Saving Seeds: The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Native American Seed-Savers, and Problems of Property


  • Sheryl D. Breen University of Minnesota, Morris



Agriculture, Genebanks, Native Americans, Property, Seeds


This case study contrasts centralized ex situ conservation of food and crop plant genetic resources with many Native Americans' preference for informal, localized in situ conservation. First, I examine ex situ genebanks operated by governments and research institutions, with particular attention to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault built into the mountainous permafrost on a Norwegian island in the High Arctic. Second, I describe Native American seed-saving efforts in the United States, drawing primarily on projects to preserve culturally significant seeds and promote food sovereignty at the local or tribal level. In general, Native American projects focus on the integration of cultural heritage and food independence through understandings of seeds as a tribal commons. Through these contrasting cases—the Svalbard vault and localized Native American seed-saving projects—I analyze the ways in which divergent understandings of "seedness" and seed ownership are crucial elements in discussions of seeds as property. In conclusion, I point out that the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is unique in its potential ability to cross the political and cultural divide over the ownership and conservation of seeds and thereby promote the vital ecological need for both ex situ and in situ seed preservation. Furthermore, I argue that recognition of the divergent understandings of "seedness" provides a useful way of examining the complementarity and limitations of specific models of in situ and ex situ seed conservation and, more broadly, the future of farmers' rights to the genetic heritage developed over generations in the fields.


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Author Biography

Sheryl D. Breen, University of Minnesota, Morris

Assistant Professor, Division of Social Science, University of Minnesota, Morris; 600 E 4th Street; Morris, Minnesota 56267 USA.



How to Cite

Breen, S. D. (2015). Saving Seeds: The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Native American Seed-Savers, and Problems of Property. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 5(2), 39–52.



Papers from UVM Food Systems Summit