The Svalbard seed bank, set like a concrete monolith in the minus 4 degree Celsius permafrost of a mountain on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole, shouldn’t determine the fate of our agricultural future. Though the remote bank has collected 860,000 seed samples from around the world, with the latest withdrawal being made from war-torn Syria, what are the true intentions behind a bank said to, “preserve as much of the world’s crop diversity as possible,” while seed supplies around the world are being monopolized by a few corporations, and indigenous, thousand-year old seeds are being wiped out by genetically modified versions?
Svalbard’s investors, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, Monsanto, Syngenta, and other biotech interests tout this ‘seed saving’ monolith while simultaneously ravaging seed diversity, along with state laws throughout the US, and elsewhere on the globe, that prevent small farmers and gardeners from saving and sharing seed.
Currently, there are at least 100,000 global plant varieties endangered in the world. Extreme weather events, over-exploitation of ecosystems, habitat loss, and the cross-pollination of seed by genetically altered, terminator seed, contribute to the problem.
You could look at seed saving and seed sharing like open-source education. If you really want to democratize the flow of knowledge and information, you make it free, and offer it online, as many Universities now do. No one institution holds the entire knowledge on mathematics, art, literature, spirituality, or any other subject. Just as in nature, we require diversity of thought so that we don’t become automotons repeating a single, well-crafted agenda created by a handful of people.
Many farmers groups, non-profits, and governments are attempting to conserve seed diversity in their own communities, with more than 1,000 known seed banks, collaboratives, and exchanges around the world, but this time-honored tradition of seed saving is butting up against some very serious obstacles, which I’ll name in a moment.
Moreover, while the Svalbard seed bank seems to pass an initial sniff test, a little deeper digging can reveal other questions that many should be asking about such an expensive adventure in ‘protecting agriculture.’
“SSE’s seed bank and the Seed Vault are similar in many ways. Both primarily function as an insurance policy for other forms of conservation. In the case of SSE, that would be varieties grown yearly by gardeners. With the Seed Vault, its seed samples held by seed banks, such as the Dutch, Philippine, or Kenyan national facilities, or SSE. The Seed Vault, however, was physically built to last as long as anything on earth. Its location is obviously remote, which adds to its security. Svalbard is under Norwegian sovereignty, which reassures many, and it was no small matter that Norway offered to pay the entire cost of construction.”
Fowler also argues that the age-old habit of seed sharing by farmers and gardeners poses too great a risk for Svalbard not to to exist, but while he dismisses ‘conspiracy theories’ around Svalbard’s true purpose, he has yet to address that those theories are not the rhetoric of ‘rabid dogs’ as he suggests. Many US states have made it illegal for gardeners and seed libraries to share seeds without a permit.
The Criminalization of Seed Sharing
Even more alarming is the European Union’s recent move to ban all heirloom seed and criminalize the planting of seeds not registered with the government. The European Commission,
“. . .regulates the marketing of plant reproductive material of agricultural, vegetable, forest, fruit and ornamental species and vines, ensuring that EU criteria for health and quality are met. EU legislation applies to genera and species important for the internal market and is based on:
Registration of varieties or material;
Certification or inspection of lots of seed and plant propagating material before marketing.”
Many are concerned that the EU Commission will not enhance agriculture with the Plant Reproductive Material Law, but give more control to the handful of agriculture corporations which are already monopolizing the world’s seed. The draft text of the law reads such that the act of passing seed from one generation to the next would be a criminal act.