Pure Genius

The man who collects seeds to save mankind -- and promote justice

The man who collects seeds to save mankind -- and promote justice

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For Cary Fowler, saving thousands of seed varieties in a fail-safe vault in a remote Norweigen mountain is about more than life and death. It's about justice.

For Cary Fowler, saving thousands of seed varieties in a fail-safe vault in a remote Norwegian mountain is about more than life and death. It's about justice.

A former university professor and an agricultural diversity expert, Fowler is the executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which runs the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Nicknamed the Doomsday Vault, the project launched in 2008 to "to serve as the ultimate safety net for one of the world's most important natural resources."

I spoke recently with Fowler about how the seed vault works -- and why it means so much.

How did the Global Seed Vault become a reality?

The notion of having an international seed bank had been kicking around for years. Following 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, a couple of us were talking about those experiences. What we learned was, "Where is it in the world these days that's really safe?" It occurred to me: Sooner or later a disaster is going to strike a major seed bank. When it does, we will lose an irreplaceable collection and many hundreds of thousands of unique crop varieties will become extinct. What are we doing about it?

I drafted a letter that went out under the letterhead of this international consortium of big agricultural research centers. The letter was sent to Norway asking the government if they would be willing to look into the feasibility of establishing a fail-safe seed bank. We didn't use the word Doomsday. The media uses that word a lot. We were thinking about the Doomsday that occurs almost on a daily basis when one or more varieties are lost through negligence or accident or equipment failure or through natural disasters or even war. Norway is a small country and this is not a gigantic field. The Norwegian government called me up and said, "We would like you to head the committee [to look into the feasibility of the vault]." We tested it out with the big seed banks in the world to see if they thought it was needed and if they would use it, if there would be legal and political support for it. We looked at funding. I presented the report. [A Norwegian official] gave tentative approval on the spot.

Talk about getting the vault operational.

It's designed to be as simple as possible. If you're going to save seeds reliably they need to be dried to a certain moisture content and be frozen. If it's going to be a safety backup, you don't want to put it in any location that's like existing seed banks. We didn't want to put it in New York or Moscow. We wanted to put it in a remote location away from most of the dangers in the world. It needed to be naturally cold, so we wouldn't be completely dependent on mechanical refrigeration. That's why it's in Svalbard.

How do you decide which seeds to put in the vault?

We don't have a crystal ball of what's going to be needed in the future. We're focused on seeds that are relevant to food and agriculture. We tell people to send us a diversity that we don't already have. It's a backup copy for another seed bank. It's always seed banks that are sending us material. It operates exactly like the safety deposit box at your bank. Norway owns the mountain. The depositor owns the content of the box of seeds.

Talk about why diversity is so central to this project. Why is it important to have many different types of beans, rather than just one variety?

People will say, "Why don't you just save the best bean?" There's no such thing. Today's best bean is tomorrow's lunch for an insect or disease. That's the nature of evolution. Diseases and pests are not themselves in the business of becoming extinct. The evolution of these crops is in our hands. It's natural selection, but controlled by human beings. As soon as a resistant variety of wheat or rice or apples or tomatoes [is developed], the pests and diseases are trying to find a way around that. It's a never-ending game.

What's your goal? Do you have a specific number in mind?

It's actually not a numbers game. It's a diversity game. Some samples exhibit more genetic diversity than others. What we did in stocking the seed vault was to go to those collections that had the highest genetic diversity first. There are probably about 1.2 million, maybe as many as 1.5 million, unique samples of diversity in the world. We have 522,000 now. After five years, we'll slowly get up to the 1.1 or 1.2 [million] and maybe a little bit beyond that.

So you're on track to save just about every sample?

If you quote me as saying that, [a scientist] is going to say, "That's ridiculous and inaccurate." They'd be right. There's always re-combination and mutation going on. We can never say there's nothing left to collect and conserve. But let's not set an impossible target. I'm feeling extremely happy and even fulfilled by the number we have right now.

What gives you your passion for this field?

I have a background that has a bit of agriculture in it. In the United States in most families you can't go back too far before you find a farmer. I grew up in the South during the Civil Rights Movement. I find this to be an issue that strikes a chord in terms of personal background, but also in trying to do something worthwhile and promote justice. I don't have the power to determine what the agricultural system is going to look like or how it's going to function. I can be concerned that we have a billion people on this planet that go to bed hungry everyday. I can make it possible for that problem to be solved in the future. I do not believe there has ever been a period in the history of agriculture that the food supply has been hanging on such a thread. It's a combination of climate change, water shortages, energy constraints, nutrient problems and poor soil. These things produce one gigantic perfect storm of challenges to agriculture. If we try to manage that situation and prosper in it without the genetic diversity, I don't think it could be done. It may not be a panacea, but it's a prerequisite for solving other problems. We can be concerned about alternative energy sources and hybrid vehicles, but the engineers that develop that stuff are going to have to eat.

Image, top: Cary Fowler

Image, bottom:  Seed vault entrance / Mari Tefre, Global Crop Diversity Trust

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure