Banking on the Future
By Martha Hunter Shepard ′66
Lying deep in a mountain in the far north of Norway are three icy chambers. Inside those rooms at the top of the world are seeds—hundreds of millions of them—that someday could be the world’s dinner. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which opened in February 2008, has been called many things—The Doomsday Vault, Noah’s Ark, The Fort Knox of Food.
Cary Fowler ’71, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust in Rome, Italy, who spearheaded the project, has been dubbed The World’s Seed Banker.
The vault drew worldwide attention at its grand opening. On live television that day, shivering, parka-clad reporters brought the news into warm living rooms around the world that this fail-safe cold storage facility for seed samples is an unprecedented effort to protect the world’s diminishing biodiversity.
According to Fowler, crop varieties are lost on a daily basis through drought, lack of water supply, natural disaster, war, even seed deterioration in gene banks. But with the vault expected to remain naturally frozen for up to 200 years, stored seeds could withstand severe climate change or restart agricultural production in the wake of natural or human-caused disasters.
“There are many huge problems in the world,” Fowler says. “But I can actually look people in the eye and say, ‘We can solve this one.’ And if we solve this problem of maintaining global crop diversity, we’ll help solve many other problems, like climate change. I don’t think it’s at all conceivable that human beings will adapt to climate change if agriculture doesn’t. And agriculture isn’t going to adapt if crops don’t. The mechanism for crop adaptation is diversity. We have the genetic resources, the technology, the people and the institutions to maintain crop diversity in current and changing climates, and the cost-benefit ratio is astronomical.”
The seed vault, built by the Norwegian government and maintained by the Nordic Genetic Resource Center, currently contains 268,000 samples of seeds from the largest of more than 1,000 existing seed banks all over the world, and more samples are on the way.
“Each room can hold 1.5 million samples of seeds,” Fowler explains. We think about 1.5 million exist, so we planned for the future. It will take thousands of years to fill it up.”
The seeds are stored in small metal-foil, heat-sealed packages placed in boxes that are shelved in the chambers.
“Each room is about 30 yards long, 10 yards wide and 5-6 yards high,” says Fowler. “The temperature is naturally about -4 C (24.8 F) and we’re making it -18 C to -20 C (-.04 F to -4 F). Even if the power should fail, the seeds would last for decades.
“The longest-lasting seed we know of is sorghum. We have some indication that in these conditions it could survive some 20,000 years. However, all seeds deteriorate eventually. So a seed bank from somewhere else in the world will deposit seed in the vault. When the seed starts to lose viability, the depositing bank takes it out, grows new plants from it, gets new seeds from the plant and deposits fresh seeds in its own facility as well as in the vault. So we’ll have a steady supply of fresh seed coming in.”
How secure is the vault?
“Seed banks have never been the targets of any kind of terrorism or military action—but sometimes they get in the way because they’re just buildings,” says Fowler.
The vault is engineered to withstand severe hazards, including nuclear war and earthquakes. It passed the earthquake test a week before its grand opening, when a 6.2-magnitude temblor shook the surrounding region, but not the vault. In addition, security is plentiful, tight and high-tech at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
The idea for the vault came about in 2003 when Fowler was professor and director of research at the Department for International Environment and Development Studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.
“The five Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland) had a backup collection of seeds in an abandoned coal mine, which is terribly unsafe. So the idea for a fail-safe seed vault had been kicking around a little bit, but put on the back burner.
“I was also working with a group of international agricultural research centers in 2003,” Fowler says. “They were undergoing a process of upgrading their seed banks. At the end of the day, we took a look around and said, ‘This is great. We now have the best seed banks in the world in terms of capacity, equipment, etc., but many of them are located in developing countries that often experience natural disasters or political unrest. How safe could this be? Do we have a Plan B?’ We knew there was going to have to be a completely new plan involving new legal arrangements, new physical structure, new management—everything was going to have to be different.”
“So we wrote a letter to the Norwegian government asking if it would consider looking into the feasibility of establishing a seed vault—though we didn’t call it that at the time—as a backup safety net for existing seed bank collections.”
A couple of weeks later, Fowler got a call from a government official. Norway, the caller said, intended to take that letter seriously. Soon after, the government established a committee, first to assess the feasibility of, and then develop a plan to build such a facility. Fowler was asked to chair the committee and work with architects and engineers to design it.
Once the plans were completed, the structure was built in short order—between March and December 2007.
Fowler’s career in conservation and use of crop diversity spans 30 years. He was program director for the National Sharecroppers Fund/Rural Advancement Fund, a U.S.-based nongovernment organization (NGO). In 1985 he received the Right Livelihood Award (often called the “alternative Nobel Prize”) in a ceremony in the Swedish Parliament.
The Norwegian University of Life Sciences offered him a teaching position in 1990, but he was by no means confined to campus. During the ’90s, he headed the International Conference and Programme on Plant Genetic Resources at the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The conference produced the organization’s first global assessment of the state of the world’s plant genetic resources.
He also drafted and supervised negotiations of FAO’s Global Plan of Action for Plant Genetic Resources, adopted by 150 countries—including the United States—in 1996. That same year he served as special assistant to the secretary general of the World Food Summit. He is a past member of the National Plant Genetic Resources Board of the U.S. and the board of trustees of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico.
These days Fowler serves as full-time executive director—and chief fundraiser—for the Global Crop Diversity Trust in Rome. The trust, an independent, international organization based at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., was established in 2004 to coordinate and maintain the more than 1,000 gene banks around the world. It aims to build a $260 million endowment through donations from governments, foundations and corporations. The interest from the endowment, says Fowler, will guarantee effective conservation and ready availability of the seeds to those who need them.
Besides fundraising for the trust, he’s the leader in trying to formulate a global conservation system.
“That sounds pretty logical on paper, but we’re dealing with 180 or so countries and they all have their ideas,” says Fowler. “What they want may make a lot of sense from their individual perspectives, but it may not add up to a globally rational, efficient, effective or sustainable system. We want good facilities with the highest standards. We want to match up the unique diversity with the right seed banks. There’s a lot of diplomacy involved, a lot of working through the science of it to try to figure out what we need to be doing and how to do it.”
In addition to banking seeds, the trust is funding the creation of a database and information system for plant breeders worldwide.
“In the past, a plant breeder who needed resistance to a particular disease probably went to a U.S. gene bank. If that bank didn’t have it, the plant breeder was out of luck,” Fowler says. “But maybe the variety with the resistance is in the Polish gene bank, but the problem there is the Polish gene bank doesn’t run off an Excel spreadsheet; it runs off something that a Polish software developer made and nobody understands it because it’s in Polish. So we’re making a sort of Amazon.com for plant breeders that will be translated into five or six languages. Now they’ll be able to search the entire diversity of agricultural crops to get what they need.”
Fowler grew up in Memphis, the son of now-retired General Sessions Court Judge Morgan Carrington Fowler ’44. His aunt and uncle, Ed and Betsye Fowler French, both graduated in ’39. Fowler spent summers at his grandmother’s farm near Jackson, TN, where he says his love of agriculture took root.
At Rhodes, Fowler wanted to major in sociology, which wasn’t offered as a major at the time (the closest discipline was anthropology) so he chose a bridge major—political science and psychology.
“It seemed to me at the time that political science had an ‘institutional’ focus, that is, it was concerned with institutions, structures, government, etc., and anthropology was mostly concerned with distinct cultures—groups, tribes, etc.,” Fowler explains. “Of these two, I was definitely more interested in political science, yet I also wanted to study and understand process, change, movement—not ‘what’ things were, but ‘why’ they were, how they got to be that way and why and how they changed. Sociology, I thought, offered the opportunity to range a bit more broadly. The borders were not as constraining.”
It was the height of the Vietnam War, and though active in campus life, he attended Rhodes for only 2½ years before transferring to Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C.
“It’s a regret of mine that I didn’t finish at Rhodes,” says Fowler. “Those were hard times. There was a lot of struggle going on within people on campus, and I was one of those people. I ended up getting a degree in sociology at Simon Fraser, but I think that if my life depended on it I couldn’t tell you the name of a single person in my graduating class there. When I went to that university I just disappeared. I really studied.”
He completed his degree 1½ years later and at the recommendation of a Canadian friend, enrolled at Sweden’s Uppsala University for graduate work. The venerable university, founded in 1477, had a well-established and respected department of sociology. In the sciences, botanist Carl Linnaeus and astronomer Anders Celsius served on the faculty in the 18th century.
Fowler completed the course work for his doctorate, then left to work for NGOs and write. He even spent a year as a visiting professor in the Department of Agronomy at the University of California, Davis. Eventually, he returned to Uppsala to complete his doctorate.
In 1990 the Norwegian University of Life Sciences offered him a faculty position. He served as director of research in the Department for International Environment and Development there before accepting his current position at the Global Crop Diversity Trust.
At the university he met his wife, faculty member Mette Wik, a noted agricultural economist who, while currently on leave from the university, works as a consultant to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization as well as to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Their two sons, Martin (15) and Thomas (11) attend an American school in Rome. Norwegian is their first language; English, their second. Both are studying Italian, and Martin, French.
“If you know Norwegian, you also know Swedish and Danish—they’re so interrelated,” Fowler says. “In Norway, to graduate from high school, you have to be fluent in a foreign language, and English doesn’t count. Children study English from kindergarten all the way through. Everybody in the country speaks English.”
Fowler says his time at Rhodes informed his entire career.
“I think being at Rhodes was really important to that process. It is a special place. When I was at Rhodes I was trying to cobble together a different kind of major because I was stubborn. But the reality was there was so much learning that went on in the residence halls, and the students didn’t really see many borders between disciplines. We stayed up late talking about the lecture in this class or that class.
“There was a lot of struggle going on and I think the students were very keen, very smart, and challenged each other. There was an idea that you weren’t necessarily preparing yourself for some job. You were trying to learn. People took seriously what it meant to go to a liberal arts college. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Fowler believes the lessons learned at Rhodes have wider applications.
“In the U.S. we have the Department of Commerce, the Department of Agriculture, the EPA—as if our problems in this world fit neatly in those packages. Most of the problems in this world span those institutions. How do you get those people to work together when they’re all in their little pigeonholes? I think institutions like Rhodes and the Global Crop Diversity Trust teach us that we could possibly break down those barriers and work together to solve many problems.”
Water conservation water goes hand-in-hand with developing drought- and heat-tolerant crops, Fowler says.
“Agriculture takes 70% of the world’s fresh water supplies, and there’s a lot of competition for water now. That’s going to be the cause of many serious geopolitical conflicts in the future. There are 200 major river systems going through multiple countries—it’s a setup for problems.
“The world’s aquifers are on a timetable toward their own destruction. We’re overdrawing water from them now. In China and India that overdraft is quite severe.
“So if we think that water is never going to run out or climate change isn’t going to be a problem, well fine—which seems to be the way we’re acting right now.
“We also have the lowest food reserves since the early 1970s. So we’re actually positioned for that overused metaphor, ‘a perfect storm.’
“Right now everything has to go right because we have no particular resilience in the system. That’s what I think motivates the staff I work with because by occupation and inclination they are some of the most forward-thinking people on planet Earth. Most people look 5-10 years down the road. We quite seriously are looking 500 years down the road. It gets you to ask different questions.”
A week with the king
Last year Fowler spent a week in Greenland with King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden.
“We were looking at how past civilizations coped with climate change—or didn’t. He was interested in how the Norse had fared in Greenland. They didn’t cope with climate change. They didn’t learn how to make kayaks from the Inuits or how to fish from the ocean. They wanted to continue to raise their cattle and eat beef. They were entering into a small ice age and the climate was getting colder. There wasn’t enough grass produced to overwinter the cattle.
“We visited the ruins of a stone church. The last wedding ceremony was performed there in 1408. We saw what happens to societies that think they’re invulnerable, that they’ll last forever. They think they can beat the climate, but it’s a game of biological Russian roulette. You don’t end up winning very often.”
There’s more to beans than meets the eye.
“There is diversity within species, not just between species. There are 200,000 kinds of rice, 30,000 kinds of beans,” Fowler says.
“There are more than 1,000 seed banks worldwide. The Global Crop Diversity Trust is trying to create a global system, and in our minds that global system is composed not of 1,000 seed banks but of a rather small, discrete number of seed banks that are operating at full capacity.
“You have to match up the diversity with the proper seed bank and try to eliminate redundancies. You don’t want to ensure the conservation of biodiversity 49 out of the next 50 years. That’s not quite good enough. It really does have to be 50 out of 50. We make a distinction—we’re not conserving seed banks; we’re conserving diversity. So we’re not interested in conserving 1,000 buildings and being called on to repair the roof every day.”
Breeding and screening
It’s essential to make a match between crop and consumer, says Fowler.
“We have a huge number of crops in this world for which there is no scientific plant breeding going on. Then you ask, how are the farmers and people who live on those crops going to deal with a rapidly-changing climate? By screening the diversity of crops, we’re prioritizing finding traits for drought- and heat-tolerance and that will provide better nutrition for the world’s poor.
“Most projections are that we’ll increase food production by 20% to 30% by 2030. But look at southern Africa where maize contributes 50% of the diet—we’re predicting a 30% decrease in maize production there. And of course, the population is going to rise.
“In Ethiopia last year I saw a poor woman growing lathyrus, a drought-resistant legume. But it contains a neurotoxin and if she eats enough to save her life in a severe drought situation, she’ll become paralyzed. So one of the things we’re doing—I’m really committed to this crop because it does have a great potential—is to find a low-toxin variant of lathyrus and get it into the hands of the breeders who can produce a variety that is both drought-tolerant and low-toxin.
“We lose diversity in seed banks all the time—sometimes catastrophically like in Iraq and Afghanistan. Other times it’s a steady drip, drip, drip of extinction inside a seed bank because of mismanagement or equipment failure. A typhoon took out the Philippine seed bank. A seed bank after being covered with four feet of water and mud is not a pretty sight.
“Down the road people will wake up to the fact that the seed vault will protect THE resource that is going to allow us to cope with climate change in the future. Without it, how would we explain to future generations, or even to ourselves a few years from now, that we just didn’t think it was worth our time or trouble to conserve this resource?”