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Cary Fowler on global seed-saving efforts

In mid-February, the Global Crop Diversity Trust announced it is on track to save some 100,000 different varieties of food crops from extinction. This new effort, with seeds to be gathered from 46 countries, is unprecedented and means “we are moving quickly to regenerate and preserve seed samples representing thousands of distinct varieties of critical food crops like rice, maize, and wheat … that were well on their way to total extinction,” said Cary Fowler, executive director GCDT. “I think it is fair to say that without this effort, many of them would have been lost forever.”

Fowler, born and raised near Memphis, currently resides in Rome. He recently spoke with Farm Press about saving seeds from extinction, the Svalbard seed vault and how the GCDT’s work has been received. Among his comments:

On the Svalbard seed vault ...

“When we last spoke, I believe the vault was at the end of construction. It’s finished now and doing everything it was supposed. It’s a bit like building a new house, though — there are a few things you’ll find that need to be tweaked. But nothing major.

“In fact — and this may sound strange — it’s probably functioning better than we even anticipated. The facility was designed better than we thought.

“The vault is keeping the cold air in solidly. The refrigeration units were turned on in the fall of 2007. Some might say, ‘Isn’t it strange that you’re close to the North Pole and then bring in compressors to freeze things further?’ But the optimal temperature for conserving most seeds is minus-18 Celsius. That’s colder than the average temperature up there.

“We’re freezing not only the vault room itself, in the middle of the mountain, but also, indirectly, freezing that whole part of the mountain. Many meters into the solid stone, the rock is very cold, frozen, which is a great insulator for the vault room and seed.

“On opening day, Feb. 26, 2008, we had samples of over 300,000 varieties placed in the vault. A number of additional samples will be placed there in a couple of weeks.

“Everything is going according to plan, no big problems. The surprises have mostly been good ones. Countries are cooperating and we’re getting the job done.”

On the problems many countries face with seed storage units …

“The problems hitting mostly seed banks in developing countries continue. They suffer from lack of funding, poor infrastructure and equipment failures. Often, I’m sorry to say, there is poor management of the seed facilities.

“They also seem to be subject to an inordinate share of natural disasters, war and civil strife. All that takes a toll on the seed banks, which are storing unique samples of crops.

“I was just putting together some materials looking at the ancestry of a fairly famous variety of wheat, Veery. It’s interesting that to produce that variety it took 49 old farmer varieties and 66 more modern, scientifically-bred varieties from a total of 20 countries — all that to produce this one new variety.

“In turn, Veery, was released — either directly, or indirectly through further breeding — as 160 varieties in 35 countries.

“That points to the fact that there’s a huge amount of interdependence. A modern crop variety will have ancestry traceable to a lot of countries and, in turn, will be used in more countries.

“That means it’s important to us what happens to the genetic diversity housed in other countries. When you hear a story about a typhoon going through the Philippines and destroying or damaging large seed collections, it’s fair to ask, ‘So what?’ But the answer is the modern crop varieties in the United States and elsewhere are based on genetic material sourced from countries like the Philippines. Agriculture on one side of the world is linked very much to the fate of diversity on the other side.

“That brings us back to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. In the past, when we lost the diversity like in the case in the Philippines, that meant extinction. The destroyed varieties became extinct. More importantly, any of the unique and important traits — maybe drought-tolerance or disease resistance — were lost with it. That’s unacceptable since agriculture faces so many challenges. We can’t afford to lose those wonderful, essential genetics. The seed vault was constructed to put an end to that sort of loss.

“In its location, the vault is extremely safe. I wouldn’t want to say nothing can go wrong. But many fewer things can go wrong with frozen seed with immense security in the middle of a mountain almost out in the middle of nowhere than can go wrong in a gene bank in Africa, Asia, Latin America or, even, the United States.”

How do you run the Svalbard vault? A team located there?

“We built the facility there because it’s remote — not too many troubles in that part of the world. However, it’s also accessible since it’s the farthest north you can fly on a regularly scheduled airplane.

“We also knew one of the big threats, or a danger, for such a facility is human error. The more human involvement, frankly, the more things can go wrong.

“So, the facility was designed to operate by itself. Yes, it has mechanical equipment to lower the natural temperatures — from minus-4 Celsius to minus-18 — but it’s all monitored electronically. That precludes the need for staff there. Even if the refrigeration units went off in a worst-case scenario, it would take months — maybe years — before the vault would warm up to still-frozen, but slightly higher temperatures. And even at those temperatures, the seed would be okay.

“We take people up when coordinating with seed banks and shipments. We’ll go there with them to unload the plane and place seeds in the vault.

“There are people in the local village that can take care of any mechanical or structural problems that might arise. And they also provide security services.”

On the process for entering seed into the Svalbard vault …

“A typical sample is about 500 seeds in a packet. The packet will usually have bar code, or some type of identifying label — ‘this is wheat seed of X variety.’ It will probably have a number on it designating it from the bank of origin — whatever logging system they use.

“All that information is entered into a computer program so we have a database of all the varieties. However, the seeds are kept in the same boxes they were shipped in. Each box is a standard size and, depending on the type of seed, usually keeps 400 to 500 samples.

“We don’t even open the boxes. When you walk into the seed vault room in the mountain, it looks a bit like a library. Only the shelves have boxes on them. The seeds are, more or less, stored by institute — each depositing institute has a section in the vault.

“Managerially, though, it opens like a safety deposit box at a bank. You own the box contents and no one can get to it except you. If, in the future, the Philippines, for example, were to lose a sample, they could have the box sent back to them. Or, with their permission, we’d open the box and split the samples up — keep half and send back half, just to be safe. But if they want the whole box, it would be sent.

Some of the oddest samples you’ve gotten?

“Americans might find the 20,000 to 30,000 varieties of rice strange — few would guess there’s that many.

“We also have seed of potatoes, a hard crop to create seed from. Potatoes aren’t typically propagated through seed.

“We also have a huge amount of forage grasses, many different species.

“We have a crop called grass pea, or lathyrus, a legume that’s extremely drought-tolerant, is also flood-tolerant with very high protein. However, it also contains a neurotoxin that causes paralysis if someone eats too much. It’s a life-giving crop but also has obvious problems.

“Grass pea is used in Ethiopia, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. The wonderful thing about the diversity we’ve collected in the crop is we believe it contains low-toxin variants. In the future, we might be able to breed a variety of this that would survive droughts and thus save lives in famine situation, without causing paralysis. It’s a fantastic crop.”

Since the word has gotten out on this, what is the reception you’ve gotten?

“It’s been astonishing. I chaired the committee that designed this facility. If you go back and look at the original papers, you wouldn’t see the word ‘media.’ We had no idea the media would be interested. To us, it seemed a fairly esoteric topic and we were scientists doing scientific work.

“Now, 60 Minutes has done a program on it. We certainly underestimated.

“What’s great about that is it opens doors. Now, we can talk to people in positions of power about the importance of conserving this resource. We say, ‘Look, agriculture must adapt to climate change. Even if you deny climate change is occurring, it can’t be denied that there are huge fluctuations going on. So, either way, agriculture must adapt.’

“How does that happen? It happens through the crops in the field. How do crops adapt? Through diversity.

“So the seed vault is something that is basic in that process. The publicity around this has had interesting effects. The Global Crop Diversity Trust, my organization, has a paragraph devoted in the recently enacted farm bill. That authorizes a $60 million contribution to our endowment — a stunning, but appropriate, amount considering the total financial needs in the area. Of course, authorization is not the same as appropriation. I can think of far worse investments the United States can make that wouldn’t have nearly the bang for the buck. This investment underpins the entire agricultural economy in the United States.

“We’ve also received the largest individual donation from a private U.S. citizen — Amy Goldman in New York contributed $1 million.

“Another donation that nearly brought tears to our staff was a $300 check. It came from a fourth-grade class in New York. These kids held bake sales and saved money and made this donation. I called the teacher to say how touched we were. Her response was, ‘Well, thank you. I’ll tell the children but we want to do better next year.’

“I told her for that figure we could conserve some crop varieties forever. That’s predicated on our practice of having every unique sample being in two different gene banks. At least one of them should operate at the highest international standards. It would be better if both were, but developing nations have a right to keep their material. That’s backed up by the seed vault in Svalbard.”


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