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Seed Banks Guard Against An Uncertain Ag Future, Not 'Doomsday'

Luke Runyon
KUNC and Harvest Public Media

Close to a million seed packets are tucked inside a frozen mountain fortress on a Norwegian island - the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It includes samples from similar vaults in Fort Collins, Colorado and Ames, Iowa, and gene banks throughout the world. The man who pushed for the vault’s creation, Cary Fowler, says the vault will be essential to farmers as they adapt to climate change.

Fowler is a former director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which manages the Svalbard vault along with the Nordic Genetic Resource Center and the Norwegian government. He’s been profiled on 60 Minutes for his work. Fowler was depicted in a 2010 episode of the animated TV show Futurama where the characters search the Svalbard vault for the long extinct pine tree.

When the vault first came to the public’s attention, Fowler says the apocalyptic structure was enticing to writers, far more than a frozen gene depository. Headlines that proclaimed the creation of a “doomsday vault” perplexed him. The vault’s purpose is decidedly more mundane, but essential to the changing nature of agriculture, Fowler says. It serves as a backup for the world’s network of gene banks which store the genetic material of the world’s agricultural crops.

Interview Highlights

On "Doomsday Vault" misunderstandings

"I think there are two misconceptions, particularly about the seed vault near the North Pole. One is that it’s a facility that’s going to supply seeds to farmers all over the world if something bad happens and no seed bank in the world can do that. It’s really meant for breeding material to create new adapted varieties. And the other [misconception] is that we built it because we anticipated some kind of doomsday and that term never entered our minds until the place was under construction and there was an article in a magazine and I guess a headline writer put ‘doomsday vault’ on it, and all of a sudden, frankly, the media, which had never been interested in this topic at all -- totally bored by this topic for about 30 years of my life -- all of a sudden the phone started ringing, 'What's this about a doomsday vault?'"

On crop diversity

"Most people don’t pause to think too much about crop diversity. They go to the store and for them it’s brown rice and white rice and Uncle Ben’s. And that’s about it. But there are a couple hundred thousand different varieties of rice. And a couple hundred thousand different varieties of wheat. And probably 30,000 or 40,000 different varieties of beans. It’s not all just nice and pretty. It is. And it’s not just worthy of existing. I do believe it is. But it’s the raw material for plant evolution. And the definition of extinction I think is when something loses the ability to evolve, because when any species loses the ability to evolve it’s just a waiting game until the last individual dies, but it will happen. We need this diversity to help agriculture adapt to whatever is going to come in the future."

On threats to crop diversity

"I think probably the biggest threat continues to be the modernization of agriculture and growing uniformity of agriculture, particularly in developing countries. But if you put that aside for awhile, because that’s been there for a long time, I would say that climate change is number one through five of the top threats. Climate change is going to change so many things about our agricultural system. It is going to disadvantage some crops. It is going to disadvantage farmer varieties in developing countries where you still have a lot of diversity that hasn’t been collected, hasn’t been put in seed banks or the seed vault near the North Pole. And that’s going to result in a lot displacement of existing diversity in the world."

On growth in interest in heirloom varieties

"I have an orchard of more than 100 different varieties of apples. It sensitizes you to the interaction, let’s say the co-evolution, of our crop varieties with human beings. We have a lot of different apples and tomatoes and peppers, in part because people recognized differences in those plants and they valued different things. And that enriches our life and enriches our cuisine. If we want to dumb down our cuisine and lead a more boring life then maybe we don’t need so much diversity."

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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