Dornith Doherty’s documentary images of seed-saving facilities capture the logistics — and existential anxiety — behind the elaborate steps now in place to preserve the world’s crop diversity.
Once a traditional, year-to year practice by smallholding farmers to develop sturdy varietals, this simple act of putting seed aside has more and more become the concern of international affairs and corporate policy.
“Seed saving and its role in preserving biodiversity is of utmost importance. We are in an era called the Holocene extinction, which is notable for its decline in biodiversity,” says Doherty.
In times of accelerating climate change, extinction threats and the commodification of genetic resources by agribusiness, Doherty is fascinated by the sealed, and concealed, activities of seed-saving operations across the globe.
One of the criticisms leveled at seedbanking by agricultural social justice groups is that multinational corporations along with their patents are dominating the seed “industry.” Food biotech corporations, including Monsanto and Syngenta, fund the Svalbard Seed Vault.
Sunita Rao is among those who question the motives of these corporations and the relevance of the seed vault to developing-world farmers. She’s an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment in Bangalore, India and founder Trustee of Vanastree in Sirsi, India.
“The Svalbard Seed Bank means very little to small, local groups like Vanastree, many of whose members will not have heard of this initiative and will not impact their lives in a tangible way,” says Rao. “Seed conservation relates closely to maintaining ecological diversity in a region. Seed conservation should not have the narrow view of a seed bank as a cryogenic facility but look at a landscape as being able of functioning as a seed bank.”
Rao argues for local farmers maintaining their seed sovereignty.
“The whole research agenda of countries like India is driven by what is dictated by outside agencies with vested interests; they are using state-of-the-art laboratories and trained scientists to work toward the production and distribution of genetically modified seeds,” says Rao.
Global efforts to preserve seed stock for an uncertain future are no more evident than at the Svalbard “Doomsday” Seed Vault, which Doherty visited and photographed in March 2010. Located 800 miles south of the North Pole, on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, the Svalbard Seed Vault is the world’s insurance policy against botanical holocaust. The $9 million facility houses over 10,000 seed samples and was likened to a Bond villain’s lair when it began operation in January 2008.
Doherty hopped a plane to Svalbard with Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, and Ola Westengen, the operation manager of the Vault. She watched in surprise as Fowler and Westengen unloaded the shipment themselves and wheeled the boxes down the long tunnel on a handcart.
Not only is the vault impervious to temperature fluctuations and sea-level rises, it can withstand a terrorist attack. “The door is not on axis with the tunnel, there is a small curved wall in line with the tunnel engineered to disperse a blast radius,” says Doherty.
For Doherty, the Svalbard Seed Vault embodies the contradiction of hope and pessimism inherent to seed-saving activities.
“On the one hand, volunteers and governments from around the world are collaborating to create a global botanical back-up system,” says Doherty, “But on the other hand, the gravity of climate change and political instability creates the need for an inaccessible ark.”
In addition to being an engaged observer, Doherty has also adopted the image-making equipment of the facilities she has visited. At the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation (NCGRP) in Fort Collins, Colorado, Dornith got her hands on their Kubtec Xpert 80 Digital Specimen Radiography System to image seeds and tissue samples of cloned plants used in global agriculture. The NCGRP preserves genetic resources from animals, microbes, aquatic organisms and insects, as well as plants.
“The x-ray machine is not used on a daily basis and Dornith was very flexible in her schedule,” says David Ellis, plant physiologist and curator at NCGRP. “Her enthusiasm exploded when she got here. Her work raises awareness of plant genetic resources, which helps us accomplish our mission.”
Likewise, at the Millennium Seed Bank Project (MSBP) in Kew Gardens, England, Doherty used the facility’s Faxitron digital x-ray machine to make images of seedlings of wild and uncommon land flora species, unique to the MSBP collection. The MSBP holds seeds for 90% of the UK plant species and aims to collect and store 25% of the world’s plant species by 2020.
Dr. Wolfgang Stuppy, a seed morphologist at MSBP and a published microphotographer of seeds, sees the changing world as an environmental clock ticking down to extinction.
“We are essentially up against a deadline to collect the seeds of plant species before they go extinct,” says Stuppy. “The current worldwide economic crisis makes it difficult to raise the funds necessary for this kind of work.”
Redundancy of collections has become a common role of the global network of seed banks. The purpose of the Svalbard Seed Vault is solely to “duplicate collections of seeds from gene banks around the word to preserve biodiversity,” with no actual research taking place on site.
“More than 100 countries have deposited seeds in the vault,” says Doherty. “I traveled to Svalbard to photograph the facility as they were accessioning new material into the vault. It is only open a few days a year.”
Much of Doherty’s work includes landscape photography, and her equipment is optimized for the extreme heat of the American southwest. She was forced to make adjustments for the trip to Svalbard. “I had to research and purchase almost everything, from boots and gloves to batteries. I brought a digital SLR camera as a back-up,” says Doherty.
In spite of 12-hour days working in below-freezing temperatures, Doherty’s 4×5 Wista Field rosewood view camera never failed. Her digital SLR froze up after eight hours.
“The failure of the digital SLR camera and the success of the 19th century technology of the view camera mirrored the operations philosophy of the vault; keep things simple and fail-safe.”
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