University of Cambridge > > Cabinet of Natural History > Preparing for doomsday: vulnerability and the contemporary history of genebanking, 1970–2008

Preparing for doomsday: vulnerability and the contemporary history of genebanking, 1970–2008

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In January 2008, the first shipments of samples of agricultural seeds were deposited within the reinforced concrete walls of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, in the Arctic island of Spitsbergen. This iconic repository, sometimes dubbed the ‘Doomsday Vault’, has a particularly interesting function as a ‘safety back-up’ for other existing genebank collections. Its existence therefore shows that, despite the ideas of security implicit in the ‘bank’ metaphor, the loss of genebanks, and of material within them, are substantial concerns of plant conservationists and policy-makers.

In this talk, I explore the contemporary history of genebanking by investigating how actors conceptualized the susceptibility of genebanks to catastrophes great and small, from conflict to lack of funding, along with proposed solutions to these risks through ‘safety duplication’, culminating in the establishment of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Concerns with the appropriate way to ensure the security of genebanks and their materials figure prominently in international policy discussions about how to organize and fund conservation, and I argue that they are important in shaping the contemporary ‘global system’. The contrast between the potential vulnerability of genebanks and their remit of securing diversity makes evident that maintaining collections for the long-term involves technical, infrastructural and social challenges, and that their continued existence cannot be taken for granted. Thus, this account shows the value in being attentive to the role of concerns about vulnerability in shaping the evolution of genebanking as actors seek to ensure their continued existence.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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