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A 'doomsday' seed vault to protect the world's diversity: an interview with Cary Fowler.

In a glacial mountain on Norway's remote Svalbard archipelago, a vast underground vault stores more than 800,000 samples of food crops from all around the world. The collection ranges from red okra seeds from the Cherokee Indians of Tennessee to Japanese barley seeds used in miso soup. The Norwegian Government and the international organization, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, built this multinational seed vault in 2008 to protect national gene banks across the world from natural or man-made disasters. In an interview with the Journal, senior advisor to the Trust, Cary Fowler, spoke about the importance of agricultural diversity and the contributions of this unique seed vault.

Journal of International Affairs: The Svalbard Global Seed Vault protects seed collections from natural or man-made disasters. But what are the scenarios that are actually being considered? Can you give us some examples?

Cary Fowler: There are two different categories of problems that it addresses. The first is mostly natural disasters, such as the recent events in the Philippines. The Philippine national gene bank has had strange bad luck recently. It had a typhoon, it was flooded a couple of years ago, and later on, it had a fire. Of course, you also have man-made disasters stemming from military actions and civil wars. Gene banks are rarely the target of any kind of war or terrorist attack, but sometimes they are caught in the middle, as is the case in Iraq, Afghanistan, Burundi, and Rwanda. The second category would be problems that are associated with lack of funding and capacity in gene banks, in particular in developing countries, but not exclusively. If you have a gene bank that is not operating properly because of these kinds of situations, then the seeds deteriorate more quickly than in ideal conditions. If the equipment fails and the temperature rises, then the seeds cannot be conserved. In these cases, gene banks typically have to take their seeds out and grow them in order to obtain fresh, new supplies before they die. This is a complicated issue because often countries that do not have the money to keep the equipment running also do not have funds to take the seeds out and grow them again. Because of poor equipment and poor conditions, we have a lot of seed diversity verging on extinction. The global seed vault protects us against that and provides ideal conditions where the seeds do not deteriorate as quickly.

Journal: The Global Seed Vault opened in 2008. What was the driving factor in its creation? Did something specific happen that led to this initiative?

Fowler: Yes and no. The history is that some of the big international agricultural research centers were taking part in a program financed by the World Bank where they were improving and upgrading their equipment and processes to abide by certain standards. I was indirectly involved in that program, and at the end of this process, we were pretty happy about the quality of the facilities. However, we realized that these facilities were located in Colombia, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, the Philippines, and Syria, and thus could potentially be exposed to various problems in these countries. We understood that even though the gene bank facilities themselves were in good shape, the locations were perhaps problematic. What we really came to believe--and this was after the events of 9/11 in New York and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans--was that there is no such thing as a safe location, and that almost everywhere in the world is vulnerable in some way. We really needed to have those collections safely duplicated, and we understood it was up to us to accomplish this. After the hurricane and the flooding in New Orleans, there were a lot of people who said that it had always been known that sooner or later a strong hurricane would hit New Orleans, so why did they not do something about it? We realized that in this case the "they" was actually us, and that we really needed to do something before another catastrophe hit a gene bank. We lose diversity every day in ways that will never be written about in a newspaper. Due to poor conditions in many gene banks, the loss and the death of conserved seed samples is regular and routine. But there is always the potential that a catastrophic amount will be lost in one day because of some natural disaster, so we wanted to guard against both small- and large-scale problems.

Journal: You said that there is no such thing as a safe location. Why was the global seed bank built in Norway?

Fowler: There are so many factors that go into the word "safe" in this regard. Svalbard is a politically stable area, overseen by the Norwegian government, which people around the world trust, and it was a location that we can get to pretty easily--which is important if you are going to move a significant number of seeds there--but at the same time, it is so remote because it is not part of mainland Europe, and remoteness is a main component of its security. Also, issues of sustainability are part of what make it safe. We had the Norwegian government helping us and paying for construction costs, and the Global Crop Diversity Trust--where I was working--assembled an endowment to fund it. And of course, it is cold because it is inside a mountain. Therefore, if the equipment used to cool the space below the natural temperature failed, the seeds would still be fine. We wanted to have a facility that was almost autonomous, and that was not totally dependent on people or machinery. Of course, over the long term, everything is dependent on people and machinery, but the cold is helpful. This would not be possible in a tropical country.

Journal: How does the decision-making process work, and where exactly does the funding come from?

Fowler: The funding comes from two sources: the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the Norwegian government. Both the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the Norwegian government share the basic operating expenses every year for the facility, and the Norwegian government is providing extra funding for the first years since we have to visit the facility more frequently than we imagine we will in the future to add seeds to the vault as we receive them from countries all over the world. As for the decision-making process, it is pretty easy: there are actually not many decisions to be made. The facility operates under the terms of a contract agreement between the Norwegian government, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, and the Nordic Genetic Resources Center, which is a cooperative venture of all the Nordic countries. In that agreement, we decided what kind of genetic material would go in the seed vault. We essentially have two rules: we request that depositors do not send us something that is already being stored, because we only want one copy of a particular variety; and we do not accept genetically-modified seed samples. In addition, we are limited to conserving seeds of plants related to food and agriculture. In terms of structure, we have an international advisory council, which I chair, and it consists of individuals from different disciplines: scientists, gene bank specialists, and members of civil society organizations, who advise on policy issues. There is also the "User Group Meeting," which is convened by the government in Norway to review the technical data and see if everything is working properly.

Journal: Why can't genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) be stored in the seed vault?

CF: Well, Norway is probably the most restrictive country in the world in terms of use of GMOs. You cannot use GMOs in farms, and you can only import them for research in approved laboratories--and the seed vault does not qualify as such. Additionally, our real goal is to conserve diversity, and we believe we can do this without actually having these varieties in the seed vault. However, it is simply a Norwegian national law that we have to obey.

Journal: In 2012, for example, the Svalbard vault received seeds from Syria. How do countries submit a request for their seeds to be sent to the vault?

Fowler: It was not the Syrian government that sent seeds, but an international research station located in Syria. In this case, I contacted some people there to say, "Let's discuss this," but this was very early in the Arab Spring. So, safety-duplicate-copy seeds began to be moved out of the international research station in Syria, before the civil strife began. Of course, as we speak, Aleppo, where this international gene bank is located, is really a war zone so it is good that we got the safety copies to Svalbard in time.

Journal: As you said, there are many other seed banks in the world. Apart from its safe location, what makes the Svalbard seed bank unique or different?

Fowler: It is the only seed bank of its kind in the world. The users of most seed banks are researchers, plant breeders, and to some extent, farmers who are looking for something very particular. But we are the only seed bank in the world that does not distribute any seeds to researchers, plant breeders, or farmers. Our constituency, our clients, are just other gene banks. There is no other gene bank in the world that functions exclusively as a place for keeping safety-duplicated copies from other gene banks.

Journal: To what extent is this a multilateral initiative?

Fowler: The seed vault is a three-way partnership. One partner is the government of Norway, and another is the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which is an international organization recognized by the United Nations, and formally recognized as an international institution by thirty or more countries that have passed laws or make declarations to this effect, so it has an international character. The third partner is the Nordic Genetic Resource Center, which is a joint program of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland. So it's not exactly the UN, but the structure of the seed vault involves institutions that are themselves multilateral. And again, it is unique because the seed vault is a resource for the entire world. I do not know many initiatives in the world in recent memory that have been like this, because we are conserving this diversity for free, and it is for all national gene banks across the world. We do not make any political decisions about where the seeds come from. If you walk down the aisle in the seed vault, you will see a box from South Korea and a few steps later, one from North Korea, for example.

Journal: Who are the major donors of the Global Crop Diversity Trust?

Fowler: The biggest donor has historically been Norway, but there are also other governments such as Australia, Canada, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States. We also receive funding from developing countries such as Colombia and Ethiopia, which is remarkable since I have never encountered an international organization that received cash donations from Ethiopia. And we also get money from foundations, for instance, the UN Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Journal: Why is agricultural diversity important and what are the implications of not having it?

Fowler: The implications are absolutely disastrous and catastrophic. Our human civilization would truly decline and fall without agricultural diversity. Diversity is the raw material for evolution in our agricultural crops and for adaptation, and this is taking place constantly in the agricultural world. Now we have even greater need for this diversity to help us adapt to climate change and, in the future, to changes in the availability of water, nutrients, and various fertilizers. We do not really have any viable substitutions for this diversity. It is not like we can invent a chemical so the plants need less water or less fertilizer, or make their pollen more resistant to higher temperatures. So this diversity is really what allows and helps create a productive agricultural system. Without that, we are going to have a system that does not give us anything close to food security, and it will be very vulnerable to new pests, insect diseases, climate change, and water scarcity. I would argue that it is the most valuable natural resource on Earth, but it is probably the one we take for granted the most. If we do not solve this particular problem, and successfully help agriculture adapt and cope with future challenges, we are not going to solve any other problem on Earth.

Journal: And what are, according to you, the main threats to this diversity?

Fowler: There are two major threats. One is to the diversity that is still occurring in nature, which is vulnerable to being lost with the introduction of new varieties. This is kind of an indirect and unintentional loss, but it happens all the time. But the diversity that has been collected and placed in gene banks, and is not grown by farmers anymore, is also still vulnerable. Natural disasters, wars, lack of capacity and funding, and equipment failures, among other things, can threaten gene banks.

Journal: You are a special advisor to the Global Crop Diversity Trust. What are other ways in which this organization is trying to protect crop diversity?

Fowler: There are quite a few ways. The Trust is structured as an endowment fund, so the primary method to protect diversity is assembling the necessary funding, so that it will generate enough money to give gene banks in the world steady and predictable income year to year. One of the main problems of gene banks is that they suffer budget cuts from one year to the next. That is not good when you are trying to conserve diversity forever. We also launched a huge rescue project. We worked with gene banks mostly in developing countries to rescue close to 90,000 different crop varieties in the last five years that were on their way to extinction. Today, the Trust is involved in a ten-year project to locate and collect the remaining diversity that is out there in the real world in the form of botanical and wild relatives of cultivated crops; most of our domesticated crops have related species of wild plants. There is a lot of diversity out there in these wild relatives of our domesticated crops. This can be very important for plant breeding in the future, in terms of helping crops adapt to climate change. The Trust is involved in a partnership with Kew Gardens and others to collect that diversity, research it, and conserve it in gene banks, including the seed vault in Norway.


(1) This interview is a condensed and edited version of the exchange between the Journal and Cary Fowler.
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Publication:Journal of International Affairs
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:4EXNO
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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