Svalbard Global Seed Vault: Seed Saving-Cum-Taxidermy (part 2/3)

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Published on From Filmers to Farmers on July 26th, 2017

Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner

 


With a bit of ice on the floor depositers could almost ride the seeds right on in
(photo by Global Crop Diversity Trust)

As odd as it sounds, I can't help but think that it's so ridiculously easy to point fingers at the short-sightedness of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault that not only is it also all-too-easy to label it as the "Vault of Doom", but that this can lead one to miss out on the much more dire issue of what the Vault represents in the present.

If we look at the Vault's layout, it turns out that the access tunnel from its main door was designed and built to slope downwards, a rather questionable idea when you think about the effects that gravity tends to have on permafrost and snow when they get above 0℃. Why in the world was the Svalbard Global Seed Vault designed in such a way? As put by Hege Njaa Aschim of the Norwegian government (owner of the Vault),

The construction was planned like that because it was practical as a way to go inside…

In other words, the vault was designed with depositing seeds in mind, not withdrawing them. I'm venturing into the land of absurdity again, because if you know anything about seed saving then you know that it is in fact extremely beneficial to keep seeds stored in complete darkness, although it's also just as true that black holes can be a tad too dark.

Silliness aside, one of the two primary issues regarding the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is that of in-situ seed saving versus not simply ex-situ seed saving but extreme-sport ex-situ seed saving. In-situ seed saving is the practice of constantly growing seeds out every year or every few years, a practice which regenerates the seeds before they die out.

Ex-situ seed saving on the other hand is the process of storing away seeds for extended periods of time, done so in cold, dark conditions so that the seeds go dormant. This approach (sometimes getting rather hi-tech and more energy-intensive with things like stainless-steel liquid-nitrogen storage vats) enables the life span of the seeds to be theoretically extended to decades, possibly even centuries, which is much longer than the handful of years many seeds generally last for.

That all being so, one big problem with the ex-situ method is that the seeds are not only frozen in space but also frozen in time. Because by having their evolution – their continual adaptation – halted, there's the very real possibility that a packet of seeds brought out of their 100-year or so dormancy will lack the characteristics – the genetic capabilities – to fend off a blight or some other scourge that appeared during their "hibernation". As a result, the seeds could be left with virtually no in-built defence and therefore have virtually zero chance for survival.

Conversely, in-situ seed saving is the embodiment of adaptation to place. Try growing out a bunch of seeds from the same packet but in two different locations – locations which would inherently have varying conditions – and what you'll eventually get is a branching lineage whereby the seeds attain different characteristics. This is due to the unique adaptations that occur thanks to the seeds' opportunity to adapt to their locales, not to mention the characteristics that each generation of seeds get selected for by their stewards.

So while one might say that the seeds saved in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault are not only the epitome of ex-situ seed saving and the non-existence of adaptation (call it Globalized Seed Saving if you will), but one could also say that the Vault itself couldn't be a greater representation of the dismissal of place and adaptation. For as was explained by Arne Kristoffersen, a former Svalbard coal miner, most coal mines in the area weren't built like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault with their entrance tunnels sloping downwards, but with their entrance tunnels sloping upwards:

For me it is obvious to build an entrance tunnel upwards, so the water can run out. I am really surprised they made such a stupid construction.

Perhaps Kristoffersen has a flair for hyperbole to go along with what appears to be consternation for incompetence, for as he also put it,

[A]s it is today, the whole entrance will be filled up with water and this will freeze and it will be blocked after a few years, so it will not be possible to get into the seed vault. There will be a big iceberg in the tunnel.

Hyperbole aside, one might nonetheless think that the hard-earned knowledge and time-worn practices of the locals would have been given prime attention when designing and constructing the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. But don't forget: this is ex-situ seed saving, something in which conditions of the place are specifically dismissed as something that needn't be taken into account. For although Kristoffersen was in fact involved in an initial planning meeting for the vault, he unfortunately wasn't a part of the following development of the plans.

Downwards the tunnel goes!

In effect, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is not only the ex-situ saving of seeds, but the ex-situ saving of seeds in an ex-situ structure. Because while ex-situ seed saving inherently ignores changing conditions of climate and other variables, the designers behind the Svalbard Global Seed Vault are either huge fans of the brilliance of the eminent architect Frank Lloyd Wright, or, and as mentioned in part 1, astoundingly failed to take into consideration – or at least take very seriously – changing conditions due to climate change.

With all these mishaps and dismissals in mind, I think one seriously has to wonder about not only the efficacy of such extreme-sport ex-situ seed saving, but also the motivations behind this globalized approach to the saving of seeds. Because from what I've read there seems to be some rather surreptitious reasoning behind the supposed need for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the first place, one example coming from a recent statement made by the lead partnership coordinator for the Global Crop Diversity Trust, Brian Lainoff. In what I can't help but see as, at best, another attempt at damage control, Lainoff recently stated that

Something as mundane as a poorly functioning freezer can ruin an entire collection, and the loss of a crop variety is as irreversible as the extinction of a dinosaur, animal or any form of life.

Let's put aside the fact that it was discovered on December 16th of 2014 that an electrical connection in the Vault's refrigeration unit had rusted away, got covered in chunks of ice, shut down the cooling system, that there was no back-up, that a technician had to fly in from nearly 1,000 km away the next day, that the part needed – sourced from Italy – wouldn't arrive until after Christmas, and that a temporary fix only managed to be put in place by borrowing a part off a freezer from a nearby supermarket.

Because if you didn't notice, it looks to me like there's a bit of sleight-of-hand that Lainoff is attempting to pull off by trying to equate a loss in a genebank to the complete extinction of a crop variety. This is, however, not what inherently happens at all. While genebanks do preserve the genetic material of such things as wild seeds meticulously gathered from the wild, they also serve as a backup for the seeds actively used by farmers and gardeners. That is, genebanks aren't simply "collections" of seeds for geneticists to work with but, like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, are backups themselves.

But if we take Lainoff at his surreptitious word, what might therefore be inferred is that seeds kept in genebanks are nothing but "collections", "collections" that if lost imply extinction. Moreover, since the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a backup to hundreds of genebanks, this would imply that it is but a "collection" of "collections". Meanwhile, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault's approach to the possible loss of these "collections" (extinction) is not to engender the dispersion of those "collections" amongst actual users of seeds who would provide a decentralized method of preservation, or to even engender a stronger network of backups between genebanks, but to make a centralized "collection" of "collections". Since the ultimate result of "collections" is "ruination" (as can be inferred by Lainoff's fearmongering), one could infer then that the purpose and destiny of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is to become the greatest one-off extinction event of the past 10,000 years. Because are we to believe that of the 1,700+ genebanks out there the only one that can't be decimated is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault? Might it not be even safer to have Elon Musk store a backup to the backup to the backups on Mars?


Can't say Lainoff doesn't have all the talking points down (photo by Global Crop Diversity Trust)

Because yes, disasters of all sorts have decimated, and will continue to decimate, collections of seeds held at genebanks. An earthquake pulverized Nicaragua's national seed bank in 1971, a hurricane flattened Honduras' national seed bank in 1998, a typhoon flooded a Filipino seed bank in 2006, and during the US-led invasion in 2003 it was the looting of Iraq's museums that garnered all the media's attention but the country's national seed bank that got destroyed. However, and using the latter case as an example, the most important seeds had previously been duplicated by Iraqi scientists and were stored away for safekeeping way over in another seed bank in Aleppo, Syria.

This idea then of backing up seeds held in genebanks is by no means a novel idea unique to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Furthermore, to think that the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is safe from refrigeration problems (known to not be true), exempt from the ravages of climate change (also known to not be true), or impervious to the ravages of Miss Murphy (who's your ideal blind date?) is not only foolhardy, but megalomaniacal.

But lo and behold, if like me you thought Lainoff could get rather surreptitious, it appears to me that Fowler himself can get downright slimy. For as he stated himself two years ago,

It is out in the real world – that makes it vulnerable because you have typhoons, hurricanes, natural disasters and pests that come along. If you've got a crop, an heirloom variety, a traditional variety, somewhere in Africa, and you say, that's great, it's going to adapt to climate change – well, maybe not. If it doesn't have the right traits, your farmer is going to starve or go out of business long before that crop will naturally adapt through mutation.

Fowler's got a problem with… "the real world"?

Regardless, natural disasters certainly do happen. Moreover, it is absolutely correct that in-situ seed saving by no means inherently implies the adaptation of seeds to the vagaries of climate change. Nonetheless, how is it that the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is supposed to ameliorate any of this? If seeds out in "the real world" aren't able to "naturally adapt through mutation", then what chance do seeds frozen away in stasis – which have zero opportunity for adaptation of any sort – have in comparison? And even if some seeds did exist in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault that could assist that oh-so-unfortunate starving-and-on-their-way-to-bankruptcy African farmer, and that such seeds could even be identified, and quickly enough, how are said seeds supposed to help said African farmer when seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault are explicitly only allowed to be withdrawn by their depositors (genebanks)? On top of that, there isn't just one starving-and-on-their-way-to-bankruptcy African farmer but dozens, hundreds, thousands of them. Are they all going to get seeds from supplies withdrawn from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, sourced from a genebank which may very well be on a whole other continent?

In other words, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault provides no benefit or viable alternative to the condemnations that Fowler bestows upon in-situ seed saving, his words being more like framed arguments tossed forth in order to suit a particular point of view.

That being so, if it isn't necessarily seeds themselves and the stomachs that need them the most that Fowler and the Global Crop Diversity Trust are out to protect, then what exactly can the underlying motive of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault be?

We'll get to that in the final part of this series.

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