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svalbard global seed vault

Posted: November 18 2010

Fields of Zombies
by Claire Pentecost
We begin with the seed. In this case a very particular cache of seeds banked in a remote and barren location: Svalbard, Norway, 620 miles from the North Pole. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault functions as a back-up depository to a network of official seedbanks worldwide. Boasting dual blast proof doors with motion sensors, two airlocks, and walls of steel reinforced concrete one meter thick, the so-called “Doomsday” seed vault is advertised as a kind of insurance “against both incremental and catastrophic loss of crop diversity held in genebanks around the world.”
In the history of agriculture, seeds represent a kind of knowledge. I’m interested in the Doomsday seed vault as a model of knowledge, the idea that if you lock up the world’s library on a given subject and consign its administration to a few powerful people, it will be safe, it will ultimately be available to the people who know best how to use it. Technically owned by the Norwegian government, Doomsday is administered by NordGen, the regional seedbank of the Nordic Countries, and an advisory council called the Global Crop Diversity Trust. Major donors to the Global Crop Diversity include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, Dupont subsidiary Pioneer Hi-Bred—the 2nd largest seed company in the world, Syngenta Corporation—the 3rd largest seed company, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and several governments.
There are no permanent staff persons on-site at Doomsday as it is monitored by electronic surveillance. Indeed, one of the curious things about Svalbard is how far it is from the people who might actually use the material in the vault. It presents an idea of knowledge as an object that can be secured without people. What is implied about who is going to use that material and how? Remember that CGIAR and the Rockefeller Foundation were responsible for the Green Revolution, which brought industrial monoculture to the third world making it dependent on expensive seeds and chemical inputs from the first world. Both parties are presently collaborating with the Gates Foundation to bring a new green revolution to Africa and all three are strong advocates of biotechnology as a solution to world hunger.
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