Lotsa Name Calling


Last week, I posted about the joys of experimenting with different seeds in the vegetable garden.

This week, somebody tipped me off to the hair-pulling and biting surrounding the non-profit Seed Savers Exchange, a pioneering organization that recognized very early the importance of preserving the genetic diversity of our food crops, given the ruthless way industrial farmers and seed companies were shrinking our culinary horizons.

Seed Savers Exchange keeps a large collection of open-pollinated seed varieties donated by its members and publishes an annual yearbook to allow them to sell seeds to each other.  All seemingly wonderful, if you have the patience to deal with that code-ridden yearbook, which I don't.

All seemingly wonderful until Seed Savers Exchange founder Kent Whealy, who was forced out of the organization in 2007, gave a speech this September at the Land Institute basically accusing the board of getting in bed with corporate interests.  This because the board sent some of the Seed Savers Exchange's collection to the doomsday vault, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on an island off the coast of Norway.  The vault represents last-resort storage of proven old varieties of food crops for all humanity–in the event that we fry the planet or provoke some nuclear-winter-like ecological disaster, a la The Road.

Whealy argues that the seed at Svalbard falls under the provisions of a treaty that makes it possible for corporations to use Seed Savers Exchange seed, carefully preserved by families for generations and shared with the world through Seed Savers, to create patentable seeds that they will then own. He calls it "biopiracy."

I'm not an intellectual property lawyer.  I have no idea of the legitimacy of Whealy's claims.  I was, however, really glad this month when the Justice Department said that genes should not be patentable, because some companies have been using such patents to corner the market on certain aspects of Mother Nature and to limit the sharing of knowledge that I always thought was a basic part of the scientific endeavor. (Here is a coherent and interesting paper on the subject: Download 03_Eisenberg)

Again, not a patent lawyer.  But I have been making my living as a speechwriter for years, so I am qualified to say something about Whealy's rhetoric.  When you are trying to make an important argument, it's a bad idea to stoop to name-calling like this:

Amy Goldman has traded Seed Savers Members’ Seed Collection for an international photo op in the permafrost beside the Svalbard Doomsday Vault. For three long years her misuse of SSE’s nonprofit resources has been legally enabled and empowered by Neil Hamilton, while Cary Fowler is lying his way towards a Nobel Peace Prize.

In Whealy's defense, however, Seed Savers Exchange doesn't seem to have a very professional board.  Check out Amy Goldman's immature and irrelevant "response" to this attack, which ends breathlessly …

Even though I am separated from it by time and space, and I've visited only once, I can imagine what the Svalbard Global Seed Vault looks like right now, at the height of autumn in New York. I cherish the thought: a modern-day ark set amidst the majestic white craggy mountains, all alone, in the dark Polar Night, devoid of people. I know it is guarding its treasures, almost like a woman who holds our lives in her womb and hands.

Huh.  Disturbing to imagine a woman doing both at once.

And check out fellow board member Cary Fowler's less pleasant response, which includes mentions of Whealy's messy divorce and wealthy new wife.

Seriously, doesn't anybody pay for PR advice any more?

If your mission is to make sure humanity can feed itself in future, and if you really believe that the opposing party threatens that mission, you have to refrain from foaming at the mouth yourself.  Take the high road, please!  Make the other guy seem crazy!


  1. Would Mr. Whealy like some cheese with that whine?

    It seems clear to me that despite having good intentions and agreeable values, KW is a subpar leader if he was forced out of his own organization and is now using his speaking opportunities as a soapbox for his hurt feelings.

    For the sake of balance, Amy comes across like a failed “creative” writer.

  2. To Kaviani. I read the speech by Mr. Whealy and the letter by Mr. Fowler. Mr. Whealy started SSE and worked for this enterprise for 33 years (let’s just call it a lifetime of devotion to the genetic preservation of our country’s developed seeds). The official reason he was terminated, he writes, is that he put a shed on SSE’s property without the Board’s permission. (What?) Obviously, there is so much more to this story. From what I’ve read, I can’t decipher who may be right or wrong or to what degree, but I would like to say your comment is NOT balanced.

  3. Being that there is no real definitive law on the “owning” of genes, and that the justice department has flopped back and forth for many years, I can see why there is worry about the Seed Savers Seeds becoming owned and distributed. I’m sure there are worries of Monsanto-types of disputes.

    Ignoring the blatant immaturity of the Seed Saver current and ex board, I think it is a shame that the good act of seed preservation and use of diverse rare seeds gets overshadowed by the gene ownership argument. And it’s a shame we may lose more seeds because the argument has not been clarified.

    (and yes, I am an atty… but a seed-loving, garden-planting one, so please no hate)

  4. A little counterproductive to say the least on all the fuss. It is almost like both sides are wrong in many respects. This story will only get more interesting I am sure.

  5. Why are we putting the complete responsibility for saving these seeds in the hands of a few, when there are so many of us gardeners out there? Why not start a world-wide, local community-based seed-saving system, especially so that if one part of the planet gets fried, others might survive? At any rate, it seems like a good reason to continue saving seeds wherever you garden….

  6. To Sandra Knauf – I would like to say your OPINION hardly counts for nothing in the way of FACT, and your idea of humor finds fail in the eyes of Morbo.

  7. I think this is likely a much more complex issue than you illuminate, a mix of very wonderful (seed bank critical to human survival) and corporate power (the want to patent heirloom seeds).

  8. This is the most sensible thing I’ve read on the mess at SSE for a long time. SSE’s response to Kent is way over the top. Kent is right about Svalbard. The problem with Svalbard is that it is for duplicate samples: but for anything deposited the originals are covered by the FAO Seed Treaty. This depends for its income on a tax on patented derivatives of samples. The Treaty also `facilitates access’ to samples – that is, makes it easier for Monsanto and the rest to patent. Also Svalbard is mainly used by developed countries as a mechanism of putting genetic resources from developing countries into the Treaty without the knowledge or permission of these countries. For example, there are 95,722 samples from Mexico in Svalbard although Mexico has deposited nothing itself and is not a member of the Treaty. SSE is now a party to this biopiracy

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