I first met Cary Fowler 35 years ago when, along with Pat Roy Mooney and Seed Savers Exchange board member Hope Shand, he was instrumental in creating the crucial triangle of global crop diversity, farmers’ rights, and open access to seeds. Since then, Cary has worked on these issues all over the world. As executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, he facilitated the establishment of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. He is the recipient of many awards and honors from sources as diverse enough to include the Russian Academy of Sciences and Bette Midler. Since many of us at Seed Savers Exchange consider Cary to be one of the “family”—he has been on the SSE board and has advised us and spoken at our Campouts—I thought he’d be the best resource to help us understand what Svalbard is and isn’t.
Martin Teitel: Cary, aside from variations in weather and the size of the collections, what are the differences between the SSE seed bank in Decorah, and the Svalbard seed vault? And why did you pick such an unusual location? As a southerner, do you love the cold that much?
Cary Fowler: Norwegians have a saying: there is no such thing as bad weather, there’s just bad clothes. I don’t mind the cold. In fact my favorite time to visit is in the dead of winter. But I have Norwegian clothes.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.
Given the natural temperature of the permafrost deep inside the mountain in Svalbard (about -4°C), the facility is much less reliant than any other in the world on mechanical refrigeration and electricity to achieve the optimal temperature which is -18°C. And the insulation is pretty good, too! In fact, the Vault virtually runs by itself—we have no staff on site. That lowers costs, which increases sustainability. The modest funding required is secured by virtue of an endowment (which allows the Vault to offer free storage), and the facility itself offers physical security second to none. Inside a mountain in this remote and cold location, the seeds are as safe as they could be on this planet.
Keep in mind that many of the samples held in Svalbard are of varieties no longer grown by farmers. In situ, or on-farm, conservation is not a realistic conservation option for these. Moreover, as we know, that form of conservation has its own set of risks. So, it is vitally important that all our different conservation efforts, whether in the garden or in the seed bank, be supplemented by a facility such as the Seed Vault.
MT: I’ve read accusations that Svalbard was built to benefit monoculture companies like Monsanto or prominent people like Bill Gates. Is there any basis for these criticisms, and do you have any idea why people would attack a seed vault?CF: It was built to conserve diversity, not to promote genetic uniformity! If we don’t promote diversity by conserving it, how do we do it?
The context in which the Seed Vault was conceived and built was and is that we are losing diversity both in farming systems and also in seed banks. We wanted to put an end to the modern-day extinction of crop diversity. So we conceived of a facility that would provide incredibly safe storage for duplicate copies of the samples that the many seed banks around the world are attempting to conserve. If a depositing seed bank loses their own sample, there’s another—a duplicate— in the Seed Vault. Only depositors have access to the seed, and they only have access to the seed samples they themselves have deposited in the Seed Vault. Neither Monsanto nor Bill Gates have deposited seeds, thus they have nothing to access. It’s really that simple. This arrangement is formalized through contracts and watched closely by several international bodies, and of course by the depositors themselves. There is no transfer of physical or intellectual property rights from the depositor to the Seed Vault. The depositor continues to own their seeds. In fact, we at the Vault never open the boxes or packages sent by the depositor. Of course, participation is voluntary—there is no requirement that seed banks participate, but there is really no reason not to.
I am aware of the conspiracy theories and “concerns” that have surfaced around this rather iconic but generally off-limits facility built near the North Pole. It was probably inevitable. With sadness, I chalk this up to the cynicism that so many people feel these days about almost any attempt to do something good and big. “If it’s in the news, positive, and governments are involved, there must be something sinister going on behind the scenes that THEY are not telling us about.” That’s how some people feel. And then they abandon their skepticism and accept without question the most outlandish things they find on the internet. Because many people don’t like Monsanto, Monsanto-related theories are particularly persistent, though the company has had absolutely no involvement. Read More