Developing countries should not deposit their seed collections in the seed bank Global Seed Vault.
Tucked away deep inside the Arctic Circle, about 1120 kms from the North Pole, on an island in Svalbard, Norway, lies the world’s latest and most sophisticated seed bank. The 'Global Seed Vault' as the seed bank is called, is seen as a safest depository against any disaster, be it nuclear or natural.
With a capacity to store 4.5 million seed samples, the 'Global Seed Vault' was formally opened on February 26, 2008. Supporting a robust security system, the seed bank is designed more or less like a giant icebox that can store seeds for hundreds of years. The seed collections will be stored in a 'black box' kind of arrangement with the host countries/organisations having the right to draw back.
This is probably where the benign mission objectives end. We all know that the path to hell is paved with good intentions. Moreover, considering the scramble the world is witnessing to seek control over seeds and through it the entire food chain questions will continue to be posed about the real motive. Although the seed vault is being managed in a tripartite agreement between the Norwegian government, the Nordic Genetic Resource Center and the Global Crop Diversity Trust, it is being funded by some of the biggest seed corporations.
Among the donors for the Global Crop Diversity Trust are: the Swiss seed multinational Syngenta AG, Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, the US agribusiness giant DuPont/Pioneer Hybred, International Seed Federation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the World Bank.
This is not the first time that security and safety alarms have been raised to collect seed resources from across the world. Some 40 years back, the United States had used the same arguments to befool the world to believe that it was housing the world’s biggest collection of plant biodiversity for reasons of safety. Developing countries were made to believe that its national interests were perfectly safe in depositing the massive plant germplasm collections in safe custody at Fort Knox.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) had applied the same trick. It had said that although most of the 16 international agricultural research centres (like the International Rice Research Institute at Manila, Philippines) were keeping the seed collections, there remained a possibility that someday some terrorist group will blow it up. These valuable seed collections would then be lost for posterity. Therefore there was an urgent need to keep one copy of these seed samples in safe custody. And this safe custody was obviously in the US, at Fort Knox.
To convince the world of its pious intentions, it vacated a small air base under a hilly terrain in Fort Knox and put up a gene bank. The world became reassured that its most important seed collections, some think it is more valuable than the gold reserves, were now in safe custody. No terrorist could blow it up. But it didn’t take much time for the custodian (the USDA) to claim ownership over these huge collections.
Remember the signing of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) treaty at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. It was this treaty, which for the first time recognised plant genetic resources are a national sovereign resource. Prior to this plants and seeds were treated as a mankind’s heritage. But what is relevant to know here is that the world’s largest collection of plant germplasm, some 6,00,000 plant accessions, lying in control of the USDA are outside the purview of this treaty.
In other words, the US has wrested control over these massive plant collections. The countries from where these were collected have no control or say over these resources, nor do they get any benefit from providing these valuable resources.
The Global Seed Vault goes a step ahead. It has not only used the remoteness of the arctic polar cap to reassure the world of the genuineness of its safety claims, it has also invited some of the biggest global seed multinationals to have a direct stake. In the days to come, we will probably see some more private seed and agribusiness companies joining the initiative.
Any global initiative on biodiversity and seeds remains incomplete without the participation of India and Brazil. Both these developing countries are rich in biodiversity. But ironically, while India had no resources to build its own national gene bank in New Delhi (the National Gene Bank was built with USAID help), it is one of the donors for the Global Seed Vault. So far India has not deposited its seed collections in the doomsday vault. It has also directed the Hyderabad-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-arid Tropics (ICRISAT) to refrain from sending the Indian collections of the dryland seeds to the seed vault.
The 16 international agricultural research centres are at present sending copies of its collections to the seed vault. Most of the other biodiversity rich countries are adopting a more cautious and sensible wait-and-watch approach. In my understanding, developing countries need to refrain from falling once again into a visible trap. Let us not be carried away by the doomsday bug. Remember, you can be fooled once, but not always.