While plant geeks like Hummer, Postman, and Finn see themselves working within a noble horticultural tradition, some developing nations see the seed collectors’ efforts as part of an equally lengthy history of imperiallist exploitation. Plant breeders, agribusiness giants, and pharmaceutical companies have profited by engaging in "biopiracy." By cultivating germplasm collected from other countries and patenting the results, these powerful interests, some countries say, have stolen indigenous knowledge and intellectual property from farmers. Now these developing nations want their due.
The Convention on Biological Diversity, an agreement first proposed at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, recognizes all nations’ rights over their own natural resources. And since the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources was established in 2001, representatives from 120 countries throughout the world have agreed to develop rules for exchanging plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. But confusions over legal interpretations have put many potentially valuable wild plants in China and certain South American countries off-limits.
Seven years ago, Finn received a grant to collect strawberries and raspberries in the mountains of central China, but due to the bureaucratic limbo, he hasn’t pursued the necessary permits. With development rampant in China and other emerging countries, Hummer worries that certain species of berry may become endangered or even extinct before their seeds are collected (China’s gene banks don’t yet store many strawberry species native to China). For plant breeders and seed collectors, such delays are tantamount to a traffic jam on the way to board Noah’s Ark. "It’s a real problem‚" says Finn. "Cultivation takes so long. If I had gotten plants from China five years ago, we could be well on our way to utilizing their genes. We’re missing out on serious opportunities."
Such politics have spurred a lengthy global argument, one that many experts say is a luxury we no longer have the time for.
"Before the end of this century, crops will be facing climates they’ve never seen before‚" says Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an international nonprofit based in Rome that works to preserve unique genetic plant material worldwide. "There will be energy constraints, water shortages, development pressures. I cannot see how any country’s agricultural system will remain productive and efficient in the context of these challenges unless we, as an international community, learn to share these resources."
In the meantime, the trust is staging what may be the largest biological rescue mission in history. Over the next two years, its members will attempt to collect over a hundred thousand unique varieties of seeds not already stowed properly in secure seed banks. A duplicate of each sample will be stored in what the media often calls the "doomsday vault"—a massive storage facility built into a mountain on the island of Svalbard in northern Norway, where copies of almost every known variety of crop in the world will ultimately be housed.
"The hundreds of gene banks around the world are critical to food security‚" says Postman. "I’m not a big one for doomsday scenarios, but our network of gene banks around the world will help us survive biological tragedy. We’re preparing for the unknown, which could be war, climate change, tornadoes."