29 Replies to “The Safety Deposit Vault”

  1. Not sure I like Svalbard – at the end of the Gulf Stream, warmest place in the higher Arctic, ice-free harbour in Winter, winter temperatures now around -8 and Summer +6 degrees, so lots of mechanical cooling needed to hit -18 degrees. By the number of samples cited it seems to be an old film – probably from early 2012. And why did Norway link deposit to the ITPGRFA? This is enough to put off loads of countries still nervous about `biopiracy’.

  2. The problem with Svalbard is the business model behind it. It’s a business model that isn’t likely to see that sorghum return to that Kenyan farmer in a way that can continue to be freely replanted from saved seeds, traded with others and without unreasonably cumbersome paperwork. It’s also a business model that provides incentive to close down genebanks that might somehow compete with Svalbard, and puts too high a premium on seed colletions being placed under the jurisdiction of Svalbard.

    While there’s little to disagree with in what’s shown in this film, or the stated goals of Svalbard, it’s not the whole story. Functionally what this film shows is the process of how a Kenyan farmer’s genetic resources were technically stolen.

    1. That’s a pretty comprehensive set of accusations, Patrick. Maybe you would like to back some of them up? Only the genebank that deposits the seeds can request them back from Svalbard, true; however, there is absolutely nothing to stop you or anyone else — including a farmer in Kenya — from asking for a sample of any seed held in trust and growing that out yourself as often as you wish.

      I’m also not entirely sure what you mean by “business model” in this case, or the incentive to close down genebanks that compete with Svalbard, since apart from a proposed Himalayan genebank for safety duplicates, I’m not aware of any competing genebanks.

  3. As Jeremy says, only depositing institutions have access to the samples they themselves deposited. Those samples are not “under the jurisdiction of Svalbard,” but remain the property of the depositing institution. Had the Seed Vault been designed to provide direct access to anyone and everyone, then it would truly have had a bad “business model,” and been prohibitively expensive, not to mention inefficient.

    There is no indication that the Seed Vault provides an incentive for genebanks to close down. If a genebank is doing its job – i.e., supplying researchers and breeders with germplasm, and not simply conserving materials like a museum – then the genebank has all the incentive in the world to keep functioning. Svalbard provides back-up conservation services; it cannot substitute for genebanks in terms of researching and characterizing materials, providing access, etc.

    As for temperatures and global warming, I suppose it’s all relative isn’t it? It’s certainly less challenging to provide the mechanical cooling necessary to reduce natural temperatures to -18C in a climate such as Svalbard than in a tropical or even temperate location, and it will remain easier in Svalbard under all climate change scenarios. And if mechanical means fail completely and for an extended period of time, where would you like your backup collection to be? Inside the permafrost in Svalbard or in a building in Kenya, for example? (The Kenyans, by the way, have chosen Svalbard.) I believe the eastern coast of Antarctica is the only place on earth with consistent temperatures of -18 or below, but if you want to have a seed vault there, you will run into some serious problems of accessibility, costs, etc. When I was in Svalbard a few weeks ago, the inside temperature in the Vault was about -5.5 in the area not mechanically cooled, -18 in the seed storage area itself, and the outside temperature ranged between -16 and -34, I think. Seemed plenty cold to me then!

    1. See what happens? You go away for a day, and the conversations starts going in lots of different directions.

      Cary, it looks like our comments here crossed, and we posted them at almost the same moment.

      I just have a few minutes now, and haven’t had a chance for example to look carefully at the Trust’s website, or those operated by Nordgen or the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture. I’ll do that as soon as I can.

  4. Jeremy, the problem is if I or that Kenyan farmer requested a sample of seeds held in trust, we would both want to do more than grow them out. The farmer would like to sell his crops, share the seeds with other farmers and I would like to share them with other interested seed savers. In this case the situation is not so clear as you make it.

    I don’t have the time to look at it now, but assuming the Kenyan genebank has a ‘typical’ SMTA, there would be unreasonable paperwork involved for me to ‘legally’ share the seeds with others. Besides requiring the farmer to enter into an agreement that he or she would likely not fully understand, there’s unreasonable paperwork involved for a farmer and it’s a potential lawsuit if they somehow broke the agreement. A big agricultural company can cope with the paperwork or a lawsuit, but a small farmer can’t.

    One of the problems with the business model of Svalbard is the Global Crop Diversity Trust is not always forthcoming with this sort of information, but if the business model isn’t largely based on receiving a percentage of commercial activity associated with the use of it’s material, what is it? How would genebanks that offered alternative materials not be seen as competition?

    1. There’s no such thing as a “typical” SMTA. There is only the SMTA, as agreed by the Parties to the ITPGRFA after years of negotiation. And a recent interpretation by the relevant ITPGRFA committee makes clear that a Kenyan farmer requesting material from the Kenyan genebank would not need to fill one in anyway.

        1. First of all I said business model and not plan. There is a difference.

          Secondly, I couldn’t disagree with you more. I think so much of the discussion around agriculture revolves now around the businees model of a small farmer vs. the business model of a large multinational corporation. I think so much of the discussion of IPR and PVP is simply that small farmers and many individuals don’t want to live in the world of large corporations, and the larger companies need their own ways of doing things. I think much of the discussion now is figuring out how these different parties can exist side by side.

      1. Luigi, I think the discussion below makes clear why I said typical SMTA. The USDA doesn’t usually have one, non-treaty countries don’t have one, and for example the last time I looked on the NORDGEN website several months ago, they had at least two agreements, depending on what the intended use of the material was and if you lived in a nordic country.

        I’m interested in what you say about the recent interpretation by the relevant ITPGRFA committee. Can you provide a link to this? I’d like more details.

        If it is true that a Kenyan farmer can simply request a sample of his or her seeds back, without restrictions or a written agreement, that goes a long way to satisfying my objections. If this is true, then there’s also the much larger issue of if that farmer can compete fairly against a larger farmer who has also benefited from the deposit of those seeds. For example fair access to markets, subsidies, equipment; rules and regulations that make it possible to operate a small farm, and so on. This is more an issue to take up with the farmer than me.

        1. So then it’s not the SMTA. It’s simply an MTA, of which of course there can be any number of different ones. The SMTA is the specific MTA agreed by the Treaty. There is only one, and it cannot be changed. You can read all about the latest thinking on the SMTA on the Seed Treaty website.

  5. Patrick – I am baffled by the last paragraph of your most recent submission. Neither the Trust nor the Seed Vault receive a percentage (or any other kind of payment) from genebanks they cooperate with, serve and support. Neither are commercial businesses. As for transparency…if you search the Trust’s website, or those operated by Nordgen or the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture, you will find tons of information about the Seed Vault and how it operates including all relevant legal documents, data on all deposits, etc., etc.

  6. Patrick: The use of an SMTA is a requirement of the FAO Seed Treaty (ITPGRFA). Svalbard does not distribute samples but imposes SMTA requirements on countries that deposit. If you want samples free of an SMTA then get them from countries not members of the Seed Treaty. The best source of just about any plant species (crop or otherwise) free of an SMTA is the USDA, which, even though depositing in Svalbard, ignores the requirement for SMTAs (The USA is not a party to the FAO Seed Treaty). The USDA can even get samples from the CGIAR without an SMTA, as it has contracts pre-dating the FAO Seed Treaty to ensure samples can move between CGIAR institutes and the USDA freely, both ways – for example, sorghum from ICRISAT to USDA and vice versa. If you ask USDA for samples you will need to sort out a Phytosanitary Certificate for import to Kenya (or ask the Kenyan genebank to do it for you).

    1. With all due respect, Dave, as far as I know the germplasm USDA has received from CGIAR collections in recent years has been accompanied by SMTAs, as required by the Treaty, which the NPGS has accepted, and passed along, again as required, to those who request those materials.

      1. Luigi: Indeed, and thanks – All the samples passed to the USDA by CGIAR Centres (I get 2111 such samples in GRIN) are covered by what the USDA calls an FAO SMTA. Also when sourced from countries that are member of the Treaty. The problem (for me) starts when sample are sourced from non-Treaty countries. The USDA-GRIN covers the following example with an FAO SMTA: W6 33507 Vicia faba, collected in China (non-Treaty member) pre-Treaty collection (before 2000), sourced through Australia after the Treaty became operational. Why should the Treaty and not China benefit from Treaty-compatible use of this samples (and others like it)?
        I argue that this expansion of the SMTA is unwarranted – indeed, could annoy China and prevent our access to samples from China in future.

  7. Just to be clear, Svalbard does NOT impose SMTA requirements on countries that deposit. (Cases in point: the 69,000+ samples deposited by the U.S. and the 2,000+ deposited by the Seed Savers Exchange, an NGO.)

    Treaty Parties and non-Parties alike are making use of the Seed Vault and use by non-Parties does not change the legal status of those deposits at all.

    1. Cary: The problem may be Art. 7 of the Svalbard Depositor Agreement. This says in a very confusing way that everything deposited – including samples that are not `plant genetic resources for food and agriculture’ – should be treated under `the terms and conditions set out in Part IV of the Treaty’. Part IV of the Treaty mandates a Material Transfer Agreement (now the SMTA). If, as you say, an SMTA is not required by depositing institute, then Art 7 is not needed and should be removed from the Depositor Agreement, perhaps leaving in only the wording “The Royal Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food reserves the right to give the highest priority to the safety storage of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture that are available in accordance with the terms and conditions set out in Part IV or Article 15 of the Treaty or terms and conditions that are substantially the same as those terms and conditions.” Thus the USDA and SSE samples will be stored but with lower priority than duplicates of samples already covered by a SMTA (in effect, they will be treated with the same priority). I think I have already pointed out problems with Art. 7 to Norway and got nowhere: but removing Art 7 will simplify the Agreement and perhaps lead to more samples being stored in Svalbard as [apparent] conditionality is removed.

    2. Cary, another problem with your statement is that depositors also have deposit agreements, which can in of themselves contain restrictions.

      Take the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) for example. I have never been able to find a copy of the agreement between the SSE and the Trust, can you provide a link to this? All assurances you might give over conditions placed on the SSE members’ seeds don’t hold a lot of weight without seeing the agreement. I was also a member of the SSE at the time the document was signed, is there a reason as a (former) member I can’t see it?

      It could also be taken as a conflict of interest that you were both the executive director of the Trust and you and your wife were board members of the Seed Savers Exchange at the time. Doesn’t this sort of make it an agreement with yourself?

      To my knowledge there has never been such a controversy at the SSE. This lingering issue seems to be behind the departure in the last few months of a couple of very high profile members. It was one of the reasons I didn’t renew my membership.

      1. Ah, now we are getting to the crux of Patrick’s concern – the great global SSE-Monsanto-Svalbard conspiracy.

        We shouldn’t be surprised I guess, given that you made accusations about the mechanics of requesting samples without having read the materials – makes me think you are one to cast stones first, and consider the tensile strength of glass second (or not at all). Such logical fallacies….C is related to A via marriage, therefore C and A are involved in a conspiracy. Because people with similar passions never get married, right?

        Never mind that the conspiracy was generated by KW, a disgruntled fired employee and his new wife who runs her own family foundation that writes LARGE 6 figure checks to nonprofits who then suddenly amplify the SSE-Svalbard conspiracy (but SSE remains guilty until proven innocent). Have you looked into that? Have you seen the “perennial” nonprofits (clue there…but since you blogged about it you of course know the truth) tax returns and noted Ceres Trust made a massive donation right before KW’s famous speech there attacking SSE? And that Ceres Trust did the same to another big nonprofit (hint-they sue USDA over gmo dereg) right before their Exec Dir attacked SSE on their website? Hmmm…conflict of interest?

        The truth is some NGOs are indeed willing to let funders get in the way of ethics…but you may be confusing which way the smoking gun is pointed. Public records – look them up. Gather some data. I did when I was concerned and afterwards wrote to dear old KW – who was more than willing to correspond with me when I was his ally over the years – but suddenly ceased communications when I asked him about the evidence I had found and was concerned over the use of “philanthropic” foundation funds for personal vendettas. Conflict of interests and lingering issues….indeed. CF is guilty until proven innocent, but KW is above reproach even when evidence is presented to the contrary. Lovely.

        1. S&S: The only way I know Kent is through his 11 or so page rambling, vindictive letters, with no margins, that he typed and mailed to the SSE listed members. I’ve also purchased his Garden Seed Inventory books, and I must admit my first impression of these was a little dubious. I’ve never met or talked with the man, I don’t have the slightest idea what sort of person he is, what his ethics or vendettas are, and honestly I don’t care. He’s never expressed irritation or gratitude for my publishing his letters.

          I published Kent’s letters on the Internet, because the SSE was intent on ignoring him and repeatedly telling him to shut up. I found the way the SSE was treating him to be distasteful, and as a blogger I have a very strong sense of the right to freedom of expression. I felt that Kent was an important enough person, that at the very least his message should get out. In fact, I think almost anyone is important enough to get their message out, and I regularly publish lots of things for other people on my blog.

          Kent is not a gifted writer, so I summarized some of what I thought were the important parts of his message. I also had my own opinion, both about Kent and the SSE, and included that as well. This is just what bloggers do. I did not knowingly publish anything that was wrong or dishonest, and so far no one has pointed out any mistakes in what I wrote, at least that I could agree are mistakes.

          I know, I made lots of people mad and others happy. When something goes viral on the Internet, no one can anticipate that. No one is forcing anyone to read my blog, so if you don’t like it you can go someplace else. Everyone is welcome to leave comments on my posts, or post a different opinion elsewhere on the Internet.

          I asked Cary some questions here, because I’d honestly like to know the answers, not because he’s guilty until proven innocent. Aren’t you maybe deciding I’m guilty before being proven innocent?

          1. You have a long track record of posting misinformation and spreading conspiracy theories about this on Bifurcated Carrots. Including this statement which is about as bizarre as it gets:
            “Fowler’s actions at the SSE and now this attack on the world’s genebanks, only stem from greed and his desire to see more of the worlds genetic resources taken out of the hands of people and local control, and put under the control of multinationals and the world’s more powerful nations.”

            And no, I did not decide your guilt….I researched the facts behind Kent’s attacks, spoke to longtime SSE advisers, and read the Trust’s agreements…and the evidence points to you being one of those who persists in spreading unfounded rumors and allegations about the Trust and SSE. You implicate yourself.

        2. Sherlock and Shinola: There is a rule for dinner conservation in the officers mess: no mention of ladies, in particular fellow officers wives. Stops fights breaking out. The big issue here is not SSE but the varied use (or non-use) of SMTAs: if the USDA is not using them for originals of Svalbard duplicates, all for the better.
          The Seed Treaty Art 15 is a mess. It mandates an SMTA for CGIAR sample distribution for all Annex 1 samples and also all non-Annex 1 samples (everything else) except when distributing to Treaty Contracting Parties. In (I think) 2002 my wife (not someone else’s) was at an FAO/CGIAR meeting to discuss implementation of the Treaty. She pointed out to FAO that the CGIAR would not and could not follow this Treaty mandate, as it broke decades of practice and service to CGIAR partner countries in the distribution of samples. The CGIAR now ignores the Treaty rules and sends, without any SMTA, duplicate samples back to the country of origin. This is important for countries such as Mexico, with over 100,000 samples in the Treaty deposited by others. Working through the CGIAR, Mexico can unconditionally restock Mexican genebanks with samples that may have been lost (and deal directly, under CBD rules) with anyone from Monsanto down (or up, as you prefer) who wishes to further develop samples.

          1. It was dear Patrick who mentioned Cary’s wife and conflict of interest…I am merely pointing out the irony that he makes such accusations about Cary and Amy, given the body of evidence in the opposite direction

      2. Patrick,

        There is no agreement between the Trust and Seed Savers Exchange, and never has been, so obviously I cannot show it to you. Sorry if that deflates your conflict of interest theory.

        Seed Vault agreements are between the depositing institution and Nordgen acting on behalf of the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food.

    3. Cary: That is good news. I have always regarded the USDA collections as the gold standard for free availability. But there are problems of other countries depositing in Svalbard when they are not Treaty members. For example, UKR with 2,700 sample, TWN (can’t see this in the Treaty) 10,000 sample, RUS (Vavilov Institute) 6,000, NGA (not from IITA) 800 samples. If the USDA and SSE deposits are free of any SMTA, then presumably these should be too?? But are these deposits covered by a voluntary SMTA when the neither the Treaty nor Svalbard requires it? This approaches the problems of EU genebanks imposing an SMTA on samples which are not Annex 1 samples. This could be a bit messy

  8. Sherlock and Shinola: Your comment on wives and my advice not to dabble:

    Cary’s letter to SSE members October 29th 2010 on Kent Whealy: “That, and his offers to fund Members’ lawsuits against SSE for unarticulated claims, likely through his wealthy new wife”.

    I am not remotely interested in the SSE `storm in a teacup’. I once advised SSE members on the implications of Svalbard, with the entire thread being removed, and myself banned from posting, when, of course, faced with what was a massive over-reaction to an innocuous post, I started to smell a rat.

  9. Guys, get a room.

    Or at least take it to someone else’s site.

    We’re getting bored enough with all this to take the unprecendented step of closing down comments on a post. Not as an act of censorship, but simply because it just isn’t that interesting.

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