Seed savers or seed poachers

Beyond public gaze and frozen in the arctic frost lie 500,000 of the   worlds’ seeds.

Dr Tony Gregson, a grain grower and member of the Crawford Fund board has left behind the heat and the floods of the Wimmera and travelled to Norway to donate Australian crop seeds to the Svalbard ‘doomsday’ seed vault. The nuclear-bomb-proof crypt is housed on the Nordic island of Spitsbergen which is 1300  kilometres from the North Pole.

The seed vault was built by the Norwegian government to protect the world’s food supply in the event of a global crisis. Australia was one of the first countries to support the Global Crop Diversity Trust which operates the seed vault along with the Norwegian Government and the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre in Sweden.

Gregson told the Courier Mail that the preservation of seeds at the Svalbard vault was vital for the world’s future food security. “Now with climate change, the environment is certainly changing, breeders have to breed new varieties to adapt to these new environmental conditions,” said the Wimmera farmer.  On the surface it would seem a very wise decision to safely store our seeds in the arctic seed vault, however a search of the organisations involved suggests that the Svalbard project warrants more scrutiny.

Gregson, the grain farmer who is donning special clothing, facing quarantine procedures and other security checks so that he can deposit over 301 samples of field peas and rare chickpeas also has an Order of Australia Medal for his work in agricultural science and has been honoured for his work in biotechnology and grain growing.  He also sits on the board of the Crawford Fund, an organisation working to increase Australia’s engagement in international agricultural research for the benefit of developing countries and Australia. A quick search of the Crawford Fund’s website lists its contributors and the familiar names of  Bill and Melinda Gates, and biotechnology giants Monsanto and Syngenta are there. Gates has recently purchased 500,000 Monsanto shares that cost him $27.6 million.

There are other connections between  GM seed technology advocates and the Crawford Fund.  TJ Higgins, CSIRO’s co-inventor of the GM Field Pea, abandoned, because it caused immune problems and lung damage in mice, spoke at the 2010 Crawford Fund conference claiming there is evidence to show that positive economic and environmental impacts can be achieved from GM crops. Former Federal Agriculture Minister Tony Burke also promoted the value of GM crops to lead scientists, economists, policy makers and politicians gathered at the annual Crawford conference. Burke told the audience that he didn’t think that we should be turning our back on any part of science, including genetically modified crops.

As well as backing the Crawford Fund the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given 29 million to the Global Crop Diversity Trust which together with the Norwegian Government is in charge of the world’s seed vault. GCDT is a public-private partnership that raises funds from individual, corporate and government donors to establish an endowment fund that will provide funding for key crop collections in eternity. It was established by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and Biodiversity International.

Are humanities’ seeds really secure beyond public gaze and frozen in the arctic frost when the project is financially backed by GM seeds companies and such influential investors?

According to William Engdahl, author of Seeds of Destruction, unofficially the Seed Vault project is one of the largest steps taken yet by the handful of GMO agribusiness giants including Monsanto Corporation, Syngenta, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Gates family foundation. He says that the key organizations involved in the arctic seed vault have a long, often dirty history of fraud, intimidation and dubious methods to force the spread of patented genetically modified plant seeds into the world agriculture food chain.

Largely unregulated, GMO ingredients are now found in 60-70% of our processed foods. Many of us believe that our food regulators have approved the use of GM foods after extensive long-term health studies but this is not true. Instead they depend on research that is performed by companies such as Monsanto whose own studies are designed to avoid discovering the health risks of their products. There is no monitoring of the health effects of Genetically Manipulated foods .

Health effects aside, there is the real threat that comes from multinationals controlling access to the world’s seeds. GM technology can produce sterile seeds preventing farmers from replanting their own harvested seed. ‘Suicide’ or ‘terminator’ seeds were developed by the US Department of Agriculture and Delta and Pine Land Company in the 1990s. No commercialisation of the technology has occurred as yet with a moratorium existing on its use. However interest in these sterile seeds has resumed as governments and biotechnology interests urge the commercialisation of terminator seeds threatening food sovereignty.

Engdahl suggests that now by collecting all possible seed varieties far away from prying eyes in the Arctic, the seed companies such as Monsanto who are part of the Svalbard Doomsday Seed Vault project, have at least the theoretical possibility of taking those seeds and patenting the most essential for their proliferation of GMO across the human food chain.

The Svalbard project deserves far more public attention and scrutiny.

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