Circling above Spitsbergen, Norway, about 800 miles from the North Pole, you can look down and see the door to what some call the Doomsday? Vault. The setting is austere — not a tree in sight — but also beautiful, with snow slathered like cake frosting on the mountain below. Seen from a plane, the vault looks like no big deal; just a metal box jutting out from an Arctic mountain. But behind its door, deep in the Arctic permafrost, is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the world’s safe-deposit box for seeds — an insurance policy for our food supply.
The man behind the Doomsday Vault is ?Tennessee-born Cary Fowler. When Fowler pops up on my Skype screen for a chat from his Rome office, he doesn’t look like a guy who thinks the world is coming to an end. He wears a halo of curly reddish hair and a gentle smile. But you know what they say about appearances being deceiving … because when he starts talking about the threat to the world’s seed diversity, he sounds scary — just not in the way you’d think at first.
“We’re not a bunch of people standing around with signs that say, ‘Repent! The end is near,’ ” he says reassuringly. Instead, think of the vault as he does — as a Noah’s Ark for agriculture, a place to store backup seeds in case of local civil strife or natural disaster. Stress local. “We were not thinking that the world was headed to some global catastrophe, despite the Mayan calendar stuff,” he adds wryly, referring to the apocalyptic predictions surrounding the date Dec. 21, 2012.
During the war in Iraq, for instance, looters sacked the national seed bank located in the Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib. Luckily, Iraqi scientists had sent backups to the international seed bank in Aleppo, Syria, before the war. Those seeds helped Iraq rebuild. Now, in a twist of fate, the Syrian seed bank itself is in danger from civil strife.
The Global Seed Vault in Norway is, by comparison, a backup for all nations. Just like a bank vault, depositors control their own seed samples. Run by a partnership between the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the Nordic Genetic Resource Center and the Norwegian government, the vault is wildly successful, with seeds from nearly every ?nation deposited since the opening in 2008. Fowler,? Global Crop’s executive director, turns to his computer and checks the deposits: By this month, nearly 750,000 crop varieties will be stored at subzero temperatures — everything from staples, like rice and wheat, to the edible hibiscus. Armenia and Tajikistan are sending samples this year, as is the U.S. (backing up its own backup seeds). Thailand was racing to save rice samples for the vault when floods inundated its seed banks. “It may be too late for those seeds,” Fowler says.
Why worry about one kind of seed? Because diversity in seeds helps crops resist pests and disease, survive droughts and floods, and adapt to climate changes. Our Stone Age ancestors began nurturing that diversity by domesticating plants around 10,000 B.C. Now we need new varieties that consume less water, less energy and less fertilizer. “This is the most severe threat in agriculture we’ve faced going back 12,000 to 15,000 years — and we are not ready for it,” Fowler says, getting to the scary part.
Consider, he says, the lowly Lathyrus and the phenomenon of human “crawlers.” (This is where my teenagers got interested.) Lathyrus, a relative to the sweet pea flower, has tons of protein, doesn’t need fertilizing and in places like Ethiopia, Somalia, India and Bangladesh is the last plant standing in a drought. Trouble is, Lathyrus ?contains a neurotoxin that increases in severe low-water conditions. Eaten for too long, it causes permanent paralysis in the legs of its victims (hence the awful term “crawlers”). But what if scientists bred it with less-toxic varieties from the vault? “These collections,” Fowler argues, “are the most important natural resource on Earth today.”
The seed vault is not a tourist attraction. It’s a tunnel built into a mountain in a remote polar region, with metal shelves holding aluminum foil pouches of seeds. But Fowler says walking into the seed room is an emotional experience for him every time. “You realize no other room contains this much biological diversity created and nurtured by our ancestors. It’s an unbroken chain from the Neolithic age.” He stares at me over the Skype line. “It’s our responsibility not to break that chain.”
When he signs off, I can’t help but think one thing: The “Doomsday Vault” may be aptly named after all.