News story | Published: 2008-03-27
The Conference “Svalbard Global Seed Vault – Saving Seeds for Eternity?” included as speakers representatives from a range of organizations and areas of expertise that contributed to the development of the Seed Vault. Read more in the summary of the conference.
Svalbard Global Seed Vault: Summary of the Svalbard Conference
The Conference “Svalbard Global Seed Vault - Saving Seeds for Eternity?” included as speakers representatives from a range of organizations and areas of expertise that contributed to the development of the Seed Vault. Read more in the summary of the conference.
The conference was held on 25 February, the day before the official ceremonial opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
Summary of the Svalbard Conference
Draft - Nancy Hart
The Conference “Svalbard Global Seed Vault - Saving Seeds for Eternity?” included as speakers representatives from a range of organizations and areas of expertise that contributed to the development of the Seed Vault and who also will be in a position to benefit from its existence. The fact that the title of the conference was presented as a question challenged the speakers to put the Seed Vault into both an immediate and long-term perspective. The conference was held the day before the official ceremonial opening of the Seed Vault.
Why a Seed Vault? Why Norway? Why Svalbard
Terje Riis-Johansen, Norwegian Minister of Agriculture and Food
“Norway is well aware of farmers’ contributions”
Norwegian Minister of Agriculture and Food, Terje Riis-Johansen, set the tone for the conference held in connection with the opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. In his talk, he paid homage to the work that has gone on in the international community in the past two decades that set the stage for the Seed Vault.
He recounted the Nordic Gene Bank’s efforts, in the early 1980s, to find a safe place for its security collection and the fact that it chose to store those valuable seeds in an old Svalbard mine very close to the location chosen for the Seed Vault. The success of that endeavor made them believe in the viability of the Seed Vault project.
“Of course, it never would have happened without the parallel evolution in the global community which led to establishment of a legal framework that provides common rules for the sharing of genetic diversity among nations. It brought the right mix of policy-makers, politicians and government leaders together with scientists and farmers and allowed this idea to be discussed in formal and informal settings.”
During his talk, Minister Riis-Johansen announced Norway’s commitment to support plant-breeding efforts in poor countries. Starting in 2009, the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food will make annual payments equal to 0.01 percent of the value of seeds sold in Norway to the benefit-sharing fund of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources that supports on-farm conservation efforts in developing countries.
“We all know that the real work of selecting, conserving and improving crop diversity has taken place in farmers fields throughout the millennia. The establishment of this vault does not curtail that effort at all. The Government of Norway is well aware of farmers’ contributions and, for us, it’s 'pay-back' time.” He further challenged other OECD countries to make the same commitment.
Dr Jacques Diouf , Director-General, UN Food and Agriculture Organization
“… We all share a common future …”
In calling seeds “the vehicles of life”, Dr Jacques Diouf, Director General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, pointed out that current global population trends indicate that the world will have 9 billion inhabitants by 2050, 3 billion more than today. He also noted that cereal production will have to increase by 50 percent in the next 25 years to keep up with demand.
Calling the Seed Vault “one of the most innovative and impressive acts in the service of humanity,” Dr. Diouf said that the seeds that will be housed in the Seed Vault will be essential for increasing crop productivity, mitigating environmental stress such as climate change, pests and diseases, and ensuring a genetic resource base for the future.
Dr. Diouf also recognized that the way to the Seed Vault’s establishment had been paved by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The International Treaty, already ratified by 116 countries, has ensured conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources with fair and equitable sharing of benefits.
“We may live in a world divided by inequalities, but we all share a common future,” he said. “No country is self sufficient in natural resources and all are ecologically interdependent. Wealth safeguarded in Svalbard will be global insurance to solve future challenges. Today, I urge countries to join the effort to securing world’s crop diversity now and in the future.”
Safe harbour in a perfect storm - the story of the Vault in the context of threats facing agriculture
Dr Cary Fowler, Executive Director, Global Crop Diversity Trust
“Death of a thousand cuts”
Dr. Cary Fowler, head of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the organization entrusted with securing the funds to endow the world's crop gene banks as well as overseeing the maintenance of the Seed Vault, is also referred to as the visionary whose lead position on the original feasibility study led to the construction of the Seed Vault. In addressing the Conference, Dr. Fowler referred to the current world situation in terms of viability for feeding future generations as “the perfect storm of challenges,” ranging from climate change, declines in energy and water availability, development pressures and a burgeoning population.
"Diversity is threatened by climate change. On the other hand we're going to have to be making some major changes in the nature of the crops we have in the fields, which is going to require diversity. If ever there was a moment in history when conserving this diversity was worthwhile and yielded a great cost-benefit ratio, it would be now," he said.
In referring to the threat to the viability of seed collections currently held in gene banks as well as to diversity of crops growing in the field, he called it “more than an apocalypse.”
“It is death of a thousand cuts. We loose diversity every day - which is a benign way of saying it is becoming extinct. We are dependent,” he said pointing to a chart showing the percentage of crop samples currently held in gene banks, huge collections that represent only a small portion of the total. “We are all in the same boat and if we don’t learn to share and cooperate, that will be a sinking boat.”
Plant genetic resources conservation from a farmer’s point of view
Tatay Gipo, Filipino rice farmer
“From the 25 kilos, I harvest 132 sacks of rice”
When Tatay Gipo introduced himself to the conference participants by showing photos from his family album, it was the perfect illustration of how individual farmers have potential to help the world’s agricultural production. Mr. Gipo only reached the fourth grade in school, and started farming when he was 12 years old. Yet he comes from many generations of farmers who have passed farming knowledge to him and because of his background, Mr. Gipo is credited with the discovery and development of a new robust rice variety.
When he began farming in 1957, he used traditional varieties and used pesticides to kill the pests that attacked the crops. In 1966 he built his own farm and in 1967, the first varieties arrived from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) along with fertilizers and pesticides. But still, diseases appeared in the field.
In 1985, he adopted a high-yielding variety of rice that had been developed by IRRI. Yet, that variety was also attacked by pests. However, he observed that one plant in his field was not attacked by the virus. It was a different color and had a different stand, so he saved it.
“The next cropping season,” he said, “I planted it. During the harvest, I could not believe I could harvest 25 kilos from the seeds that I had saved. I repeated it the next season. From the 25 kilos, I harvest 132 sacks of rice.”
In 1993, Mr. Gipo received recognition as one of the outstanding farmers from the local government. He then set about learning about crop breeding and crop technologies. The NGO SEARICE, Philippines, has provided him with training and from the original variety discovered, he has made more than 10 crosses and is maintaining 15 lines from a cross he made between bordagol and basmati rice.
The role of crop diversity for food security
Maria Mayer de Scurrah, President Grupo Yanapai
“Food security comes from variety”
Speaking on behalf of Peruvian potato farmers, Maria Mayer de Scurrah, president of Grupo Yanapai of Lima, offered impressive numbers. Peru has nine species of potatoes, the average farming family farms eight varieties and the average community has 122 varieties.
“In the world,” she said, “you know ‘potato’, but in Peru, we grow ‘potatoes’. We know that food security comes from varieties. Everyone shares.”
Grupa Yanapai is an NGO working on research and development of small-scale farming, especially on conservation of plant genetic resources and development of low input technology. Her work has included research in areas once inhabited by Incan population where she found a very important native variety was growing but also two wild species. “The question is whether the wild species are still interacting with our crops.”
The farmers used to farm with huge community fields in which the individual farmers moved in rotation, taking their own varieties with them. This was a good defense against disease because the plantings changed each year. Now, they have moved to family plots which means they now must deal more with diseases.
Arctic climate change and global consequences
Pål Prestrud, Director CICERO
“Warming in the Arctic is at twice the rate of the global average”
The Arctic zone is experiencing some of the most rapid and severe climate change on earth, according to Pål Prestrud, Director of the Norwegian Climate Change Center (CICERO). “The warming in the Arctic is twice the rate of the global average,” he said.
The reason for the faster increase is because snow and ice reflect solar radiation while open water captures it. Thus, as temperatures increase and snow and ice melts, there is more water, meaning more radiation is captured. In addition, as the sea ice melts, the water below it warms up and decreases the amount of freezing for the following year. This scenario has meant that the reduction of the snow cover is moving much faster than predicted, with an 8-9 percent reduction in the last 50 years. In addition he points to changes such as spring arriving 2-3 weeks earlier in the Arctic, Alaska’s growing increasing by one and a half months, and the melting glaciers in Svalbard that have potential to increase sea level by 6-7 meters.
He said this will have both global and local consequences. “Globally,” he explained, the huge amounts of carbon stored in the permafrost will be released. There is more carbon stored in organic material and methane hydrates in the permafrost than is found in the atmosphere. Cold water absorbs more CO2 than warm water, so as the water warms up, less CO2 will be captured.”
Locally, people will face enormous challenges. “Although the warmer temperatures may mean more opportunities for agriculture, it will affect biodiversity. We have a community of animals and plants connected to the ice.” In addition, there will be more accessibility for exploitation of mineral resources which will impact land values.
In addition, in just a few years, it will be possible to travel between North America and Europe via the Arctic Circle. This will have enormous political ramifications.
Future challenges regarding plant genetic resources and the role of the global seed vault
Patrick Mooney, Executive Director ETC group
“We need seeds in the vault”
In praising Norway for its contribution of the Global Seed Vault and its commitment to contribute to the benefit-sharing fund of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, Patrick Mooney, Executive Director of ETC group also warned that “we are not there yet.”
Referring to a “lack of trust”, Mooney stated that “if we are going to survive climate change, we need the ecosystem knowledge of farmers. If we are going to have a chance to adjust and shift to threats, we need the farmers to help us.”
Farmers, he said, “have the ability to adjust. They were able to do it in the past and have the capacity to use it today, in situ. But, above all, there must be trust”
Mooney, who has some 30 years of experience working with civil society organizations dealing with agriculture and biodiversity, spoke of what caused the problems of trust among farmers, scientists and governments in the first place. He listed genetic erosion of crops caused by monoculture farming practices of industrial agriculture, marketplace pressures, trade barriers and international property issues. “Problems,” he says, “that are still there.”
He recounted that 30 years ago there were 30,000 seed enterprises listed by FAO. Today the top ten countries have 55 percent of the seed market and four countries have almost 100 percent of the GMO market. Along with this, there are new challenges such as extreme genetic engineering that brings with it a risk, “we must remember that we cannot depend on technology to solve our problems. We need seeds in the vault.”