August 17, 2011

Seed Savers Exchange, Svalbard, and Corporatism


I’ve been uncertain what to think about the power struggle at the Seed Savers Exchange, the deposition of its co-founder and longtime executive director Kent Whealy, the charges and countercharges of mismanagement, Leader arrogance, and lack of transparency and democracy (there seems to have been quite a bit of these on both sides), and the SSE’s peculiar partnership with the globalization seed vault at Svalbard.
One thing that’s clear is that the Svalbard relationship is gratuitous and cannot have been undertaken for the reasons current management claims, that it represents an increased resiliency for the SSE’s stocks. If that were really the intent they’d have expanded and distributed their own network and facilities (like the way a plant would with its own seeds), not have sought further concentration in a corporate fortress.
This is true even if the claims of Whealy and others about the contract between SSE and Svalbard are exaggerated. Whealy claims that the varieties reposed at Svalbard cannot easily be repossessed, nor are there barriers to Monsanto and others using them for proprietary research. Worst of all, Svalbard can now demand access to and possession of any and all seeds in the SSE library. SSE would have to comply with any such demand laundered through Svalbard by Monsanto and other rackets.
Torgrimson and the rest deny these claims. They and the NordGen managers of the vault say they can take back their deposits any time they want, that nobody can do anything with those deposits without their OK, and that nothing in the contract gives Svalbard any right to anything other than what’s been deposited in the vault.
My own reading of the contract is that it’s intentionally vague and can possibly be interpreted the way Whealy claims. Anyone who knows the history of globalization knows how these things are likely to work, so it’s reasonable to be suspicious of anything vague. But of course a pollyanna liberal (or someone pretending to be that; Whealy’s own interpretation of his nemeses is that they’re mostly stupid starfuckers who don’t know how they’re being manipulated by corporatism – see below for the latest on this) would argue that the contract’s fine.
(I wrote more on the War on Seeds here and here.)
I repeat that no one trying to set up a network of seed banks for democratic and relocalization purposes would have anything to do with centralized system vaults like Svalbard. If you fear for the safety and viability of the seeds at any one location, then spread them among hundreds, thousands. This year I’m making a (so far very modest) start at beginning a seed library as a project of our relocalization group. We’ll see what kind of help I get this fall from the community garden, etc. But a corporatist vault is dubious on its face, the contract language gives grounds for further suspicion, these are enough to make the decision that such collaboration is likely to cost far, far more than one might gain, and it’s unnecessary from any legitimate point of view. (For more on Svalbard’s backers, see for example the donor list at the Global Crop Diversity Trust. Monsanto’s not explicitly listed, but most of the rest of the gang’s there – Syngenta, Dupont/Pioneer, the Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the World Bank CGIAR, etc.)
And now for the latest, the most clear window yet on SSE’s corporate liberal treachery. They’re now crowing about a visit from none other than their president Obama. I’ll spare you excerpts from their sickening paean to a mass murderer and co-conspirator in the looting of tens of trillions of dollars from the American people. But masochists can read it here. Note how all the happy talk about seed saving is 100% from their side, while Obama evidently didn’t even pretend to respect SSE’s mission.
There’s good reason for that. Monsanto is one of Obama’s favorite corporations, according to the record of his actions. Anyone who knows anything about seed saving knows that Monsanto is dedicated to a totalitarian purge of all non-proprietary seed use from the face of the earth. Over ten years ago it commissioned Enron collaborator Arthur Andersen to reverse-engineer a strategy for literal world domination based on control of the food supply, through a monopoly on all seeds. Anyone who cares anything for SSE’s mission regards Monsanto as enemy #1.
Obama, meanwhile, has appointed and promoted more Monsanto cadres in his administration than Bush did in 8 years. Most notoriously, he elevated Monsanto lobbyist Michael Taylor to the anti-democratic post of Food Czar, with vague but vast theoretical administrative power over our food and seeds. The recently passed and Obama-supported Food Control bill is intended to legislatively validate an administrative dictatorship over food. Monsanto wrote much of this bill. Obama is Monsanto’s president.
The SSE Leadership knows all this, yet chooses to welcome this arch-criminal and lie to its membership about what it means. This is the strongest evidence yet that Whealy is right about the “seat at the table” corporate liberal sellout attitude among SSE’s management, or perhaps something more sinister. Since Obama certainly wants organizations like SSE to cease to exist, it follows that if traitors within wanted to dissolve the project (not overtly, but by gutting it from within), they’d try to astroturf the membership into thinking Obama’s their ally, and that the organization should fall into line with administration directives. For example, there haven’t yet been any new FDA rulings on seeds based on the new legislation, but they’re probably coming.
This would then put the Svalbard collaboration in a more explicable, evil perspective. 


  1. I don’t know much about this SSE controversy but I always scoffed at Svalbard’s mission because it was evidently modeled on Noah’s Ark and seemed just as absurd a notion. The idea that when chaos reigns and catabolic collapse has denuded the face of the Earth, we’ll just jump on an algae-fuel powered jet plane to our seed vault in Svalbard. Monsanto will be handing out free samples at the entrance. Your very own GMO starter kit to populate the Earth with only the very finest genetically altered foods. Grab a free ear of GMO corn on your way back to the tarmac.

    If Svalbard (and any large-scale seed banks, heirloom or not) serves as anything, it is last resort “systems reboot” for the creme d’Elite. There could never be a democratic seed back under capitalism. Seeds, along with a livestock breeding pair, are the ultimate, Capital Zero and will likely end up as one of the first replacement currencies. Hey, cattle were the first currency after all, might as well expect it to come full circle in the end. The belief that something that valuable would be freely shared, or even fairly traded under an existing capitalist regime is nonsense.

    Comment by Ross — August 17, 2011 @ 9:21 am

    • If Svalbard (and any large-scale seed banks, heirloom or not) serves as anything, it is last resort “systems reboot” for the creme d’Elite. There could never be a democratic seed back under capitalism.

      Exactly. It simply defies credulity that anyone could still believe that any system project, in a crisis, would ever be deployed in a democratic way rather than a disaster capitalist way. Maybe it’s possible that I’m missing some real benefit SSE gets from this collaboration (if it exists, they didn’t bother to mention it in their defense). Barring that, for a democratic project to collaborate with the likes of Svalbard is to give aid to the enemy, help him with his plans, and expose yourself to him.

      SSE itself is in essence a great democratic project, in spite of its Leaders’ attempts to hijack it. (Not that Whealy sounds like he was much of a believer in democracy himself when he was exec director.) But maybe they’ll succeed in wrecking it in the end, if the membership can’t figure out a way to take it over. From what I gather, in the membership’s attitude toward the Leaders we have a microcosm of the progressives’ relationship to Obama himself. So I guess there was a dramatic unity in Obama’s visit.

      So here we have a critical case. The SSE isn’t just another stupid “progressive” NGO we’d be better off without. It’s steward of thousands of rare seed varieties, and the standard bearer for the heirloom seed and seed-saving movement. If it were turned into an astroturf, the physical and political damage could be incalculable. The relocalization movement needs an alternate plan and fast. My thought so far is thousands, tens of thousands of small seed banks and seed traders. (Perhaps time banks could help organize them.) Maybe even an organization on the level of SSE is too big and centralized.

      Comment by Russ — August 17, 2011 @ 9:53 am

  2. This came to me as I was falling asleep and I had to turn the lights on to write it down. Basically, a(n ideally) Internet-based cashless seed bank based on reciprocal giving; you must give away seeds to be eligible to receive any. This would be federalized seed trading with smaller groups (time banks, market gardens, etc.) “capitalizing” their own seed banks and trading/bartering seed via the mail.

    Just a rough idea I wanted to share.

    Comment by Ross — August 18, 2011 @ 11:50 am

    • The only problem with this is the bootstrapping issue. For someone who doesn’t have access to non-corporate seeds (can’t afford them, etc), this precludes them from getting some so that they can get started. This is a bit of an odd comparison, but P2P torrent/piracy sites usually deal with this issue by allowing a certain amount of “free” downloads (ie you would get 5 “free” packets of seeds from whoever), and after that monitoring your upload/download ratio (you’d have to start giving back and maintain at least a 80% give/take ratio to be a member in good standing, or whatever). This benefits those in possession of high-demand seeds, but results in their rapid distribution through the network, as people would request the high-demand stuff just to be able to give it out and raise their ratio.

      Comment by paper mac — August 18, 2011 @ 3:12 pm

      • Seed traders have that too. When I was starting my first vegetable garden and asked for some basic advice at LATOC, I not only got plenty of that, but someone sent me a packet of seeds (5 kinds, IIRC) to get started. She just said, once you know what you’re doing you can do the same for someone else.

        (It’s kind of like the way many time banks give new members some free hours to start with. Ours gives 2, which is the most common and apparently most beneficial amount.)

        Comment by Russ — August 18, 2011 @ 3:19 pm

      • That makes sense. It would be relatively easy to implement a system tracking these kinds of trades on a P2P-type site, which would be a type of anonymous, distributed seed exchange- that might have some advantages in the case of active repression or cooption of centralised exchanges.

        Comment by paper mac — August 18, 2011 @ 5:11 pm

      • That sounds good.

        Off-topic (not really, though), after seeing all the great info you got out of the Graeber book I went to order my own copy, but found that it’s evidently still just a new hardcover (i.e., at its most expensive). I guess I’ll have to wait for the paperback.

        Add: I wonder if there’s a book which assembles the democratic history of agriculture, such as the School of the Tillers. I don’t recall hearing of such a book. I can look around, though.

        Comment by Russ — August 18, 2011 @ 6:11 pm

      • Yeah, it’s the first hardcover edition, but $20 off Amazon (I know, I know) isn’t bad. Anyway, push your library to get it, it’s good.

        Graeber made an off-hand mention of the School of the Tillers which made me go dig through the literature for references to them, and I was positively shocked to find a fully-fledged confederate localised peasant anarchist movement in the Warring States era. I was vaguely familiar with Shennong from Confucian and Daoist texts but I didn’t realise the Tiller context- that paper I posted really put it into perspective for me. I don’t know of any coherent history that puts the Tillers into a historical lineage with other peasant anarchist movements. I think that’s going to be a project in and of itself- we have very clear antecedents that give us millenia of philosophical background, which I think is tremendously powerful.

        Comment by paper mac — August 19, 2011 @ 1:03 am

      • I think you’re right about that being a project waiting to be done.

        Comment by Russ — August 19, 2011 @ 3:49 am

    • It’s an excellent idea. There’s already plenty of loose trading networks, and the SSE has a vigorous trading network among its membership. I’d love to see individuals and groups start such libraries and networks anywhere they can (part of #1 in my movement plan)


      as well as at a national and international level through online coordination (#6).

      I think there’s lots of potential for this to be integrated with time banking. I placed a seed-saving Offer on our time bank. I’d take the fruit provided, do the work of saving the seeds, and split them with the grower, distributing my half between my personal collection and the seed bank I’m trying to get off the ground as a group project.

      Comment by Russ — August 18, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

  3. It’s hard to believe Obama cares one way or another about Seed Savers. In fact, I find it hard to believe he cares about anything other than his lofty rhetoric, which is undoubtedly outsourced totally by now. Regardless, he’s another tool for those pretty much out-in-the-open villains who actually are trying to stamp out local agriculture, local economies, networks, etc. Which makes me realize that those who are into localism on the “left” and “right” (whatever those terms mean now) need to come together and form alliances of barter, mutual protection, trade in ideas and goods, etc. This grand alliance will only happen due to necessity, however. The conventional political ideas still make most people consider social issues too much for them to come together based on real needs. Example: a year long, 10 million dollar campaign has just begun in Minnesota over the coming referendum on a state constitutional amendment to define marriage (i.e., an anti-gay-marriage amendment). What a waste of energy, but perfect for dissipating the people’s energies.

    Comment by Publius — August 18, 2011 @ 2:46 pm

    • I don’t know to what extent Obama is consciously and aggressively in accord with Monsanto’s agenda, and to what extent he’s an inertial conduit of it. Either way he’s their guy 100%, so it’s at least objectively true that he wants SSE destroyed, since Monsanto certainly wants it destroyed.

      those who are into localism on the “left” and “right” (whatever those terms mean now) need to come together and form alliances of barter, mutual protection, trade in ideas and goods, etc.

      That’s sure true. I don’t know yet how hard it will be. I was talking to one of our farmers’ market volunteers, who was exercised over something he read in the paper. I won’t give all the details, but the gist is that on the one hand he hates Walmart, but on the other hand he kept phrasing it in terms of the UN wanting to impose “socialism” on us. So I couldn’t quite tell where he was coming from ideologically, and whether or not he was a “tea party” type (I didn’t ask). When I said, “that’s all true, but it’s not socialism, it’s corporatism, and the goal is to rob us all of everything we have on behalf of the big corporations”, he agreed with that.

      So my take on him so far is that he really hates kleptocracy, is prone to listen to “rightist” framing, but will also listen to and agree with “leftist” framing if someone presents it to him.

      The most important thing about the guy is that although he has a job and a family which must all put huge demands on his time and energy, he makes a point of stopping by at the end of our market time to help us break down, just because he supports the idea of farmers’ markets.

      Comment by Russ — August 18, 2011 @ 3:20 pm

  4. Maybe he’s FBI.

    Comment by tawal — August 18, 2011 @ 4:02 pm

    • He’d sure be wasting his time, and bored too.

      Comment by Russ — August 18, 2011 @ 5:07 pm

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