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Biotech debate stretches to roof of world

Published on April 22, 2011 3:01AM

Last changed on May 20, 2011 6:38AM

Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust
This exterior photo of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault shows the illuminated roof of the facility.

Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust This exterior photo of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault shows the illuminated roof of the facility.

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Activists accuse seed preservation project of catering to corporate masters


Capital Press

Biotech critics are worried that agri-business corporations want to exploit a "doomsday" seed vault on an island far above the Arctic Circle for its genetic resources.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located within an archipelago in northernmost Norway, opened in 2008 with the goal of protecting seeds from around the world from natural disasters and man-made cataclysms.

According to critics, seed banks from remote corners of the globe are encouraged to deposit seeds at Svalbard -- an action that essentially commits them to sharing those genetic materials with biotech developers.

"What they're doing for these corporations is putting them all in one place. This is one-stop shopping for the corporations," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, a biotech opponent.

Kimbrell said he disagrees with the Svalbard Global Seed Vault's mission on a fundamental level. The project is akin to creating a zoo for endangered species rather than trying to protect them in the wild, he said.

"It's messianic, but it doesn't make any sense," Kimbrell said. "You want to protect diversity in the habitat where it lives."

The problem with this huge "seed zoo" is that by making deposits to Svalbard, small seed banks become subject to the terms and conditions of an international treaty on plant genetics, he said.

That agreement exposes their seed collections to commercialization by agri-business firms, Kimbrell said. Though these companies can't patent the seed itself, they can use those genes in biotech crops.

"It allows corporations easier access to patenting of genetics," he said.

Kimbrell said he's troubled by million-dollar donations from biotech developers Dupont and Syngenta to the organization that manages the vault.

Another red flag is the complexity of the seed deposit agreement, which would be confusing from the perspective of a small seed bank, he said.

"You don't have a bank of lawyers to go through it," he said.

The theory that biotech developers would help fund the project to usurp global seed genetics is not only far-fetched, but it would also be financially pointless, said Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

The trust is responsible for overseeing the Svalbard Seed Bank, along with the government of Norway and a regional Nordic seed cooperative.

Donations from such corporations make up less than 2 percent of the trust's funding and have "no strings attached," Fowler said.

It would be irrational for these firms to donate money for access to plant genetics, since most of the seed stored at the facility is already part of publicly available collections, he said.

"That door was opened a long time ago," Fowler said.

The idea that the Norwegian government would be part of such a conspiracy with biotech developers is also implausible, since genetically engineered crops aren't allowed in the country, he said.

"They're making connections that just aren't there," he said.

Fowler also said critics have misinterpreted the relationship between the seed vault and the international treaty on plant genetics.

Though seed collections covered by the treaty are given priority for storage in the vault, agreement to the treaty is not a prerequisite, he said.

The possibility for appropriation of plant genetics by biotech developers is further negated by the fact that only depositors have access to the vault's 650,000 seed samples, Fowler said.

"The scenario that has been presented has not occurred with a single one of them," he said. "The sky isn't falling."


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