When unapproved genetically modified wheat was found growing in Oregon earlier this year, it didn’t take long for accusations about how it ended up there to start flying. A flurry of initial finger-pointing cast potential blame on a federal seed vault in Fort Collins, Colo., which housed the same strain of wheat, developed by Monsanto Corp., for about seven years up until late 2011.
The facility's been cleared of wrongdoing since then. A U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesman says all of Monsanto’s 1,500 pounds of wheat seeds held at the vault were incinerated a year and a half ago at the corporation’s request. But the investigation brings up questions of how secure these seed vaults actually are.
Officially, the Fort Collins facility is called the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation. It’s a nondescript, beige building just off the quad at Colorado State University.
There are no high, barb-wired fences. No barking dobermans. No armed guards. Just a friendly welcome video playing in the lobby and a warm-natured receptionist behind a desk, who hands you a clipboard with a sign-in sheet.
But that doesn’t mean the center is lax on security. From the outside it may not look like a bastion of the American agriculture industry. Inside, it holds one of the world’s largest collections of seeds, genetic material for livestock, microbes, and endangered plants under highly-sophisticated lock and key.
Upstairs, in the facility’s main cold storage vault, ceiling-high shelves hold seemingly endless rows of white pouches. In this room, there are 600,000 seed packets, which puts the total number of seeds in the billions. The temperature is kept at a level similar to a home freezer, at low humidity to arrest seed degradation and keep them viable longer.
“They’re all bar-coded so we know exactly where everything is,” said Dave Dierig, research leader at the center, and one of six people in the building with access to the vaults. Another security measure is the labeling system. Looking at a seed pouch, there’s nothing that tells you what kind of seeds you’re holding, just a bar code. You need access to a secure database to find out what’s inside.
To the right of the large, grey metal vault doors, a TV screen shows a live stream of the seed vault. It serves as another reminder of the building’s emphasis on security. In this place, you’re always on camera.
Other seed vaults throughout the world store their back-up collections here because of the facility’s reputation not just for the promise of security but also the ability to preserve the viability of seeds for longer periods of time. Private companies such as Monsanto and Dupont can also store their seeds in the federally owned building.
“It would really be a rare case where we would keep another company’s seed. There’d have to be some kind of extenuating circumstances, for them to say, ‘We need you to keep this seed,’ ” Dierig said.
Even though it is rare, privately owned, genetically modified seed does make it into storage. That’s how all eyes fell on the vault’s doors when news broke in June about Monsanto's glyphosate-resistant, commonly called RoundUp Ready, found growing in small volunteer patches in a wheat field in Oregon, with a potential connection to the Fort Collins vault.
Dierig said he’s unable to comment on the Oregon case as the USDA is still investigating the exact source of the errant wheat plants.
With the investigation turning in other directions, this beige building in Colorado can return to business as usual: securely storing the world’s seeds.
This story originally aired as part of Business Beat, a weekly program about business and economics in mid-Missouri.