Interview by Jason Woods, World Ark senior editor
Just outside of Longyearbyen, Norway, the northernmost permanent settlement in the world, sits the Global Seed Vault. Some call it the Doomsday Vault. But to Cary Fowler, the father of this ambitious undertaking, the Seed Vault is a symbol of hope and ingenuity in the face of a serious problem. In recent decades, our world suffered huge losses in crop diversity. By storing hundreds of thousands of seeds, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is an insurance policy for the continued existence and diversity of the crops most important to the future of humanity.
In his new book, Seeds on Ice, Fowler outlines the importance of preserving genetic diversity while giving readers a rare glimpse inside the mysterious storage facility and the surrounding beauty of the Svalbard Islands.
WORLD ARK: How did Svalbard Global Seed Vault come about?
CARY FOWLER: Probably the most common question I get is, “Whose idea was it?” And I kind of cringe a little bit because I don’t think it’s the important question to ask. I’m not even sure what the right answer is. There could be multiple answers.
Which kind of leads you to the more accurate conclusion, that multiple people were involved. Several of us were involved in upgrading seed banks in the consortium of international agricultural research centers, and at the end of that process, we looked around, and we were pretty happy with what we’d done. These institutes are the major suppliers of genetic resources for plant breeding in the world, and also the major crop breeders for major crops in developing countries, so not a trivial group of institutes. And they had been a little bit neglected in terms of the gene bank functions there. We got a World Bank grant to upgrade them, and everything on the surface looked really good.
But we realized that, as good as the equipment was, they were still located in some potentially dangerous places. Moreover, after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, which is when this was, you had to question what a safe place was. Were there any safe places?
We realized, furthermore, that a catastrophe striking one of these facilities would truly be a global catastrophe because these facilities contained worldwide collections of major crops and supplied plant breeders all over the world with their materials. We wouldn’t be able to recover from such a loss. It would be a permanent one. So, that got us thinking about what we could do as an insurance policy, kind of a plan B—what if something really goes wrong with one of these facilities?
And we hit upon Svalbard. I drafted a letter to the Norwegian government, coming from these research institutions. I didn’t sign the letter, it had the higher-up’s signature. It went off to the Norwegians, and they decided to take it seriously. Much to my surprise, they asked if I would head the committee that would assess the feasibility, which, since we didn’t have a facility, there was nothing to assess really. Our committee had to design the facility, had to figure out the management plan, the cost and legality of it, the politics of it, the science of it, everything, and then take a step back and ask ourselves, is this really going to work? And we concluded that it would, and that’s what we said to the Norwegian government, and they agreed. And they allocated $9 million to build it. And here we are. It’s a series of improbable events, I will tell you that.
And really, I think it’s getting increasingly difficult for people to understand just how unlikely it was about 10 years ago. That Norway would say yes. Now people look at that Seed Vault—I think it’s got about 880,000 different crop varieties in it, probably going up to about 900,000 in a few weeks. And it seems perfectly reasonable and logical now. But going up near the North Pole to build a tunnel and put seeds at the end of it, 10 years ago, was one crazy idea. And people telling me this is the last thing I would do in the field, because people were laughing, and this was just a gigantic boondoggle.
Why is the Seed Vault an important thing to have?
The given is that none of the existing collections are completely safe because any kind of threat that can affect the contents of a building can affect the contents of a seed bank. That includes equipment failures and funding cuts and natural disasters and wars and all those kinds of things.
But the other part of that story, the flip side to the coin, is that these resources are irreplaceable, and they are essential to the continued success of agriculture. They are the raw material for plant breeding. Many people don’t understand that there’s a constant turnover of varieties of our major crops in the field because the real world is constantly changing, and pests and diseases mutate and evolve, and the crop varieties that farmers grow have to keep up with this.
How do they do that? They don’t do it by us wishing or wanting. They do it because we help them do it through plant breeding. Whatever agriculture can be in the future, whatever wheat or corn or tomatoes or potatoes can be in the future, whatever kind of traits or characteristics they’ll have is contained in the genetic diversity that we’re trying to conserve.
I look at conserving this diversity as conserving options. You might not need all the options in the future, and that’s the interesting part about it. We don’t have a crystal ball, so we don’t know which options we will need. Since it’s very doable, and very cheap, actually, to conserve all the options, it behooves us to do exactly that, just in case we’ll need some of them.
So, we need a robust system for conserving the diversity because it’s so important to agriculture, to food security, to our own species. We need a plan B, an insurance policy to make sure that, not if, but when something goes wrong in one of the seed banks, it’s not a catastrophe for everybody.
There’s no country, by the way, that’s independent in terms of the genetic resources it needs, so this is not a case where the United States, with all its wealth and power, could just assemble a copy of everything and cut the rest of the world adrift and say, “We don’t need you, we don’t care.” I think the United States has 5 percent of the world’s wheat collection. And that’s a big crop in the United States. And so, I usually tell audiences, if you’re content with the future of wheat in this country being based on 5 percent of the samples, and you don’t think you’ll ever have any need to use any of the diversity found in the other 95 percent, then good luck. But there’s no scientist in the world who would think that’s a good idea.
In a way, we are our brother’s keeper. That’s why, when a research facility goes down in Syria, we don’t jump up with joy and say, “Oh that’s just a bunch of extremists over there, and good for them, that they lost their seed bank.” We exchange these resources all the time to help everybody’s agricultural systems keep going.
In the book, you show that many common vegetables in the U.S. have lost as much as 95 percent of the varieties that existed just a century ago. What caused this loss of varieties?
I think the major cause is simply the modernization of agriculture. And as you modernize agriculture, and you have larger farms and more commercial agriculture and more plant breeding, then plant breeders produce modern, high-yielding varieties. And there’s a tendency of farmers to adopt those varieties.
There’s a tendency for people first getting into this subject to try to look for the villain in it. I think it’s better to look for the irony in it. You want farmers to be in control of their decisions. Farmers, rather than people who live in the cities, ought to be the ones who are making decisions about what’s planted every year. They know the conditions the best. So, we honor the farmers by saying they’re the smart ones, and they can make the decisions. But when they make a decision to grow a modern variety rather than the older variety, well, maybe we don’t like that decision.
Without getting into the blame game, I think it’s just incumbent on governments, and to some extent NGOs, to get involved in the solutions to the issue. You know, some people say we should just all go back to the heirloom varieties. And I don’t think that’s a solution.
How do you feel about the “Doomsday Vault” nickname?
In the beginning I cringed a little bit about that because I thought that attaching that name to it was going to sensationalize it in a bad way and make people not want to pay attention to it. [They would] just think it was some kooky, weird idea by some kooky, weird people. And I never used it for years and years, and I still never use it, really. It’s not like I’m averse to it, but it’s just not how I think of the Seed Vault. It’s not why we built the Seed Vault.
We’re optimistic people who decided here was a global problem that could be solved. To me, pessimism is having a global problem that can’t be solved. You don’t try to solve it. Solving it, or trying to solve it, is much more optimistic.
When you put Doomsday Vault in the title, people think of a global catastrophe. And we were never thinking we needed to build a seed vault because of a global catastrophe. We were worried about an institute specific catastrophe. A fire in a particular gene bank or a war or a really bad equipment failure or something like that. And also regular losses occur in a gene bank, even if it’s well run.
They’re like libraries. You have a library with hundreds of thousands of books in it, and you ask the librarian, have you ever lost a book? The librarian, if she’s telling the truth, says, “Well, sure, of course.” And a seed bank manager is going to give you the same answer. Even the best seed bank manager.
So, we knew that we were losing diversity. In other words, some varieties were becoming extinct. As in forever. Just through normal operations that you just couldn’t prevent in the real world with human beings in it. We wanted to have an insurance policy for all of those kinds of cases, from the situation where you just lost one variety to the situation where you lost a building of variety. And then, you know, when media would press me on the subject of the Doomsday Vault, I would have to admit that, if there’s a regional—it’s very hard to imagine a global conflagration—but if there was some kind of regional issue, yeah, OK, then I suppose probably the Seed Vault would come in really handy. But I don’t know that that means it should be called the Doomsday Vault.
To a lot of people, it also conjures up an image of people who are deeply pessimistic about the world and who see catastrophe ahead of us. And I think those of us who built this Seed Vault are actually quite the opposite. We’re optimistic people who decided here was a global problem that could be solved. To me, pessimism is having a global problem that can’t be solved. You don’t try to solve it. Solving it, or trying to solve it, is much more optimistic.
The Seed Vault has seeds from 234 origin countries and 71 institutions, including many governments. How complicated do things get working with all these separate government institutions?
Every government provides a bit of a complication. It’s easy to find a safe place to store seeds that should be naturally frozen—duh, that would be the Arctic. That’s not rocket science. But where it really gets complicated is the management plan. How are we really going to operate this so people want to use it?
And a big part of the management plan was figuring out that we could sidestep a lot of issues and also generate a lot more trust if we simply didn’t claim ownership over the materials ourselves, and we said to any would-be depositor, this is operating like a safety deposit box. So, Norway owns the mountain, you’ll own your seeds. And we’ll return the seeds to you, we won’t be returning them to somebody else. And that calmed [governments] down. This is a fairly contentious political issue now—who owns genetic diversity, who owns this gene, that gene?
There are still a few countries that, for reasons that are hard to fathom, frankly, still haven’t gotten on board. And I have to think that these are rational countries and that, like individuals, and like different cultures, they just see time differently and they’re on their own schedule about how they’re relating to this. I suspect all the countries will eventually come on board.
What countries haven’t sent seeds to Svalbard?
Well, China and Japan. Iran, Ethiopia. India, for the most part. Now, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have seeds from all those countries. Indeed we do. But they are seeds that have come from institutions not in those countries but seeds that were originally collected in those countries. We have a lot of rice from China, for instance, and other crops from India. But we don’t have the Indian collection. Or the Chinese collection. And they have some materials that never left the country to go to another institution. So, we do eventually want to get that. And since it is run as a safety deposit box, and there’s no charge for storage, it’s free, it’s hard to see what the downside is.
In the book, you say that seeds last for hundreds or thousands of years in the cold of the Seed Vault. Is that true?
Many thousands of years. That also can be misleading because it’s not a time capsule. We never envisaged it as just putting seeds in a seed vault and then walking away. It’s really a living institution with seeds going in and out.
In September of 2015, we had our first return of seeds. It was to this institution that had been based in Aleppo, Syria. I tell that story in the book. They had to flee that research center in Aleppo, and they reestablished themselves in Morocco and Lebanon. And we sent a portion of the seeds back to them so that they could regrow them, get more seeds and reconstitute their gene bank. So now, they’ve done that, and they’re sending seeds back to us. The ones that we sent to them are coming back to reconstitute that insurance policy.
In the beginning, we really targeted the major collections in the world to try to get them safely protected first. But since then, we’ve been going down our list and getting more and more collections from smaller gene banks, particularly gene banks in developing countries. My guess is that, just because of the normal problems in developing countries, instability, but also electricity, supplies, equipment, funding and all that, we’ll be making more returns in the future than we have in the past, unfortunately.
The Seed Vault is one step—one really big step—in securing our future in this regard. What else needs to happen to secure our future?
In one sense, you could say that while the Seed Vault is a backup for all the other seed banks around the world, the reverse is also true. They’re a backup for the Seed Vault. I think all of these institutions need to have secure funding. And I don’t know of a single gene bank in the world that has an adequate and secure multi-year budget.
These varieties that we're conserving are at the end of a long, unbroken chaing of successful history. They're all survivors, and they've come from our ancestors. Hundreds of generations of ancestors. Yours and mine."
This is penny smart and pound foolish, as they say. This is a very cheap area of government to work in, and the return on investment is enormous. You wish you could have a day in the stock market like this, where you invest a little bit and get a gigantic return.
One thing that really worries me is climate change and the enormous impact that it is already having. By mid-century, many countries in Africa will be having something like half of their cropland in a climate that’s never before existed in that country. Are these crops adapted to climates they’ve never seen before? No. Then how do those crops and how are those farming systems going to adapt themselves without diversity and without plant breeders? I don’t think we’re going to solve the plant breeder problem very quickly. It takes years, and it takes economic systems to employ those plant breeders.
I think in the future we have to look at ways to open up the gene banks and get some of that diversity out to farmers in the field. And to get farmers acting as plant breeders themselves, as experimenters armed with a lot of diversity. That’s the only way I can see that our crops and our farmers are going to adapt to climate change. So, there are a lot of challenges out there, but if we were to think about it and have a little bit of political will, we could actually overcome them. And I think not overcoming them is going to lead to absolute catastrophe: a lot of food instability, a lot of political instability, all kinds of bad things. This is a problem that can be solved if we want to.
If I were 20 years younger and had 30 years ahead of me to try to do something, I think I would be trying to take the climate change models on one hand and match what we know about the seeds and the gene banks on the other hand and start to distribute genetic diversity in developing countries that matched up with the conditions that are coming, so as to give the farmers a chance of helping their crops adapt. That’s where I see the use of diversity going, or where it should go.
At the end of the book, you say, “Don’t assume someone else is responsible for this living heritage. You are. Together, we are.” How can ordinary people be more responsible stewards of this resource?
There are a lot of ways. Some of them are very direct and others are indirect. On the direct side, it’s very possible to get involved conserving this diversity yourself and making sure that it survives. Individuals can have a big impact.
I’m providing a little bit of financial support and advice when needed to a group of people out in Oregon who have established something called the Temperate Orchard Conservancy. And there was this old man named Nick Botner in Oregon who assembled this gigantic collection of apples, something like 4,500 varieties—of which maybe, I’m just guessing, 3,500 are unique. It’s probably the biggest apple collection in the world. Or really close to it. But he’s in his mid-90s, and he can’t take care of that number of trees. So three individuals, and they’re not getting paid for it, have organized this little nonprofit to graft his trees and move them to a safer location and begin to offer grafting wood themselves and eventually trees of these varieties. And here are three amateurs who are not on a salary or anything but are just taking it upon themselves to conserve the world’s largest apple collection. I think there are many, many opportunities like this to get your hands dirty and do this kind of work.
There’s also political action. Your senator or congressperson might get 1,000 emails about a particular issue, but they are not expecting to get an email from you about the funding cuts at our national gene bank. And they will perk up. If one person wanted to organize a letterwriting campaign to educate our Congress about the importance of preserving the biological foundation of agriculture, I could think of worse things to do in your spare time. I think it could have a measurable impact.
A lot of people work now on climate change and environmental stuff, [and] they don’t typically see agriculture as being part of the climate change discussion. But as I say in the book, I don’t think we will adapt to climate change if our crops don’t. So even if you’re working on other areas of environmentalism and climate change stuff, I think it’s good to have the agriculture and food security perspective in there.
What is the inside of the vault like?
When you open the first door, you’re just looking down a very long tunnel. There are a few doors along the way. But it’s a straight tunnel going about 130 yards. At the end of that, you get to a very big room that I’ve always thought of as a cathedral room. Off of that are three vault rooms. We’re only using one at this time. That stores all the seeds that we have.
We built the whole facility with a lot of redundancies so we never really run out of space. There’s always a backup for whatever system we have. When you enter the one vault room where we’re keeping the seeds, that door is encrusted with a lot of ice and ice crystals. You walk in, and it’s incredibly cold. It’s minus 18 there. On the other side of that door, it’s about minus 5.5 Celsius.
So, yeah, it’s a strange sensation for most people walking into that room. You don’t see any seeds because they’re in packets inside of boxes. But you can walk down the rows of shelves—a bit like a warehouse—and see where the seeds are coming from because the depositing institutions will put their national flag on it, like maybe the maple leaf flag from Canada. Most people don’t stay too long in that room because it’s really cold.
But… I’ve noticed after a while over the years that people will walk out of that room very quietly. And they don’t talk much on the way back out of the tunnel to the outside. I have had people cry, walking outside. Because I think it’s just very overwhelming from an emotional standpoint. They realize that this is certainly one of the biggest collections of biodiversity in the world. These varieties that we’re conserving are at the end of a long, unbroken chain of successful history. They’re all survivors, and they all come from our ancestors. Hundreds of generations of our ancestors. Yours and mine. Just about everybody’s on Earth have cared for these seeds, they’ve selected them.
So, it’s a history of agriculture, and it’s the future of agriculture. And if you’re a person who cares about agriculture, that can be a very emotional experience walking down there. It is for me, still, and I’ve spent a lot of time walking down that tunnel.