The Global Seed Vault in Norway: Oh, the passion that it arouses

Permit this Kat to don his feline travel agency cap for a moment. For all of you who are looking for the ultimate IP excursion, forget WIPO in Geneva, the European Patent Office in Munich or the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Virginia. No, we offer you something really unique -- a visit to the Svalbard global seed vault (you can see a picture of it by Mari Tefre, on the right), located on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen near the town of Longyearbyen, a mere 810 miles (1,300 kilometers) from the North Pole. There you can encounter in its starkest form the fact that, while IP is an incorporeal right that protects creations of the mind, at the end of the day, IP is all about protecting the physical and tangible. What is more physical and tangible than seeds and their germplasm, and the food that they yield for our collective sustenance.

The history of the seed vault reaches back to the early 1980s, under the initiative of Cary Fowler. The purpose of the vault was to preserve a spare copy of as many seeds as possible, thereby serving as an insurance policy against the loss of seeds due to natural disasters, man-made conflicts, or administrative, managerial, financial or technical problems. However, differences of view stalled the establishment of an international depository for seeds. These conflicting positions are well-summarized by the Norwegian Government website for the seed vault as follows:
"Who owns the world's heritage? In the early '90s there was heated debate between the various member countries of the FAO [the UN Food and Agriculture Organization] about patenting and access to genetic resources. Developing countries wished to receive part of the proceeds from the commercial seed industry, since the diversity mainly came from their areas, whilst the commercial seed industry wanted free access to such resources and the opportunity to patent the seeds. This led to a polarised atmosphere with little mutual trust regarding the administration of seed. .... The turning point came when FAO’s International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture came into force in 2004. This created a new basis for taking the plans up again."

As result, in 2006, groundbreaking took place on the Svalbard site and the facility (as seen from this drawing of the Global Crop Diversity Trust) was up and running in 2008. Time magazine, the ultimate arbiter on this kind of thing, ranked the vault among the top inventions of 2008. Construction costs were borne by the Government of Norway; operational costs are covered by the Government of Norway and the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which is supported inter alia by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and various governments. There are three chambers, each with a capacity to store 1.5 million seed samples. Apparently only the frost is permanent, there being no permanent staff on-site. As described, perhaps with a tinge of hyperbole by National Geographic magazine, “Doomsday” Seed Vault Safeguards Our Food Supply." See here and here for more about the facility.

The seeds are stored pursuant to the so-called ”black box” method. Like a safety deposit box at a bank, the black box arrangement means that only the institution which deposits seeds has right of ownership and disposition of them. Thus, as explained by the Norwegian government website,
"the deposit of the seeds will not affect any property or other rights pertaining to the material; the deposited seeds will remain in sealed envelopes, unless otherwise agreed with the Depositor; and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault will take no action to further transfer the material except back to the original Depositor or the Depositor’s successor in title, or in accordance with the Depositor’s instructions". 
Wikipedia adds that "researchers, plant breeders and other groups wishing to access seed samples cannot do so through the seed vault; instead they must request samples from the depositing genebanks."

In the super-charged world of agro-policy, there are those who challenge the entire Svalbard seed vault enterprise. Consider the comments of Deniza Gertzberg on March 22 in the GMO Journal ("Controversy With The Doomsday Vault") here.
"That’s exactly the problem say critics who have been apprehensive about the Doomsday Vault from the beginning. It’s double-speak, they argue because the vision that is sold to the world is a noble one, where seeds are saved, biodiversity is preserved and the world has a back-up system in case of of a disaster. The reality, however, may be that the Vault is contributing to the decline of biodiversity by giving greater seed access to biotech companies who could contact the depositing seed bank directly or through institutions whose research they fund, to then churn out patented crops. Biopiracy is the charge and it has been done before. That’s why, critics point out, it matters who supports the operation of the seed bank and who has access to the seeds because giving greater biological diversity access to companies whose business models are associated with monocropping, greater use of pesticides, declining biodiversity and the wiping away of local knowledge and traditions would seem to perverse the initial intention of the Doomsday Vault."
This Kat is struck by the passions aroused by the use being made of this abandoned cave near the Arctic Circle and the IP embodied within the seeds stored there. And yes, he would love to visit the site.

I wish all of you the best for the holiday season.
The Global Seed Vault in Norway: Oh, the passion that it arouses The Global Seed Vault in Norway: Oh, the passion that it arouses Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, December 21, 2012 Rating: 5


  1. " it matters who supports the operation of the seed bank and who has access to the seeds" According to the Norwegian Government, as quoted, no-one has access to the seeds except by permission of the original depositor. So the Gertzberg comment is fantasy. There are rational arguments against (some) pesticide use, (some) monocropping and loss of (some) local traditions, though the arguments in favour are generally better - but how can anyone take seriously an objection like that?

    The Svalbard initiative is extremely worthwhile, well worth supporting, and the world owes Cary Fowler a considerable debt for all he has done to bring it about.

  2. Tim: There is more to it than you say. Seeds were deposited under a `depositor agreement' with the Government of Norway. Art 7 of the agreement places the originals of all deposited samples under the rules oft the FAO Seed Treaty (the ITPGRFA). The Treaty permits - indeed encourages - patenting of derivatives of samples against a small tax on future use to be paid to FAO. This is the main planned funding mechanism of the Treaty. So, for example, the almost 100,000 samples in Svalbard from Mexico (but not deposited by Mexico which has not ratified the FAO Treaty) can be used as a basis for patenting (with no benefit to or control by Mexico). This is the basis of the valid claim of biopiracy. As a result of Art 7 - now removed from the depositor agreement - developing countries are massively avoiding depositing their seed samples in Svalbard. This is a disaster, as it is just these countries that cannot maintain their national seed stores to the required standards - their seeds will die.
    The original idea of the Svabard vault was not that of Cary Fowler but of Henry Shands, head of the US national Germplasm System. Henry was concerned about the safety of the CGIAR seed collections located in the 10 CGIAR institutes located in developing countries.
    The Svalbard vault is now flooding each summer as the snow melts from the slope above the vault. This is claimed to be a result of global warming: rather it is a result of bad design and construction.
    Dave Wood


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