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Protecting crop diversity in the face of disaster

Cary Fowler is a busy man. Since becoming executive secretary of the Rome, Italy-based Global Crop Diversity Trust several years ago, the Memphis native has raised funds, set up new seed-savings programs and, through numerous meetings, educated foreign dignitaries on the need to preserve seed.

He's also overseen plans for new facilities, including a “James Bond-like” seed vault being constructed near the North Pole.

A joint effort by the trust and the International Rice Research Institute was announced in mid-March. The institute, based in the Philippines, has the world's largest rice gene bank. To protect diversity in a crop responsible for half the world's food, the institute will have annual funding of $600,000 in perpetuity.

“This is a big deal,” says Fowler. “Rice is vital for the world. Now, this facility won't have to worry about funding fluctuations.”

Reached at his Rome office in late March, Fowler was recovering from a cold he'd recently picked up in Russia. Among his comments:

It's been a couple of years since our last interview (see Please bring us up to speed on what you've been up to since taking over the trust.

It's been a wild ride and has worked out very well. We've had some good fund-raising successes and have developed several big initiatives that are now bearing fruit.

We're about to undertake a gigantic, global project to rescue the threatened diversity in gene banks around the world.

I was in Russia, last week. There's an amazing seed bank there — one of the most famous, venerable and most valuable, in terms of the diversity they have. And yet, unfortunately, it's terribly under-funded and has become a bit tattered.

While I was there we discussed regeneration, or refreshing, of some of their seed collections. We discussed the kind of management, operation and equipment issues they have. We also discussed how to get a back-up copy of their seed collections up to Svalbard seed vault in Norway.

Does ‘refresh’ mean growing some seed from storage?

Exactly. Even the best seed conservation systems can't keep seed viable forever.

So, after a while, some of the seed must be taken from the seed bank, grown and harvested and fresh seed is put back into storage.

On the Svalbard project…

If you have a world map, go to the top and work down towards Scandinavia. Svalbard is very close to the North Pole, near the Barents Sea.

Prior to taking this job, I was a professor in Norway. A few years ago, a group of international ag research centers that I was involved with made a request of Norway to assess the feasibility of a safety backup for seed.

When the Norwegian government got that request, it called and asked me to chair the committee to assess the feasibility.

I said, ‘But I was involved in writing that letter to you suggesting the study.’

They said, ‘Of course, we know. But you can do this.’

So, I chaired an international committee looking into the seed vault and to develop a plan. When we presented that to the government officials, it was accepted.

Then, I got the job with the trust. Under this job, one of the things we're trying to do is finance the upkeep of the operational component of this facility. And, you know, it may sound like that takes a lot of money. But it doesn't really.

In several ways, the Svalbard facility will be the largest seed bank in the world. Think of it as insurance and paying premiums. This facility will provide insurance for world agriculture.

The premium cost is the price of construction and yearly upkeep. Annually, the upkeep cost will be about $125,000. That's total, for everything, and that's incredibly cheap considering what it provides.

How will this vault work?

I was just up in Svalbard two weeks ago. The vault, to be honest, will look kind of like something out of a James Bond movie.

If you want something that provides a true safety net, there's a trade-off between remoteness and accessibility. You want the thing to be in a remote space because that provides a lot of security. But it can't be so remote that you can't get there. So those factors had to be balanced.

We believe this location is the farthest north you can fly on a regularly scheduled plane. There's a Norwegian village — very academic and scientifically oriented — that's occupied year-round. The Norwegian government has great interest in maintaining a presence on the island and they do a lot of polar and climate change research there. So the local security is very good as is the infrastructure.

But it is extremely cold. To get there, consider that you get in a plane 300 miles above the Arctic Circle and then fly north for another 1.5 hours. I mean, there are polar bears in the area and that come through the village.

The facility will be in the middle of a mountain. That will provide constant, cold temperatures.

Outside, temperatures are often far, far below freezing. However, they can rise above freezing.

But in the middle of the mountain, temps stay fairly constant at -6 C. That's what we want.

To build the facility, first a tunnel must be cut into the mountain. The tunnel will go back over 100 yards connecting to two large vaults that can hold a total of about 3 million seed samples. To put that in perspective, that's about twice as many samples as actually exist of distinct crop varieties.

But we need some redundancy and the whole facility is being designed with a solid margin of error in mind. That way we can be off on our estimates a bit and it won't matter much.

There will be airlock doors in the tunnel. And even though the vault will be incredibly well-insulated and secure, the walls will be lined with over a meter of reinforced concrete.

Further, the vault temps will be lowered to -18 C. That means if the electricity goes out for some reason and the artificial cooling means fail, we'll still have months, or years, before the -18 warms up to -6. And -6 is just fine for conserving seeds.

That has been proven in Nordic countries where seed experiments have been going on for 24 years. They've not found any appreciable decline in germination rates after 24 years at a temp of -3 C.

So, if something goes wrong with the power, we'll have a long time to get the Maytag repairman out to fix the generator, or whatever.

On factoring in worst-case prediction models…

For those worried about climate change, prediction models have also been taken into account. Some people say ‘polar ice caps could be melting.’

So, if it happens, we planned for worst-case climate change. This facility will be more than 50 yards above the ocean level, assuming the ice at the North Pole, the South Pole and Greenland all melt.

We've calculated how much the interior of the mountain would warm up, again at worst-case. The life expectancy for this facility in terms of providing natural cold — where electricity isn't relied upon — will still be at around -6 C 200 years from now.

I can't claim we've thought of every possibility. But we've considered quite a lot and planned for it conservatively.

The facility should open about this time next year. It will provide a robust safety net for existing seed bank collections around the world. That will be good because we don't need a nuclear war or an asteroid hitting the Earth to need this type of seed vault. We only need for there to be local catastrophes for its purpose to arise.

As an example, a big typhoon went through the Philippines last September. It was the lead story in many media because many people died and there was so much property damage.

But no one mentioned that the typhoon put over 6 feet of water and mud into the national seed bank of the Philippines. Many unique crop diversities were destroyed.

Local plant breeders need that diversity to develop crops for the local farmers. Some of that diversity has been lost forever.

That's the kind of thing Svalbard will help with. Honestly, we don't anticipate a nuclear war. But we do anticipate that there will continue to be awful weather events and, frankly, mismanagement and equipment failures that affect institutions around the world. Svalbard is a backstop.

Is the trust responsible for gathering the samples for the Svalbard vaults?

First, we'll provide the ongoing funding to maintain the vault forever. We can do that due to an endowment that generates perpetual income.

Second, we'll have a project headquartered in Rome that works with institutions and seed banks around the world to coordinate the shipments of their seed samples up to Svalbard.

What's your take on GM seed? How does that affect what you're doing?

It's not a big issue for us. The media (often asks) if GMO seeds will be in the Svalbard vaults — if we'll prevent them or seek them out. Or, they'll ask, ‘How do pro-GMO or anti-GMO people feel about the vault?’

I always point out that I can honestly provide whatever answer they want to hear. The fact is both pro-GMO and anti-GMO groups like what we're doing. This vault might be the only thing they agree on.

The logic is this: if you're anti-GMO, the vault is a great thing because you may believe that GMOs will destroy agriculture, backfire ecologically and result in a gigantic disaster. If that happens, at some point, we'll want to return to ‘natural’ agriculture devoid of GMOs. The diversity at Svalbard will allow that. So this facility will protect the anti-GMO vision of agriculture.

The pro-GMO group is also taken care of. The diversity at Svalbard will provide the raw material to produce more GMOs. Without diversity, GMOs can't be made as easily or efficiently.

So, the trust doesn't have a sole horse in the GMO race. We have two horses running.

In 500 years, when it's clear who was correct in the current GMO debate, whatever side is proven right will still be happy the Svalbard facility was built and maintained.

Are doomsday cults drawn to this project?

Not so much. Sometimes popular media call me up to talk about a ‘doomsday vault’ and think they're about to speak with someone who, on weekends, carries a sign saying ‘repent, the end is near.’ I disappoint them.

But the scientific community is really behind this.

Science magazine carried an editorial pleased with the vault.

The flashy part is the ‘doomsday’ thing. The day-to-day use of the vault is decidedly un-flashy. The vault will be used to replenish agriculture where local disasters have happened or seed vaults have failed for whatever reason. Those are circumstances where the vault will be used.

However, I understand that most people would rather hear the story from the perspective of an asteroid hitting Earth and the vault being a move to prepare for it. That's ok, because the facility would be something to consider in such a situation.

Actually, in a way the vault provides an optimistic view of the future. Consider that countries would come together and do something like this. Can you think of any other issue where all countries are coming together to do something positive and long-term? How many examples jump to mind? Well, here's one.

For more on Fowler's work and the Global Crop Diversity Trust, visit:

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