Seed savers or seed poachers?

25 February 2011

Written by: Renee Tibbs

Beyond public gaze and 1300 kilometres from the North Pole is a frozen vault built to hold four to five million samples of unique crop seeds, sourced from local farmers all over the globe. Although promoted as a precautionary measure to protect future food supplies, the Svalbard project warrants further scrutiny in a world where ten multinational corporations, heavily investing in GM technology, control 49% of the world seed market.

The Svalbard seed bank, a nuclear-bomb-proof crypt on the Nordic island of Spitsbergen, was built by the Norwegian government to protect the world’s food supply in the event of a global crisis. Australia was one of the first countries to support the Global Crop Diversity Trust which, along with the Norwegian Government and the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre in Sweden, operates the vault.

Dr Tony Gregson, a grain grower and member of the Crawford Fund board, has recently left behind the heat and the floods of the Wimmera and travelled to Norway to donate Australian crop seeds to the Svalbard ‘doomsday’ seed vault collection. During an interview with the Courier Mail, Gregson explained that the preservation of seeds at the Svalbard vault was vital for the world’s future food security: ‘Now with climate change, the environment is certainly changing, breeders have to breed new varieties to adapt to these new environmental conditions.’

It may well be a sensible move to store life-giving crop seeds in an inaccessible seed vault. However, a search of the organisations involved reveals considerable corporate investment that includes multinational corporations and individuals involved in the genetic modification of seed.

Gregson, the grain farmer who is donning special clothing, facing quarantine procedures and other security checks so that he can deposit over 301 samples of field peas and rare chickpeas also has an Order of Australia Medal for his career in agricultural science, and has been honoured for his work in biotechnology and grain growing. He sits on the board of the Crawford Fund, an organisation working to increase Australia’s engagement in international agricultural research for the benefit of developing countries and Australia. A quick search of the Crawford Fund’s website lists its contributors, and the familiar names of  Bill and Melinda Gates and biotechnology giants Monsanto and Syngenta are there. Gates has recently purchased 500,000 Monsanto shares that cost him $27.6 million.

Supporters of GM technology view GM food crops as the solution to climate change and world hunger. TJ Higgins, CSIRO’s co-inventor of the GM Field Pea (abandoned because it caused immune problems and lung damage in mice), addressed the 2010 Crawford Fund conference, spruiking the positive economic and environmental impacts of GM crops.

Any suspicions as to the safety of these unique seeds could be compounded upon learning that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has also given $29 million to the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which together with the Norwegian Government is in charge of the world’s seed vault. GCDT is a public-private partnership that raises funds from individual, corporate and government donors to establish an endowment fund that will provide funding for key crop collections in eternity. The question arises: will these saved seeds be safe from genetic modification?

According to William Engdahl, author of Seeds of Destruction, unofficially the Seed Vault project is one of the largest steps taken yet by the handful of GMO agribusiness giants which include Monsanto, Syngenta, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Gates Family Foundation. He asserts that the key organisations involved in the arctic seed vault have a long, often dirty history of fraud, intimidation and dubious methods to force the spread of patented genetically modified plant seeds into the world agriculture food chain. In 1999 Monsanto described the ideal future as ‘a world in which all commercial seeds were GM and patented’.

I first became aware of GM seed technology in the late 1990s when as a community radio broadcaster I interviewed the Indian physicist and environmentalist Dr Vandana Shiva. Shiva, the recipient of the 2010 Sydney Peace Prize for social justice and advocacy on behalf of the world’s small farmers, spoke of how more than 1000 Indian farmers commit suicide every month due to the huge debt they owe to GM seed companies.

Engdahl suggests that now, by collecting all possible seed varieties far away from prying eyes in the Arctic, seed companies such as Monsanto who are part of the Svalbard Doomsday Seed Vault project have at least the theoretical possibility of taking those seeds and patenting the most essential for their proliferation of GMO across the human food chain.

The consumption of GM foods may pose a serious threat to human health for although genetically modified ingredients are now in 60-70 per cent of our processed foods, there have been no long-term health studies done on the effects of eating this food. Genetic modification of seed is different from traditional plant breeding because it combines genes from different species. This process of inserting genes into food crops is not specific and could alter genetic sequences posing risks to health. The only studies that do exist have been performed on animals. In 2007 a peer-reviewed study found liver and kidney toxicity in rats fed the approved GM corn variety MON 863.

The jury is still out in regard to the safety of GM foods, yet unlabelled genetically modified soy has been found in baby formula. Pfizer, the manufacturer of the formula, did not inform parents that the product contained genetically modified ingredients, saying it was an ‘accident’ that GM soy was included.

The safekeeping of the world’s seeds at Svalbard has received uncritical publicity and according to Grain, a non-profit organisation supporting small farmers, it has given us ‘a false sense of security in a world where the crop diversity present in the farmers’ fields continues to be eroded and destroyed at an ever-increasing rate’. Grain claims the Svalbard project takes unique seed varieties away from local communities and makes them inaccessible.

The vital issue of who has access to the vault is not clear, neither is it known what may be done to these precious seeds and under what pretence. The Norwegian government shares the management with the Global Crop Diversity Trust which has strong corporate funding. In a somewhat murky issue, one thing seems to be clear: we need to subject the widely acclaimed world seed vault to the scrutiny that our future food supplies deserve.

Helen Lobato is studying the Bachelor of Media Studies at La Trobe University.

  • ray

    THis impressive article clearly & vitally
    emphasiszes the disturbing nature of this
    affair. The global agribusines giants won’t
    rest until they achieve total control of all
    food seeds.