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No GMOs in Svalbard: How the absence of genetically modified crops in the seed vault might lead to disaster

Just 650 miles south of the geographic North Pole, a remote Norwegian island chain called Svalbard persists through the bitter cold.  With its brutal, dangerous climate, the region is home to little besides walrus, polar bears…and an ambitious international food security project. In the northernmost year-round human settlement on Earth, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault hosts 983,524 samples of agricultural seeds from across the globe, acting as a backup storage facility to preserve the genetic makeup of the world’s most important food crops.

Though “gene banks” of this sort exist all across the planet, their vulnerability at the hands of anthropogenic and natural disasters prompted the development of this high-security, well-funded backup facility in the case of a “doomsday” scenario. The Svalbard vault serves to protect against the extinction of critical agricultural species, so that they might be cultivated and regrown even if all living samples were destroyed. However, in the face of the doomsday scenario posed by global climate change, the gene bank could surely use some new deposits.

Anthropogenic climate change, fueled by human input of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and the ensuing exacerbation of Earth’s greenhouse effect, gets a fair deal of media coverage, with TV anchors and commentators frequently citing melting polar ice caps, rising sea levels, and struggling wildlife as exigent impacts of the crisis. However, a less well-known but equally severe consequence of climate change is its potentially devastating impacts on modern agriculture. Crops tend to require specific climates in order to thrive, and the onset of climate change serves to both shift the location of these particular climates and even make some of them impossible to find whatsoever. Current levels of climate variation can already have grave effects; the premature budding of cherries in Michigan in 2012, attributed to a warm winter, caused $220 million in crop losses, and high nighttime temperatures across America’s corn-producing states limited output in 2010 and 2012. Global climate change will make anomalous temperatures of this nature the norm, putting an unprecedented strain on the agricultural processes that will be responsible for feeding an estimated 9 billion people by 2050. The industry, as such, is desperately in need of a savior. Luckily, however, it already seems to have one.

Genetically modified crops (commonly referred to as GMOs) are plant species that have had their genome altered manually, so that they might develop new traits that increase their agricultural value or output.  The process of this genetic modification generally entails selective splicing of DNA and extensive research to avoid negative impacts on the crops themselves or the environment in which they are cultivated. Speculation surrounds the creation of these organisms, with critics suggesting a link between GMOs and health issues like allergy aggravation and cancer but citing no conclusive evidence to back their claims. The practice of genetic modification has already made huge strides in increasing agricultural productivity, with Italian researchers recently publishing a review declaring that genetic modification of corn has increased its yield noticeably over the past 20 years. With strains on the agricultural market likely to worsen from dramatic population growth over the next century, such increases in productivity are critical.  Furthermore, newly developed suites of GMOs include drought-resistant and temperature-resistant cropscapable of withstanding the devastating shifts in agricultural conditions effectuated by climate change as well as potential disasters resulting from a doomsday event. And yet, the doomsday storehouse that is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault fails to protect these GMO suites.

"The Svalbard vault serves to protect against the extinction of critical agricultural species, so that they might be cultivated and regrown even if all living samples were destroyed. However, in the face of the doomsday scenario posed by global climate change, the gene bank could surely use some new deposits."

Modern Norwegian law entirely prohibits the growth and development of GMOs, with politicians holding onto antiquated fears of genetic alteration.  The seed bank itself is run by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an independent organization operating under international law, and given this title in October 2004 by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. However, the anti-GMO policy that was put into effect prior to the establishment of the seed vault applies widely to research processes concerning GMOs in the country, and prohibits the importation and storage of these modified crops by the Trust. Despite the clear, observable increases in crop yields resulting from the development of GMOs, the Norwegian government continues to stand in the way of the technology. More importantly, it refuses to protect these invaluable modified crops in the Svalbard vault. In the case of a natural or man-made disaster, the critical scientific developments made in extant GMOs might still be entirely lost without the protection of the “doomsday” gene bank.  As such, the genetic diversity preserved by the Vault is susceptible to collapsing in the face of climate change, on account of the Vault’s failure to protect the genome of crops specifically designed to survive dramatic droughts and temperature shifts. The potential loss of this additional biodiversity and the relevant scientific data in the face of dramatic population growth in this century could reduce future generations’ ability to adapt to catastrophic food shortages and starvation.

The seed bank has already demonstrated its unpreparedness for climate change.  In May of 2017, the facility was flooded, with the permafrost in the ice and sediment walls that supported its infrastructure melting due to dramatic temperature changes in the arctic circle.  Though no seeds were lost, the near-disaster demonstrated the looming threat of climate change. Not only is the external framework of the seed bank at risk, but the internal structures are susceptible as well. The crop diversity it preserves is similarly unprepared for climate change due to the fact that it only protects natural seeds and not GMOs. In a world where favorable conditions cannot be found for unmodified crops (which are very sensitive to differences in climate), it appears that GMOs are the only crops that might remain viable enough to support human populations. The seed vault’s failure to host these organisms and protect their genomes puts the entirety of our agricultural future at risk, making it more vulnerable to destruction by natural disasters that are already being made more frequent by climate change.  

The pressing nature of this issue lies in the unpredictability of the future of climate change. In the face of grave uncertainty, the international community must take immediate action. The Norwegian law preventing the importation and storage of GMOs in the country by the Global Crop Diversity Trust should not hold, given the specific establishment of the aforementioned trust under international law. And yet, it continues to do so, with no specific amendment or exemption put into Norwegian law to account for the Trust’s status.  This presents a serious issue to global food security in these unstable times, and, as such, demands a swift response by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization that governs the Crop Trust. Pressure on the part of the United Nations is not easily ignored, especially when national law is directly impeding their policies. Even without supporting GMOs directly, the Organization might call out Norway for governing an international body under national policies.  If attention is brought to the apparent lack of legal standing backing the Norwegian blockade against GMOs in the Svalbard vault, the Global Crop Diversity Trust might gain the credibility necessary to bypass the blockade, store important GMO crops, and protect food security, giving the international community a security net for the climate change catastrophe that might one day come.

Photo: “Svalbard

About the Author

Cameron Tripp '21 is a Staff Writer for the World Section of the Brown Political Review. Cameron can be reached at cameron_tripp@brown.edu

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