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!