Tennessee native Cary Fowler was trained as a sociologist, earning a doctorate from Sweden’s Uppsala University in the 1970s. But he’s now better known as a high-profile advocate for protecting the genetic diversity of the world’s crops. In the 1990s, he helped the United Nations produce an influential assessment of the world’s crop diversity and later helped lead a campaign to save an important Russian collection of fruit and berry germ plasm (an effort that earned him election to the Russian Academy of Sciences).
From 2005 to 2012, Fowler served as executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, helping create the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The facility—dubbed a doomsday vault for seeds—is buried deep beneath Norway’s permafrost. It holds more than 500,000 samples of crop germ plasm, providing a backup for the national and international seed banks that donated the material.
Later this month, Seeds of Time, a documentary that chronicles Fowler’s efforts, will open in New York and Los Angeles. Fowler, now an adviser to the trust, recently discussed his work with ScienceInsider. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: How did the idea for Svalbard come about?
A: In the 1980s, a collaborative of Nordic countries put some of their own seeds in an abandoned coal mine shaft in Svalbard to conduct a 100-year experiment to test the viability of seeds stored in permafrost. Later, they proposed storing seeds from other countries to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. The proposal was dead on arrival for several reasons: No one was offering to pay for upgrading or running the facility, and there were political issues surrounding ownership and control of genetic resources.
Several years later, Henry Shands, then head of the U.S. national seed bank in Fort Collins, Colorado, and I were involved in a project to upgrade the 11 international gene banks run by the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research. We realized that, although the facilities would be in great shape, they were located in Syria, Peru, Colombia, and Nigeria—places not known for their stability. On the heels of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, we realized bad things could happen anywhere. We revived the idea of storing seeds in Svalbard at a meeting of gene bank directors and they agreed. Norway was open to it and commissioned me to do a feasibility study. It opened in 2008.
Q: How full is Svalbard now?
A: We have samples of 864,000 distinct crop populations. I guess we have upwards of 1.5 million samples around the world that could possibly go in Svalbard. You might be tempted to say we’re more than halfway there, but that’s not the way to look at it. It’s not a numbers game. It’s a diversity game.
I’ll give you an analogy: there are 400 breeds of dogs in the world and our task is to conserve dog diversity. If you have 50 Pekinese and I have 50 mutts, we each have the same number of samples, but I have more diversity. It’s the same in gene banks; we want the most diverse collections. We don’t know, however, how much of our crop diversity is in gene banks around the world. The best answer we have, based on surveys of crop experts, is that 95% of some of the major crops are in gene banks. We run into trouble with the minor crops, but they wouldn’t have as many varieties or populations out there to begin with.
Q: When will Svalbard be complete in your opinion?
A: There isn’t an endgame. There will always be new diversity. The story ever ends. When we built the facility, I was nervous the whole way. … I sort of thought if we got to 500,000 accessions [individual gene bank deposits], it’s definitely worth it. We passed that a long time ago. Having had cancer twice, I was quite unsure if I would ever live to see the day that we have 1 million. But since I’m reasonably healthy and we have 864,000 accessions, I think I will see that day. We have the ability to store 4 to 4.5 million samples at Svalbard.
Q: On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being as safe as can be), how would you rate the overall security of crop diversity today?
A: I’d rate the diversity that’s in Svalbard at a 10. We’ve really put an end to extinction. I know that’s a bold statement. But I think it’s true.
For the genetic material that’s not in Svalbard, the number is much lower. That depends on its location. It could be anywhere from 1 to 6 or 7. I don’t think any national gene bank is securely funded. They are just not on the radar screen for politicians and their funding gets cut all the time.
Q: In the film, you estimate that less than 10% of U.S. varieties of corn, celery, peas, or carrots still exist. Do we know the number of crop varieties that existed 120 years ago, before the modern seed industry took hold?
A: We don’t know that globally, but to get the numbers we highlight in the film, I did a U.S.-based study using some very old [U.S. Department of Agriculture] lists of varieties grown in the early 1900s. I identified crop varieties that can’t be found now and are assumed to be extinct. Very few countries assembled any kind of data like that. We wouldn’t get anything like that from developing countries, which had the most diversity. Unfortunately we’ve lost an incredible amount of it.
Q: How do you hope scientists use Svalbard in the future?
A: I hope they never use Svalbard. It’s an insurance policy. Like car or home insurance, the hope is you never have to use it. Unfortunately, if we need to go to Svalbard it means we suffered losses in the working gene banks.
I do worry that while we have really big collections for the top 15 major crops, we’re deficient in the rest. That doesn’t bode well in an era of climate change, where we need to use that diversity to adapt our crops.
This diversity represents options, and we may not have a lot for smaller crops. That’s terribly worrying. There are 1 to 1.4 billion people, the poorest on Earth, that don’t buy seeds. They select seeds and save from year to year—but is that the “right” kind of diversity that will help crops evolve quickly to climate change? Likely not. In those cases, farmers could starve to death before crops will adapt.
Q: Are scientists adequately tapping into this diversity to improve crops?
A: We need much better information systems for gene banks. Many crops, even those sitting in large collections, haven’t been adequately screened for their traits. It’s like we have a large library of books we haven’t read and have no index for.
We know there are valuable, essential traits in those collections, but we don’t have a road map to find them. That’s the focus of an initiative called DivSeek that’s getting under way. There’s another problem: There just aren’t that many crop breeders, especially for minor crops. There are fewer than 10 banana or yam breeders—yet those are important crops in terms of economics and nutrition.
Q: The film shows biologists hiking in Arizona trying to locate wild crop ancestors. Are modern day collection efforts under way?
A: There are some efforts under way, but there could be so much more. It’s really needed and past due. But it’s not always easy or straightforward to get countries to agree to allow such collections, or for the collections to be placed in the public domain.
Q: What is the take-home message of the film?
A: There are a couple. One is that a single person can do a lot. Second, if someone has gone to the North Pole to safeguard seeds in the side of a mountain, it must be important.
*Correction, 18 May, 2:45 p.m.: This story incorrectly reported that the existing seed vault is located in an abandoned coal mine. A pilot project used an abandoned mine, but not the current vault.