Some people have all the fun. Reporter Louise Roug, of the Los Angeles Times, has clearly had a blast writing a major feature on the Global Crop Diversity Trust’s “doomsday vault” on Svalbard, above the Arctic Circle. She has it all: glaciers and frozen wilderness; airlocks, steel-reinforced doors and a video-monitoring system; more aggressive farming methods, environmental degradation and changing weather patterns; quotes from senior science coordinators with the Trust.
She also, this being modern journalism, has contrary opinions. To provide balance. So the director of one NGO is reported as saying that the Arctic seed vault “tends to divert attention, energy and money away from what we consider as much more urgent and sustainable efforts to save biodiversity on the farm”.
Now I happen to think that he is a fine fellow, and that his NGO does great work, but this really isn’t fair. People have been plugging away at preserving biodiversity on farms for ages, without getting anyone interested to the tune of US$30 million. I really do not think that the people giving money to the Trust wanted to give much to on-farm conservation; they have had ample opportunity to do so, but have not. So for me there’s no competition between the Arctic vault and other efforts to conserve agricultural biodiversity. The worry is that people will imagine that the Vault makes everything alright. It doesn’t. It is essentially an insurance policy. Other genebanks will still be needed, and on farm conservation will still be needed.
But farmers are not fools. They do not preserve and grow diversity because it pleases some NGO, or even BINGO. The stuff they grow has to earn its keep. In the southern Altiplano of Bolivia, where there is a minor boom in growing quinoa for the market, poor farmers are happily abandoning the diversity they have nurtured for generations in order to focus on the one or two varieties that the market wants. Their quinoa diversity is preserved in a local genebank. Maybe next year some of it will even find its way to the land of polar bears and mysterious celestial green lights. Right now, it seems to be of no value to the farmers. But when they want it back, it will be there, waiting for them.