THE FREEZING FRONTIERS OF FERTILITY

1024px-Svalbard_Global_Seed_Vault_(23273281972)Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Frode Bjørshol

It is a telling contradiction of the present that as polar melting becomes more common, freezing as a strategy of preserving fertility has gained traction. Two current practices of safekeeping life in icy chambers are evocative: At a temperature of -18 °C, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Spitsbergen, Norway has been in operation since 2008, housing seed samples of a genetic array of world agriculture’s most important crop varieties. At -196 °C, egg freezing, or elective fertility preservation, has since 2012 been a non-experimental medical procedure allowing women to prolong their biological clocks by extracting and saving their healthy eggs for a more convenient childbearing moment. Intemperate times call for intemperate measures. And freezing fertility, giving it a shelf-life as one would any number of foodstuffs, is emblematic of a chronic orientation toward a precarious, ever higher-stakes future.

Freezing technologies have undoubtedly revolutionized human survival, but what they have historically preserved is that which was already born. Freezing preserves things in their fullness as they are intended to be consumed: frozen meat becomes thawed and cooked meat, frozen ice cream slightly melted ice cream. Freezing an organism’s very readiness to bear, however, inserts a pre-natal phase change in the unfolding of life cycles. It stems from a pervasive ambivalence towards the very viability of life and has led to the fuzzy hope-based logic of present stasis as future aliveness, provided the future doesn’t turn out all that terribly. A look into gene banking and egg freezing reveals the enduring impulse to self-preservation, which some proclaim the driving force of history, in a privatized haze.

Conceived as a backup gene pool to preserve diversity in agriculture, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault looks like an artful external hard drive wedged into a mountainside, fitting architecture for a world where genes are the biological correlate of digital data. The vault only accepts and houses duplicates of food seeds from gene banks elsewhere in the world. As with a safe deposit box at a bank, depositors only have access to their own seeds. Often mystified as the Noah’s Ark of a doomed world agriculture, the armageddon-proof SGSV and its saviorist claims of solving world hunger have very little to do with the practice that has fed the world for millenia: in-field seed-saving and in situ trait selection by farmers. It is, rather, a next-level example of the practice of ex situ seed banking and a further consolidation of the scientific practice of lab breeding that arose with the industrialization of agriculture in the early 1900s. It was then the emphasis shifted from adapting seed varieties over time and in situ to breeding inheritable strains directly into seeds.

The dissemination of lab-bred seeds and their related farming practices from the global North to the global South in the 1960s and ’70s has gone down in history as the Green Revolution. Backed by the US government, agrifood industries and the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, the regime shift involved the creation of International Agricultural Research Centers (IARCs) in gene-rich areas of the global South, which both spread their cause and provided access to local crop diversity. The IARCs now belong to a network called the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). That is, IARCs and the subsequent CGIAR gene banking infrastructure originated in intimate connection with international, commercial and private interests committed to marketable genetic traits. Or to put it as simply as possible: the emergence of global gene banking was instrumental in the regime shift from small farming to Big Seed. CGIAR’s lofty claims of solving world hunger, reducing agriculture’s hefty carbon emissions and curing disease have also had the added motive of catering to private profit margins.

Subsequent efforts at maintaining global crop diversity, including the vault, have drawn largely on CGIAR gene banks. It is, therefore, unsurprising that a 2013 vault status report stated the following: “The high coverage of …crops for which there is a CGIAR mandate in the current Seed Vault collection indicates that international policies and institutions are important determinants for accessions to be safety duplicated at Svalbard.” (An accession is a deposit.) In developing countries, where resources for duplicating seed to the rigorous scientific standards required for the purposes of genetic research are lacking, independent farmers will be much less likely to back up their seed. The 2001 International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, ratified by the majority of countries in the world, is the legal basis for the SGSV. In the treaty, farmers’ rights consist of payment for the genes used in creating patented seeds, which, in effect, means that participating nations have signed away their crops’ genetic heritage as the intellectual property of corporations. Ecofeminist and seed activist Vandana Shiva is not overstating her case when referring to the mechanisms of this phenomenon as biopiracy or the “enclosure of the genetic commons.”

The image of the vault as a magical mountain a stone’s throw from Santa Claus’s workshop open to happy poor farmers the world over is misleading. While retrieval of seed from the vault has thus far proved crucial for war-torn Syria, it is not a neutral body. Legally, it operates as the seed establishment’s firmament. As for the agricultural diversity it purports to save, it is important to remember that most of it has already been lost – 75% is the most reported official statistic. For the melting present efforts center on salvaging, freezing and maximizing yields using the diluted genetic pool that remains with a sideways glance to a warmer future.

Biologically, a basic tenant of life is: decreased diversity means increased vulnerability. Reducing seeds to their genes has allowed the current seed establishment to treat them as universal constants in a situation with no readymade equation. Seeds adapt. They evolve, not in insolation, but in an ecology, with bugs, farming techniques, disease, drought, flood and human societies. One cannot rule out the possibility that holding seeds in stasis will make them more static, leading to unwanted genetic traits such as increased dormancy. Further, the oldest carbon dated seeds that successfully grew into seed-producing plants needed scientists’ helping hands on the receiving end. [1] Seed will need the right conditions, including nutrients and pollinators, to prove itself viable. And the way things are going, no one knows.

Many commentators liken the vault to an insurance policy. Less noted is what actually sells insurance policies: fear and uncertainty. The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has termed the current installment of capitalism “liquid modernity,” in which the increasing fluidity of individual choices and social positions leads to feelings of uncertainty and subsequently, the privatization of ambivalence. Today, if you can fund it you can do whatever you want, but this may work against the your life’s basic vitality – realized desires can, more quickly than ever, become a prison, museum or morgue of your own making. As the calving of polar glaciers literally creates a rise in liquids the world over, the irony of humans resorting to coldness and dryness of their own making to preserve the very fertility of agriculture and their own species is remarkable – liquid times indeed. Yet as far as insurance policies go, frozen gene banking and egg freezing are similarly flimsy. In terms of access, diversity and viability, they are fraught along similar lines.

nick-knight-time-to-chill_10544585251Nick Knight, Vogue

Reasons for freezing oocytes are either medical or social. Embryologists recommend it only for women whose fertility is at risk because of cancer. It is a kind of luxury option for women who have yet to find the right partner or want to delay childbirth for the pursuit of personal goals, such as a career in Silicon Valley. In what has been termed the “perks arms race” of the region, companies such as Apple, Google and Facebook include egg freezing in their employee benefits. Estimated costs range from $10,000 – $20,000 depending on the number of eggs extracted and their length of storage. Putting one’s eggs on ice for the sake of career advancement is thinkable when self-realization as a woman is always already double the work: balancing participation in the labor market with the unpaid work of motherhood. Those with options can now time it, that is, should the eggs actually give life. Oocytes currently have a legal shelf-life of 10 years with decreasing likelihood of fully carrying a baby to term and an overall high failure rate. Freezing human embryos is much more successful but remains legally and ethically charged in many countries.

Women for whom egg freezing could represent an emancipatory reality at present are professional, middle to upper class and white. A working-class black woman is much less likely to be employed at the time of pregnancy let alone have the financial resources to time motherhood as she sees fit. Again, the structurally advantaged have maximum purchase on resources, including the precious resource of time. This once meant more leisure. For women it now means a kind of lean-in corporate feminism – superheroines who do it all. And if you happen to be a working woman who is able to bear children, but it just isn’t working out, the following might be questions you dare not utter aloud: What kind of woman doesn’t have children? Is a childless woman really a woman? If you have never asked yourself these, someone is bound to ask you to account for yourself in terms of your reproductive capacity. For many, fully realized womanhood continues to hinge on motherhood.

In this vein, egg freezing is a current chapter in the longer story of women’s struggle for the right to their own bodies. Western women were once the moral property of their husbands, when involuntary motherhood was the norm. Employment rights, maternity rights and reproductive freedom have led to more voluntary motherhood. Despite strides made in these struggles toward defining what a woman is and can be, women’s biological clocks continue to inconvenience growth-oriented production schedules and bottom lines. As the vanguard of fertility, egg freezing goes one step further than on-demand birth control – it is voluntary motherhood in a cryogenic key.

Management strategists speak of “best practices,” standard ways of achieving excellent results while observing the legal and ethical codes in place. As gene banking and egg freezing are themselves exercises in resource management, it is not irrelevant to discuss preserved fertility in these terms. While far from the title of best practice, “promising practice,” which denotes objectively replicable effectiveness, could apply. But it is the substance of the promise that’s askew.

By suspending a lively, circulating process in a stage of the near barren, both gene bankers and egg freezers disavow the continuity of life. They separate life from its place of dwelling. Rather than synchronizing biorhythms with their self-organizing capacities in situ the move is to bring life up to speed with a bioeconomy willing to sacrifice both the present and the time to come. Following the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, capitalist living in particular tends to capture and neutralize pure means, separating behaviors from themselves and detaching them from concrete ends. Freezing fertility enacts a superfluous near to actual death. It puts the shared materials of life into their own potential irretrievability.

Ambivalent societies create reserves of iffy usefulness. Stalling genetic flows for a more fertile, quasi-religious time to come may feel like solidity in the liquid chaos. More accurate, however, is this gesture’s status as a biotechnological experiment, one that both operates on and produces new reaches of hope for mysteries hardly ever known. If the goal is to secure the very foundations of existence for an indefinite tomorrow, the wiser human legacy would be to identify and change the structural conditions that hinder women’s reproductive cycles and plants’ genetic diversity, to keep both embedded in and in lively adaptation to their respective social worlds now. Anything else is akin to giving up and moving to Mars, where it is very cold and very dry all the time.

2.681Judy Chicago. The Dinner Party (Fertile Goddess place setting), 1974–79. Mixed media: ceramic, porcelain, textile. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, 2002.10. © Judy Chicago. Photograph by Jook Leung Photography

[1] These include: a Siberian campion at approx. 32,000 years old and a Judean date palm at approx. 2,000 years old. Revitalization and germination were careful processes requiring nutrient solutions and enzymatic fertilizers. Scientists had to salvage remaining embryo tissue and germinate it in vitro. Seeds can get their groove back, but they cannot simply be retrieved, thawed and stuck into the ground. The care that goes into proper freezing must be there for germination.

Works consulted

Agamben, Giorgio (2007) Profanations, Brooklyn: Zone Books.

Phillips, Catherine (2016) Saving More Than Seeds: Practices and Politics of Seed Saving, London: Routledge.

Shiva, Vandana (2012) “The Corporate Control of Life,” Documenta (13) Catalog 1/3: The Book of Books, Berlin: Hatje Cantz.

Westengen, Ola T., Simon Jeppson, and Luigi Guarino. “Global Ex-Situ Crop Diversity Conservation and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault: Assessing the Current Status.” Ed. Wengui Yan. PLoS ONE 8.5 (2013): e64146. PMC. Web. 4 Oct. 2016.

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