Monday, March 5, 2012

Svalbard - Concern Behind the Celebration...

Svalbard, Seed Vault of Last Resort
Just last week, Svalbard celebrated its fourth birthday. I admit it, I have mixed feelings about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault; its intention is laudable, but, all things being equal, is it up to the task? And, even if it is up to the task, will human avarice allow it to do what it is intended to do?

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located on an island in the Svalbard archipelago, some 1300 kilometers from the North Pole. Plant seeds from the world over are stored in underground vaults, dug some 340' into the permafrost of the island. The seeds in Svalbard are duplicate seeds of those stored in other seed banks through out the world – the idea is to provide a 'backup copy' of seeds in case of a large-scale or global calamity that affects our ability to feed ourselves. Anyone who has had a computer crash will allow how important a back up copy can be.

The facility has the capacity to store some 4.5 million accessions of seeds.

“The Svalbard Global Seed Vault's mission is to provide a safety net against accidental loss of diversity in traditional genebanks. While the popular press has emphasized its possible utility in the event of a major regional or global catastrophe, it will certainly be more frequently accessed when genebanks lose samples due to mismanagement, accident, equipment failures, funding cuts and natural disasters. Such events occur with some regularity. In recent years, some national genebanks have also been destroyed by war and civil strife.” (Wikipedia)

Because these seeds are meant to be 'copy seeds,' as the bank is envisioned, these seeds are stored as a backstop for loss of the genetics of important plant should the initial collection become lost.  The famous seed bank of Russian scientist Nikolay Vavilov's seed collection was over run by the Nazis in WWII, workers in the Vavilov Institute took the seeds to their homes to save them from being destroyed or stolen.  Thank God thieves rarely think to steal seeds and Vavilov's seeds, without a Svalbard back up made it through the war safely.  (For more on Vavilov, which is fascinating reading, find a copy of "Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest to End Famine" by Gary Paul Nabhan - it's a quick and lovely read!)  

I do not disagree with seed banks per se, I think they perform a valuable function. I worry, on the other hand that the majority of folks see articles on seed banks and think, “Well then, we've got this whole thing in hand, don't we?” And we don't. Seed banks only support a part of the solution.

Seed held in seed banks doesn't change. The mark of living is the ability to change. Pathogens adapt; their prey adapt. Pathogens adapt again; the prey adapts to the adaptions. And on it goes. This is the dance of life. Plants grow. Bugs eat 'em. Plants and their farmers adapt. Bugs adapt. Put a seed out of circulation for a couple hundred years and the world they 'wake up' to is not the same world when they went to sleep. Rumpelstiltskin anyone?  

Seed banks are the back stop, the last resort, but the real way to 'save' seeds is to grow them! Grow the heirlooms, save their seeds and your seeds adapt to your environment year after year. They become a part of your story and your life. In our small urban gardens in Los Angeles, we don't have the room to save all the valuable varieties we need to have a robust diet, hence the need to come together in seed libraries.

As a part of its mission statement, the Seed Library of Los Angeles, collects seeds and holds them for members to check out. Together we can save hundreds of varieties of seeds and you can be a part of that. You personally don't need to save 100 different varieties of tomatoes – you don't have the time and the room, but you can save one or two of the one hundred and together, viola! We have saved 100 varieties of tomatoes. And you helped.

But in the case of Svalbard, some ugly juxtapositions of facts are cause for concern, if not alarm. One of the biggest cash supporters of Svalbard is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It is only so far the only investment of that foundation that I can applaud, so much of the Microsoft money has gone into ventures that oppress people and rob us of our genetic diversity.

One of which is Monsanto. The Gates own some 500,000 shares of the bio-tech giant and a former Monsanto vice-president joined the Gates Foundation as a senior program office applying technology to increase crop yields in Africa.

With their economic clout, who can definitively say there will never be a time when the purpose of Svalbard might be corrupted to help Monsanto control more genetic material? I won't t cast aspersions on Svalbard, but I believe that Gates' sense of right and wrong has certain 'capitalistic' limitations. And Monsanto? I believe they have no moral compass whatsoever and stealing the future from a baby's mouth means nothing, literally, to them if profit can be realized. The United States has the finest government Monsanto can buy. How else do we explain we are the only first world nation that has allowed these suspect crops to proliferate through out our food system?  And our bodies?

One of the side effects of a seed library is that we exclude all genetically modified seeds. When you get seed from SLOLA, you are getting open-pollinated seed that will produce clean, healthy food. And when you follow some simple steps, you return clean, healthy seed to the library that will be distributed next year.

For a healthy future, for a future free of genetic modification, grow organic open pollinated seeds. For your children, join the library and help save seeds for the future!


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