The latest in the Kent Whealy / SeedSavers saga

I have been very hesitant to post Kent’s latest letter. In the end I decided to post it, because I believe that more information allows us to make more informed judgements. Unfortunately, in this case, it is only one side of the ongoing story. His last letter seems to me that he is becoming more of an alarmist, but he has included references so that you can do your own research. Here is Kent’s letter to all of the listed members of SeedSavers.

“November 24, 2008

To the Listed Members of the Seed Savers Exchange,

I have just learned some extremely disturbing news that strikes at the very heart of SSE. I am deeply concerned about the willingness and ability of SSE’s current Board of Directors to protect SSE’s greatest asset – our invaluable and irreplaceable collection of heirloom seeds. The issue involves SSE’s recent affiliation with the Svalbard seed vault. Amy Goldman’s introduction in Seed Savers 2007 Harvest Edition stated, “…..we are preparing seeds to be sent for safety duplication to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway for its February 2008 opening. It is exciting to be part of this worldwide preservation effort.” Also in February 2008, SSE’s website posted a press release (“American food supply safeguarded by SSE contribution to Svalbard Global Seed Vault”) which states, “…..It opens officially on February 26, 2008. Seed Savers Exchange is among the opening-day depositors, making an initial deposit of seeds from 485 different vegetable varieties. With planned annual deposits of 2,000 vegetable varieties over the next several years, its deposits will eventually be among the largest at the Svalbard vault.”

SSE’s greatest treasure is its unique 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 Listed Members who have selflessly shared their families’ heirloom seeds during the last 33 years. SSE’s current leadership, with Amy Goldman as its Chair, may have exposed for patenting the 485 varieties that SSE deposited at Svalbard’s official opening last February. All depositors are required to sign the Svalbard Depositors Agreement (actually an international treaty with Norway) which links those deposits to the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources of the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N.), 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” (the other seeds of those 485 varieties being stored at Heritage Farm) are also covered by the terms of the FAO Treaty, which allows patenting on “derivatives” of those samples.

By signing the treaty, Seed Savers apparently cannot refuse any requests for seeds of those 485 varieties in storage in the seed vaults at Heritage Farm. That would mean Monsanto and others now can, as a right, request those 485 varieties of SSE’s heirlooms, splice in GMOs, patent the product and sell the seed. The actual movement of each sample covered by the FAO Treaty (including the “originals” of all samples deposited in Svalbard) will require the use and signing of FAO’s Standard Material Transfer Agreement (also part of the FAO treaty) that includes language describing a 1.1% tax on patents (the main way that the FAO Treaty will generate funding for itself).

Amy Goldman nominated Cary Fowler (head of the Global Crop Diversity Trust that is in charge of Svalbard) to be on SSE’s Board of Directors at the Santa Fe board meeting (March 2007). I never was involved in any discussion about whether or not SSE’s seeds should be sent to his “doomsday vault,” probably because they both knew I would be opposed. Svalbard has never been a necessary step for SSE – duplicate samples of SSE’s seed collection are already stored in a separate seed vault at Heritage Farm as insurance against fire and tornadoes, plus duplicate samples are also in “black box storage” at the National Seed Storage Lab in Fort Collins, Colorado. (Black box storage means the seeds belong entirely to SSE, are being stored only against catastrophic loss, and can be returned upon request.) Also I had become increasingly concerned because Svalbard’s corporate donors include Seminis and DuPont/Pioneer.

SSE’s seed collection is very much a Peoples Seed Bank, actually quite similar to countless collections of traditional seeds being maintained by villages of indigenous farmers throughout the world. Since the late 1970s Gary Nabhan and I have both been fighting individual battles to keep traditional seeds from being patented (for example, Hopi Blue Popcorn). A few years ago I sent Gary samples of all the Hopi varieties in SSE’s collection which – along with the Hopi varieties
being kept by Native Seed/SEARCH – were given back to the Hopi in a ceremony that was the largest repatriation of native seeds in history. The summer before I was fired, I included in Heritage Farm’s growouts nearly 100 Indian varieties from about 20 different tribes (20 sovereign nations) in anticipation of also repatriating those seeds. (Svalbard and the FAO Treaty don’t even recognize country of origin, much less indigenous farmers’ rights, which has already created serious problems involving sovereignty.) Are those Indian seeds now in Svalbard? That would certainly be touchy!

If all of this turns out to be true, then a portion of SSE’s invaluable seed collection has just been opened up for patenting, with the stated goal that SSE’s entire collection will follow. SSE’s board has a fiduciary responsibility to protect the organization and its seed bank. Please join me in asking SSE’s current leadership, with Amy Goldman as its Chair, how they can possibly be doing this on behalf of SSE’s membership? Does anybody really think that the stewards of SSE’s nonprofit seed bank – the only non-governmental organization involved – should be signing international treaties with seed banks and governmental agencies from 155 countries? We should all demand that the contract which put SSE’s heirloom seeds into Svalbard (who signed what and when?) be posted on SSE’s website, so SSE’s members can compare that contract with the documents below (which, be warned, are deliberately deceptive) to determine for themselves if SSE’s seeds should be returned. Nonprofits are supposed to be transparent. Make SSE’s board answer you; it is your right.

SSE’s current leadership, with Amy Goldman as its Chair, must show all of us any passages in any of these documents that would disprove our grave concerns. You can expect, however, that SSE’s board will instead issue a defensive statement (a non-answer) on SSE’s website, claiming that the seeds in Svalbard belong entirely to SSE and cannot be distributed, patenting cannot occur, SSE can get its seed back upon request. Only part of that is true. While it is true that the seeds actually stored in Svalbard can’t be distributed and can be returned upon request – in that sense all of the samples deposited in Svalbard are in black box storage – it is the linking of those deposits to the FAO Treaty that makes possible the distribution and patenting.   And don’t let them tell you that your fears about opening up SSE’s seed collection to patenting are unfounded and will never actually happen. If it is written into the treaty, it will eventually happen (exactly the same way the rights of farmers to save their own seeds have gradually been made illegal by similar treaties).

Fortunately all of this is reversible – Svalbard’s depositors can annul the agreement and recover their seeds. SSE’s next Board of Directors meeting is scheduled for December 4, 2008. Instead of trying to contact each of SSE’s board members individually (all of them will get this letter), send your concerns directly to SSE’s office at Heritage Farm (e-mails to: and phone calls to George DeVault: 563-382-5990 and letters to: Board of Directors, Seed Savers Exchange, 3094 North Winn Road, Decorah, IA 52101). Also, please share your thoughts with the board about Amy Goldman’s new SSE logo that’s being increasingly displayed on SSE’s website.

Recently I had the chance to gain limited access to my files (33 years of my speeches, writings, photos, research), but once again only if I signed away my voice, which I will never do. I fully accept my lifelong obligation to always speak the truth about what is best for Seed Savers.

Deeply concerned,
Kent Whealy
P.O. Box 653                      (phone: 231-547-7374)
Charlevoix, MI 49720          (e-mail:

Svalbard Depositors Agreement: Depositor_Agreement.pdf
FAQ’s International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources:
FAQ’s Standard Material Transfer Agreement: ftp ://ftp. fao. org/ag/agp/planttreaty/agreements/smta/SMT Ae .pdf