Syria’s Seeds Are Locked Away in Norway, But Are Seed Vaults Safe?

Linda Pappagallo, Green Prophet
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault locked safe away in Norway has once again opened its steel doors welcoming 25,000 new seed samples including varieties of chickpeas, fava beans and other seeds from Syria. Around 110,000 Syrian duplicate seed samples out of 750,000 samples stored in Syria have been safely consigned, should the conflict in Syria destroy national seed banks (as happened in Afghanistan and Iraq), at least we are sure that some of the local and ancient agricultural biodiversity has been salvaged.

Opened in 2008, and ranked as the 6th “Time’s Best invention”, the Svalbard vault is the world’s main back up of duplicate seeds collected. More than half a million samples are safely deposited on behalf of 1,750 genebanks from around the world; this “seed deposit service” is provided free of charge thanks to the Norwegian government and the Global Crop Diversity Trust which cover all operational costs. The facility, which cost 9 million USD , has been funded entirely by the Norwegian government and it has a very neat apocalyptic feel to it.

Sunk 125 meters into the Norwegian permafrost, outside the village of Longyearbyen one of the world’s most northerly habitation, the vault is maintained at a constant temperature of -18 degrees Celsius, the concave tunnel head is designed to deflect missile strikes, and the vault has been built deep enough into the mountain to withstand nuclear explosion and rising sea level. Oh, and in case electricity happened to cut off, it would take two centuries for the vault to warm to freezing point. It is not surprising that such precautions have led the Svalbard vault to be nicknamed as the Doomsday Vault, pictured below.

The FAO estimates that 75% of crop biodiversity has been lost since the 1900’s; just over a century ago India had over 100,000 varieties of rice compared to a few 1,000 nowadays. Faced with such worrying figures on biodiversity loss, all in all the Doomsday vault seems like a practical insurance policy to protect global agricultural biodiversity against future blights such as pest, disease, climate change, flooding and droughts. Furthermore, the terms and conditions seem relatively innocuous: researchers, plant breeders, companies and scientists do not have direct access to the seeds and instead must request samples from the depositing gene banks from the country of origin.

So far, so good. Yet if we dig a little deeper we discover some additional factors which might make us think twice before rejoicing, writing a victorious article about how the Svalbard vault is saving our biodiversity and hi-fiving our fellow “save the earth buddy”.

The power of holding genetic information:

First, the idea of a global seed bank is important, and we must pursue it as long as it doesn’t discourage individuals, farmers and national-level seed banks to retain and look after their own seeds.

More importantly, although the idea of the Svalbard seed vault was conceived in the 1980’s, fears of biopiracy have hindered its construction. It is only after the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which entered into force in 2004, that the idea of a global seed vault became legally accepted. The treaty aims at “establishing a global system to provide farmers, plant breeders and scientists with access to plant genetic materials” and supposedly “ensuring that recipients share benefits they derive from the use of these genetic materials with the countries where they have been originated.”…
(22 March 2012)

Localism and prosperity on the farm

Staff, Investigating Resilience
ICR travels to the Farm Route To Prosperity Summit, the fourth annual event held recently in Traverse City. The summit is a networking conference for farm and food business specialists from NW Michigan offering the chance to look ahead at the changing economics of food production and the development of local food systems. The Michigan Good Food Charter, farm land protection, and farm financing are just a few of the topics in this selection of comments and presentations from the summit. The development of regional food hubs was a main focus of the speakers and some important follow-up discussions. Resilience is a term we heard multiple times at this conference…

Localism and Prosperity on the Farm from Robert Russell on Vimeo.

(March 2012)

For Schoolyard Gardens, a Global Network

Tamir Elterman, New York Times
It’s hard to find fresh produce in San Francisco’s Hunters Point district, classified as an urban “food desert” by the Department of Agriculture because of a lack of supermarkets and an abundance of toxic soil. Many of the neighborhood’s 34,000 residents live below the poverty line, a legacy of separation from the rest of the city and the area’s history as a former naval shipyard where radiological research and ordnance testing were carried out.

But like pioneers in a more gentrified setting, Jackie Fuller, a 17-year-old Hunters Point native, and her peers harvest fresh squash, tomatillos, tomatoes, and other crops year-round in a collection of raised garden beds in the rough-and-tumble neighborhood’s Willie Mays Boys and Girls Club.

“We plant all the vegetables in that greenhouse first, and then we transplant it to the beds,” Ms. Fuller said as bees buzzed around the garden after a day of harvest. “When I’m not here, it’s back to eating fast food.”

Ms. Fuller is one of more than 40,000 participants in the Edible Schoolyard Project, a hands-on educational effort founded in 1995 by the chef Alice Waters at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley. The program has since officially expanded to six other schools and community centers nationwide and linked up with projects in countries including New Zealand, China and Denmark.

The program enlists children and adults in planting, harvesting, cooking and eating sustainable organic food, often as part of a fully integrated school curriculum. The aim is to incorporate food into education in much the way that physical education became part of the curriculum in the United States in the second half of the 20th century. The project is lauded for its role in combating childhood obesity and promoting health education over all.

This month the Edible Schoolyard Project, formerly the Chez Panisse Foundation, marks a milestone with the introduction of a social Web site that makes all the program’s resources public…
(26 March 2012)