Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Image: Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust
The world seed bank on Spitsbergen and its virtual siblings
Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, is home to the northernmost settlement on earth. Longyearbyen is a place of almost two thousand inhabitants. Since February 2008, it has been home to the World Seed Bank. It was enthusiastically celebrated at the opening ceremony. Here at the "eternal" The largest collection of cultivated plants is being built up on the ice of Svalbard, a depository for eternity, it was said, a "Noah’s Ark of today". It safeguards global biodiversity for future generations". From EU Commission President Barroso to Norwegian Prime Minister Stoltenberg and the FAO, everyone was full of praise.
The jubilation of the opening days has now faded away. And the question arises as to whether the World Seed Bank will fulfill the high expectations and whether it will actually benefit all of humanity or perhaps just a few.
70 meters below the earth’s surface in the permafrost of the rock, in the first of three concrete-lined artificial cellars now lie 400.000 aluminum totes of diverse seeds, packed in handy boxes on long standing shelves. 4.5 million seeds are to be collected, all of them duplicates from gene banks all over the world (about the construction and the goals of the Vault from the side of the operators)..
Norway, as owner of the tree plant, has invested nine million dollars in the construction of the Vault. In the polar summer, the ground thaws only on the surface; from a depth of one meter, it remains frozen year-round. That’s why it’s about minus 17 degrees in the seed bank all year round. This, according to many scientists, ensures a long germination of seeds. This is not certain, there is no long-term test for it. And whether the seeds will still germinate in a changed environment is also not certain. But these are marginal problems, the organizers of the Vault are.
The seeds come from seed banks of individual states and institutions and remain their property. Only they themselves, according to the contract, can reclaim the seeds, if they have been lost.B. should be lost in the domestic gene bank or if they want to replace the stored seeds with new ones tested for germination. In Svalbard, according to the hope, promise and concept of the Vault, the seeds are safe from accidents and environmental disasters, from civil wars and even from nuclear war. Svalbard is surrounded by the Arctic Ocean, the Barents Sea and the Gronland Sea, almost a thousand kilometers north of Hammerfest, the northernmost city on the European mainland. Even to the west and east, it is about a thousand kilometers to the next settlements.
The establishment of the seed bank. Picture: Global Crop Diversity Trust
The last reserve
Agrobiodiversity in the world’s fields has been declining dramatically for years. The main cause is the agricultural industry. It destroys natural plant diversity with monocultures and industrial intensive cultivation, with pesticides, insecticides and artificial manure, and also reduces plant diversity by restricting agriculture to fewer and fewer species. The big global seed companies bear the same responsibility, because they have driven regional varieties and their diversity from the fields with highly cultivated world seeds.
Without natural diversity, however, crops cannot adapt to the rapidly changing climate. Plant breeding needs genetic diversity, it needs as large a gene pool as possible from which to draw. The Vault should preserve.
The Global Crop Diversity Trust operates the Vault and also provides nearly $300 million a year in funding for numerous programs to safeguard crop diversity in the countries of the South. Of course, its director Cary Fowler1, winner of the 1985 Alternative Nobel Prize, knows that the Vault cannot prevent the rapid loss of agrobiodiversity. But what is left of genetic resources in the 1.The crustacean, which is scattered in 400 genebanks around the world and often stored unprotected, can be centrally stored in Svalbard.
Alexander Muller2 Deputy Director at the World Food Organization, which supported the construction of the Vault, says that the priority is "to preserve biodiversity in the field, to develop it in the field, and not to think that Svalbard can take care of everything and that we can afford to destroy biodiversity in the field. This is not the case at all."
The international non-governmental organization GRAIN criticizes the World Seed Bank on principle for exactly this reason. GRAIN, which means "grain", sees in the "Vault" in the ice a distraction from the essential. The organization believes that the money for the construction of the Vault and the 300 seed banks is not needed.000 per year for the operation, transport, storage and data management of the seeds, could be better spent on maintaining biodiversity in the fields. Therefore, farmers who want to further develop regional varieties and save them from extinction in an industrially oriented and export-oriented world agriculture are to be challenged. Gene banks produce a false sense of security, GRAIN believes.
Cary Fowler, Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, at the seed bank. Image: Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust
Cary Fowler, on the other hand, doubts that farmers alone can maintain and develop crop diversity. Farmers also needed access to biodiversity. There is still diversity in the fields of developing countries, but it is not necessarily the diversity they need, he said.B. growing heat-resistant grains. So they need access to genetic material from other regions; that also justifies the establishment of the central world gene bank as a rearance and safe depository.
Seed banks are not obliged to send duplicates of their seeds to Spitsbergen. They do it voluntarily. However, they also can’t just put their entire stocks in the "eternal" Store ice. The space was not enough. In "vault" therefore only unique specimens lie. When Mexico has delivered its corn varieties, Ecuador will be able to.B. the same varieties of corn can no longer be frozen. If the Ecuadorian seed bank burns down, Quito must ask the Mexican or other gene banks for duplicates and rebuild its own collection with them.
Obligation to share
This would also work. This is because worldwide access to genetic resources of agricultural plants is regulated by an agreement, the International Treaty On Plant Genetic Resources For Food And Agriculture.. It came into force in 2004 and has since been ratified by 120 countries.
The treaty regulating seed storage in Svalbard is also based on the international agreement. He ares the genebanks that they will retain ownership of their stored material. However, they must give them to anyone who asks for them as a breeder or farmer. If such a grower wants to have plant seeds stored in Svalbard, he does not have to travel to the Arctic Ocean – a glance at the Vault database is enough to find.
There are so-called "descriptive lists" that characterize each crop. The "descriptive list" for rice includes z.B. a few hundred markings. This is very important for the plant breeders. They need that to find out what they really need. And then they order it from the appropriate seed bank, which sends them the material.
Optimize access to seeds from gene banks: this is the purpose of the database on plants collected in Svalbard. In parallel with this, a second database is being built near Rome, "Alis" named. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture is the supporting body.
Shakeel Bhatti, secretary of the International Treaty, believes that virtual global seed banks have a crucial role to play in bringing together knowledge of the world’s plant genetic resources and making it accessible. What the germination and growth conditions of the different plants are, how they reproduce, what special ingredients they contain, when is the appropriate time to harvest, which plants are suitable for crossing.
This new information system will make a significant contribution to giving breeders, scientists worldwide access to the characterization data in the national collections of gene banks. They cannot be found so far or only with difficulty.
Preserved seeds from Syria. Image: Credit: ICARDA
Who profits from the knowledge of the world?
Who benefits from making knowledge of the world’s plant genetic resources available as if you were typing a search command into Google?? When interested breeders (or farmers) no longer have to spend time researching in a gene bank whose material may not even be cataloged yet, they will be able to find what they are looking for? If they no longer use every single one of the 1.400 gene banks have to be consulted or even visited in order to breed particularly drought-resistant wheat or particularly heat-resistant corn?
Cary Fowler hopes this will enable plant breeders, farmers and researchers to identify key traits they need to help plants cope with warmer temperatures. "We urgently need a good information system to improve harvests and to help farmers face climate change, energy shortages, water shortages, future plant diseases, and thus ensure better nutrition.
This will not work without a better information system. Maybe there is data in some seed bank, but nobody knows it, so nobody can use it. Unknown data is of no importance for farmers or scientists or anyone else. Only when you know where to find them and how to use them, do they bring advantages." Which requires, at a minimum, regulated computer access and knowledge of how to use it. What is certainly not true for hundreds of millions of farmers today. Cary Fowler also hopes for improvements in this area: through cooperation with governmental breeding institutions and agricultural research institutions – also in the countries of the global south.
The International Treaty’s records show just how gross the interest in plant genetic material is: 600 times a day, according to Shakeel Bhatti, seed samples are requested from gene banks through the treaty system. Border-crossing requests are mostly made by crude seed companies of the industrialized North, who want material from national gene banks, mostly in the southern hemisphere. They use the seeds to breed new varieties for universal use.
In this way, they do not contribute to the protection of agricultural biodiversity, but have the opposite effect. Because each of their supra-regional standard plants suppresses other regional varieties and thus the natural diversity in the fields.
Seed bank in the nature of Spitsbergen. Image: Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust
However, the data material of seed banks is also searched by people who are not even driven by this kind of breeding research, but only by hard-core profit interests. They want to use economically interesting plants exclusively for their own purposes. With the help of patents, such plants are supposed to bring in money: Money from farmers, from breeders and even from consumers: everyone is supposed to pay to the patent holder. Christoph Then, a patent specialist and former Greenpeace employee, has taken a closer look at this kind of Internet research and subsequent plant privatization and presented a research paper on it:
The aim is to monopolize as much as possible of the naturally existing biological agrobiodiversity through these patents. And databases are used, some information about regional varieties is used, all this can be used in such patent applications. There are indications in the patents that clearly indicate that systematic searches have been carried out in the centers of biodiversity or in the corresponding gene databases. I think that the big companies actually see this as a service facility where they can go to collect the relevant data, on the basis of which they then consider how to formulate their patent applications.
The leader in this sector is the US seed multinational Monsanto. The corporation is already patenting genetically modified crops on a large scale. In total, more than a thousand patents have been granted so far, and a further 7.000 are patent pending. However, Monsanto and other big players also search the plant gene databases for conventional plants in order to patent them. Already 70 genetically unmodified plants have been patented, mostly by the European or the US patent office. Another 500 applications for patents on conventional plants are in progress. It is true that the International Treaty, which is also the basis of the contracts for the Vault in Spitsbergen, prohibits the patenting of plants. But how is this to be controlled??
If a patent applicant has obviously violated international agreements and it is clear that he wants to steal it, the gene banks can also refuse to hand over material. It is unfortunately the case that this is only very rarely verifiable in individual cases and then the gene banks are in a weak position. And the information that is put on the Internet can no longer be controlled anyway, it is publicly accessible and available.
In such a case, the prohibition of the "International Treaty" has no consequences. The patent applicant is not obliged to disclose where he got his material. And the patent offices in the U.S. and the EU are following national and international patent procedures, respectively. European law, which is not overridden by the international treaty. The principle that a patent always requires proof of an invention has long been abandoned by Western patent law – the scientific elucidation of the properties is sufficient:
These are simple tricks like the description of ingredients of plants or of naturally occurring genes and their effects. "The companies can z.B. They are examining plants and seeds that come from the gene bank and looking to see if there are any gene structures that are particularly interesting from an economic point of view. They then claim that this or that gene is associated with certain properties, stronger growth, higher protein content, higher oil content, whatever, and that’s why they apply for a patent on the corresponding gene in corn or wheat," Christoph Then has found out.
Cary Fowler also knows that the gene databases are exploited by patent managers. But is the democratization of knowledge, as he calls it, to be renounced because of the rampant patenting?? The information system is "not the place to regulate patent law," he rejects.
Christoph Then sees it differently. He sees the gene banks and the gene data banks in the obligation. The privatization of seeds and plants and the breeding policy of the global players must be openly scandalized. And this is where the informed voice of the gene banks and also their practical resistance are called for.
Operators of this gene bank should say, "Unfortunately, we cannot make the material available to the public because there is a risk that companies will misappropriate the material via patent law. In this way, prere could also be exerted on politicians to find a solution. The gene banks behave rather too passively in this whole process, are not perceptible and do not really distinguish themselves from the interests of the large corporations.
It remains to be seen whether the data on ingredients, growing conditions or stress resistance of the seeds stored in the Vault on Spitsbergen and in other gene banks will be used mainly by corporations that make agriculture their private profit, or by the millions of farmers, many of whom think and act differently. In any case, there is a great danger that the World Seed Bank and its associated databases will have the opposite effect to their good intentions; that instead of helping to secure the world’s food supply and preserve biodiversity, they will accelerate the race to privatize plant genetic resources. At the expense of diversity in agriculture and food security in the future.