by Seed Savers Exchange
The first anniversary of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway – dubbed the “Doomsday Vault” by the press and hailed by Time as one of 2008’s greatest inventions-was celebrated on February 26, 2009, with dignitaries in attendance from around the world, including Seed Savers Exchange Board members Cary Fowler and Chair Amy P. Goldman. The anniversary celebration included a talk and tour of the Seed Vault by Fowler, who is also the Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, one of the Seed Vault managers.
“I was awed and deeply moved by the Seed Vault,” Goldman says. “Seeing all the deposited seed there, especially Seed Savers’ farmer and gardener-saved seed, makes me feel a lot more secure. As Cary says, we know those varieties will not go extinct.”
Seed Savers was among the opening day depositors in 2008, with an initial deposit of 485 varieties of vegetable seed from its collection. A second deposit was shipped in April and has been received, says Matthew Barthel, SSE vice president of gardens and collections. He and his staff had tested seed viability and listed, packaged and prepared the deposit for shipping to the Nordic Gene Bank for months, in compliance with the bank’s strict regulations.
The anniversary celebration included a dinner talk by Frank Loy, the senior advisor to the Obama presidential campaign on environment and climate change (and chair of the Environmental Defense Fund) and the Norwegian Minister of Agriculture, Lars Peder Brekk, presided. A number of other individuals, prominent in the climate change and biodiversity communities, were present, including executives from Al Gore’s organization, The Climate Project.
The program included a seminar on climate change and the role of crop diversity in adaptation to global warming, with talks by David Lobell of Stanford University and David Battisti of the University of Washington. “Both men recently authored stunning and sobering articles on this topic in Science,” says Fowler. Tens of thousands of new seed sample varieties were deposited in the Seed Vault as part of the celebration.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault functions like a safety deposit box for biodiversity and global food supply preservation, storing duplicate collections of seeds on behalf of gene banks from around the world. The Seed Vault offers protection against loss of diversity due to natural disasters, wars, equipment failures, accidents, and loss of funding that can plague even the best gene banks. As a service to the world community, the Government of Norway paid for the complete cost of the Seed Vault’s construction. The Global Crop Diversity Trust and the Government of Norway are financing its operating costs. The Seed Vault is managed by the Nordic Gene Bank (NordGen) under a tripartite agreement between the Government of Norway, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, and NordGen. Storage of seed in the Seed Vault is free of charge.
Located at 78 degrees north, far above mainland Norway, three vault rooms have been fashioned inside a mountain, down a 125-yard tunnel chiseled out of solid stone. Naturally cold already, the Seed Vault is further cooled to below -2 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, seeds can be stored safely for decades-even if the earth warms or the power goes out. The Seed Vault has the capacity to store 4.5 million different seed samples (each sample containing about 500 seeds) potentially from 1,400 gene banks in more than 100 countries. The Seed Vault will soon house and secure the world’s largest collection of seeds, including many varieties no longer grown by farmers or gardeners.
The emerging international norm is to have each distinct plant variety conserved in one facility where it can be actively managed under international standards (including availability for viability testing, regeneration, and distribution), plus inactive back-up storage at Svalbard. Cary Fowler notes that Seed Savers Exchange’s seed collection does not fully meet this international norm, although SSE’s own efforts, and its inactive storage at the Seed Vault and at the U.S. National Genebank in Fort Collins, Colorado are laudable. Storage at the Seed Vault provides credible conservation and robust protection for the varieties that SSE is entrusted to preserve, though the seeds remain the property of SSE.
As specified in the depositor’s agreement signed by Seed Savers Exchange, the seeds that SSE deposits in the Seed Bank are available only to SSE-there is no transfer of ownership of the seeds that are deposited by SSE or any other entity. Financial donors to the Global Crop Diversity Trust (see www.croptrust.org) do not get access to seeds in the Seed Vault, other than those they may have deposited there themselves. A wide range of developed and developing countries are donors to the Global Crop Diversity Trust for many purposes other than the Seed Vault’s operating costs, and include the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Ireland, Ethiopia, Brazil, Colombia, and India. (Corporate donors, including Syngenta and Pioneer/DuPont, who made unrestricted donations to the Global Crop Diversity Trust for its endowment prior to the Seed Vault’s existence, do not have access to seeds stored in the Seed Vault by others.)
Seed stored at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault by SSE will not be distributed to others by the Norwegian government, nor will it be made available to patent claims of others. Seeds in the SSE seed collection are pre-existing, or “prior art,” and as such, they cannot be patented. (And if a patent is mistakenly granted for a pre-existing variety, there is legal recourse to annul the patent.) On the other hand, new varieties, derived from or created using an old variety, are patentable in most countries of the world, provided they meet the applicable country’s criteria for patentability. SSE prohibits dividing and reselling Yearbook seeds; but the Yearbook specifically acknowledges that after seeds are regrown once, the resulting seeds, plants, and produce are available to SSE members to use however they please. The patenting of a new variety that has an older variety from SSE’s collection in its pedigree does not change the legal status of the SSE variety, nor does it prohibit subsequent access to or use of that variety, nor restrict its use in additional breeding programs.
SSE’s deposit of seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault “deepens the commitment of the organization to ensuring the long-term conservation of the diversity that has been entrusted to us,” Amy P. Goldman remarked. “We honor, trust and depend upon our members, but we know that varieties can be lost and that neither the membership nor our own seed collection is immune from loss. The Seed Vault offers free insurance to us and the other seed banks of the world. It is internationally accepted and monitored. We are happy to participate, grateful for the opportunity, and fully supportive of the goals of the Seed Vault.”