Cary Fowler : The common heritage of mankind

October 22, 2007

Andrew Zolli introduces the segment of Pop!Tech on “Sustaining Tomorrow” as the things that “comic books are made of”. And Cary Fowler’s Artic Seed Vault definitely seems like it would fit comfortably into an epic tale of heroes and villains.

Fowler is the Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the world’s seed banker. He starts by explaining what biodiversity really means. It is the biological foundation of agriculture and losing biodiversity is extinction. It means losing important genetic traits and options for the future. And with climate change and food security issues, there is pressure on agriculture to do many more things. The question is do we modify the environment to suit the crops or modify the crops to suit the environment? And if the latter, don’t we need biodiversity?

This is where seed banks come in. And the mother of all seed banks must surely be the Artic Seed Vault. It is a sort of a Noah’s Ark concept – taking a sampling of what you want to preserve and protecting it from impending doom. A global resource to ensure continuity in human existence.

“The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, or the Doomsday Vault as the media have nicknamed it, will be the ultimate safety net for the world’s most important natural resource… The seed vault is an answer to a call from the international community to provide the best possible assurance of safety for the world’s crop diversity, and in fact the idea for such a facility dates back to the 1980s. However, it was only with the coming into force of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources, and an agreed international legal framework for conserving and accessing crop diversity, that the seed vault became a practical possibility.

The vault is being dug into a mountainside near the village of Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Construction is due to be completed in September 2007. Svalbard is a group of islands nearly a thousand kilometres north of mainland Norway. Remote by any standards, Svalbard’s airport is in fact the northernmost point in the world to be serviced by scheduled flights – usually one a day. For nearly four months a year the islands are enveloped in total darkness. It is here that the Norwegian government is building the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, to provide this ultimate safety net for the world’s seeds.

Permafrost and thick rock will ensure that even without electricity, the samples will remain frozen. The vault’s construction will be funded and managed by the Norwegian government as a service to the world community. The Global Crop Diversity Trust considers the vault an essential component of a rational and secure global system for conserving the genetic diversity of all our crops. The Trust is therefore committed to supporting ongoing operational costs, and will assist developing countries with preparing, packaging and transporting their representative seeds to the Arctic.”

All I can say is kudos to those who dare to dream!


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