Co-operation and alliances key to successful seed saving

Entrance to the Svalbard seed vault in Norway. Photo: Erlend Bjørtvedt

By Gary Martens
OrganicBiz contributor

More than 500 farmers, breeders, seed savers and seed companies attended the Organic Seed Alliance conference in Corvallis, Oregon, Feb. 5-6.

The two-day event featured a keynote address from Cary Fowler, founder of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.

He described his lifetime of seed saving mostly with the United Nations FAO conserving diversity and with the Global Crop Diversity Trust in Rome Italy. Through a survey he did at FAO, he found that there were 1,700 seed banks globally, all (mostly) badly funded, badly managed and with extremely poor facilities that held on average well under one per cent of the genetic diversity in their regions.

The Svalbard seed vault has only had one withdrawal — from Aleppo, Syria where ISIS made the local bank inaccessible.

While at the Global Crop Diversity Trust (with very little money) he focused first on what he could not do, which was to rescue the 1,700 seed banks and then on what he could do.

He decided to rescue 80,000 crops and varieties, develop a digital information system for the species and varieties in the banks. He then came up with a profound understanding. During 1890-1897, the U.S. government sent 10 million packages of seeds to farmers annually to help them develop better crops.

Cary Fowler realized that these 1,700 underfunded gene banks could give a copy of their seeds to farmers in their regions to add to their landraces thereby saving the seed “in situ” as he called it.

Cary Fowler was then able to establish the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway which has a backup copy of everything all the seedbanks in the world hold. The depositor’s own their own seed, storage is free to depositors and the depositors need to regenerate their own seeds.

The Svalbard has been in existence for eight years and has only had one withdrawal — from Aleppo, Syria where ISIS made the local bank inaccessible.

The Organic Seed Alliance, which formed in 2003, is aimed at advancing the ethical development and stewardship of the genetic resources of agricultural seed.

It was clear co-operation will be key to success in seed saving and re-generation. A few individuals at the conference were the people that organized the co-operation. The conference trade show included 8 standalone seed companies (not operating as an alliance, association, or in co-operation with others).