Seed Saver’s Exchange, Svalgard, and the USDA

by Kent Whealy, co-founder of Seed Savers Exchange

The following is an excerpt from a July 2009 letter sent by the founder of Seed Saver’s Exchange to SSE members. In its 2009 Catalog of Heirloom Seeds, Books and Gifts, SSE called itself "a non-profit membership organization dedicated to conserving and promoting heirloom vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers…These include our members’ family heirlooms…and [26,000 endangered] traditional varieties from around the world." This letter demonstrates that its original purpose has been usurped. Those with a different motive have, by slow infiltration and financial contributions, taken over one of humanities greatest collection of treasures— seeds.

Nearly three decades ago, I incorporated the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) as a nonprofit corporation, the only legal structure in the U.S. designed to live on beyond its founder, which I knew would be essential for maintaining its long-term genetic preservation projects. For 33 years I worked to create and fund SSE and the Heritage Farm and Twin Valleys Ancient White Park cattle herd. All of my writings and photos, every book I've ever published, every business opportunity and land deal that ever came my way, I selflessly gave to Seed Savers. I put substantial and highly functional facilities into place, along with an increasingly solid staff, because I knew the transition from my leadership would be difficult.

SSE's greatest treasure is its seed collection of 26,000 rare vegetable varieties, being permanently maintained at Heritage Farm, which represents the legacy and combined efforts of more than 3,500 of SSE's Listed Members who generously contributed their families' heirloom seeds to SSE's collection during the last three decades. As stated in SSE's Articles of Incorporation, SSE's seed collection was developed as a permanent backup for our members' efforts (so that they could get their seeds back if ever lost), and over the years it has become the best collection of heirloom food crops in the world, truly a Peoples Seed Bank, like all of the collections of traditional seeds being maintained by villages of indigenous farmers throughout the world.

I remember two decades ago when trust in Seed Savers had grown to the point that Native Americans began offering their sacred seeds through SSE's Yearbooks. In 2005 Gary Nabhan, one of our advisors, was able to give back samples of all of the Hopi varieties to the Hopi in a ceremony that was the largest repatriation of native seeds in history. I had anticipated repatriating most of the Native American varieties in SSE's collection to their respective tribes, about 140 Indian varieties from 40 different sovereign nations.

But Amy Goldman [the new head of the board of directors] doesn't share my reverence and respect for SSE's seed collection. Her unilateral actions have now made possible the patenting of 485 varieties that [under her leadership] SSE deposited at Svalbard's official opening in February 2008. [Svalbard, a giant arctic "Doomsday Seed Vault" located in northern Norway, was built by the Rockefeller and Gates Foundations and Agribusiness giants Syngenta and Monsanto – the largest patent owner in the world of genetically modified seed. It is operated by gene bank NorGen (See I.O. 12/07 and 10/08).]

A year later, SSE deposited 936 more varieties, along with statements by SSE's board that additional batches of seeds will be deposited annually until samples of SSE's entire collection are stored in Svalbard (all 26,000 varieties). SSE's deposits in Svalbard probably include some of those Native American seeds and, given the defiance of SSE's board, legal action will probably be required to get those seeds returned.

Amy Goldman has purchased SSE's highly questionable relationship with Svalbard by means of SSE's seed collection and a $1 million grant that the Lillian Goldman Charitable Trust, her mother’s foundation, just made to the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which is the entity that oversees and regulates Svalbard. It is headed by Cary Fowler – also on the SSE board of directors – and is backed by corporate donors Seminis and DuPont/Pioneer (two of the gene giants he used to fight so hard against).

Amy Goldman

Amy Goldman is on the board of the New York Botanical Garden, a group that has traditionally ignored the FAO Treaty, (International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization), and adheres instead to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) treaty because it endorses "national sovereignty" over seeds, recognizes the intellectual property rights of indigenous farmers and attempts to provide revenue sharing. The FAO Treaty claims to be "in harmony with the CBD treaty" but doesn't even recognize "country of origin." The U.S. hasn't signed the FAO Treaty yet, but has refused to ratify the CBD treaty; and the USDA is already making extensive deposits in Svalbard, including many Mexican varieties from the USDA's seed collection. Many developing countries who do not accept the FAO Treaty have seen samples from their countries placed in Svalbard without their permission (right now there are 79,404 Mexican varieties in Svalbard even though Mexico hasn't signed the FAO Treaty). Indeed, the real purpose of Svalbard, far from being just safe storage, is to allow national seed banks and the CGIAR [Consultive Group on International Agriculture Research] institutes who hold samples from other countries to place those samples in Svalbard under the FAO Treaty without national permission. Derivatives of samples can then be patented without knowledge or permission of the country of origin, which is a real kick in the teeth for farmers in developing countries. Since my termination, I have been contacted by several people who have told me that it is not an uncommon occurrence for the founder of a nonprofit organization to be thrown out, especially when it is extremely successful (either financially successful or has a great reputation with lots of media involved). Each described situations they had been through or witnessed, and warned that board members interested in using an organization for their own personal agendas will patiently wait in the background for years until an opportunity presents itself, and then will make their moves. Looking back that is exactly what Amy Goldman did, attending board meeting after board meeting, occasionally writing a large check from the Lillian Goldman Charitable Trust, while she placed people on SSE's board who were financially beholden to her.

During the last decade she used her position as one of SSE's funders to demand access to SSE's assets for her own personal use. She has used SSE's staff inappropriately to do research for her books during work hours, and has demanded preferential access to SSE's rarest seeds which have provided many of the photos for her books. When she alienated me and lost my support, her future publishing depended on taking over SSE and forcing me out.

Cary Fowler

Back in 1979 I worked with Cary Fowler, co-author of Shattering: Food, Politics and the Loss of Genetic Diversity, published in 1990 to oppose "UPOV legislation" in the U.S. (Geneva-based plant variety protection legislation with its Common Catalogue that has outlawed and caused the extinction of thousands of food varieties as each successive country joined the European Union). He and I first met at Gary Nabhan's "Seed Banks Serving People" conference in Tucson in 1981. I have watched Cary Fowler's career for more than 30 years, all the way from the Frank Porter Graham Center in North Carolina to the United Nations in Rome. That path has apparently required abandoning some of his former ideals, such as championing the rights of indigenous farmers.

In turn, Cary Fowler has watched for 26 years as I put together the best collection of heirloom food crops in the world, so it is despicable that he never said one word to me about putting SSE's seeds into his "doomsday vault." Right now Cary Fowler is moving heaven and earth to place as many seed collections as possible under the control of the FAO Treaty. But despite all of his rhetoric about protecting genetic resources and needing to get past the contentiousness of the Seed Wars a decade ago, this is still just legally legitimized biopiracy. By putting SSE's seeds into Svalbard and under control of the FAO Treaty, Amy Goldman and SSE's board have broken the trust of thousands of SSE's members who have sent samples to SSE's collection believing that their families' heirloom seeds would always be maintained and protected from misuse and patenting. SSE's secret arrangement with Svalbard is the most serious threat that Seed Savers has ever faced!

Svalbard’s Trojan horse publicity is designed to focus the public's attention strictly on the Svalbard seed vault and its claims of saving the world's food production from climate change and nuclear catastrophe, with never any mention of the FAO Treaty whose real purpose is to facilitate access to the world's genetic resources for breeding purposes and patenting.

SSE’s actions a violation of law

There are serious questions concerning whether or not Amy Goldman and SSE's board have the legal right to turn over the assets of a U.S. nonprofit to the control of a United Nations treaty. So far SSE's board has refused to make public the documents signed with Cary Fowler, and they have lied to SSE's members through their publications and website about the true nature of Svalbard and the obligations the treaty places on SSE. All depositors are required to sign the Svalbard Depositors Agreement that links those deposits to the FAO Treaty, Article 7 of which states, "The Depositor agrees to make available from their own stocks samples of accessions of the deposited plant genetic resources and associated available non-confidential information to other natural or legal persons in accordance with the following terms and conditions: .. . ." The agreement goes on to dictate that "original samples" (other seeds of those varieties stored in the seed vaults at Heritage Farm) are also covered by the FAO Treaty. By signing the treaty, Seed Savers cannot refuse any requests for seeds of those deposited varieties (Monsanto and others now can, as a right, request those varieties from SSE's own seed vaults at Heritage Farm, splice in GMOs, then patent and sell the seed). Indeed, a 1.1% tax on patents from "derivatives" of the varieties in Svalbard is the main way the FAO Treaty will generate funding.

The entire Svalrard agreement was done behind the scenes in conversations with Amy Goldman, probably because they both knew I would oppose such efforts. Svalbard has never been a necessary step for SSE - duplicate samples of SSE's seed collection are already stored in an underground seed vault at Heritage Farm as insurance against fire and tornadoes, plus another set of duplicate samples is in "black box storage" at the National Seed Storage Lab in Fort Collins, Colorado. (Black box storage means the seeds are only being stored against catastrophic loss and that the samples, which still belong entirely to SSE, can be returned at any time upon request.)

When first confronted with my letter to SSE's members expressing my concerns about Svalbard, SSE issued a defensive statement (posted in SSE's chat room, but then pulled a day later) claiming the seeds in Svalbard belong entirely to SSE and cannot be distributed, patenting cannot occur, SSE can get its seeds back upon request, and SSE has the signed contracts stating all that. While it is true that the samples of seeds actually stored in Svalbard can't be distributed, it is the linking of those deposits to the FAO Treaty that facilitates the distribution and patenting. A more extensive letter was later posted on the SSE website defending SSE's relationship with Svalbard and claiming there is no linkage between Svalbard's Depositors Agreement and the FAO Treaty, which is an outright lie. That letter goes on to argue that Monsanto has had the legal ability to obtain and genetically modify our heirloom varieties ever since Heritage Farm started distributing portions of SSE's seed collection through the yearbook. Well, there is a huge difference between obtaining a few varieties from SSE's yearbooks and these deliberate actions by SSE's board that will gradually open up SSE's entire seed collection to Monsanto and similar players. If it's written into the treaty, it will eventually happen, exactly the same way that the rights of farmers to save their own seeds have gradually been made illegal by similar treaties.

Neil Hamilton

Amy Goldman has continually overreached her power as the Chair of SSE's Board, and Neil Hamilton is responsible for enabling her abuse. Amy Goldman did not have the right to usurp the duties of SSE's Executive Director (which she did repeatedly before I was fired), but with Neil Hamilton's legal advice and guidance they rewrote SSE's Bylaws to give her that power.

Neil Hamilton has proven to be an opportunistic, self-serving, deceitful little man. A decade ago he was involved in a similar transformation of the National Gardening Association in Burlington, Vermont, during which NGA's "electronic assets" (all articles and photos from its past publications) were sold for $3 million and the organization's focus was changed from garden research to children’s gardens. Neil Hamilton has used tactics learned at NGA to enable Amy Goldman's takeover of Seed Savers. And although each of SSE's board members is supposed to annually sign a Conflict of Interest Statement to identify any self-serving financial relationships that board members have with SSE, the financial relationship between Amy Goldman and Neil Hamilton ($70,000 by the Lillian Goldman Charitable Trust given during 2007 to Drake University where Neil Hamilton is head of the Agricultural Law Center) has never been disclosed.

Neil Hamilton is a social climbing politico, throwing garden parties in Des Moines for his buddy Tom Vilsack, then widely known in Iowa as the Hog Lot Governor (for blocking DNR regulation of all facilities with less than 4,000 hogs) and also named Governor of the Year in 2002 by "BIO" (Biotechnology Industry Organization) for his enthusiastic approval of open air tests of "pharma crops" (pharmaceuticals produced in our food supply). Tom Vilsack, the Obama Administration's new Secretary of Agriculture despite more than 100,000 letters of protest, recently came back from the G8 financial summit vowing to do much more than the Bush administration to force genetically modified foods down the world's throat. And Neil Hamilton is right in there as Chair of the National Genetic Resources Program, a USDA committee composed mainly of agricultural industry leaders who advise the Secretary of Agriculture.

For more than a decade SSE's publications have reprinted articles to keep our members informed about the battle over genetically modified foods, because Terminator technology is the antithesis of SSE's efforts to make our families' heirloom seeds freely available to other gardeners. (Terminator technology was originally developed as a taxpayer-funded USDA joint project for genetically engineered seeds to kill their own embryos with the stated goal of preventing 1.4 billion peasant farmers from saving the seeds their families depend on for food). USDA and the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) continue to block the labeling of genetically modified foods in grocery stores throughout the U.S. Using the citizens of the U.S. as guinea pigs for Monsanto's genetically modified food crops is unconscionable, but deliberately breaking the chain of the seed after 12,000 years to genetically prevent seed saving by peasant farmers is really sick- it's anti-farmer, antinature and anti-life. Instead of the usual 12- 20 pages of articles about GMOs, SSE's latest issue contains only one article and soon there will be none. That will leave SSE's members in the dark about these vital issues, while also silencing a strong critic of agricultural biotechnology at the far end of the spectrum from Neil Hamilton, Tom Vilsack and the USDA's misguided policies.

The future of SSE

I now believe that Amy Goldman and SSE's board never intended for there to be any transition, because they don't intend to carry on with my projects. The four board members who voted to terminate me: Amy Goldman, Neil Hamilton, Deborah Madison and Rob Johnston Jr. have lied to SSE's advisors, members, funders and donors, maliciously attacked those who disagree with their actions, and created a wall of secrecy that would make any funder think twice. SSE's long-term funders (some have been supporters every year since 1982) were reportedly "horrified" by the board's actions. The brutal way I was terminated and the subsequent lies by SSE's board in defense of their actions have destroyed the trust of SSE's members.

I am deeply concerned that the files from my former office will be destroyed as Amy Goldman systematically attempts to write me out of SSE's history. I was terminated without any warning and separated from my writings and photos. Since I never maintained a personal office at home, the entire history of the 33 years I guided Seed Savers was in file cabinets and on my computer in my office at Heritage Farm. Since last July I have been trying to regain access to and usage of my files. I have only been asking SSE's board for "non-exclusive usage" - not ownership, just permission to reprint my writings and photos that have already appeared in SSE's publications, and to be able to copy portions of my former files, costing SSE nothing. Without any reasonable justification, SSE's board has refused. To gain even partial access to my writings, speeches and photos would have requi red signi n g away my v o ice, which I will never do.

Nothing will change until Amy Goldman is removed completely from SSE's board, along with all those financially beh olden to her and all others who would use SSE for their own personal agendas. That most certainly includes Neil Hamilton, who has facilitated and empowered this entire debacle. The good news is that all of this is reversible — Svalbard depositors can annul the agreement and recover their seeds. Someone whose seeds are in SSE's collection (Nat i ve American or SS E memb er ) needs to act and will have my full support - indeed, deserves all of our support - in making that legal challenge.

What I've had to go through has been vicious and is indefensible. I have been completely shut out of the organization and genetic preservation projects that I love so deeply and have been treated like some sort of criminal who is a danger to our organization. All of us love and have worked so hard for the beautiful idea that is Seed Savers and it is inconceivable that the Seed Savers Exchange should now be treated so lightly and with such disrespect. I am deeply grateful for the help and support that all of you have shared so selflessly, especially your families' seeds. My 33 years with Seed Savers has been a truly fascinating journey, filled with joy and deep satisfaction. I sincerely thank all of you for that.

More than likely this will be my final communication with all of you. In closing, I wan t to acknowl edge the deep sorrow that so many people across the country are feeling right now. My greatest fear is that our Listed Members will start to pull back and turn away from SSE but that will only make things worse. Please do everything you can to make sure that our annual seed e xchange continues and thrives, beca use selfless seed sharing has created opportunities for gardeners everywhere. If SSE’s seed exchange dwindles down, then three decades of work by more than 3,500 Listed Members will indeed have been destroyed. Please don't let that happen. There is too much at stake to let self-serving personal agendas and misguided decisions ruin everything that all of us have worked so hard to accomplish. Please continue to support and participate and stand by Seed Savers. All of this can still be turned around. No lie lives forever.