The Svalbard Global Seed Vault has been called the world’s agricultural hard drive. It is, in fact, a true vault buried 390 feet into the sandstone of the Arctic Svalbard archipelago in Norway, about 810 miles from the North Pole. And it’s what we can depend on to save the future of our food.
In this highly secure, frigidly cold environment Cary Fowler, former Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, is leading the charge to protect 825,000 seed varieties and counting.
A new documentary, Seeds of Time, takes us to Svalbard, Peru and elsewhere following Cary’s journey to ensure that our food security is not lost.
The film will screen today at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham. We caught up with Cary to talk about the film, his life’s work in conservation and why we should all worry about the crop diversity at stake.
Cary worked with RAFI when we were named the Rural Advancement Fund (RAF), synonymous with the Frank Porter Graham Center. He continues to advise our work in diversifying seeds and breeds for 21st century agriculture.
Born in the American South, Cary began investigating the loss of family farms while working as an editor and researcher for the Institute for Southern Studies. One side of his family farmed, and he wondered “why family farms were becoming endangered and how they could stay afloat.”
He realized around 1975 that “conserving crop diversity was a critical challenge of our time.”
“In the beginning, I saw myself as a translator,” he says, “trying to translate scientific work into something that has been done into a language that common people can understand, make it a political issue of why people should support crop diversity.”
“We are losing the biological foundation of agriculture right now at the time we need it the most, because this is the raw material for evolution and adaptation.”
He cites the recent data surrounding climate change as proof to the connection with crops and agricultural adaptation. The recent report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this week shows how longer periods of extreme, hotter and wetter weather are affecting major food crops, due to the two extra degrees of warmth already baked into the atmosphere.
“Crops will decline precipitously in the next few years,” Cary says. “Even the affluent will be paying much higher food prices if that’s allowed to happen. We’re not going to prevent it from happening by capping mitigation efforts.”
The vault acts as a way to store copies of seeds from all over the world—Nigeria, Phillipines, Peru, Mexico, etc.—offering a library of seeds whose owners are still the original sowers. The vault is funded largely in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
For the film, award-winning director Sandy McLeod spent six years with Cary and others to document the race to save seeds.
“I discovered Cary through an article I read in the New Yorker,” she says. “I think of myself as fairly well read about what’s in popular culture about food. I do what I can in my way. But this article was full of information that I never even thought about, like seeds banks and plant breeders and this staggering diversity.”
Sandy described the feeling of first visiting the vault as “wonder and awe.”
“Winds were howling. I could see the snow blowing. I got so carried away by the sight of it,” she says. “I realize what a special place that is and I’m really glad that’s there.”
Cary has encountered polar bears on at least 10 occasions (thousands inhabit the remote archipelago), with one of them being a very close, risky experience. The irony of it all is that hundred of thousands of seeds from around the world are preserved in the vault’s acclimated temperature, while nothing grows outside. Cary ventures to the vault a few months out of the year to work. Other times of the year he is exploring the world collecting seed from various national seed banks. He jokes that they have never lost a seed in transit, but the airline seems to always lose his luggage.
“Cary is a type A in type B’s clothing,” Sandy says. “He’s very unassuming, but he’s got a kind of strength and determination and willpower that not too many people as individuals can pull off. He didn’t do this alone, there are a lot of people involved in this effort. He says something toward the end of the film about cooperation. I think he is one of those people who does try to find common ground. We need a lot more people like that in this world, even in the seed world.”
Optimism permeates Cary’s attitude, coupled with an extensive knowledge of agriculture and seed science and the passion to never give up.
“If we don’t have crop diversity, we don’t have food security. If we don’t have food security, we aren’t going to have physical security,” he says. “I don’t see us solving the other problems we face unless we solve this one. When the world is in the midst of food crisis, we can’t solve anything.
“Of all the significant world problems, it’s a problem we can actually solve. We know exactly what to do, we know how much it’s going to cost, we have the technology in hand, it’s quite feasible, it’s cheap. We simply have to educate people, build public awareness, create political pressure and get our priorities straight and make a moderate investment in our own species.”
Cary Fowler in front of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Photo via National Geographic.