Geographic reported last July:

Food varieties extinction is happening all over the world—and it’s happening fast. In the United States an estimated 90 percent of our historic fruit and vegetable varieties have vanished. Of the 7,000 apple varieties that were grown in the 1800s, fewer than a hundred remain. In the Philippines thousands of varieties of rice once thrived; now only up to a hundred are grown there. In China 90 percent of the wheat varieties cultivated just a century ago have disappeared. Experts estimate that we have lost more than half of the world’s food varieties over the past century. As for the 8,000 known livestock breeds, 1,600 are endangered or already extinct.

Enter the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The Vault, which has also been called  the “Doomsday Vault” or the “Food Ark,” is built in an underground cavern on the Norvegian island of Spitsbergen, well above the rising sea levels. The Doomsday Vault is just 810 miles (1,300 kilometers) from the North Pole. The original intention of the Doomsday Vault, as the name suggests, was to preserve biodiversity by storing duplicates of seed samples in a tucked away corner of the earth, presumably away from global and regional catastrophes.  The Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT), which supports the operational costs of the Vault, has said that the “Vault can therefore be considered the ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply.” Since 2008, when the Doomsday Vault opened, 740,000 seeds samples have been deposited by seed banks from around the world.

Publicly the GCDT has stated that its aim is “to ensure the conservation and availability of crop diversity for food security worldwide.” Many critics point out, however, that because of GCDT’s connections to companies and foundations whose vision of “food security” includes monocrops, increased use of pesticides and patented genetically engineered crops (or GMOs), it is hard to rally around the GCDT and the Doomsday Vault.

How It Works

The Doomsday Vault works like this:  countries and crop research institutions send their seed collections to the Doomsday Vault, sign a contract with NordGen, the genetic resource center of the Nordic countries, which is responsible for the management of the Vault. Once seeds are transported and deposited, the seeds are sealed in envelopes and plastic tote containers and stored in secure storage rooms at 0° F (-18°C).  The freezing temperature slows the seed aging, while the permafrost of the Arctic ensures that the seeds will remain in deep freeze even if electricity supply fails.

Internal configuration of the Svarlbard Global Seed Vault.  Image by Global Crop Diversity Trust.

Internal configuration of the Svarlbard Global Seed Vault. Image by Global Crop Diversity Trust.

Doomsday Vault Controversy

While “[a]ll seeds stored in the Seed Vault remain the property of the country or institution which sent them,” describes GCDT, any seeds accepted for “storage at the Vault must be freely available under the terms of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources. In other words, there are no seeds stored at the Seed Vault which would not be easily accessible simply by directly contacting the genebank which sent them.”

That’s exactly the problem say critics who have been apprehensive about the Doomsday Vault from the beginning. It’s double-speak, they argue because the vision that is sold to the world is a noble one, where seeds are saved, biodiversity is preserved and the world has a back-up system in case of of a disaster. The reality, however, may be that the Vault is contributing to the decline of biodiversity by giving greater seed access to biotech companies who could contact the depositing seed bank directly or through institutions whose research they fund, to then churn out patented crops. Biopiracy is the charge and it has been done before. That’s why, critics point out, it matters who supports the operation of the seed bank and who has access to the seeds because giving greater biological diversity access to companies whose business models are associated with monocropping, greater use of pesticides, declining biodiversity and the wiping away of local knowledge and traditions would seem to perverse the initial intention of the Doomsday Vault.

The Center For Food Safety (CFS), which analyzed the deposit agreements, had this to say:

The point of this analysis was to see if in some way the contract between Svalbard and depositors created an advantage for these corporations in their efforts to control and patent seed genetics. As the legal memorandum reveals, the answer to the question is “yes.” The Svalbard agreement does provide corporations seeking to patent plant genetics additional advantages in their efforts.

The CFS also pointed out that:

Meanwhile the GCDT, and it supporting biotech companies and their surrogates, are advertising how they are spending millions of dollars trying to acquire local and smaller seed collections from developing countries for Svalbard.  …[T]hese local collectors have little chance to understand, much less give informed consent, to what can happen to their deposits. … [T]his informed consent problem, and the issue of corporate patenting of the genetics of the seeds deposited in Svalbard, can only be resolved through major revisions in the Agreement.

Kent Whealy, who founded and led the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) for 35 years and has received numerous awards for genetic resource conservation, is also concerned that the Doomsday Vault facilitates access by corporate breeders. He argues that by signing the Depositor Agreement, seed banks like the SSE cannot refuse any requests for seeds of deposited varieties which means that “[c]orporate breeders now can, as a right, request those [seed] varieties from SSE’s seed vaults at Heritage Farms, splice in GMOs, then patent and sell the seed.” (emphasis in the original). See also his comments and concerns regarding the U.N. Treaty pursuant to which the deposits are made here.

Controversial Backers

From the critic’s perspective, the concern over biopiracy is heightened when the list of supporting entities is examined. While the construction was funded by the Norwegian government, money contributed to the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which funds the operation of the Doomsday Vault, comes from collected contributions.

A trail of greenbacks leads to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, other Foundations promotiong GMOs and seed companies that vigorously strive to patent plant genetics. The Bill and Melinda Foundation, by far the largest non-governmental donor, gave nearly $30 million to the Global Crop Diversity Trust. The Foundation’s ties to Monsanto began to emerge with the appointment of the 25-year Monsanto veteran, Rob Horsch, as the “senior program officer, focusing on improving crop-yields in Africa.” The Foundation also has ties to the controversial group known as the Alliance for a Green Revolution In Africa (AGRA) which is criticized for promoting GMOs in Africa under the banner of “sustainable agricultural growth based on smallholder farmers.” Further ties to the company were demonstrated by Gates’ speech in 2009 at the World Food Prize gathering in which he condemned “environmentalists” from keeping GMO seeds out of Africa and again in Gates’ fourth annual Foundation letter in which he called out for more funding for agricultural technology, a position that was heavily criticized by individuals and organizations alike.

The Foundation also purchased $23 million of Monsanto shares in 2010. Recently the Foundation announced that it has invested nearly 2 billion dollars in a campaign to fund the development of genetically engineered seeds. Other foundations that have ties to promoting GM crops and which have contributed to the GCDT include the Rockefeller Foundation ($305, 000) and the Syngenta Foundation ($247,000). Companies that have donated money to GCDT include DuPont/Pioneer HiBred ($1 million) and Syngenta AG ($1 million).