Future Stock


Ironically, its story involves a city unpacked: The entire population of New York, and possibly everywhere else, is dead or mutated by a nasty virus. The only survivor seems to be Smith’s character, who clings to life in a strange world of terror.

It sounds like an entertaining film. Post-apocalyptic movies often are: The Terminator, The Road Warrior, Planet of the Apes, and so on. They’re fun because they’re fantasies.

The reality, of course, would be anything but a two-hour diversion. During the Cold War, civil-defense specialists drew up plans for the United States to cope with the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. Thinking about the unthinkable may be a grim task, but it’s good that some people devote their lives to it. Better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them.

The same might be said of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which is trying to collect seeds from about 2 million different kinds of food plants and bury them in the frozen ground of Spitsbergen, a remote Norwegian island that’s a lot closer to the North Pole than to Oslo. The idea is to bank the seeds in the agricultural equivalent of a safety deposit box in case a global scourge wipes out a staple crop.

It’s an excellent idea, even as we hope that we’ll never need to make a withdrawal. Yet the so-called doomsday vault may be omitting an important piece of the world’s seed legacy and promise: This bank refuses to accept deposits of GM seeds.

The admirable motive behind the vault was recently outlined in a fascinating New Yorker article by John Seabrook: “We tend to imagine apocalypse coming in the form of a bomb, an asteroid, or a tsunami, but should a catastrophe strike one of the world’s major crops … seed bankers may be all that stand between us and widespread starvation.”

Backers of the vault include the Gates Foundation, which has committed $30 million to the project. So this is an international effort. National governments are involved as well: Norway is putting up most of the $5 million needed for the construction of a complex with blast-proof doors and meter-thick walls.

Yet Norway’s involvement presents a conundrum. Spitsbergen may be an ideal location for the vault because of its permafrost soil and lack of earthquakes. But it also falls under Norwegian legal authority–and so it succumbs to European paranoia about biotechnology. At present, the vault doesn’t meet Norway’s “contained use” standards for GMOs, and therefore it forbids the types of corn, cotton, soybean and canola seeds favored by farmers in the United States and many other countries.

This is unfortunate. The vault proposes to gather just about every kind of seed imaginable–except some of the very best that have ever been bred, apparently because of regulations that are not science-based.

Biotechnology is something to applaud rather than fear. Biotech seeds are actually like miniature versions of the seed bank itself because they contain traits that protect crops from the diseases that theoretically could morph into the very calamities that the Svalbard Global Seed Vault means to defy.

A new book, Blindside, suggests that political leaders don’t do enough to prepare for disaster. Edited by Francis Fukuyama and published by the Brookings Institution, it looks at how public officials prepare for unwelcome surprises–or, perhaps more accurately, how they fail to prepare for them. “Anticipating and dealing with what were thought to have been very low-probability events have clearly become central challenges for policymakers,” writes Fukuyama.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a noble effort to address a very specific low-probability threat. It has and deserves our support. What a shame if anti-scientific attitudes were to render it less comprehensive and effective than it ought to be.

Talk about getting blindsided.

Bill Horan, a Board Member for Truth About Trade and Technology, grows corn, soybeans and grains in Northwest Iowa. This fourth generation family farm has been involved in specialty crop production and identity preservation for over twenty years.

Bill Horan

Bill Horan

Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and other grains with his brother on a family farm based in North Central Iowa. Bill volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network.

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