UWM anthropologist looks inside global seed vault

The future of the world’s food supply may be buried in the Norwegian permafrost at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, an international repository where organizations send seeds for safekeeping.

Long interested in the role of genetics in environmental sustainability, UWM anthropologist Tracey Heatherington has spent several years studying the seed vault and the people it touches.

What does the Svalbard Global Seed Vault look like?

It’s basically a storage unit with a lot of refrigerators. Inside, it’s a long corridor into a mountain. They built it in a permafrost zone so that the seeds would stay cold. These are the extra seeds that seed gene banks tuck away in case anything happens to the major collections.

How did you become interested in the seed vault?

On a cultural level, this has been a tremendous focus of imagination, and it certainly drew me in. I was worried about these seeds – who owns them, what happens if they cut the funding, who’s going to get them? Would countries ever sell their rights to these seeds?

I became interested in the way genetic and genomic sciences were being incorporated into larger biodiversity conservation initiatives, particularly at the global level. It brings together science, technology and culture in ways that are intriguing to an anthropologist.

Also, I study collaborations. I study how people work together. … The Global Seed Vault is an institutional form that hasn’t existed before, and it’s doing something new. We never had a global level of seed banks for food and agriculture until 2004.

Why is a backup seed bank so important?

Think about the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, after the Second World War. Everybody’s rebuilding, and they are all concerned about food security. There’s a lot of effort that goes into agricultural development and modernization. What they call the first green revolution was the development of hybrid varieties, which are just old-fashioned crossing of plants to breed for better drought and disease resistance, higher productivity, higher yield.

Travel forward 30 years, and those terrifically high-producing crops are being adopted worldwide. They start to edge out multiple different kinds of local seeds. Over time, we’ve actually lost a huge number of seeds and biodiversity in farmers’ fields.

And the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is where those seeds are saved?

Yes. We are putting in those seeds because you need those heirloom varieties. They are important to a lot of people culturally. There are a number of indigenous farmers who have a great deal of cultural investment in certain varieties, and they want to make sure that those seeds come back to them if something happens. There are nation-states that really want the benefit of the agricultural development that can result from research using those same varieties. There are also agro-industries that do research on those varieties to learn more about them.

It’s a cool idea, but does it actually work?

Last year, one of the world’s major seed banks in Syria had to relocate because of the civil war. That was the first set of seeds withdrawn from Svalbard, and they have been tremendously important in terms of setting up living seed banks again. It’s the living seed banks that do outreach to local farmers, communities and agricultural extension agencies.

It’s nice that, despite political conflicts, the seed vault is truly an international effort.

I really think the scientists imagine it as a global commons. If we think about it that way, this might be the first global commons that we put the institutional package together to manage. Climate change isn’t working out so well for us.

There’s an international framework that governs the ownership of seeds that have been deemed most crucial to the future of food security. It’s one of the things that needs to be carefully managed at a time when we’re coming dangerously close to wiping out our own means of existence.

What’s next in your research?

I want to go visit more of the CGIAR banks, which are the global seed banks. Along with the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, I visited an amazing international seed bank where they keep banana and plantain collections in Belgium.

I’m trying to track where the seeds go, whose hands they go through, and what people think about the seeds. How the collaborations work, how the institutions work, how people manage to bring together resources and expertise and initiative and vision. There’s a lot to it, so it’s a whole new world for me.

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