Historical archive

Ministry of Agriculture and Food

One Year Anniversary Seminar of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Historical archive

Published under: Stoltenberg's 2nd Government

Publisher: Ministry of Agriculture and Food

Frozen seeds in a frozen mountain - feeding a warming world!

By: Minister of Agriculture and Food Lars Peder Brekk


It is with great pleasure that I welcome you to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault First Anniversary Seminar. I am especially honoured by the positive response that all of you have given to our invitation to this seminar by travelling thousands of kilometres - in fact, more than 2000 kilometres NORTH OF OSLO - to join us on this beautiful exotic arctic island.

Last year, when we invited to the opening of the Seed Vault, we were more than gratified with the worldwide attention that the official opening received. It affirmed our feelings -
That the Seed Vault is a monumental achievement.
That it demonstrates the increase in understanding of the critical importance of crop diversity.
And, that all it takes is a few practical steps, with all of us working together, and we can contribute to the conservation of that diversity. 

But beyond the physical presence of those hundreds of thousands of individual seeds that now fill the shelves of the Seed Vault, we in the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food invited our partners to co-host this anniversary seminar because we believe that the Seed Vault should and can continue to inspire others about the vital importance of crop diversity.

I therefore welcome you along with our partners -
the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre,  and the Global Crop Diversity Trust
to this first birthday party for our Global Seed Vault.

Right now, our world faces an unprecedented challenge - a challenge that threatens the quality of life on every continent. I am talking about climate change -
As science tries to keep up with the looming threats of changing climates and weather patterns, increasing temperatures and melting ice caps, we here in Svalbard are well aware that the most important use of crop diversity in the coming decades will be helping agriculture adapt to these changes.

This meeting is not just about conserving plant genetic resources.
And it is not just about climate change and its causes and impacts.
It is about how climate change will affect agriculture; how the world can use plant genetic resources to be prepared.
One year ago, when the Svalbard Global Seed Vault was officially opened, this room was filled with more than 150 invited guests representing 33 countries and 5 continents. Among them were the president of the European Community, Mr. Jose Manuel Barrosso; the Director General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Mr. Jacques Diouf; and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr. Wangari Maathai. All contributed to our program, sharing their insights into the importance and impact of crop genetic diversity.

But at this moment, I would like to mention another person who was present that day. One of the most memorable voices of that seminar. Mr Tay Gipo – a subsistence farmer from the Philippines. Mr Gipo only had four years of school -  four years of formal education - but he also was blessed with thousands of years of local agricultural know-how that was passed down to him from village elders.

Like other rice growers in the Philippines, Mr Gipo switched to high-yielding, improved  varieties in the late 1960s. But, he and his neighbours still struggled with pests and diseases, like the tungro virus. During a particularly tough year, he noticed one plant in his field that did not succumb to the virus. He literally had to pull the plant from the mouth of a farm animal who was planning to have it for a snack – he saved the seeds, replanted them and the next season he harvested 25 kilograms just from the seeds of that one plant. With his incredible success, the rice he himself named “Bordagol” was born. He shared his success by sharing his seeds with his neighbors. The word spread and, in spite of his lack of education, he was invited to join a research institute where he learned rice breeding and improved his “Bordagol”, increasing its yield and resilience and therefore increasing the yields of the other farmers in his area.

I mention his name for two reasons. One to illustrate how the field-level knowledge of our farmers continues to be the most important element of crop conservation. But also to keep his memory alive. Because just days ago we received word that our fellow agriculturalist, Tay Gipo, passed away this month at the age of 64.
His legacy remains in the fields of the Philippines - where his “Bordagol” is grown by his neighbours - and their neighbors.
And his legacy remains  here is Svalbard where seeds of  his “Bordagol” are safely stored for the future.

When he spoke here last year, he ended his talk by asking - and then answering - a question that obviously was on his mind when he made his Odyssey to Svalbard - he asked how the Seed Vault would help him and his family. He answered it himself - frank and straightforward - he said - “I don’t know. I don’t know if it will.” 

I call upon all of us in this room, and countless others who have been involved in this process at all of its levels - the gene banks, the plant breeders, the international organizations, the research institutions, the governments - to remember his question.

Because, his answer was in many ways the correct one:

  • No one knows if the Seed Vault ever will be needed.
  • No one knows if and when the seeds will be sent back to their depositor to restore a seed collection that has been lost.
  • That’s how insurance policies work. 
  • Even if it turns out that the insurance pay-off will never be needed, that policy still has incredible importance, because we know we are protecting something of extremely high value.

When we opened the Svalbard Global Seed Vault last year, each guest was invited to help carry a box of seeds into the seed vault. That was the first deposit on our insurance policy - and those seeds are still there, a line of defence against whatever the future may hold. 
I will invite all of you to do the same later today to celebrate our Seed Vault’s first year. And you too will be contributing to our global insurance policy.

Because the ominous fact of the global situation is undeniable - we are losing crop diversity - diversity that is crucial for the world’s food security.

Agriculture depends on the diversity of plant and animal genetic resources, and on their ability to adapt to change. As we face climate change, all of us in the global community need to dedicate ourselves to initiatives to preserve and ensure sustainable use of these resources – initiatives like the Seed Vault.

This means massive efforts by both developed and developing countries.
This means increasing investments in agriculture. In 2008, the World Bank’s World Development Report turned a corner in recognizing that the agricultural sector must be placed at the centre of the development agenda.
This means recognizing the importance of sustainable management - not just of crop diversity, but also of forests, of seas and inland waters, of livestock -
It is the macro picture of globalization and the micro reality of conservation - one crop, one tree, one animal, one fish at a time. These challenges can be met, and they must be met.
At the macro level, I call your attention to the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture that now has been signed by 119 nations. It is a compelling example of what can be achieved through collaborative action.
The Treaty establishes common rules to make crop diversity freely accessible and to ensure that any benefits derived from that access are shared.
The Treaty recognizes farmers’ rights - the contribution to the conservation and development of crop diversity that has taken place in the fields of farmers like Tay Gipo and his neighbours over the millennia - farmers who still use local crops in traditional agricultural systems. 

Trade is another area I want to mention, where the links to both climate change and food security are undeniable. The Uruguay Round Agreement on Agriculture stated quite firmly that all Members needed to make commitments to non-trade concerns and specifically mentioned food security and the need to protect the environment. This is a thought that should guide our future work. We cannot solve the global challenges of climate change, poverty reduction and food security by leaving food production to a handful of powerful exporters. It is increasingly important, and acknowledged, that all countries should maintain an appropriate level of self sufficiency.
Dear ladies and gentlemen;
By expressing his uncertainty; Mr Gipo also expressed the notion that until now, gene banks, have been a “secret” treasure. Who outside of the small community of plant geneticists understood the importance of collecting, cataloguing and conserving our agricultural heritage - a heritage that is also our future food supply? I do not think it is so secret anymore! I think the Svalbard Global Seed Vault has raised understanding and awareness : that we must - and we will - protect crop biodiversity in order to feed a warming world.

Of course Mr Gipo was not sure whether he - as a subsistence farmer - would ever benefit from access to genetic resources. After all, he was the end of a chain coming from Svalbard, from the gene banks, from the plant breeders, from the seed dealers. Mr Gipo might also have been concerned for his future ability to produce and sell his own locally adapted rice varieties on the local markets.
Norway believes that to give positive answers to the kinds of challenges the hundreds of millions of other farmers like Mr Gipo are facing, it is necessary to be pro-active. In fact, last year at the opening seminar, my predecessor Mr. Riis-Johansen announced that Norway would set up an annual contribution to the benefit-sharing fund of the International Treaty, starting in 2009 - a contribution from the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food  equal to ’point one percent’  of the value of all  agricultural seeds that are sold in Norway.

Well, it is now 2009 - and just before I left for this meeting, I authorized our first contribution to the fund. For Norway, this fund represents the most direct way to increase the ability of developing country farmers to improve, conserve and utilize the crops in their fields - and of course to feed their families.

New and improved seed must be produced if we will stand ready to face climate change and overcome food-insecurity. Storing seeds here at Svalbard is necessary, but not enough. We simply must improve financing of plant breeding in developing countries. With our contribution, we expect to increase the focus on plant breeding activities in developing countries with a special attention on the interest of poor farmers.
I want to emphasise that the challenges we face can only be met through our joint efforts. Climate change and food insecurity are closely linked, and hence our policies must reflect this reality and be mutually supportive. The sustainable management of our resources will serve to mitigate the effects of climate change but sustainable management also must be seen as the most critical pre-requisite for development.

My hope is that we during this seminar, by using the crop diversity as a springboard to explore both issues of climate change and food security and the practicalities of making society act in good time, together will examine the ways in which long –term action can be made politically and practically acceptable when short-term thinking prevails. (A small group chaired by Mr. Fowler and Mr. Grue will take note of our discussions and present a summary statement at our last session tomorrow. Such summary could benefit as input to important relevant upcoming intergovernmental processes as the COP on Climate chante in Copehagen).

To sum up, I return again to Mr Gipo. It was his friends and neighbors who convinced him he should name his special rice. He chose the name Bordagol. Bordagol it turns out is the name of a cartoon character - one with the ability to save the planet. Let this be a reminder to all of us about why we are here today. We don’t know when. We don’t know where. But let us not forget that each seed that we have stored inside that seed vault has the potential to do just that - to save the world.