By Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director
My first experience with the perils of large scale seed banks was the scandal that erupted over the Fort Collins collection in the mid-1980s. Journalists had published stories dramatically detailing the grossly negligent manner in which deposits to the seed bank were treated. Numerous seed deposits were spilling out onto the floors of the facility, the facility was woefully understaffed, there was no testing of the seed and a virtually complete failure of required regeneration — in short a seed saving disaster. A legal petition by my organization to rectify the decision seemed to get the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) attention. But when no real action resulted we litigated. I was a very active member of that legal team. As such I reviewed much of the material in the case that documented USDA’s complete disregard for the safety and integrity of the seeds under its care. This litigation ultimately forced a settlement where USDA agreed to do an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and conditions at the seed bank improved somewhat.
Since that first experience I learned that bigger is definitely not better or safer when it comes to seed saving. As noted elsewhere on this site, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) strongly advocates for in situ protection of plant diversity, and when ex situ seed saving is required it should reside at the most local and ecologically appropriate level. This has been one of the bases for CFS’ longstanding concerns about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Not surprisingly these fears have recently been justified. In December 2010 NordGen, the entity overseeing Svalbard, fired its Director Jessica Kathle. Some at NordGen believed that she was a “scapegoat” for the seed bank’s well known problems including continuing deficits, significant understaffing, and failure to do routine tests on the deposited seed to determine viability. (http://dagendresen.wordpress.com/about/Dot.) Sadly it seems like the Fort Collins fiasco redux.
There is however yet another important concern about Svalbard. The Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT), which supports the operational costs of Svalbard, has received almost $30 million dollars in support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Global Diversity Trust, “Funding Status 1-1-2011"). This is by far the largest support of any non-governmental entity. As is well known, the Gates Foundation has very close working ties to Monsanto. The Gates Foundation invested $23 million in Monsanto in 2010 to help the company through some financial woes, and has been a determined supporter of spreading Monsanto’s genetically engineered crops throughout the developing world. In 2006 the Gates Foundation hired Rob Horsch, a former Monsanto Vice President and a key scientist involved in the creation of the company’s Round Up Ready crops in the 1980s, as their Senior Program Officer for their International Agriculture Development Program. This Monsanto connection to Svalbard is very troubling as the corporation owns almost a quarter of all the world’s commercial seeds and is the world’s leader in the genetic engineering of crops and the patenting of plant genetics (including plant genes, cells and seeds). Monsanto has also had a decade long history of persecuting and prosecuting thousands of farmers for saving seeds.
Svalbard’s ties to the Gates Foundation and Monsanto are not the only issue. Only two private corporations have donated to the GCDT. Dupont/Pioneer Seeds has donated $1 million as has Syngenta. (Global Diversity Trust, “Funding Status 1-1-2011.” http://www.croptrust.org/main/funds.php). Together these two companies own another 25% of the world’s commercial seeds and are also among the leaders in agriculture biotechnology and in patenting of plant genetics. So a major question looms. Why this interest by these biotech companies and their surrogates in paying the operational costs of Svalbard? These companies have no record of altruistic concern for the integrity and diversity of seeds and have in fact been destroying that diversity through genetic engineering and patenting for decades. The most obvious hypothesis is that these corporations see in Svalbard an opportunity to gain further control of the world’s plant genetics — being able to utilize the seed bank as a resource for germplasm that can be used for creating patentable hybrid or genetically engineered seed varieties.
To test that hypothesis I requested that the CFS legal team investigate the deposit agreements at Svalbard. 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.
Determining this, however, turned out to be no easy task. As the following legal memorandum indicates, the Svalbard deposit agreement is extremely complicated, opaque, at times downright misleading and involves difficult questions and interpretations of international law. The very complexity of this deposit agreement is another major red flag with Svalbard. Numerous seed banks only require a simple Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with depositors. This allows for informed consent by the depositors. By contrast, there is little chance that some seed banks and collections, especially those that are local, smaller scale and/or from developing countries, have the legal expertise, or funding to hire attorneys to decipher the myriad complications of the Svalbard contract. 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. As noted, these local collectors have little chance to understand, much less give informed consent, to what can happen to their deposits. As will be discussed in the Memorandum, this 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.
For an alarming example of the damage that the usurping of local seed saving by Svalbard advocates can cause, and for a trenchant critique of Svalbard, please see a recent speech given by Kent Whealy at Wes Jackson’s Land Institute on what happened to the Seed Savers Exchange which he founded and tended for more than three decades.