When the Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened in Norway in February 2008, it was hailed as a 'Noah's Ark' for protecting biodiversity for future generations. But critics are concerned about the possibility of large corporations exploiting small seed banks' collections deposited at the vault.
Seed banks from around the world are encouraged to deposit their collections at Svalbard. But, according to Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, United States, by doing so the seed banks become subject to an international treaty on plant genetics that exposes their seeds to commercialisation by agribusiness companies.
Kimbrell likens the vault to a zoo because it does not protect the species in their natural habitats: "It's messianic but it doesn't make any sense. You want to protect diversity in the habitat where it lives.
"What they're doing for these corporations is putting them all in one place. This is one-stop shopping for the corporations," says Kimbrell.
Although the companies cannot patent the seeds, they can exploit and patent their genes, he says. Recent donations from some of the companies to the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which manages the vault, and a complex seed deposit agreement — which small seed banks may find confusing — are two reasons to worry, he adds.
Small seed banks "don't have a bank of lawyers" to go through these contracts, he says.
Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, dismisses such fears.
He says that donations from large agribusinesses represent only two per cent of the trust's funding and come with "no strings attached".
The collection is already in the public domain anyway, so it does not make sense for companies to pay to access it, he adds.
Fowler also says that agreement to the international treaty is not a prerequisite for storing seeds at Svalbard — but collections covered by the treaty are given priority.