Science

A keeper of seeds hopes to save the world from starvation

May 2, 2014 /
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If you ever find yourself in the northernmost town in the world, look carefully. Built into the side of a sandstone mountain is a glowing blue façade on top of a concrete tunnel; it might be the door to the secret headquarters of a Bond villain. And like Bond’s greatest villains, its purpose is at once deeply pessimistic and oddly hopeful.

The Global Seed Vault on the archipelago of Svalbard, Norway, is built to protect the world’s seed diversity from natural disasters and warfare. Designed to last 10,000 years, this vault is the world’s insurance policy, a way to ensure that humanity never runs out of diverse sources of food to grow.

The vault is the brainchild of Cary Fowler, a 65-year-old bespectacled man with a mop of curly red hair and a gentle southern American twang (he’s from Memphis, Tennessee). Frankly he makes a somewhat unlikely candidate for the role of protector of the planet’s food supply. But the so-called “doomsday vault” he helped to found, which opened in 2008, is the culmination of a career dedicated to agricultural diversity. Back in the 1970s, he wrote his PhD dissertation on intellectual property rights related to crop varieties, which started him on his lifelong quest to protect the world’s plants. In the 1990s, he led the first-ever global assessment of the world’s plant genetic resources for the United Nations. In 2007, he became the executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, a foundation to protect food security, and worked on starting the vault, which is funded by the trust and the Norwegian government. And he remains obsessive when it comes to seeds and plants. (It’s even how he met his wife.)

Cary Fowler holds samples of seed containers in the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway. Image by Kalle Koponen, August 22nd, 2007.
Cary Fowler in the Global Seed Vault in 2007. Photo: Kalle Koponen.

Fowler’s face lights up when he talks about his favorite crop, Lathyrus sativus, commonly known as the grass pea or chickling vetch. The seeds from this legume can be eaten roasted or boiled, or turned into a protein-packed flour, and the plant is extremely drought-tolerant. Fowler calls it “a miracle,” “just an incredible thing.” But there is a dark side to the wonder crop: it contains a neurotoxin that becomes more concentrated in drought conditions and can cause permanent paralysis if eaten in isolation for a few weeks. Yet it’s a staple crop for farmers in countries such as Ethiopia, Somalia and India — places where drought is more and more an issue. The grass pea, in other words, has become a potential weapon of mass destruction. As Fowler puts it, “The poorest people in the world are faced with an absolutely horrible, unconscionable, immoral choice: Starve, or be paralyzed.”

Variants of the grass pea that contain less of the neurotoxin have been developed. But until recently, the biggest collection of those seeds was at the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Aleppo, Syria. In 2012 just as bombing in Aleppo had gotten so bad that ICARDA researchers were evacuated, their seed collection was moved to Turkey. And, after Fowler and his team hustled, backup seeds are housed in Svalbard.

That’s why the vault is so important. Some 1,400 seed banks exist all around the world, but in general they are working collections used by plant breeders and biology researchers who retrieve seeds to work on. The Global Seed Vault, which houses 825,000 unique seed samples, is the insurance for these local vaults, a backup to the backup. As food security comes under threat from climate change — a recent Intergovernmental Panel Climate Change report projects that future wheat yields will drop by two percent per decade — crop diversity is necessary to ensuring a stable, sustainable food supply. We’ll need to try many kinds of crops to see what grows in our new weather.

Fowler’s recent focus has been to connect with smaller, less accessible banks. To date, he’s obtained seeds from North Korea, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and after many years of discussion is now hopeful of getting them from China, Japan and Ethiopia. (Iran is still proving to be a struggle.) Some smaller banks from countries such as Kenya and Pakistan have been eager to send seeds; civil strife had managers worried that their collections might be in danger. And rightly so: War destroyed both Iraq and Afghanistan’s national gene seed banks.

The irony of Fowler’s life’s work is that, in the best-case scenario, the vault is never used. “I’d be happy if on my tombstone they said something about how I did something that was totally unnecessary; what a fool,” he says.

While you might think that no one could find fault with a would-be savior of the world’s agriculture, you might also be surprised. In the past five years, Fowler has been accused of being everything from a Monsanto puppet (false) to part of a NATO conspiracy to destroy the world and repopulate it with two million vault-stored Norwegians (false, and difficult, as there is one port-a-potty in the entire vault). Says Fowler, “If you go all the way up to the North Pole and build a tunnel 130 meters into the mountain and put a strange-looking wedge-like structure aboveground with a light on top, it’s going to spark some conspiracy theories and intrigue.” Yet the soft-spoken plant lover, now chair of the vault’s international advisory council, clearly finds it both upsetting and baffling that anyone should question his motives. He recalls a lecture he gave two years ago in Minnesota. The university insisted that plainclothes policemen act as security because someone had phoned in a death threat, accusing him of plotting with Monsanto to destroy the world. Says Fowler, “I thought, ‘This is crazy, really crazy. I’m just trying to save some seeds.’”

With the seed bank stocked up, Fowler is now looking forward to semi-retirement on his farm in Rhinebeck, NY. There, he says, he’ll grow a couple of hundred varieties of peppers.

Top image: Svalbard Global Seed Vault at Night. Photo: Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust/Dyveke Sanne.