Svalbard Global Seed Vault: Cary Fowler's

Vanity Project and the Greatest Scam Since

the Dawn of Agriculture [part 3/3]

Cary Fowler in front of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault during its construction in 2007
(photo by Bair175)
Cary Fowler in front of the Svalbard Global
Seed Vault during its construction in 2007
(photo by Bair175)

So with part 1 in this series having explained how the Svalbard Global Seed Vault might be even less secure than what's been recently conveyed by the popular press, and with part 2 having relayed just two of which could have been many more statements that might cajole somebody into questioning the motivations behind the Svalbard Global Seed Vault itself, a not-quite undeserved query to come about from all this might therefore be something along the lines of "What then could the purpose of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault effectively be?"

That question would've stumped me as it would've stumped most others, were it not for the fact that in September of 2010 I was fortuitous enough to be making my way from Toronto to Salina, Kansas, the purpose of that excursion being to make my first visit to The Land Institute's annual Prairie Festival. As if it weren't already enough that on top of getting the chance to see perennial favorite Wes Jackson speak that I was also going to have the opportunity to see Wendell Berry speak, but as a member of and volunteer for Seeds of Diversity, a volunteer at several Seedy Saturdays in Toronto, WWOOFer for six weeks at Koanga Gardens in New Zealand, WWOOFer for two weeks at Stellar Seeds in British Columbia, and just all-round avid seed saver, I was also going to get the special opportunity to listen to a couple of talks by none other than seed saver extraordinaire Kent Whealy – a guy who was introduced by Jackson as "someone who will be remembered long after the pyramids are gone".

If you aren't familiar with the name Kent Whealy, this is the guy that co-founded (or is it founded?) the Seed Savers Exchange, a seed saving operation in Decorah, Iowa, that sought out, collected, and preserved tens of thousands of family heirlooms and rare garden varieties that were often on the verge of extinction. The Seed Savers Exchange is – was? – what you might call the antithesis of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Because although a central collection of seeds was maintained which was inaccessible to the general public, it nonetheless operated under a 10-year rotational system whereby each summer the aim was for 10% of the seeds to be grown out for regeneration purposes as well as to confer revolving access of the collection's seeds to members of the public (or more specifically people who had paid the nominal membership fee). What Whealy spearheaded was, without a doubt, the greatest collection of heirloom food crops the world has ever seen.

While the first talk that Whealy gave at The Land Institute was exactly what I expected (in this particular case an interesting talk on apple varieties and their preservation), the second talk he gave was – well, here's how he started off, seven years ago today:

Kent Whealy at The Land Institute,
September 26, 2010
(photo courtesy of Kay McDonald)
Kent Whealy at The Land Institute
September 26, 2010
(photo courtesy of Kay McDonald)

For [the] past three years, Amy Goldman (Chair of the Board of the Seed Savers Exchange) and Cary Fowler (Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust) have been depositing portions of Seed Savers Members’ Seed Collection into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the far north of Norway. Goldman and Fowler are being dishonest... by concealing the fact that being deposited in Svalbard places Seed Savers Members’ Seed Collection under the control of the United Nations’ FAO Treaty, which was specifically designed to facilitate access by corporate breeders. Goldman and Fowler targeted an exemplary U.S. nonprofit in order to gain control of and then misappropriate Seed Savers Members’ Seed Collection of 26,000 varieties, by far the best collection of heirloom garden crops in the world.

Those were some pretty loaded words Whealy was brandishing, words that not only dealt with seed collections but also an ungodly amount of drama. Because as I later discovered, it turns out that in the few years preceding his Land Institute talk Whealy had clandestinely sent out a few similar letters to Seed Savers Exchange Members regarding both his dismissal from the Seed Savers Exchange and the situation with its seed collection, the talk of his that I attended being at a venue of enough notoriety that this time around a barrage of denouncements was elicited by senior officials and related parties to the Seed Savers Exchange. (All of said documents can be found on the Internet Archive here as they no longer seem to exist on the actual Seed Savers Exchange website. Likewise, links to downloadable PDFs of Whealy's talks and letters mentioned throughout this post can be found near its end.)

I'll avoid giving too much attention to what can come off like a school-boy spat, a school-boy spat with one side claiming that the ousted was victimized by a Board of Directors who had been quietly waiting for their opportunity to terminate the founder of what had become a very successful organisation, the other side criticising the ousted for being a disgruntled former employee who was experiencing "founder's syndrome". If that wasn't enough in itself, things were even so weird that rather than parties trying to up one another they were apparently trying to under one another. Because as Fowler recriminated upon Whealy's Land Institute talk, Whealy's ongoing criticisms and activities were said to be likely made possible "through his wealthy new wife". Which is quite possibly true, and from what I gather is probably how Whealy was able to be the second-largest donor with a contribution of $1 million to help fund Proposition 37, the 2012 initiative to require labelling of genetically engineered foods in California (it was narrowly defeated, although more on that later).

But while Fowler won the 2010 round of "my wife isn't as wealthy as your wife", come 2012 Fowler not only ended up marrying a millionaire of his own, but he in fact married a billionaire – and in New York City's Central Park no less. Moreover, he didn't marry just any billionaire, but none other than Amy Goldman herself, the aforementioned Chair of the Seed Savers Exchange Board of Directors.

How did Goldman manage to become a billionaire? No, not by being an heiress to some New York City affiliated Goldman-Sachs alumni, but rather by being one of a few heiresses to (the late) Sol Goldman, New York City's one-time largest landlord and owner of its largest real-estate empire. Moreover, Amy Goldman is by no means a "poor" billionaire but a rather rich enough billionaire to have landed herself a tidy spot on Forbes' list of the world's richest billionaires.

From the daughter of New York City's largest landlord to the wife of the world's largest seedlord, Amy Goldman takes in the sights at the Brave New test tube World of the International Potato Center
(photo by Global Crop Diversity Trust / Cary Fowler)
From the daughter of New York City's largest landlord to the wife of the world's largest seedlord, Amy Goldman takes in the sights at the Brave New test tube World of the International Potato Center (photo by Global Crop Diversity Trust / Cary Fowler)

So yes, while there's no doubt that Whealy has been able to use his access to new-found riches to fund his various seed-related activities, it also would be hard to deny that Goldman's access to riches has enabled her to make headway into the seed saving world and the Seed Savers Exchange in particular, what with such things as her funding of the Seed Savers Exchange's Visitor's Center, the named-after-her-mother Lillian Goldman Center.

Rather unsurprisingly, the rash of responses elicited by the Seed Savers Exchange-and-company following Whealy's Land Institute talk were loaded with several accusations criticizing Whealy's handling of the Seed Savers Exchange and its seeds. For starters, in a letter dated October 29, 2010, and signed by the entire Seed Savers Exchange Board of Directors, it's stated that the aforementioned growouts that Whealy mentioned never actually reached 10% and that Whealy "often used qualifiers and modifiers, such as... 'we try [and]... attempt to grow 10% of each crop on a 10-year rotation'". While that may very well be true (growouts on the scale partaken by the Seed Savers Exchange aren't easy for any organisation), I do however have my doubts about the innocence of Whealy's detractors. Because as was also stated in that very same letter,

Kent Whealy repeatedly claims that the current Board has weakened SSE. The facts are these: On our watch, SSE membership has more than doubled, to over 13,000, and seed sales have grown at that same pace. Seed Savers Exchange is in better financial shape than ever, and those resources are being deployed to strengthen programs that fulfill our mission.

Which is kind of like a morgue taking credit for the bubonic plague. Because while I can't claim to know any of the truth behind either side's accusations, I do recall it being specifically stated in a post-Whealy mail-out I received from the Seed Savers Exchange that due to the downturn in the US economy many Americans were re-discovering the importance – and joys – of growing their own food, and that as a result memberships and seed sales had shot through the roof. In other words, what the members of the Seed Savers Exchange's Board of Directors did in their condemnation of Whealy and corollary championing of themselves was take credit for the effects of the Great Recession, which for me is enough to deduce that at least one side isn't free from embellishment and that the truth behind all the drama is so foggy that it's probably impenetrable.

With or without all that in mind, according to Whealy both Fowler and Goldman knew that he would never allow for Seed Savers Exchange collections to be deposited into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Part of Whealy's reluctance was due to the fact that duplicates were already held in a separate underground seed vault at the Seed Savers Exchange's Heritage Farm (to protect against fire and tornadoes and such), as well as in "black-box" storage at the National Seed Storage Lab in Fort Collins, Colorado ("black-box" storage means the seeds belonged entirely to the Seed Savers Exchange and could be returned upon request). Paying apparently no attention to the already-existing backups and nor to the backups to the backups, and as Whealy then explained,

Together they [Fowler and Goldman] proudly announced that 485 varieties from Seed Savers Members' Seed Collection would be deposited at Svalbard's official opening in February of 2008 and that more annual deposits would follow until about 9,000 out of SSE's 26,000 varieties (only those unique to SSE's collection) have been deposited.

Actual Seed Savers Exchange seeds being deposited into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault
(photo by Global Crop Diversity Trust)
Actual Seed Savers Exchange seeds being deposited into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (photo by Global Crop Diversity Trust)

Dramas aside (since what they ultimately do is cloud over the core issue here – the seeds), the main point that Whealy was clamouring on about was in regards to the aforementioned statement of his that seeds deposited into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault are placed under a questionable United Nations FAO treaty. In terms of the mainstream media, this is certainly the least talked about – most avoided? – issue regarding the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, one which might best be explained by starting off by relaying a quote Fowler made in his most recent book, Seeds on Ice: Svalbard and the Global Seed Vault. As stated on page 137,

Think of the Seed Vault as functioning like a safety deposit box in a bank. The bank owns the building and the vault, the depositors own the contents of their boxes. In this case, Statsbygg "owns" the facility and the depositing genebanks own the seeds they send. Each depositor signs a deposit agreement with NordGen acting on behalf of Norway. The agreement specifies that Norway does not claim ownership of the deposited samples and that ownership remains with the depositor, who has the sole right of access to those materials in the Seed Vault. There is no transfer of ownership, no change in the status of the physical or intellectual property rights associated with the seed.

From what I can tell that's actually a very poor analogy, the more appropriate one being a comparison of the Vault not to a safety deposit box but rather to a regular depositors' account. Because much like how private banks use deposits and the fractional-reserve system to create money "out of thin air", the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is actually able to use its Depositor Agreement to conjure seeds "out of thin air" as well. How so?

For starters, depositors of seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault must sign what might be seen by those not schooled in legalese as a rather opaque and complex Standard Depositor Agreement (PDF) stipulated by NordGen (Nordic Genetic Resource Center, the institute responsible for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault's management and operations). Furthermore, and as too few have noted, it is Article 7 Section 1 of the Agreement that makes the Vault's motivations somewhat dubious to those with a healthy dose of scepticism when it comes to these globalist-minded "altruistic" kinds of endeavours. As said portion of the agreement states,

In consideration for the right to deposit samples of plant genetic resources in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the Depositor agrees to make available from their own stocks samples of accessions of the deposited plant genetic resources and associated available non-confidential information to other natural or legal persons...

In other words, although the Svalbard Global Seed Vault most certainly is a seed bank, it's not so much one that practices seed preservation so much as it's one that practices – for the time being simply allowing for the possibility of – fractional-reserve seed banking. And while the seeds deposited into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault are in a sort of "black-box" storage of their own, it's actually more like a quasi-, pseudo-, or even mutant-"black-box" storage. Because while the actual seeds deposited into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault remain entirely the property of the depositors and are accessible by them and them only, the source of the seeds deposited into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault are placed under what can very well be interpreted as a sort of waywardly "ownership" by unnamed "other natural or legal persons", somewhat similar to how money placed into a depositor account becomes the property of the bank and the depositor becomes an unsecured creditor with a claim against the bank. Why might this be a problem?

First off, if you're up to speed with how things currently operate in the world then you know that starting off with the United States, corporations have been recognized as being a "legal person" since 1886. Secondly, if you take a bit of a deeper look into the Global Crop Diversity Trust (funder of the storage of seeds in the Vault, not of the Vault itself) you'll see that it's more than just an organization with a warm and fuzzy name but is actually funded by what some might deem as a consortium of rather compromising organizations. Because along with various governmental organisations, the Global Crop Diversity Trust's list of funders also includes some of the world's largest biotech companies – Bayer, Syngenta AG, and DuPont Pioneer (purveyors of patented transgenic seeds and their related agrichemicals).

Oddly enough, it turns out that DuPont was actually the second-largest donor against the aforementioned Proposition 37, its deeper pockets allowing for a second-highest donation of $5.4 million versus Whealy's aforementioned second-highest donation of $1 million. And while Bayer and Syngenta AG both came in tied for sixth place with a doubling of Whealy's donation and so contributions of $2 million apiece (Monsanto led the way with a donation of $8.1 million), it turns out that alongside Whealy, Amy's Kitchen actually contributed $200,000 of its own money to the cause. The funding from Amy's Kitchen however has nothing to do with the stash held in the cookie jar in Amy Goldman's kitchen, which in this case doesn't seem to have donated any money to step on the toes of any biotech companies-cum-donors to the Global Crop Diversity Trust, a Trust that her seedlord-husband was the inaugural director for between 2005 to 2012 and is now special advisor to. (As an aside, while the GMO-labelling that would have been mandated by Proposition 37 lost out in the vote by a tally of 47% to 53%, it did so on a "paltry" $9.2 million budget in comparison to the $46 million budgeted by its rivals, about a third of that coming form the biotech donors, most of whom also fund the Global Crop Diversity Trust.)

Furthermore, that Global Crop Diversity Trust donor-list also includes such luminaries as the World Bank and the oh-so-ominous Rockefeller Foundation. And as if all that weren't enough to light up the chat boards of those worried about a New World Order coming to take away their assault rifles, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is also a major donor (to the tune of roughly $30 million), an outfit that not only has strong ties to seed-saver-persecuting Monsanto (the Gates Foundation purchased $23 million worth of Monsanto stock in 2010) but which is also a staunch supporter of industrial agriculture via such things as its funding of the Green Revolution's spread to Africa – a rather conflicting diversity-destroying act if there ever was one.

To add wackiness to the conspiracy theory-fanning partnerships, Fowler has pointed out that it was actually the Global Crop Diversity Trust (again, of which Fowler was the inaugural director for between 2005 to 2012 and is now special advisor to) that approached the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for funding, not the other way around:

Bill Gates – at our request and initiation – provided some of the funding to help developing countries multiply and ship their seeds to Svalbard and in so doing provided a tremendous service to those countries and to the cause of conserving diversity. I applaud him for it. But, it still doesn't give him favored treatment or access to the seeds.

One might expect that all the aforementioned are the issues that would have garnered the Svalbard Global Seed Vault its rash of attention rather than silly talk about "Doomsday" preparations and Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired construction methods. But throughout my seven years of observations I haven't been able to find a single publication, even a single activist-type publication, that has so much as even written a peep about any of this. Besides two relatively obscure blogs (Food Freedom and Bifurcated Carrots) that wrote about early developments several years ago (and which I owe a great deal of gratitude for for the Whealy photo as well as several leads towards various documents and other information – see Food Freedom's post here and Bifurcated Carrots' posts here, here, here, here, and here) the only peep I've come across about this saga in the entire media-verse is a not-very-inquisitive sentence published in Wired magazine back in 2010:

The samples remain at all times the property of the depositors, the only proviso being that the originals must be freely available to researchers and breeders under the terms of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources.

Along with Wired, the only (non-media) outfit that seems to have paid even the slightest attention to what may very well be a fiasco just waiting to happen is the Center for Food Safety. As stated by Andrew Kimbrell, the public interest attorney, author of the excellent book Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, and the Center For Food Safety's founder and Executive Director,

So a major question looms. Why this interest by these biotech companies and their surrogates in paying the operational costs of Svalbard? These companies have no record of altruistic concern for the integrity and diversity of seeds and have in fact been destroying that diversity through genetic engineering and patenting for decades. The most obvious hypothesis is that these corporations see in Svalbard an opportunity to gain further control of the world's plant genetics – being able to utilize the seed bank as a resource for germplasm that can be used for creating patentable hybrid or genetically engineered seed varieties.

Andrew Kimbrell wants you to get schooled about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault!
(photo courtesy of Oregon Tilth)
Andrew Kimbrell wants you to get schooled about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault!
(photo courtesy of Oregon Tilth)

Fowler himself dismisses such notions as "conspiracy theories" (I'll return to that comment shortly) and that "It's time to move on." Likewise, several people involved with the Seed Savers Exchange's denunciation of Whealy's Land Institute talk have vehemently denied such possibilities, one of those being Fowler's Shattering co-author Pat Mooney. As Mooney put it,

There are shortcomings. For example, the head of one highly-regarded national gene bank told me last week that the deposit agreement for Svalbard states that the depositor must agree to make samples of all deposited seed available upon request – not from the vault – but from the original collections. While a case could be made – which I think is somewhat dubious – that crops that are under Annex one of the seed treaty should be made available upon request if the depositor comes from a country which has ratified the treaty at least, there is no logic – and some risk – in demanding that other crops – not included in the treaty (which was the concern of the gene bank director) – also be made available. I was involved in the negotiations around the list of annex one crops and it was a long and protracted battle during which many countries fought very hard to exclude certain species. Svalbard's deposit contract undoes that negotiation by saying that anyone who wishes to deposit non-treaty crops must surrender samples upon request. The effect of this provision is to keep the seeds of some important crops out of secure long-term storage in Norway. It works against the vault's stated goal and against conservation. This has to be changed.

But does said provision truly act against the purpose of the Vault? If it was that important to assuage all fears so that all the world's seeds could be uber-conserved, wouldn't have said provision been stripped from the Agreement – as Mooney suggested – if it did in fact ultimately provide no purpose? (It hasn't been removed.)

Next up is Will Bonsall, who in his Seed Savers Exchange-affiliated denouncement of Whealy's Land Institute talk stated that

Kent is correct when he claims that Monsanto, or anyone else, can access SSE varieties, and use them to create GMO's or any new varieties which they can then patent. But that is nothing new because they always could!

But what isn't stated by Bonsall, nor Mooney, nor Fowler, nor anybody else, is a denial that Monsanto or whatever less-bogeyman-sounding biotech company can in some way use the Depositor Agreement to get access to the original sources of the seeds deposited by hundreds of genebanks into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

What Fowler has stated is that (emphasis mine)

Most importantly, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is not bait to bring others under the FAO International Treaty and the Treaty is not a vehicle for corporate access to seeds held in Svalbard. The Government of Norway is steadfastly anti-GMO with no serious corporate seed presence and it would never allow such a result.

Problem is, not only does Fowler's statement contain the red-herring of GMOs (anything to do with GMOs in Svalbard is completely besides the point when it comes to the criticisms that those such as Whealy and Kimbrell have made) but it's one which makes a much more egregious use of the kind of "qualifiers and modifiers" language that the Seed Savers Exchange's Board of Directors used to denounce Whealy with. Because the contentious issue is by no means about GMOs in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault nor about the seeds held inside Svalbard, but about the seeds linked by treaty and held outside of Svalbard (which Fowler apparently tends to forget to address).

As Whealy also stated in what increasingly seems like a prescient jeremiad,

Despite Cary Fowler's rhetoric about protecting genetic resources, Svalbard is nothing more than legalized biopiracy by U.N. treaty! His Trojan horse publicity is all designed to focus attention strictly on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and its claims of saving the world's food production from climate change and nuclear catastrophe, with never any mention of the FAO Treaty. Truth be known, Svalbard is the largest corporate seed grab in the history of the world!

Without a doubt Whealy's accusations could easily be claimed as being little more than haughty remarks, and I'd be lying if I said I've never had even the slightest doubts about them myself – and that's even though I spotted Wendell Berry give his old friend Whealy a few pats on the shoulder as Whealy sat down in front of him after delivering his talks.

Pouring some cold water on all these "conspiracies", Fowler has been quoted as stating that "That door was opened a long time ago" and that "They're making connections that just aren't there", a reference to the notion that biotech companies have had access to a wide range of germplasm for many years now. However, what Fowler's denunciation doesn't address is the fact that if the seeds have been readily available to whomever for a "long time" now, then what need is there for inclusion of the Article 7 Section 1 provision in the Agreement in the first place? Going by Fowler's logic, what difference would it make then if the provision simply wasn't there? Because if "That door was opened a long time ago" and the provision is essentially of no use to anybody, then why not just take it out and make everybody happy?

In the reply by representatives of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault itself to Whealy's Land Institute talk, it was similarly stated (PDF) that (emphasis mine)

The seeds remain the property of the depositor and no organization involved with the funding, management and operation of the Seed Vault (or anyone else for that matter) can access the seeds deposited in the Seed Vault.

Let's put aside the similar usage of "qualifiers and modifiers" type of language to Fowler's whereby seeds held inside the Vault are referenced rather than seeds held outside the Vault, since what the Svalbard Global Seed Vault representatives also stated is that

In our view the Treaty is a legal framework that makes it possible to cooperate across national borders to conserve genetic resources as well as protect the rights of the owners of these resources.

Because if what that latter quote is implying is that the Agreement – Article 7 Section 1 in particular – allows for genebanks to have easier access to each other's material and a greater ability to share with one another, then I think that that vehemently begs the following question:

How can it be argued that biotech companies don't need something like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and its associated Depositor Agreement to help them get their hands on seeds in genebanks, but the (depositing) genebanks themselves do?

Am I missing something here?

If this weren't such a serious issue it might be humorous to quip that genebanks should be outsourcing their seed procurement to the likes of Monsanto and company, but I digress.

Although that's the first ever shipment of seeds, nearly ten years on and the seeds continue to pour
in under the watchful eyes of Svalbard's seedlord (photo by Global Crop Diversity Trust / Mari Tefre)
Although that's the first ever shipment of seeds, nearly ten years on and the seeds continue to pour in under the watchful eyes of Svalbard's seedlord (photo by Global Crop Diversity Trust / Mari Tefre)

While on the topic of biotech companies seeking germplasm, it turns out that simultaneous to that WWOOFing stint I did at Koanga Gardens several years back that an email was received from none other than Monsanto in which a significant amount of Koanga's seeds were requested for purchase. I recall it being debated whether or not there was any point denying Monsanto's order, a sort of resignation hanging in the air seeing how – reminiscent of Fowler's comment – what point would there be in refusing the request when any Monsanto representative could walk in their front door unannounced and purchase any seeds they were after? Wanting an update and clarification on all this I decided to email my former WWOOF host Kay Baxter (yet another seed saver extraordinaire in her own right) and was told in return that

Svalbard feels totally irrelevant to us here in NewZealand. Seeds do not thrive in such places, and we have experience in NZ with our heritage kumara collection that was kept in storage in Japan for many years and were so weak when they were retrieved they were useless. What use will seeds in Svalbard be to gardeners who need for in NZ if there is a world wide crash of any sort? We will not have access to them, or certainly would not want to be dependent on such access. Our seeds must be kept in living soil if we wish them to remain useful as human food, capable of nourishing us and maintaining our DNA!

Granted, and as Fowler put it, "In planning the facility we were not thinking that the world needs a doomsday vault to protect against a global catastrophe" – or as Baxter put it, "a world-wide crash of any sort". Nonetheless, and in regards to supplying biotech companies with germplasm, Baxter also pointed out to me that

Koanga has definitely not sold any seeds knowingly to Monsanto, or even NZ government departments, although we have been asked many times. They may have them, I don’t know.

In other words, while where applicable any biotech company could covertly walk in the front door of a seed saving establishment and purchase whatever they want (as Will Bonsall inferred), the fact remains that not everyone willingly hands over their seed collections to said outfits. With the very real possibility that procurement of seeds could in some way(s) become tougher in the future, it makes sense that biotech companies might try to secure access to it all while the pickings are relatively easy.

Cary Fowler inside the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, leaving no trace of fingerprints on the pickings?
(photo by Global Crop Diversity Trust / Kalle Koponen)
Cary Fowler inside the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, leaving no trace of fingerprints on the pickings? (photo by Global Crop Diversity Trust / Kalle Koponen)

But before I get to the notion of a future where access to seeds could somehow be restricted, perhaps it's also worth pointing out that I've also attended several subsequent Prairie Festivals since my first visit to the The Land Institute in 2010, and in 2013 even visited the Annual Conference and Campout at the Seed Savers Exchange. Throughout these events I've lightly queried several geneticists and other scientists about Whealy's talk, at worst met with replies along the lines of "oh, uh, I try and not get involved with all that", and at "best" with stories rehashing various dramas behind it all.

Having said that, at that Annual Conference and Campout it just so happened that the keynote speaker was none other than yet another seed saver extraordinaire – and friend of Whealy's – Gary Paul Nabhan. (If you're one of those youngins that goes by the mantra "pics or it ain't real" then you won't need too sharp of an eye to spot me in the photograph accompanying the Seed Savers Exchange blog post of Nabhan's keynote address.) I did of course chat with Nabhan, but as I have too much respect for him as an author and seed saver, and seeing how the Seed Savers Exchange had a rather awkward and uncomfortable aura of shiny-happiness to it throughout the weekend, I just couldn't bring myself to broach the topic of Svalbard and/or Whealy's talk with him, a query which might very well have been construed as something along the lines of "WTF are you doing here man!?" (which probably would have been better directed at myself as "WTF am I doing here man!?").

And it turns out that thoughts of "WTF am I doing at the Seed Savers Exchange?" were even more prescient that I'd previously thought, because it was only while writing this three-part series on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault that I discovered that a year before I visited that Annual Conference and Campout that a "town hall style meeting" was held at the Seed Savers Exchange with none other than President Barack Obama himself. That this is much more than slightly disturbing is due to the fact that despite his promise while campaigning in 2007 to label genetically modified (transgenic, to be more precise) foods, Obama was little more than Monsanto's bagman throughout his eight years as President (which followed the George W. Bush administration's revolving door policy with Monsanto), what with his having passed such things as the so-called Monsanto Protection Act in 2013 and the DARK Act in 2016.

It's not quite clear whether the Secret Service is at the Seed Savers
Exchange in order to protect the President or to protect... Monsanto's seeds?

It's not quite clear whether the Secret Service is at the Seed Savers Exchange in order to protect the President or to protect... Monsanto's seeds?
It's not quite clear whether the Secret Service is at the Seed Savers Exchange in order to protect the President or to protect... Monsanto's seeds?

So while it's been rather hard – if not just awkward – for me to get a solid answer from geneticists and other scientists about Whealy's talk, and while the Article 7 Section 1 aspect of the Svalbard Standard Depositor Agreement has received virtually no attention by the media at large (or even at tiny), I do nonetheless think that Whealy has a point – although in what might be a bit of a nuanced and expanded manner in comparison to Whealy's "simple" claim of "legalized biopiracy".

Because the fact of the matter is that saving seeds can be laborious and therefore prohibitively expensive, particularly when we're talking about saving and possibly even growing out hundreds of thousands of accessions. (As of this writing the Svalbard Global Seed Vault has roughly 500 seeds of each of the 933,304 samples it currently holds, with space for 4.5 million samples in total. For those curious, that means that the Vault currently has about 500 billion individual seeds stashed away.) No single biotech company can afford to do this for this much seed, never mind for the world's entire seed supply (Fowler's ultimate goal for the Vault), and never mind several of them doing so simultaneously and independently of one another. That being said, there's no doubt that biotech companies (including those sponsoring the Global Crop Diversity Trust and thus by extension the Svalbard Global Seed Vault) have no intention of abandoning their modus operandi of utilizing the world's diversity of seeds to create and sell new patented seed varieties, a process which inherently destroys the very diversity their patented seed varieties are based on.

As Whealy elaborated,

Other [Fowler and Goldman] lies include telling SSE's Members that fears about Seed Savers Members' Seed Collection being made available for corporate breeding and patenting are unfounded and will never actually happen. Being written into the FAO Treaty means it will eventually happen, exactly the same way the rights of farmers to save their own seeds have gradually been made illegal by similar treaties.

By "similar treaties" I imagine that what Whealy was referring to was things such as the infamous Order 81 that was imposed upon Iraq following the United States' most recent invasion, an order that "made it illegal for Iraqi farmers to re-use seeds harvested from new varieties registered under the law" and so paved the way for the likes of Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and Dow Chemical to penetrate and overtake the very "cradle of agriculture" where the ancestry of many of those patented seeds originated.

Because while Fowler repeatedly makes the undeniable observation that

I cannot imagine constructing an efficient, sustainable, effective, response to climate change without conserving crop diversity...

there's no denying that while some backyard gardeners and farmers of various kinds are also aware of this, if there's one set of outfits that is no less clueless about this then that'd be none other than the Global Crop Diversity Trust-sponsoring biotech companies. That being so, seeing how in the coming increasingly-afflicted-by-climate-change years biotech companies will most certainly – and possibly desperately – need access to as much agricultural diversity as possible (which in the process will be used to tighten their stranglehold on the world's seed supply), how could they possibly make sure they retain as much access to the necessary supply as possible, and at bargain-basement prices no less?

As it turns out, quite easily actually.

What one does is sign up to a fractional-reserve seed banking operation in the far north which not only has low overhead costs due to its negligible staff requirements, but which due to frigid permafrost-imbued temperatures means that any banked seeds can be stashed away and placed out of sight, out of mind (at least in theory). As a bonus, it's even better if the fractional-reserve seed bank can be imbued with a token-gesture, feel-good story about how it's oh-so-necessary to preserve the world's agricultural diversity.

Don't know what I'm talking about?

Then let's let Fowler set the stage for us (Seeds on Ice, page 147):

As fighting broke out in Tunisia and elsewhere in the early days of what is now called the Arab Spring, I got on the phone with my old friend Mahmoud Solh, the director general at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) then based in Syria. ICARDA specializes in plant breeding for dry areas and it has one of the world's largest and most important collections of wheat, barley, chickpea, lentil, faba bean, vetch, grass pea (Lathyrus sativa), and legume forages. It not only conserves this diversity, but also supplies twenty-five thousand samples to plant breeders and researchers annually for their use.

Mahmoud and I agreed that the troubles in other countries of the region were ominous, but concluded that Syria, and the ICARDA collection, would likely escape the turmoil. (How wrong we were.) But I suggested to Mahmoud that we should try to get a duplicate copy of his collection up to Svalbard as soon as possible, just in case. "Just in case" is what the Seed Vault is all about.

The Justin Case Emergency Kit: To be used only when in need of an important photo-op
(photo courtesy of allvol11)
The Justin Case Emergency Kit: To be used
only when in need of an important photo-op
(photo courtesy of allvol11)

As you may have guessed by now, the genebank located in Aleppo, Syria, had some – how shall we call them? Issues?

But before I get to that, and as Fowler continued,

In retrospect, it was certain to happen. The fierce and prolonged fighting in Syria made it almost inevitable that Aleppo-based ICARDA would need to retrieve the seed samples it had deposited in Svalbard as a backup.

Thing is though, I've by now become a bit wary of this "qualifiers and modifiers" kind of language that Fowler likes to use, and so couldn't help but notice those "almost inevitable" words in the latter sentence. "Almost"? As in the facility could have "almost" been skipped over by the rebel factions? Or that peace could have "almost" spontaneously broken out when trouble was knocking at the facility's front door? Or is it "almost" as in, oh, I don't know, how about, uhh.....

Okay, so here's the rub. Acting on a bit of a hunch I decided to do a bit of Internet sleuthing, and after two minutes or so of dauntingly arduous work I came across another Wired article entitled "How Syrians Saved an Ancient Seedbank From Civil War". As it stated,

Luckily, the Center had been preparing for its own destruction since day one. It already had sent emergency backups of about 87 percent of its collection to genebanks in other countries. Even under the best political conditions, "you worry about fire, you worry about earthquakes," the Center's director general Mahmoud Solh says in this video interview. Creating emergency backups is standard practice for international genebanks, from Mexico to Nigeria.

Yes, you read that right. Preparations had been made to back up the seeds – Since. Day. One. And not only that, but a backup of only 87% of its collection implies that

that left 13 percent of the Syrian collection – more than 20,000 samples – that hadn't been backed up. As soon as the fighting started in the spring of 2011, the genebank's staff switched gears from collecting and distributing seed samples to devising a rescue plan. People there became very familiar with northern Syria's back roads as they drove the seeds out of the country... The Center's employees milked every connection they had to get the job done.

In other words, ICARDA's staff busted their arses like you'd expect anybody dedicated to protecting their agricultural heritage would do and so made sure everything was all protected against calamity.

What does Fowler have to say about the heroic efforts of ICARDA's staff? In an interview he gave to NPR he stated

So in a sense, we've – it's a bit of a proof of concept [for the Vault]. And, of course, these people understood very, very clearly the importance of having an insurance policy [i.e. the Vault].

That's right. Not. A. Single. Word. Furthermore, even though backups of the Syrian ICARDA seed collection already existed, that hasn't stopped Fowler from giving talk after talk, interview after interview, and even writing a glossy coffee-table book, in which he not only never mentions the prior heroic efforts of ICARDA's staff but in which he instead glorifies the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and paints a rather skewed if not fraudulent picture of how it came to the rescue of this important collection of seeds.

If I may, I imagine that the way in which the Svalbard Global Seed Vault came to ICARDA's "rescue" may have gone something like this, starting off with a call to one of Fowler's sugar-daddies (words in quotation marks are from the previous quote I relayed of Fowler talking about a certain Bill from a certain Foundation):

Bill! Hey look, we could really use some more of that "funding to help developing countries multiply and ship their seeds to Svalbard" ... Fantastic! Glad we could count on your help! "I applaud [you] for it"! But please don't forget that this doesn't give you or Monsanto or any other biotech company "favored treatment or access to the seeds" held inside the Vault.

Following that by a few years, a subsequent phone call may have gone something like this:

Hey Mahmoud, buddy, you've gotta do me a favour! Don't retrieve copies of your seeds from Turkey and all those other nearby countries where your staff painstakingly backed up ICARDA's seed collection to, use the backup to the backup – Svalbard! We'll be all over the news, man!

And all over the news Svalbard was, and is. Just do an Internet search for "Aleppo seed bank" or "Syrian seed bank", without even mentioning Svalbard, and you'll be greeted with article after article about how the Svalbard Global Seed Vault came to ICARDA's rescue, with nary a mention of the previously existing backups.

Nonetheless, am I perhaps being a bit too harsh on Fowler? You can decide for yourself, because that was only half the rub, the other half being concerned with the occupation of Aleppo's genebank. Because since Fowler's aforementioned quote stated that he was wrong to presume that ICARDA would "escape the turmoil" ("How wrong we were"), it's probably safe to assume that the facility got flattened by bombs or something and that the seed collection was destroyed, right? Right?

Uhh... not quite. Because while the facility did in fact get occupied by anti-Assad rebel groups, and as it was put in a 2015 article entitled "The Syrian Seed Bank that Keeps Going Despite the War",

Its refrigerated vaults remain powered, and a small number of Syrian staff are permitted by occupying rebels to maintain the facility.

Say what?

Okay, but these were at least crazed rebels, right? Uhh...

"The centre was occupied unfortunately by armed forces... but some of them are farmers and they had received seeds from us," he [Mahmoud Solh] said. "They understood the value of the centre and they know we are apolitical and have nothing to do with the government." He said two armed groups had taken over their land which had been used for producing seeds. "They are harvesting crops for their own good [while] allowing us to keep the gene bank operational."

Riiiiight. The bad-ass Syrian rebels occupied the ICARDA genebank and started to... farm the place.

That being so, the crazed rebel-farmers must have refrained from forging all their swords into plowshares and probably had all sorts of guns, and, like, scud missles, right? Uhh...

Dr Solh said there were rumours that the armed forces were going to use the centre to store arms but they managed to persuade them it was not a good idea. He said while the seeds had been saved, some other things had been lost. "We lost some scientific equipment, cars, implements, all the tractors," he said.

!? So if I'm not mistaken here, a bunch of dorky scientists managed to persuade a bunch of gun-toting rebels to not disturb their seeds' hushed dormancy and so leave their rowdy guns outside? What kind of occupation was this!? For Pete's sake, there was at least some raping and pillaging, right?

Occupying fighters use ICARDA to charge laptops and mobile phones, and some profit from the black market in fuel needed to power the generators.

Charging their mobile phones? So besides farming the place, these ICARDA-occupying rebels were like, what, running around Aleppo's genebank trying to catch Pokemons?

Okay, perhaps that was a bit too over the top even for me, so with all due respect I should probably be nice enough to give Fowler some credit for closing off the ICARDA-dedicated chapter in Seeds on Ice in the way he did:

The first withdrawal of seeds is obviously a momentous occasion. It serves to underscore the importance – necessity – of having the Seed Vault, and the enormous and lasting "return on investment" of having built it. It is also a bittersweet moment. Using an insurance policy is never anyone's first choice. Everyone hopes this is the last time the Seed Vault will be used for the purpose for which it was established. But I know it won't be.

"But I know it won't be"?

Well at least Fowler's willing to admit he knows something we don't. Because if this "insurance policy" quite obviously isn't for the genebanks themselves, then who exactly might it be for?

Ah yes, there's nothing quite like seeing a couple of newly-weds getting serenaded by none other
than Monsanto's main man – President Barack Obama – at the venerable Seed Savers Exchange
(photo courtesy of Luther College)
Ah yes, there's nothing quite like seeing a couple of newly-weds getting serenaded by none other than Monsanto's main man – President Barack Obama – at the venerable Seed Savers Exchange (photo courtesy of Luther College)

With all that out of the way, how about a little thought experiment working off of Whealy's previously stated assertion that "Being written into the FAO Treaty means corporate breeding and patenting will eventually happen".

For starters, it's anybody's guess as to what political changes could come about between now and our future of an increasingly ravaged climate and thus ravaged planet, from populist rulers that could deny germplasm to foreign biotech companies to grass-roots pitch-fork revolts against said seed outfits that could result in – well, who knows what? Congruently, what happens if a similar or even completely different situation to one of these occurs and so inherently results in a depositing country reneging on their end of the Svalbard Standard Depositor Agreement? Because as the Agreement states in Article 1 Section 2,

The Depositor recognizes the right of the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food to refuse to accept samples for deposit, or to terminate the deposit

    a. if the Depositor fails to comply fully with the terms and conditions set out in this Agreement; or

    b. for reasons of force majeure [superior or irresistible force].

So with Whealy and Kimbrell quite rightly arguing that original sources of seed held outside the Vault could end up accessed by seed-patenting biotech companies, how exactly might that work? Well, if during a time of catastrophic climate change, deteriorating agriculture, starving (first world) masses, and biotech companies clamouring on for access to said seeds so they can "feed a hungry world", would or would not the Article 7 Section 1 provision of the Svalbard Depositor Agreement finally be utilized if populaces could be galvanized to provide biotech companies access to the seeds held outside of Svalbard – contractually linked to and allowed for by the Depositor Agreement – via being convinced that said allowance was tantamount to saving millions, if not billions, of lives? Moreover, if the world could finally get rid of any pesky climate change-denying Presidents it may have for ones that do in fact "get" climate change and who do in fact "get" the importance of saving lives by providing biotech companies with access to our seed collections held in Svalbard, would – could – much of the populace really deny such a thing to a World Leader who is oh-so-wise-enough not to deny climate change?

On the other hand, what would happen in the theoretical event where a depositor not only reneges on their end of the Agreement and so denies "other natural or legal persons" access to the original copies of seeds held in their genebanks, particularly during a similar time of catastrophic climate change, deteriorating agriculture, starving (first world) masses, and biotech companies clamouring on for access to said seeds so they can "feed a hungry world"? Would NordGen (or whatever institution it be) really let an uncooperative depositor or an Agreement on a stupid piece of paper stop them from accessing the greatest cache of seeds the world will ever see? Would force majeure result in their response to incalcitrant depositors be to destroy the seeds they hold, or to equally renege on their side of the agreement by accessing the seeds held inside the vault and handing them over to biotech companies who were kind enough to provide funding (in a roundabout way) for the Vault in the first place, and who will surely do something "useful" with them?

As Whealy quite rightly pointed out in that letter he sent out to Seed Savers Exchange Members in 2009,

All of this Trojan horse publicity is designed to focus the public's attention strictly on the Svalbard seed vault and its claims of saving the world's food production from climate change and nuclear catastrophe, with never any mention of the FAO Treaty whose real purpose is to facilitate access to the world's genetic resources for breeding purposes and patenting. This is exactly the same way that Monsanto has deceitfully promoted its genetically engineered foods as the remedy for world hunger, instead of actually being a scheme to genetically engineer food crops that require the use of their agricultural chemicals whose patents were expiring. Svalbard is only the frozen backup facility for the U.N.'s FAO Treaty, not the main focus of the system as is constantly portrayed.

In what is certainly not a direct response, Fowler states in Seeds on Ice (page 143) that

the Seed Vault is in its eighth year. The sky hasn't fallen. None of the accusations or fears has come true, not even with a single one of the Vault's 880,000+ seed samples, even once. That really says it all, doesn't it?

Actually, no. It doesn't. All it proves is that biotech companies aren't stupid enough to try and access any seed via the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and its associated Depositor Agreement in a time when they can easily get them via other means (as has been argued by many Svalbard defenders, including Fowler himself), with the real test(s) coming once access to the relevant seeds might not be quite as easy anymore due to peak oil, climate change, and the whole enchilada of the collapse of industrial civilization. That is when we'll see whether or not the sky shall fall, and not a second earlier.

Last of all, when push comes to shove, who would make the final call on whether or not "other natural or legal persons" would be allowed the kind of access I speak of? Rabble-rousers in the streets (and/or in their gardens) screaming "hey, you promised!", or funders of the Global Crop Diversity Trust who might twist the arms of those who think they're the ones in charge?

For some reason the words "seeds" and "ice" remind me of
the story of how Nikolai Vavilov's son Oleg died on a ski trip,
possibly murdered from the blow of an ice pick to the head
For some reason the words "seeds" and "ice" remind me of the story of how Nikolai Vavilov's son Oleg died on a ski trip, possibly murdered from the blow of an ice pick to the head

Without a doubt, all of what I've just written is exactly the kind of talk that Fowler would dismiss as nothing but "conspiracy theory". As he stated (while giggling) during the Q&A period of a talk he gave,

I think one of the things that I've learned working on this Seed Vault is that the Internet gives voice and audience to a lot of strange people. And, so anything – think about it – anything that involves a facility that looks like it came out of a James Bond movie, that far north, built in the middle of a mountain, surely there must be a deeper story, right?

While painting those who are suspicious of the Vault with a broad and dismissive (and demeaning?) brush, Fowler also relays information about stories associating the Vault with a secret NATO plan, and worse. As he describes it in Seeds on Ice (page 142),

Conspiracy theories used to arise to explain why something truly terrible had happened, when straightforward explanations seemed insufficient. Unfortunately, as I have now discovered, even things as positive as the Seed Vault can generate emotions approaching paranoia. If it's that good, it's too good to be true. We live in a cynical, suspicious world and the Internet gives voice to all sorts of insecurities, frustrations, and anger.

First there were people who claimed the Seed Vault was connected with a Mayan calendar prediction of the end of the world in 2012. But 2012 passed without incident. Then there were people who claimed the Vault was the centerpiece of a global eugenics plot connected with Hitler. No kidding. Then the Vault was said to be a secret NATO facility.

I did a bit of "reverse engineering" on all this and so went on a search for these theories Fowler mentions. The biggest cache of them seemed to be collected on this page, although the domains of the majority of the linked-to pages had expired and so weren't accessible. Otherwise, yes, there was the Mayan theory – "are the governments really preparing for the world to end in 2012 which according to the Mayan calendar is coming very soon"? – as well as the theory that pondered whether or not "they are trying to create some sort of master race... Could the world be witnessing the second coming of Adolf Hitler...?"

Besides those theories on what were essentially rinky-dinky websites and blogs (ahem), there was also one "prominent" conspiracy-oriented article that revolved around "the idea that the vault is a top-secret NATO facility housing a global eugenics project" (as the Washington Post described it) and which it turns out was written by none other than – shocker of all shocks – F. William Engdahl. If you've never heard of Engdahl, this is the guy who I actually wrote about in passing late last year as probably the most prominent author writing on oil as an abiotic substance, and who believes that the "theory" of peak oil is nothing but a plot by The Powers That Be to control the world, what with every theory that Engdahl spouts (including his Svalbard Global Seed Vault theory) being tied back to the same quote that Henry Kissinger (purportedly) made: "If you control the oil you control the country; if you control food, you control the population". In other words, what Fowler is somehow surprised about is that the intellectual (albeit mild-mannered) version of Alex Jones thinks there's something amiss about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. To give just one example, Engdahl stated that

Anytime Bill Gates, the Rockefeller Foundation, Monsanto and Syngenta get together on a common project, it’s worth digging a bit deeper behind the rocks on Spitsbergen.

I know that that Engdahl is off his rocker to a significantly greater amount than Fowler, but if at his age Fowler truly is surprised by this kind of conspiracy stuff then you might say that it's Fowler that's been living under a Spitsbergen rock, and that this naïveté of his would speak volumes in regards to how Fowler could be daft enough to align himself with the aforementioned biotech companies whose goal is to appropriate – and in the process effectively destroy – the crop diversity he repeatedly claims to stand for.

As if that weren't already enough, Engdahl's "contributions" to the Svalbard story actually work out to Fowler's benefit due to the various errors he makes, particularly his completely incorrect claim that Monsanto is an investor in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (Monsanto is pretty much the only major biotech company that isn't). Because what this has allowed Fowler to claim, and as that latter quote of his from Seeds on Ice continues,

Finally, the Internet lit up with accusations involving Monsanto: that the company funded the Seed Vault (it didn't, not a penny) and that the whole effort involving Norway and many other countries as well as a large number of institutions and scientists around the world was an elaborate ruse to assemble and turn seeds over to Monsanto (again, totally false). Passions flared; I even got anonymous physical threats. A couple of universities employed security for my public lectures about seed saving.

In effect, what Engdahl's errors have allowed Fowler to do is lump any dissenting voice – particularly ones that mention the bogeyman Monsanto – into the group of nutters and so dismiss their criticism of the Vault with the equivalent of "oh those crazy Interneters!" On top of that, it's not as if Fowler would dare mention Whealy's name in something like his Seeds on Ice book as he of course wouldn't want to bring attention to somebody as prominent and respected as Whealy. But if somebody does happen to somehow come across Whealy's accusations and sees Monsanto mentioned – "oh that Whealy guy, he's a nutter!" (As an aside, I did actually see Whealy in the audience at a subsequent Prairie Festival and so of course briefly spoke to him, and besides having a penchant for floral-print shirts he did in fact seem to have it all together.)

To sound like a bit of a nutter myself, seeing how virtually all the large biotech companies are involved with the Vault via the Global Crop Diversity Trust, except for Monsanto, when I read Fowler stating that

Because many people don't like Monsanto, Monsanto-related theories are particularly persistent, though the company has had absolutely no involvement...

I almost want to think that Monsanto actually is involved by not being involved, seeing how they're pretty much the only household name when it comes to biotech companies and whose non-involvement is the perfect way to absolve the Vault of any corporate underhandedness. Anyway.

Having joined Whealy by mentioning the bogeyman Monsanto and going off what is perhaps an even deeper end of my own, do my suppositions imply that Fowler is a conniving person whose decade-long plan to usurp the world's seed supply for appropriation by biotech companies has now come to fruition? To be honest it's hard to say and, as much as I (sincerely) want to, I can't say with 100% certainty that the answer to that is "no".

Is the cult leader in on it all, or are they just as duped as all the followers?

What I can say however is that based on extensive material of Fowler's that I've read and listened to, I would nonetheless chalk up Fowler's spearheading and promotion of the Vault's creation as well as such things as the Vault's Aleppo-styled "need" to a case of increasingly letting things get to one's head, to go along with an infatuation with one's self that has made Fowler into easy pickings for the very biotech companies he used to work against.

Because for starters, and as Whealy pointed out in that letter he sent to Seed Savers Exchange members in 2009,

Cary Fowler's dream is to create a world seed bank, but in order to raise the $200 million he has obviously had to lie down with the very wolves he made his early reputation fighting against. I have watched Cary Fowler's career for more than 30 years, all the way from the Frank Porter Graham Center in North Carolina to the United Nations in Rome. That path has apparently required abandoning some of his former ideals, such as championing the rights of indigenous farmers.

And what was it that Whealy then stated at The Land Institute in 2010?

Cary Fowler is lying his way towards a Nobel Peace Prize.

And where was it that Fowler spoke not nine days after Whealy gave that very talk at The Land Institute?

None other than the 46th annual Nobel Conference.

Cary Fowler warming up for his Nobel Peace Prize speech?
(photo courtesy of Gustavus Adolphus College)
Cary Fowler warming up for his Nobel Peace Prize speech? (photo courtesy of Gustavus Adolphus College)

As just mentioned, after listening to several talks and interviews with Fowler it's quite obvious that somebody that Fowler has much admiration for is not merely the eminent botanist and agronomist Jack Harlan (who Fowler speaks rather fondly of) but none other than Fowler himself. Sure, the talk Fowler gave at the Nobel Conference wasn't half bad due to its surprising mention of not only peak oil – "which was once an idea ascribed to by, sort of, the crackpot fringe... The debate is not if we're going to peak in the production of oil, the question is when" – and that "we're facing peak land, peak water, peak energy, peak nutrients, peak temperatures... peak food", but also due to its recognition that "we do live in a world of limits".

Having said that, it's hard to see Fowler's version of hard-headed realism via his mention of various peaks and limits as being anything more than a kind of straw-man argument that he builds up so that he can then tear it down in order to galvanize the support of a gullible and over-educated audience that is eager to have someone possibly even more educated than themselves tell them that the solutions to all these problems Fowler spoke of and which they may have heard of before are waiting in the wings. Because for starters, and reminiscent of self-indulgent and conscience-white-washing-1980s-television-commercials about starving African children who could be saved for the price of a cup of coffee per day, there was Fowler himself stooping to this level with an oft-repeated statement of his about how "we will watch, once again, babies starve to death on TV".

On top of that is the fact that from what I've noticed there's never been any mention about how our children in the West might not only end up watching babies starve to death on TV, but in the meantime may very well be in the process of starving to death in front of the TV themselves, thanks to all the peaks and limits Fowler mentioned. How is it that Fowler can effectively envisage "babies... on TV" as being vulnerable to peaks and limits, but apparently not our babies, on this side of the screen? As far as I can tell, it's probably because Fowler is – if not a complete fraud and/or charlatan – a so-called "optimist". As he put it himself in the closing remarks to his Nobel Conference talk, and after he'd painted a rather grim picture due to all those peaks and limits,

The problems that I've outlined today are problems that I believe, can be solved. I, am, in fact, optimistic. But it will take a few people doing their part to solve them. So my advice to you is to be a part of that few. It's fun. Thank you very much. [Resounding applause]

I'll put aside Fowler's promotion of hero-worshiping courtesy of his claim that it's "a few people doing their part [that will] solve [things]", because his optimistic attitude kind of makes me wonder: If Fowler is so optimistic that we – nay, "a few people" – can solve "peak land, peak water, peak energy, peak nutrients, peak temperatures... peak food", then while he's as it, why not just dream up the optimistic idea that we can once and for all also solve the scourge of war? Because if "a few people" could solve war (it'd be "fun"!), then that'd mean that the Syrian seed bank wouldn't have been put at risk, possibly precluding the need for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the first place. That's of course a lot of "optimism" to ask for, so how about just refrigerators that don't malfunction and put genebanks at risk, which again could preclude the need for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Can we spare a bit of "optimism" for that?

All of that is of course silly talk, but it's no sillier than what Fowler suggested. Fowler however wasn't trying to be silly, which in effect means that Fowler is either completely out to lunch and doesn't comprehend peaks and limits in the slightest, or that he was pandering to a gullible audience so that he could engender and continue to engineer public support for his cherished Seed Vault. Because as he stated with the equally vacuous and crowd-comforting comments that closed off his TED Talk – entitled "One Seed at a Time" but which probably should have been titled "All of the Seeds at the Same Time (and in the Same Place)" –

We, of course, by, conserving, wheat, rice, potatoes and the other crops, we may, quite simply, end up, saving ourselves.

Which is correct "theoretically", because if we somehow managed to defy the laws of physics and overcame "peak land, peak water, peak energy, peak nutrients, peak temperatures... peak food" as well as peak oil and the fact that "we do live in a world of limits", then yes, to "solve" all that but then accidentally forget to conserve agricultural diversity – "These resources stand between us and catastrophic starvation on a scale we cannot imagine. In a very real sense the future of the human race rides on these materials" (as Fowler has quoted Jack Harlan in Seeds on Ice) – then we wouldn't deserve to survive because we'd be the stupidest species to ever inhabit the planet.

Cary Fowler, huh? Well, in light of what I've pointed out here, if there's any desire to straighten things out a bit I'd be more than willing to do a follow-up TED Talk myself, although I'm not sure how well talk of the collapse of industrial civilisation would go over with the TED Talk kind of crowd (credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson)
Cary Fowler, huh? Well, in light of what I've pointed out here, if there's any desire to straighten things out a bit I'd be more than willing to do a follow-up TED Talk myself, although I'm not sure how well talk of the collapse of industrial civilisation would go over with the TED Talk kind of crowd (credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson)

But truth be told, on a global scale we aren't going to "solve" many, if any, of the aforementioned peaks and limits, the implication being that there's absolutely no way that "conserving... crops" could possibly result in us "saving ourselves". It's hard to imagine then why else Fowler would end his TED Talk in such a way but for the reason of garnering a resounding round of applause and the adulation of a crowd that wants to be told the fairy-tale ending that we humans are so smart that we can overcome anything if we put our minds to it, and that the Vault is the greatest example of human foresight we've ever seen:

I can't think of any facility that's been built in my lifetime or yours, with the kind of time horizon that this has. Maybe the people who built the pyramids thought that it was going to last forever or hundreds of thousands of years, but this facility could easily be here thousands of years from now...

Or maybe he just felt compelled to say that because he got word that nine days earlier Wes Jackson had introduced Whealy as "someone who will be remembered long after the pyramids are gone".

But anyway, taking everything I've mentioned into account I can't help but get the impression that Fowler is actually little more than the polar opposite of the conspiracy theorist that he effectively likes to giggle at (Engdahl), making him not a conspiracy theorist himself but what you might call a fairy-tale theorist. Because while Engdahl could pessimistically state that

Time will tell whether, God Forbid, the Svalbard Doomsday Seed Bank of Bill Gates and the Rockefeller Foundation is part of another Final Solution, this involving the extinction of the Late, Great Planet Earth...

Fowler is the optimistic Aleppo-saviour and peaks- and limits-conqueror who in Seeds on Ice (page 153) says things like

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was not built in a spirit of pessimism. It was not built by people obsessed with "doomsday". It was conceptualized and constructed by optimists and pragmatists...

And while Engdahl "knows" that NATO and Kissinger and company already control it all, Fowler "knows" that there's no possibility that the seeds associated with the Svalbard Global Seed Vault could ever fall into the hands of Monsanto or whichever else less bogeyman-sounding biotech company.

No, nobody unscrupulous could ever lay their hands on those seeds
(photo by Global Crop Diversity Trust / Mari Tefre)
No, nobody unscrupulous could ever lay their hands on those seeds (photo by Global Crop Diversity Trust / Mari Tefre)

Because to Fowler it's not so much about the seeds as much as it's about the Vault. As he puts it in Seeds on Ice (page 107),

Somehow, it [the Vault] would have to operate almost automatically, by itself. The more human involvement, the bigger the chances of something going wrong. Management would have to be slim and uncomplicated.

Put aside the possibility of misanthropy behind that statement and the notion that seeds are saved best without humans, because if we flip a bit over to page 114 we then see Fowler state that

Indeed, having the facility close to the village, visible through binoculars to people in the control tower of the airport, actually increased security.

In other words, what Fowler is most concerned about maintaining human connection with is his dear concrete structure, not with the actual seeds which for eons have been a part of our day-to-day lives.

Is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in fact Cary Fowler's vanity project? I find it hard not to see so. Having repeatedly obscured the truth and repeatedly left out details unconducive to the Vault's promotion, not only is Fowler extremely disingenuous, but he is obviously more than willing to say whatever is expedient for the Vault's promotion – the Vault for the Vault's sake! To give just one hypocritical example, while Fowler has no problem obscuring the truth behind the story of ICARDA's seed collection in order to promote the Vault, he'll not only take issue with the media's skewed portrayal of the Vault's "flood", but if I'm not mistaken will even start up a Twitter account ("Joined May 2017") so that he can send out a Tweet (his first ever) to clear things up in the Vault's favour:

Furthermore, he's either lying to us all or, through an obscene fascination with himself or even extreme naïveté, has managed to convince and/or so strongly lie to himself to the effect that he's not able to believe that his dear Seed Vault could possibly result in the appropriation of the entirety of the world's seed heritage by some of the most power-hungry organisations the world has ever seen.

Which leads into the following question: Is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault the greatest scam since the dawn of agriculture? To answer that first requires relaying Fowler's story of when he first got approval for the Vault's construction from the Norwegian government. As the state secretary for international development at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked Fowler (Seeds on Ice, page 113),

Let me get this straight. You're saying these seeds are the most important natural resource on earth?

Fowler then replied with "Well, yes, I guess so", or as he elaborated in his NPR interview,

I thought about it a second, said, well, yes, it is. It's the foundation of agriculture. So that – it almost has to be.

In other words, while fossil fuels are a prerequisite to industrial civilisation, it's seeds that are the prerequisite for going from a gatherer-hunter civilisation to an agricultural one. With seeds being the foundation of our agricultural civilisation, and with the Svalbard Global Seed Vault quite possibly being the means by which virtually the entirety of more than 10,000 years of humanity's agricultural heritage gets handed over to a consortium of organisations hell-bent on controlling not just seeds but humanity itself (a good book to read on this topic is Marie-Monique Robin's The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption, and the Control of the World's Food Supply), then yes, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is certainly the greatest scam since the dawn of agriculture.

Drawing this Svalbard Global Seed Vault investigation of mine to a close, and having mentioned Whealy's old friend Nabhan, I think it's appropriate to relay a story about how and why seeds are saved, a story about seeds that had been gifted to and preserved by the Seed Savers Exchange (back in Whealy's time), which were then passed on to Nabhan, and then in the largest repatriation of native seeds in history were returned to their initial evolutionary cohorts – the Hopi. As Nabhan beautifully put it in his wonderful book Enduring seeds: Native American Agriculture and Wild Plant Conservation,

"Some people I've met here the last few days thought that you would be the one who might like to have some of these old seeds," I offered. "They say that you still grow others like these."

"Old seeds?" Cora asked, showing a subdued interest. "Could I see what you mean?"

I pulled out my now-crumpled envelopes from the Seed Savers Exchange, and poured Hidatsa red beans into Cora's hand. She just looked at them, saying nothing, as if seeing an old friend for the first time in years. She sat down, then looked at the other kinds of seed, identifying them and commenting on how they were used.

"May I keep them? May I grow these? Here, put some in envelopes for me. I'll go get you some of our family's Indian corn to try."

Cora came back with two ears of flour corn from her garden and a gallon jar full of seeds from her sister's field. She gave me a small bag filled with seeds from the jar, and also the two ears.

As Whealy has repeatedly stated, the Seed Savers Exchange was designed and operated as a "people's seed bank", one where during his time over a million samples of seed had been selflessly shared by those involved. However, neither that, Nabhan's story, nor anything else I've written imply that one must choose between either in situ or ex situ seed saving (another straw-man argument Fowler has trotted out). As Kimbrell has stated,

As noted elsewhere on this site, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) strongly advocates for in situ protection of plant diversity, and when ex situ seed saving is required it should reside at the most local and ecologically appropriate level.

In other words, there's a difference between a more "local and ecologically appropriate" method of ex situ seed saving and the extreme-sport variance of ex situ seed saving partaken by the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, its corporate funders, and its vainglory progenitor (and wife of the seedlord-progenitor).

I find it all rather fitting then that following the Svalbard Global Seed Vault's recent "flood" that it was decided that the Vault's seed collection was now going to be monitored twenty-four hours a day – "It was supposed to [operate] without the help of humans, but now we are watching the seed vault 24 hours a day" said Hege Njaa Aschim of the Norwegian government. That this is fitting is due to the fact that seeds aren't something to be stashed away so as to alleviate our chances of having to watch "babies starve to death" during commercial breaks, but to be something intertwined in our lives, something which us and our cultures move with in the dance of evolution.

Furthermore, Fowler has stated in Seeds on Ice (page 136) that

We who planned and designed the Seed Vault envisaged a structure and a management system that would almost operate by itself, with scant human intervention.

"Scant human intervention" couldn't describe it better, because that is exactly what the Svalbard Global Seed Vault creates out of seed saving whether it be the intention or not. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is in one sense a representation of seed saving, a toothless kind of social movement where one can affix the designated-coloured ribbon to their lapel, point to the Vault, and proudly state "I support seed saving!"

This being so, some have wondered if the $8 million tab for the Vault's construction and the $250,000 needed every year to maintain it might have been – and be – better spent assisting farmers with on-the-ground initiatives to save seeds. Perhaps surprisingly, my answer to that would be "no, not really". Because the problem with diminishing crop diversity isn't a mere monetary problem, but ultimately a cultural problem – seeds barely register as part of our lives. Not until a much larger proportion of us can recall the very seeds which led to the food we bite upon might we have a more stable grasp on our agricultural diversity and its conservation. However, and although it shouldn't stop us from doing what we can in the meantime, that isn't likely to come about from concerted human effort but rather as a result of various effects that will emerge thanks to the peaks and limits that Fowler spoke of.

But that's another story for another time.

In the meantime, and with the creation of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, we've once again made yet another move to distance ourselves even further away from building a meaningful bond with the very seeds we share an evolutionary path with.

To rectify this, and dramas aside, we would be wise to start off by taking heed of the words of Kent Whealy. For as he put it himself in the closing remarks to his 2009 letter to Seed Savers Exchange members, "No lie lives forever."

Resources (PDFs):

Kent Whealy letter to Seed Savers Exchange members (July 9, 2009)

Kent Whealy Land Institute talk (September 26, 2010)

Kent Whealy Land Institute talk response (November, 2010)


Certainly not the safest way to save seeds, but just like seeds themselves, some take,
some don't, and some result in unexpected surprises (photo by Nick Normal)
Certainly not the safest way to save seeds, but just like seeds themselves, some take, some don't, and some result in unexpected surprises (photo by Nick Normal)

Note #1: When I briefly spoke to Whealy after his talk in 2010 and mentioned that I'd somehow like to help, with the wink of an eye he gave me the quick reply of "sure, and you can get sued with me!" I was belated by exactly seven years in offering a hand, but nonetheless, is this the part where I finally get to get sued? And if not sued, then at least slandered?

Note #2: Because with Fowler's repeated denouncements of "conspiracy theories" in mind, you can decide for yourself. Is this post on From Filmers to Farmers something written by a cynical and overly suspicious individual who might very well be "insecure, frustrated and angry", and who has proceeded to "abandon their skepticism and accept without question the most outlandish things they find on the internet"? Is this post something that Fowler will "With sadness... chalk this up to the cynicism that so many people feel these days about almost any attempt to do something good and big"? Or is Fowler possibly someone who creates straw-man after straw-man argument in order to deflect any misgivings about his cherished vanity project? Well, regardless of whatever it is you make of all this, and being the nice guy that I am, I decided to save Fowler the trouble by going ahead and submitting this post to r/conspiracy.

Note #3: A few more words to this notion of a fractional-reserve seed bank, which can be taken as a situation similar to what I wrote about a couple of years ago whereby Cypriot depositors were victims of a "haircut" and so saw the banks appropriate significant portions of their money in order to try and remain solvent, done so via a process now known as the "bail-in" – We Are All Now Cypriots-to-be in the New Age of Bail-Ins. With that in mind, what remains to be seen is how long it'll be until depositors into the Svalbard Global fractional-reserve seed bank find out that they've also fallen victim to a "haircut", one where their seeds held either inside or outside the Vault are used to bail-in the "owners" (read: the biotech companies that in some cases donated to the Global Crop Diversity Trust) of the (seed) bank. That being said, will the Svalbard depositors clue in in time to the ruse and, somewhat similar to what Whealy has suggested, cause a "run on the (seed) bank" by requesting that their seeds be withdrawn (which is completely legal via the Depositor Agreement's stipulations)? Well, only time will tell.

Note #4: I don't think it needs pointing out that this is an extremely important post on an extremely rinky-dinky blog, and the only way that it'll gain the attention I think it deserves is by you, dear reader, sharing it in whatever manner it is you share these things – Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, email, by re-posting it to your blog (with a link back to the original page), etc. Because please don't forget: if you do in fact put in the effort to share this post far and wide, the possibility always exists that we may, just, end up, saving, ourse–

Temporary (?) Note #5: While seven of the fifteen images used in this post were under Creative Commons-equivalent licenses and so were "free" to use, another six I received permission to use, one was a book cover I grabbed off of Google, and the fifteenth is an embedded Getty Image – a photograph which I didn't purchase the rights for due to it costing significantly more than the $20 or so I would have been willing to pay for it. I've used Getty embeds before, embeds which Getty can pull the functionality for and which would "disappear" the image(s) from any post(s) implementing it/them. Since this post is incomparably more important than my previous posts with Getty embeds, and if for posterity's sake somebody wanted to purchase the rights to the medium-sized version of the President Barack Obama at the Seed Savers Exchange photograph for inclusion in this post, then by all means please contact me via the email address linked to at the bottom of this page. (If somebody does purchase the photograph for this post then I will either remove this note or replace it with a personal thank you to said individual[s], whichever they prefer.)

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Joe Clarkson
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Jan 2015
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Joe Clarkson

Interesting post, though it sounds like you are quite emotionally involved in the whole Svalbard controversy. I have a hard time seeing it as a big deal one way or the other.

If the limits to the global industrial economy (including industrial agriculture) are fast approaching, the Svalbard vault will become irrelevant to either the farmers trying to live through those coming limits or to the seed patenting companies like Syngenta and others. If industrial civilization ends, canoeing up to Svalbard and grabbing some seeds will be the last thing anyone would want to do.

I can see Svalbard having possible use only if industrial agriculture continues, a novel blight wipes out a staple crop entirely and there is no way to find enough seeds to start a program of breeding in resistance to the blight (or even creating resistance by genetic modification). This is not a plausible scenario.

If we assume that civilization continues, there must surely be cheaper and more convenient ways to save seeds. Why wouldn't a seed saver just keep seeds in a couple of freezers at hand rather than shipping them all the way to Svalbard? Sure, perma-frost is permanently frosty, but with a back-up generator a freezer is good enough. Besides, aren't seeds supposed to be rotated through storage every few years anyway?

I must be missing something crucial, because lots of seeds have been placed in the vault in Svalbard by many different entities. If you have talked to some of the folks who use Svalbard, what have they said about their reasons for doing so?

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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Aug 2014
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Joe: First off, sorry about the late response. I've been doing many revisions to several aspects of FF2F's back-end (which will be made obvious in the next few posts) and something must have been affected which rendered the email notification I'd normally get moot (although I can't see what to be honest). I've only fortuitously come across your comment by accident due to my late coding of the RSS feed for this post, so in regards to what you said --

No, unless The Land Institute has seeds stored away in Svalbard then I certainly haven't talked to anybody who has seeds stashed away there.

In regards to the Vault's relevance, and working off of the hypothetical situation(s) I offered, I suppose that such a thing would come about due to an overall slow collapse of industrial civilisation and by extension of industrial agriculture in general (which is the scenario I'm increasingly gravitating towards). To parallel it with our monetary situation, countries and people will be continually triaged out of industrial agriculture as the attempt is made to extend and pretend. As this could go on for decades, and with climate change probably getting a whole lot worse, I imagine that with access to seeds quite possibly becoming a contentious issue that Svalbard could be used as a device for Syngenta et. al. to continue business industrial agriculture as usual via the access to and usage of seeds they may not be able to access via conventional methods, and which they'll need for the new climatic conditions.

In other words, will Svalbard have relevance in the long term? Not so much. But in the near-term, and as things (relatively slowly) wind down? I imagine so.

In regards to your last two paragraphs, yes, the methods of seed saving you outlined are good enough in comparison, but Svalbard's pitch isn't that of a cheaper or better method to save seeds (so as to allow for genebanks and such to be retired), but rather as the backup to the backups. That is, not as a way to save seeds so much as a way to save the seeds of genebanks and such (or so gets said). And in regards to seeds in storage needing to be rotated, yes, Svalbard does allow for depositors to send in new samples of their seed in order to supply rejuvinated backups.

Sorry if my response is essentially a rehash of what I've already written.

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Joe Clarkson
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Jan 2015
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Joe Clarkson

Thanks for your reply.

I still think that Svalbard is a lot of fuss for a "backup to the backups". In a slow decline situation in which industrial agriculture still continues at ever-declining productive levels, there will still be the resources available for local seeds to be saved and exchanged. In a fast decline situation Svalbard will be totally irrelevant. Either way, I see little chance it will be useful. That's why I wondered about the current users of Svalbard. There must be some reason why they think it prudent to send their seeds there. I just can't imagine what that reason is.

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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Aug 2014
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Joe: I think the reasoning for depositors is essentially "why not? It can't hurt to have another backup."

Regarding your comment that "Svalbard is a lot of fuss", I'm not sure what you mean there. As in Svalbard isn't really all that important to be paying attention to, or it's a lot of resources that went into creating a redundant backup?

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Joe Clarkson
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Jan 2015
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Joe Clarkson

I just meant that Svalbard is a big, expensive project for what appears to me to be little or no real benefit to anyone except its builders and managers. It's worth paying attention to the waste involved and as a cautionary example of not thinking things through. Your post detailing the history of the project is pretty convincing for me that it is something that was never needed. Except as an example of a big mistake that should never be repeated, it should be ignored.

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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Joe: Gotcha. And yeah, that's a good way of shortening down 15,000 or so words. ;)

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