Hidden on the outskirts of a town at the top of the world is the ‘Global Seed Vault’, a building built to protect the world’s seed diversity from natural disasters, warfare and climate change. Designed to last 10,000 years, the vault was created by Cary Fowler, as a way to ensure that humanity never runs out of varied sources of food to grow.
Fowler has dedicated his life to studying crop diversity and protecting 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 and in 2007, he became the executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, a foundation that aims to protect food security and started working on the vault, funded by the Norwegian government.
One of the key reasons for building the vault is that food security is coming under increasing threat from climate change. For example, an Intergovernmental Panel Climate Change (IPCC) report projects that future wheat yields, the world’s most prolific food source, will drop by two percent per decade. Therefore, crop diversity and identifying both new and established seeds that can help feed the world’s population is key to ensuring a stable, sustainable global food supply for the future.
Fowler says his fascination with crop diversity started when he stumbled across work by academic Jack Harlan who described the diversity within crops as a ’genetic resource’. Harlan said: "This genetic resource, is what stands between us and catastrophic starvation on a scale we cannot imagine." As Fowler explains: “Genetic material is the stuff of evolution in our agricultural crops and Harlan understood that that foundation was literally crumbling. That a mass extinction was underway in our fields, in our agricultural system. And that this mass extinction was taking place with very few people noticing and even fewer caring.”
The fact is that seed diversity is being lost. For example, in the United States, in the 1800s, data shows that farmers and gardeners were growing 7,100 named varieties of apples. But today, 6,800 of those are extinct. Fowler believes that although you could put this down to natural selection, it is vital that all species are saved as a poor seed today could hold properties that make it the ideal seed of our future climate. The issue is that we don’t know what will survive best in the future, in a world where our climate is so rapidly changing. He believes that essentially - diversity gives us options.
Fowler’s Global Seed Vault houses 825,000 unique seed samples from all over the world, including places with rare seed types such as North Korea, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan. He is also in discussions with China, Japan and Ethiopia to house seed samples from their countries. Gene seed banks from countries such as Kenya and Pakistan have been eager to send seeds to Fowler’s vault in a bid to save the gene bank from being destroyed in civil unrest. War destroyed both Iraq and Afghanistan’s national gene seed banks, for example.
Fowler and his team at the vault study and cultivate crops that could be the answer to tackling global hunger, developing and keeping seeds that will allow humanity to feed itself no matter what the future. For example, Lathyrus sativus, or the grass pea, can be eaten roasted or boiled, or turned into a protein-packed flour and is extremely drought-tolerant. It is a staple crop in Ethiopia, Somalia and India but it contains a neurotoxin that becomes more concentrated in drought conditions and can cause permanent paralysis if eaten in isolation for a few weeks. In other words, in farming this crop “the poorest people in the world are faced with an absolutely horrible, unconscionable, immoral choice: Starve, or be paralyzed” Fowler explains.
Scientists have developed variants of the grass pea that contain less of the neurotoxin allowing the nutritional benefits whilst minimising the potential harm, 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. The war in Syria put this seed variant in jeopardy and therefore the seed collection was moved to Turkey and backup seeds housed in Fowler’s vault in Svalbard, Norway. And this is why the vault is so important. It provides a safehouse for seed genes that could make the crucial difference in feeding future populations.
For example, Fowler states that in South Africa by 2030, there will be a 30% decrease in production of maize because of the climate change. This 30% decrease of production will happen alongside a rapidly increasing population, which in turn, causes a food security crisis. He says; “It's two breeding cycles for maize so we have two rolls of the dice to get this right. We have to get climate-ready crops in the field, and we have to do that rather quickly.”
The vault at the top of the world allows us to store and preserve genetic material that can be manipulated and cultivated to tackle the global hunger crisis and also provide an answer of what we eat when the climate irreversibly changes, and our current crops are destroyed. It is not a question of whether this scenario takes place, it is when. As Fowler puts it: “Quite literally, if agriculture doesn't adapt to climate change, neither will we.”
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