What could go wrong with entrusting our food supply to the corporate doomsday vault?

Accessions: Seeds or plants that are added to a seed bank.

Gene bank: Same thing as “seed bank”; a place where seeds are stored.

Ex situ conservation: Plants or their seeds are stored in laboratories or seed banks. In situ plant conservation is when plants are conserved in their natural setting, in farmer’s fields or in the wild.

Grow-outs: Seeds that are stored for too long will eventually lose their ability to sprout and grow, so for long-term storage you have to periodically plant out the seeds, grow up new plants, and collect new seeds to replace the old ones. With every grow-out cycle there is a risk some of the genetic material will be lost or contaminated.

CGIAR: An international agricultural research consortium which runs many of the world’s seed banks. It gets its money from various sources including charitable foundations (such as the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) and from the governments of various countries. It has ties to the World Bank and the FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations) but is not actually part of any inter-governmental institution.

The “Global Seed Vault” was officially opened today on an island in Svalbard, Norway. Nestled inside a mountain, the Vault is basically a giant icebox able to hold 4.5 million seed samples in cold storage for humanity’s future needs. The idea is that if some major disaster hits world agriculture, such as fallout from a nuclear war, countries could turn to the Vault to pull out seeds to restart food production.

While it’s true that crop diversity needs to be rescued and protected, as irreplaceable diversity is being lost at an alarming scale, relying solely on burying seeds in freezers is no answer. The world currently has 1,500 ex situ genebanks that are failing to save and preserve crop diversity. Thousands of accessions have died in storage, as many have been rendered useless for lack of basic information about the seeds, and countless others have lost their unique characteristics or have been genetically contaminated during periodic grow-outs. This has happened throughout the ex situ system, not just in genebanks of developing countries. So the issue is not about being for or against genebanks, it is about the sole reliance on one conservation strategy that, in itself, has a lot of inherent problems.

The deeper problem with the single focus on ex situ seed storage is that it takes seeds of unique plant varieties away from the farmers and communities who originally created, selected, protected and shared those seeds and makes them inaccessible to them. The logic is that as people’s traditional varieties get replaced by newer ones from research labs – seeds that are supposed to provide higher yields to feed a growing population – the old ones have to be put away as “raw material” for future plant breeding. This system forgets that farmers are the world’s original, and ongoing, plant breeders.

In addition, the system operates under the assumption that once the farmers’ seeds enter a storage facility, they belong to someone else and negotiating intellectual property and other rights over them is the business of governments and the seed industry itself. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which runs about 15 global genebanks for the world’s most widely used staple food crops, has even set up a legal arrangement of “trusteeship” that it exercises over the treasure chest of farmers’ seeds that it holds “on behalf of” the international community, under the auspices of the FAO. Yet they never asked the farmers whom they took the seeds from in the first place if this was okay and they left farmers totally out of the trusteeship equation.

Nobody really knows for sure if the Vault will be effective in keeping the seeds alive and its security is untested. Just days before the opening of the Vault, Svalbard was at the centre of the biggest earthquake in Norway’s history, even though the facility’s feasibility study assured that “there is no volcanic or significant seismic activity” in the area.

But more troubling than any technical matter is the issue of access, the keys to which are held by few hands. The CGIAR Centres will be the depositors for most of the seeds held in the Vault, giving them almost exclusive control over access. The Vault, then, is not a safe deposit box for just anyone. It is mostly the CGIAR’s private stash. Many developing countries will not have direct access to seeds in the Vault that may have been collected from their country. This might not seem to pose many concerns right now because governments have different backup sources for seeds, but the context would be vastly different under any doomsday scenario where decisions would have to be taken over a critical, unique resource which suddenly only remains in Svalbard. For farmers there is pretty much no possibility for direct access to seeds in the Vault.

But doomsday aside, it is important to ask who really benefits from the ex situ system that the Vault contributes to. The Vault is not immune from the terrible controversies over access to and benefits from the world’s precious agricultural biodiversity. The Norwegian government is ultimately responsible for the Vault and is currently regarded as fair and trustworthy, but there is no guarantee that the country’s policies won’t change… Probably more important, the Norwegian government will not be making decisions autonomously. Decisions will be shared with the Global Crop Diversity Trust, a private entity with strong private and corporate funding.

Svalbard is about putting diversity away, in case of some hypothetic emergency. The real urgency, however, is to let diversity live – in farms, in the hand of farmers, and across people-controlled and community-oriented markets – today.

– Exerpted and adapted from Faults in the vault: not everyone is celebrating Svalbard.