Doomsday Seed Vault

It comforts me that it’s real.

It totally freaks me out that it’s real.

In the north arctic part of Norway, there is now a fully functional doomsday seed vault.  The Svalbard Global Seed Vault holds seeds just in case all this genetic engineering cross-pollinates us into having nothing fit to eat.

From the official site:

The world’s seed collections are vulnerable to a wide range of threats – civil strife, war, natural catastrophes, and more routinely but no less damagingly, poor management, lack of adequate funding, and equipment failures. Unique varieties of our most important crops are lost whenever any such disaster strikes, and therefore securing duplicates of all collections in a global facility provides an insurance policy for the world’s food supply.

The seed vault is an answer to a call from the international community to provide the best possible assurance of safety for the world’s crop diversity, and in fact the idea for such a facility dates back to the 1980s. However, it was only with the coming into force of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources, and an agreed international legal framework for conserving and accessing crop diversity, that the seed vault became a practical possibility.

The vault is in a mountainside near the village of Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Svalbard is a group of islands nearly a thousand kilometres north of mainland Norway. Remote by any standards, Svalbard’s airport is in fact the northernmost point in the world to be serviced by scheduled flights – usually one a day. For nearly four months a year the islands are enveloped in total darkness. It is here that the Norwegian government has built the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, to provide this ultimate safety net for the world’s seeds.

Permafrost and thick rock will ensure that even without electricity, the samples will remain frozen. The vault’s construction has been funded by the Norwegian government as a service to the world community. The Global Crop Diversity Trust considers the vault an essential component of a rational and secure global system for conserving the diversity of all our crops. The Trust is therefore committed to supporting ongoing operational costs, and is assisting developing countries with preparing, packaging and transporting their representative seeds to the Arctic.

Some articles say that the site’s location is so thermally stable, that even if the globe gets much hotter and the A/C shuts off for 200 years, the freezers will still be frozen, just waiting for someone to go grab a packet of unmodified soy beans and start over again.

I just can’t believe that this project was taken seriously enough by people with the money and power to get it done.  It’s not just a plan.  (Burying nuclear waste in the desert in the southwest was just a plan, never actually done, just talked about for 20 years.)  The seed vault is OPERATIONAL.  Now.

I really hope they are just preparing for something they don’t expect here.  I’d like to think if they knew something was coming they would tell us. 🙂  Or maybe I really don’t want to know.

This article cites some of the negatives associated with this project:

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.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Robin on July 9, 2008 at 9:53 am

    Well…kind of. It’s not there so that we have access to non-gmo seeds. Did you know the vault is highly funded by Monsanto? And Syngenta. Syngenta is the Swiss agrichemical and GMO business. The Rockefeller and Ford foundations are financial contributors. I think we’re screwed if we have to rely on the seeds in that vault. The little guys like you and me aren’t going to get those seeds.

  2. Wow… Just, wow.

  3. Posted by Leslie on July 19, 2008 at 6:58 am


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