FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

We get many questions about this film from a wide range of audience members. But, it turns out, there are many questions that people seem to have in common. So here is a handy list of frequently asked questions to help answer those questions.

 

- How will the Svalbard Global Seed Vault help us re-populate the world’s food supply in the event of widespread famine or apocalyptic disaster?
- Isn’t it a bad idea to put all these seeds in one place? What if something happens to the Vault in Svalbard?
- Isn’t the Vault just a conspiracy by Big Ag to control the world’s food supply?
- That’s wonderful that the Vault exists.  But how long can seeds really stay viable up there?
- So the Vault contains backup copies of seeds.  How does an institution even make “copies” of seeds?
- What was all that stuff in the film about plant breeding?  Aren’t you just talking about GMOs?
- Are there other collaborations like The Potato Park around the world? And why don’t we have that in the United States?
- I really enjoyed the film, but what can I do about this issue?  I’m only one person.

 


Q: How will the Svalbard Global Seed Vault help us re-populate the world’s food supply in the event of widespread famine or apocalyptic disaster?

 

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A: The simple answer is: it won’t directly or immediately. The Seed Vault was never meant to supply seeds directly to farmers. That would take enormous facilities located all over the world. When it first opened, the news media quickly labeled it as “The Doomsday Vault.” But this is a misnomer. The primary purpose of the vault is to act as a failsafe backup for the roughly 1,400 seed banks all around the world. These seed banks conserve crop diversity for use in crop breeding efforts so that farmers have access to disease and pest resistant varieties. But most of these seed banks don’t have robust backup systems for their stocks, which is where Svalbard comes in. As the film details, there is great fragility in our global seed banks. If a seed bank is destroyed, and those particular varieties only existed in that one seed bank, then that diversity is lost forever. It’s extinct. But, with Svalbard, these institutions can have their stock in two places. Should anything disastrous occur to an institution itself, the seeds will still be protected in Svalbard and can be resupplied to the seed bank that experienced the loss.

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Q: Isn’t it a bad idea to put all these seeds in one place? What if something happens to the Vault in Svalbard?

 

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A: The good news is that these seeds aren’t all in one place. That’s the whole point of why the Svalbard Global Seed Vault exists. The seeds that exist in the vault are copies. The “originals” – additional seeds of the same variety - are held in the institutions that deposited them – institutions that are located all around the globe. While nothing in life is 100% guaranteed, the likelihood that the seeds in Svalbard would somehow be destroyed is extremely, extremely remote (like its location!).

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Q: Isn’t the Vault just a conspiracy by Big Ag to control the world’s food supply?

 

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A: No.  There are several important things to remember.  First: The Svalbard Global Seed Vault provides a “safety deposit box” for the institutions that put seeds there.  Only the depositor has access to the seeds, meaning that Monsanto cannot fly over to Svalbard and start taking out genetic resources that belong to other institutions and countries. Monsanto could take out seeds it deposited; but it hasn’t deposited any.   

Second: the institutions that are putting seeds in Svalbard are, by and large, governmental and public or non-profit institutions.  The Vault is not a place for private companies with patented GMOs to house backup copies of their material.

Third: there are no secret financial beneficiaries related to the Vault.  Storing seeds in the Vault is free to depositors, with Norway and the Global Crop Diversity Trust paying for operational costs. The deposit of samples in Svalbard does not constitute a legal transfer of seeds or genetic resources. There is no transfer of ownership and no transfer of the physical or intellectual property. The Seed Vault does not own the seeds. Norway does not own the seeds. Neither does the Global Crop Diversity Trust or the Nordic Gene Bank (which manages the Vault’s operations and inventory database). The seeds are 100% owned by the individual depositors. Funding for the Trust has come from the U.S., Norway, Australia, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, and many other countries including some developing countries as well as several foundations including the Gates Foundation. The work of the Global Crop Diversity Trust is mandated and overseen by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Fourth: there is a binding legal agreement that depositors must sign in order to put seeds in the vault.  This agreement is a contract that specifies the status of the deposits (namely that they belong to the depositor and will only be returned to that depositor) and states that the Seed Vault will do its best to conserve the deposited seed according to high international standards.  Norway regularly reports about the operations of the Seed Vault to the 133 national signatories of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources.  This treaty establishes the international rules for access and benefit sharing for seeds, and contains many provisions to promote conservation, research, "farmers' rights," and information sharing. You can read more about it at www.planttreaty.org.  Through the Treaty, the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources and the Vault's own International Advisory Council, the management and operations of the Seed Vault are visible and accessible to all. One more step toward getting everybody “singing from the same piece of music.”

Fifth: The Seed Vault is overseen by an International Advisory Council comprised of scientists, gene bank managers, representatives of Civil Society Organizations, etc. The Council meets annually to inspect the facility and review operations.
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Q: That’s wonderful that the Vault exists.  But how long can seeds really stay viable up there?

 

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A: This is actually a complicated question, because it varies between different crops.  This also is dependent on how well the seeds were prepared in their packaging before shipment to the Vault.  However, all things being equal, we do have a sense of how long certain crops should last in cold storage.  Hopefully this chart can give you a snapshot of what scientists expect from what we know about long-term seed storage:

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Q: So the Vault contains backup copies of seeds.  How does an institution even make “copies” of seeds?

 

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A: This is a great question, and one that is often overlooked.  Institutions that hold seeds in long-term cold storage must grow out their stock every so often.  If they just put seeds in their vaults and forgot about them, sooner or later they will die, because nothing lasts forever.  And this relates back directly to how “copies” are made.  Quite simply, seed banks plant some of their seeds, grow the plants and harvest fresh new seed. But the process can be tricky, because you want the new sample to contain the same diversity in the same proportions as the original sample. You don’t want what is known as “genetic drift” wherein each time a crop is grown out it changes slightly through the conditions of the grow-out.  To a certain degree this is unavoidable, but scientists work very hard to make sure that copies are copies.

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Q: What was all that stuff in the film about plant breeding?  Aren’t you just talking about GMOs?

 

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A: No.  Plant breeding – farmers or scientists “crossing” plants by transferring pollen from the flower of one variety to the flower of another – has been going on for thousands of years. This form of plant breeding is still the primary way in which new varieties are produced. For most crops it is the only way, because there are no GMO varieties at all for dozens and dozens of crops. So diversity is required for this kind of plant breeding.

Plant breeding is the foundation of modern agriculture’s ability to reliably grow crops with good yields, particular tastes, sizes, colors, etc.  The crops we know as bananas, wheat, rice, and potatoes are that way because a breeder – maybe even a farmer, or a person formally trained in biology and genetics - created that variety over the course of many years.  But, (and this is the important part) just because this process has taken place does not necessarily make the variety a GMO.  It is also worth noting that the “natural” or wild versions of most of our crops (i.e. what existed before plant breeding), would literally not be recognizable had they not been bred over many years of crossing preferred varieties with one another. Just as one example, corn, prior to plant breeding, was just a couple of seeds stacked one above another. No cob.  Not too delicious sounding, either.

There is a big problem with the name GMO because it stands for Genetically Modified Organism, and that could mean a lot of things.  It is an inclusive term that tends to draw into it things that do not belong.  For example, technically a plant breeder is genetically modifying a crop by creating a cross. Just like a man and a woman are technically modifying human genetics by giving birth to a child: that child is a genetic cross of the parents the same way a new plant variety is a cross between its parent varieties.  That doesn’t make the child a GMO! What we think of as GMOs are different from this.  Generally speaking, the outrage with GMOs has to do with the artificial inclusion of genes into crops that otherwise would never be found there to begin with.  In most cases, the aim with GMO crops is to introduce a new trait to a plant species that didn’t occur there naturally. If this trait is introduced with certain modern technologies, the resulting variety will be a GMO. If traditional technologies are used, it won’t be. “Traditional technologies” are not as powerful as the newer GMO technologies, which can sometimes transfer genes or traits into a new variety that elude traditional plant breeders.

But this is quite different from the aims of plant breeders who use genetic resources like Crop Wild Relatives to introduce new traits into species.  That is because, while Wild Relatives may contain new traits not seen in a domesticated crop variety, they are themselves the ancestors of that variety. They are the non-domesticated origins of that crop and may contain robust resilience to help our domesticated crops in the future.  So hopefully it is clear why this is different from, say, taking Pig genes and injecting them into a Tomato.

It is also worth noting that GMO seeds are available for planting in some countries, but not others. In the U.S. for instance, this includes the following crops: corn, soybean, canola, cotton, papaya, sugar beet, alfalfa and squash. 

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Q: Are there other collaborations like The Potato Park around the world? And why don’t we have that in the United States?

 

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A: There are smaller collaborations like The Potato Park around the world. But not quite as developed in terms of holistic community development, conservation success, and institutional integration (for example, with The International Potato Center in Lima). The Potato Park is such a unique entity for many reasons, but the most significant may be the geography. Peru is considered, based on Vavilov’s early research, the center of diversity for the potato. So it is more important a venture like this happen for the potato here than, say, Idaho. The United States (and much of North America) is somewhat barren in terms of crops that have developed a huge amount of diversity here. According to Vavilov, there is not a whole lot going on in this part of the world (see map).  We know now, after many more years of research, that there are some crops that probably originated in North America (see below map). Sunflowers and Strawberries are examples. But it is still not a whole lot compared to certain areas in the rest of the world. So for an initiative to take place involving on-farm conservation and indigenous community engagement, it may be more important for us to set our sights elsewhere.

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 (1) Mexico-Guatemala, (2) Peru-Ecuador-Bolivia, (2A) Southern Chile, (2B) Southern Brazil, (3) Mediterranean, (4) Middle East, (5) Ethiopia, (6) Central Asia, (7) Indo-Burma, (7A) Siam-Malaya-Java, (8) China and Korea

 

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Q: I really enjoyed the film, but what can I do about this issue?  I’m only one person.

 

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A: This might be the most important question of all.  The truth is that crop diversity is a multi-tiered issue that requires action on all levels.  Much of it involves scientists, politicians, and government institutions acting.  But, as the film shows us, many of the best efforts to work on this issue have happened “on the ground” by farmers, communities, and individuals.  All it really takes is passion for the issue and the will to make a difference to get involved.  To help, we’ve created a section of our web site under the heading “Action!”  We encourage you to explore it and find ways you can learn about where to buy food sourced from diverse varieties of crops, support institutions that champion this issue, and even get involved in seed lending libraries (or creating your own!).

But, of course, the easiest way to get started is to sign up with us on our web site.  It’s right there on the home page: www.seedsoftimemovie.com.  Or you can text “SEED” to 917-809-6178.

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