You've dealt with shortages. But what if there's a seed supply crisis?

If you farm, that means you plan ahead. For years, corn and soybean growers could count on adequate seed with gradually rising yield potential. 

August 12, 2021  By Jill Carlson The questions were: Which corn hybrid? Which soybean variety? Which seed supplier has the best price?

But this fall, longer-term planning is a bit more edgy in the wake of fertilizer, chemical and parts shortages.

What if there’s a seed shortage in 2022? Or 10 years from now, amid a viral or fungal crop disease pandemic, a biological attack? Who’s saving seed? We recall the Southern Corn Leaf Blight of 1970, triggered by using male sterile cytoplasm in 90% of inbreds to avoid detasseling expense in seed corn. That fungus wiped out 15% of the 1970 corn crop. Since then, the genetic base of current corn hybrids has grown more uniform, although not with male cytoplasm.

Does America have a reserve seed bank? If so, who controls it?

We've heard farmers comment about early buying of LP drying fuel. Topping up the diesel tank “in case.” The web banner ads are laced with non-perishable food for "preppers." Most farm families shrug, “We’re not, you know, preppers or anything. We just like to be prepared.”

But the unspoken concerns multiply. And the most profound concern comes down to, “Who’s saving seed?” Thirty years ago you could find seed-cleaning services in every farm community. Gradually, with the advent of buy-every-year GMOs, the seed cleaners virtually disappeared.

You can easily find help for saving your own seed: books on Amazon, or seedsavers.org, which has 13,000 members and 20,000 varieties of fruit, vegetables and grains. You can save everything from lettuce and tomatoes to potatoes and carrots. Our grandson Blake tastes tomatoes from each vine and and saves the sweetest or most flavorful for next year's seed. (He also saves and replants garlic varieties, which have become popular among our local gourmets.)

But today, access to inbreds to raise your own hybrid corn would take extraordinary effort. University crop breeding programs for open varieties of soybeans, wheat and other crops are shadows of the pre-GMO era. You can find open-pollenated corn, but not large volumes.

Planting company-protected crop varieties such as soybeans risks a crushing lawsuit. Even an accidental cross-pollination with GMOs has led to being sued, as Canadian farmer Percy Schmeizer experienced in a 1998 to 2008 court battle with Monsanto over rogue GMO canola contaminating his canola, which he'd seed-saved and developed for years.

Supposedly there's a "doomsday escape" from a global seed catastrophe. It’s the Svalbard seed vault at Spitsbergen — an Arctic Circle island owned by Norway. Over one million seed types began arriving in 2008. Stored deep underground, all that treasure could survive nuclear war, a so-called climate-change disaster or theft. (embarrassingly, the “climate-change” disaster vault flooded shortly after construction and underwent huge renovations).

Svalbard’s stated goal is to “eliminate hunger by 2030.” That’s when the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that we will encounter global crop disasters.

But the untampered climatic records show that our climate isn't misbehaving more than historic variations in recent years, despite the IPCC alarms. We must wonder why another 60,000 new varieties were added to the seed vault just 18 months ago. Who  would distribute those one million plus seeds if there is a 2030 catastrophe? At what price?

The Svalbard seed bank is a public-private partnership. So that is reassuring — people with wealth, national concerns and forward-thinking agendas, right? The seed bank and acquisition of the seeds is managed by Global Crop Diversity Trust based in Bonn, Germany, known simply as Crop Trust. Its stated mission: “ensure humanity conserves and makes available the world’s crop diversity for future food security.” 

Still, allocating scarce seeds equitably would take billions of dollars and encounter desperate contentions. Who’s going to pay? How much?

Surely those at the helm have an altruistic plan? They’re called The Donors’ Council. A few members: Bayer Crop Science. DuPont Pioneer Hi-Bred. Syngenta AG (now owned by ChemChina). These “donor” companies also own the agrichemical corporations making weedkillers for GMO crops. China’s state-owned Syngenta is the world’s largest supplier of crop pesticides.

Crop Trust donors also include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the multinational ag research alliance CGIAR, acting through Bioversity International.

And if you want to delve into the background more deeply, in the fine print you’ll see a connection to The Rockefeller Foundation.

Comes a crisis in 2030 or whenever, you won’t get precious preserved seeds air-dropped to you free. You’ll possibly never see them when most needed. 

So the question remains: What will you do about saving your own seed? Grow and save your own "Svalbard"?

Schematic of Svalbard seed vault. Image: oddcities.com