Seed Savers Exchange
I made a post the other day about Kent Whealy’s Land Institute Speech, and this post is a follow up to what I said there.
If you search this blog you will find past posts showing a great deal of enthusiasm for the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) and the ideas behind it. After three years of membership, last year I decided not to renew because I felt they had become non-responsive to their members and the cost of an overseas membership was unreasonable considering the membership materials could be delivered over the Internet at little or no cost. I now feel there is little difference between supporting the Seed Savers Exchange and Monsanto, and the purpose of this post is to explain why.
If you are not now a member of the SSE, don’t join. Your money and other efforts won’t go to supporting the right things. This may change in the future, but don’t assume it has just because you read something on the SSE website or see something written by a representative of the SSE on the Internet.
If you are already a member of the SSE, contact them via letter or email to demand the following:
Recovery of the SSE member’s seed collection from Svalbard and the resignation of board members Amy Goldman, Cary Fowler and Neil Hamilton.
Position of Kent Whealy vs Seed Savers Exchange
In his land institute speech Whealy says the following:
SSE’s Board has refused to make public the documents signed with Cary Fowler and has lied to SSE’s Members through their publications and website about the true nature of Svalbard and the obligations the FAO Treaty places on SSE. All depositors must sign the Svalbard Depositors Agreement which places the deposited varieties under control of the United Nations’ International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (the FAO Treaty), Article 7 of which states, “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 accordance with the following terms and conditions. . . . .” The agreement goes on to dictate that “original samples” (meaning all other seeds of the varieties deposited in Svalbard that are also in storage in the seed vaults at Heritage Farm) are also covered by the FAO Treaty. By signing the treaty, SSE cannot refuse any requests for seeds of deposited varieties from “Contracting Parties.” Corporate breeders now can, as a right, request those varieties from SSE’s seed vaults at Heritage Farm, splice in GMOs, then patent and sell the seed. Indeed, a 1.1% tax on patents of “derivatives” of the varieties deposited in Svalbard is the main way that the FAO Treaty will generate its funding.
While it is true that the samples of the seeds actually stored in Svalbard cannot be distributed, linking those deposits to the FAO Treaty is what facilitates the distribution of those same varieties stored in Heritage Farm’s seed vaults. Numerous deceptive statements throughout Svalbard’s flood of self-promotion are all based on that lie.
A more extensive letter, posted later and still on SSE’s website, claims there is no linkage between the Svalbard’s Depositors Agreement and the FAO Treaty, which is an outright lie. The unsigned letter also claims that SSE’s actions are simply adhering to “emerging international norms,” but the truth is that out of 1,470 seed banks worldwide, SSE is one of only 29 that have placed their seeds in Svalbard and the only non-governmental or non-international seed bank to do so. SSE’s members have been lied to repeatedly that participation with Svalbard is entirely free, never mentioning the estimated $200,000 for additional personnel and software needed to mesh SSE’s computers with the USDA’s GRIN-Global network. Other 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.
The U.S. hasn’t ratified the FAO Treaty yet, but the USDA’s National Plant Germplasm System has already deposited 41,390 accessions into Svalbard, including many Mexican varieties. Numerous developing countries who do not accept the FAO Treaty have seen samples from their countries placed in Svalbard and under the FAO Treaty without their permission. For example, 95,722 Mexican varieties have been deposited in Svalbard even though Mexico hasn’t signed the FAO Treaty. Indeed, the real purpose of Svalbard (far from being just safe storage) is to allow national seed banks in the developed countries – like the USDA and the CGIAR International Agricultural Research Institutes which all hold vast collections from other countries – to deposit those samples in Svalbard and under the control of the FAO Treaty without national permission. Also, derivatives created from duplicates of the samples deposited in Svalbard can be patented without knowledge or permission of the country of origin.
In the future every distribution of duplicates of the samples deposited in Svalbard will require signing a Standard Material Transfer Agreement (SMTA) linked to the FAO Treaty, so that patented derivatives can be tracked and taxed. If countries or their farmers (or Seed Savers’ Members) want samples returned to replace lost varieties, even if they originally donated that seed, under the rules of the FAO Treaty they will have to sign away any former rights (see Article 6 of the SMTA.)
What has Seed Savers gained from its affiliation with Svalbard? Absolutely nothing! But the damage has been immense. Amy Goldman and SSE’s Board have created a protective wall of secrecy – “That’s confidential. We can’t talk about that.” They have lied to SSE’s Advisors, Members, funders and donors, and maliciously attacked those who disagree with their actions.
In addition, I am announcing here that I will pay all of the costs for any lawsuit brought by any SSE Member who donated to Seed Savers Members’ Seed Collection, only to see their family’s seeds now deposited in Svalbard.
Here is the SSE position currently published on the news section of their website:
As specified in the depositor’s agreement signed by Seed Savers Exchange, the seeds that SSE deposits in the Seed Bank are available only to SSE-there is no transfer of ownership of the seeds that are deposited by SSE or any other entity. Financial donors to the Global Crop Diversity Trust (see www.croptrust.org) do not get access to seeds in the Seed Vault, other than those they may have deposited there themselves. A wide range of developed and developing countries are donors to the Global Crop Diversity Trust for many purposes other than the Seed Vault’s operating costs, and include the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Ireland, Ethiopia, Brazil, Colombia, and India. (Corporate donors, including Syngenta and Pioneer/DuPont, who made unrestricted donations to the Global Crop Diversity Trust for its endowment prior to the Seed Vault’s existence, do not have access to seeds stored in the Seed Vault by others.)
Seed stored at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault by SSE will not be distributed to others by the Norwegian government, nor will it be made available to patent claims of others. Seeds in the SSE seed collection are pre-existing, or “prior art,” and as such, they cannot be patented. (And if a patent is mistakenly granted for a pre-existing variety, there is legal recourse to annul the patent.) On the other hand, new varieties, derived from or created using an old variety, are patentable in most countries of the world, provided they meet the applicable country’s criteria for patentability. SSE prohibits dividing and reselling Yearbook seeds; but the Yearbook specifically acknowledges that after seeds are regrown once, the resulting seeds, plants, and produce are available to SSE members to use however they please. The patenting of a new variety that has an older variety from SSE’s collection in its pedigree does not change the legal status of the SSE variety, nor does it prohibit subsequent access to or use of that variety, nor restrict its use in additional breeding programs.
SSE’s deposit of seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault “deepens the commitment of the organization to ensuring the long-term conservation of the diversity that has been entrusted to us,” Amy P. Goldman remarked. “We honor, trust and depend upon our members, but we know that varieties can be lost and that neither the membership nor our own seed collection is immune from loss. The Seed Vault offers free insurance to us and the other seed banks of the world. It is internationally accepted and monitored. We are happy to participate, grateful for the opportunity, and fully supportive of the goals of the Seed Vault.”
In taking account of both who the sources of information are and their motivations, what’s being presented by the Seed Savers Exchange is major distortion of the truth if not, as Whealy claims, an outright lie.
It does not make sense for the SSE’s statement to ramble on and on about how secure the seeds are in Svalbard, how the Norwegian government won’t give them away, how they can’t be given to other corporate donors, and on and on and on, if all of these entities have the legal right to demand duplicates of the seeds be given to them by the SSE themselves. How honest is that? Does anyone really care how secure the vault in Norway is, if the same seeds must legally be made available some other way? Anyone who tries to make an argument in this way is not being honest, and in effect lying.
What’s also very important is access is not guaranteed for anyone except other depositors at Svalbard or the SSE themselves. There are no guarantees of access for ordinary people, farmers or non-profit organizations.
Their statement that SSE varieties cannot be patented is also misleading, and may not be true. More than a decade ago Monsanto patented the first GMO soybean, that was created by taking a relatively ordinary and unpatented variety and inserting their gene into it. The resulting patent covered both their gene and the original variety! Since then a number of international treaties have addressed this problem of what can and cannot be patented under such circumstances, and the FAO treaty that covers the SSEs deposits at Svalbard may very well give corporations the right to patent old varieties under such circumstances. In addition, other treaties have recognized the rights of countries of origin under these circumstances, but the FAO treaty covering Svalbard offers no such recognition.
Finally, the idea that if deposits were somehow lost by the SSE they could be recovered from Svalbard is also seriously flawed. If the deposits can only be recovered with a MTA (Material Transfer Agreement) as Whealy says, then all possibility to use this material as plant breeding stock would effectively be legally lost by the SSE. As much as the idea that we must preserve old varieties to grow in our gardens is important and emotional, the ability for independent plant breeders to use this material is far more important to humanity as a whole.
Whealy has a standing offer to pay the legal costs for anyone who’s seeds have been deposited at Svalbard via the SSE, and would like to recover them. If you fall into this category, take him up on this!
Cary Fowler serving both as a SSE board member and the executive director of the Crop Diversity Trust is a major conflict of interest. Cary Fowler only represents his own interests, and certainly not those of SSE members.
Whealy says the SSE’s deposit at Svalbard was all about a photo op for Amy Goldman and Cary Fowler.
What do you think?