Inside The Global Seed Vault, Where The History And Future Of Agriculture Is Stored Seeds on Ice author Cary Fowler describes the underground tunnel near the North Pole, which stores and protects a collection of 933,000 samples of different, unique crop varieties.
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Inside The Global Seed Vault, Where The History And Future Of Agriculture Is Stored

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Inside The Global Seed Vault, Where The History And Future Of Agriculture Is Stored

Inside The Global Seed Vault, Where The History And Future Of Agriculture Is Stored

Inside The Global Seed Vault, Where The History And Future Of Agriculture Is Stored

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/539005688/539059394" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Seeds on Ice

Svalbard and the Global Seed Vault

by Cary Fowler, Peter Crane, Mari Tefre and Jim Richardson

Hardcover, 160 pages |

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Seeds on Ice
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Svalbard and the Global Seed Vault
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Seeds on Ice author Cary Fowler describes the underground tunnel near the North Pole, which stores and protects a collection of 933,000 samples of different, unique crop varieties.

TERRY GROSS: This is is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's been called the doomsday vault, the vault that will preserve the seeds of life after a catastrophic event. My guest Cary Fowler is the creator of the vault, but he doesn't much like the doomsday title. He prefers the official name, the Global Seed Vault. It stores and protects nearly a million samples of crop varieties from about 5,000 different species with the mission of safeguarding the diversity of our agricultural crops in perpetuity, in spite of war, pestilence and climate change. Part of what makes the vault safe is its location, just 700 miles from the North Pole.

Fowler conceptualized the vault, headed the committee that developed the plan for the facility and is the founding chair of the international council that has overseen the vault since its inception. In the '90s, he led the team that conducted the U.N.'s first global assessment of the state of the world's crop diversity. He's also the author of a book about the Global Seed Vault called, "Seeds On Ice".

Cary Fowler, welcome to FRESH AIR. So tell us what the point of the seed vault is.

CARY FOWLER: The point is to conserve crop diversity. And most people don't really stop to think of why crop diversity is important enough to be conserving. But it's the biological foundation of agriculture, and it's the raw material for plant evolution, for plant breeding for the future. So if we want our crops to be productive in the future, if we want them adapted to new climates or to whatever pest or disease is out there, then we need to conserve that diversity because the diversity is really a diversity of traits. And those are the options that we have for the future, just like an artist would have a lot of different colors on his or her palette.

We don't want to eliminate or reduce those colors. We want to save all the traits that plant diversity has. And typically, over the years, most of that conservation of crop diversity has been done by conserving seeds. Some crops can't be conserved that way, and there are other means for doing that. But mostly, countries and institutions around the world that are involved in this have been saving seeds, freezing them for the long term and for short-term use, and plant breeding programs and other kinds of biological research.

GROSS: So when there's a war, an impending disaster, do you try rescue seeds from there? Like the war in Syria which has decimated so much of Syria.

FOWLER: Well, we - yes. We did certainly get pretty active in the run-up to that. In fact, when Arab Spring started, I got on the phone with the director general of the International Center for Agricultural Research and Dry Areas, which was located just outside of Aleppo, Syria. And that institute, uniquely, had one of the largest collections of wheat diversity and also barley, lentils, chickpeas diversity in the world - a really, really important agricultural facility. It was not, I would stress, a Syrian national facility. It was actually an international organization that happened to be based in Syria.

So I got on the phone with this fellow that was a friend of mine and said, look, there seems to be some trouble starting in your region. And I think we ought to get a safety duplicate copy of your collection up to the Global Seed Vault near the North Pole. So we worked pretty hard with their staff to get a copy of their materials out. They sent samples of almost 100,000 different crop varieties up to the seed vault. And we got the last ones out just a couple of weeks before, really, all hell broke loose in Aleppo.

GROSS: So what happened to the seed vault in Syria?

FOWLER: Because of the war in Syria, the scientists had to flee. And they eventually re-established their research and breeding facilities in Morocco and Lebanon. And it became clear that they weren't going to be able to return to Aleppo. And so they had to re-establish their gene bank, which is the raw material for their research and plant breeding. So in September of 2015, they asked us to send their seeds back. And we'd been sending sort of installments of their seeds back.

And earlier this year - well, let me back up and say that when they receive those seeds, what they do is plant them and get even more seeds, fresh new seeds, for their breeding programs - but also enough seeds to replenish the supplies that they had retrieved from the seed vault. So in February this year, we got our first shipment of seeds back from this institution of seeds that we had shipped them. So in a sense, we've - it's a bit of a proof of concept. And, of course, these people understood very, very clearly the importance of having an insurance policy.

GROSS: Give us a sense of what's in the seed vault now.

FOWLER: What's in the vault right now is a collection of, I think, 933,000 samples of different, unique crop varieties. And each sample is in a little package. And each sample is typically about 500 seeds. So we have this huge diversity - more than 5,000 different species, about 1,000 genera crops that, frankly, you and I have never even heard of before and then a lot of examples of the most famous and important crops. We have more than 150,000 different kinds of rice and more than 150,000 different kinds of wheat as well.

GROSS: I had no idea that there were that many different varieties of rice and wheat.

FOWLER: Most people don't think of that.

GROSS: OK. So how did you get the idea for a global seed vault?

FOWLER: It really occurred just after 9/11 actually. And there's a connection with 9/11. I was working with some people that are associated with a consortium of international agricultural research institutions dotted around the world, one of them being this facility in Syria. And we were engaged in upgrading their technical facilities, making sure their equipment was tip-top. Heading that program was a man named Henry Shands, who at the time was the head of the U.S. National Seed Bank which was in Fort Collins, Colo.

And Henry and I were sitting around talking and feeling pretty good about the condition of these big international seed banks that really fuel plant-breeding efforts all over the world, including in the United States. And then we began to - it dawned on us, where are these big international agricultural research centers? Well, they're in Mexico and in Cali, Colombia, and in Peru, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Syria, Philippines. And we realized that, well, maybe they - maybe even if the equipment were perfect, top of the line, international standards - maybe the seed collections themselves were not that secure simply because of their location.

And, of course, after 9/11, we realized that, well, you could ask, what building in the world is safe? And we knew that the Nordics had been storing a backup collection of their own in Svalbard near the North Pole. And indeed, they had made an offer many years before of expanding that facility, but for a lot of reasons that offer had been turned down. So we decided to approach the Norwegians and ask if they would look into the feasibility of establishing a global seed vault inside of a mountain near the North Pole - kind of a crazy idea.

GROSS: Yeah. I know.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Really. I mean, Svalbard is how many miles from the North Pole?

FOWLER: I think it's about 700. But where you land in the plain, the little village of Longyearbyen, is the farthest north you can fly in the world on a regularly scheduled airplane.

GROSS: Yeah. You write in the book that - how do you pronounce it? Long...

FOWLER: Longyearbyen.

GROSS: Longyearbyen has the northern most everything, the northern most, like, church and newspaper and gas station and restaurant...

FOWLER: Bar.

GROSS: ...Bar...

FOWLER: Kindergarten, everything.

GROSS: ...Kindergarten. And it's the only kindergarten that's protected against polar bears?

FOWLER: That's right. And the main photographer for my book is a member of the northern-most bluegrass band in the world.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, that is great. OK, so my understanding of the Global Seed Vault is that it's basically tunneled into a mountain. Do I have that right?

FOWLER: That's right. It's really just a tunnel. When we started to build this, we had no idea whatsoever that anyone in the media would ever be interested in what we were doing. So we did not construct a facility that was supposed to be photogenic or visitor-friendly or anything. We really wanted to construct a facility that was very pragmatic, that was cheap to build, cheap to operate, very sturdy and strong, that would last essentially forever.

So it's not a, you know, if you have an image of the Global Seed Vault being some kind of group of antiseptic labs and people with white lab coats running around, that's not quite the right image. In fact, it's completely wrong. We understood that for this facility to be sustainable over the long-term, it had to be cheap to run. And so we wanted a facility that essentially ran by itself.

And we tunneled deep inside the mountain where you have a natural temperature that's below freezing. So we took advantage of just what nature gives us deep inside this mountain. And then we lower that temperature a bit more mechanically down to about zero degrees Fahrenheit, minus one maybe, because that's the optimal temperature for storing seeds long-term.

GROSS: So you're in the middle of the Arctic and you have air conditioning to make it colder (laughter).

FOWLER: That's right. That does strike some people as ironic.

GROSS: (Laughter) If you're just joining us, my guest is Cary Fowler. And he's the person behind the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway near the North Pole. And he headed the committee that developed the plan for the facility. And he now chairs the international council overseeing the Seed Vault. He also has a book about it called "Seeds On Ice." We'll be back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Cary Fowler. He's the person who basically came up with the idea for the Global Seed Vault, which is a vault that houses seeds from around the world to ensure that biodiversity will continue to exist even in the face of catastrophe. And that's why it's located near the North Pole, which is a cold and remote and relatively safe region. He has a book about the seed vault called "Seeds On Ice."

So describe what it looks like. I mean, you've got a tunnel in the mountain that, I imagine, is surrounded by ice?

FOWLER: Much of the time, yeah. If you were to be standing in front of the facility, you would see this wedge coming out of the mountain. It's really quite stark. It's always - I've always been reminded of "2001: A Space Odyssey." It's quite an iconic image. And they're...

GROSS: Like the monolith in "Space Odyssey?"

FOWLER: In a way, yes. And they're just a set of double doors. So if you were to open the front doors of that, you would be looking down a long, long tunnel about 140-45 yards long. And at the very end of that tunnel, after you've gone through a number of doors for security and other purposes, you would enter into a very large cavernous sort of room with a very, very tall ceiling.

And all of this is, by the way, it's all chiseled out of rock. So these aren't flat, straight walls or anything. This is a tunnel. And off of that big room at the very back are three vault rooms behind air-locked doors. And in one, the middle one, right now we're storing these samples of 933,000 different crop varieties.

GROSS: So you said you wanted this to be a facility that would run itself. Does it run itself?

FOWLER: Just about. We don't have any real staff there. There's no particular need for somebody to sit down there inside of a mountain with no windows watching frozen seeds. There's really nothing to be done.

GROSS: (Laughter) It'd be quite a job.

FOWLER: It would be not a good job. So...

(LAUGHTER)

FOWLER: And, you know, people make mistakes. And in my experience in a lot of seed banks, part of the problems are really attributable to human beings. So we eliminated that problem for the most part.

GROSS: Now, the seed vault has no running water, as far as I understand?

FOWLER: That's correct.

GROSS: To prevent flooding, to prevent, like, pipes freezing or breaking or anything like that?

FOWLER: We just didn't need any. There's - no, there's no running water, there's no toilet or anything. It's a very spartan facility.

GROSS: Yeah, I'm not visiting.

(LAUGHTER)

FOWLER: Make it short. Make it short.

GROSS: So what do you do when you're there and there's no toilet (laughter)?

FOWLER: There are some options (laughter).

GROSS: It's cold.

FOWLER: It's cold. Yes, it is cold. And a trip into the village is about 10 or 15 minutes away.

GROSS: OK.

FOWLER: So you learn timing.

GROSS: And self-control.

FOWLER: Yes.

GROSS: (Laughter) So were you there for the construction?

FOWLER: Sure - many, many times.

GROSS: What was one of the most iffy moments when you thought, this might not work?

FOWLER: The most iffy moment was before construction, really, when I had to pitch the idea, the results of our feasibility study committee to the - a very high official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Norway. And I love Norwegians. I lived there for about 15 years. But it's not always easy to read their body language. And he just let me talk for about 15 or 20 minutes without interruption.

And I didn't know what he was thinking about this idea. And then finally, it's the story I tell in my book, he said, do you mean to tell me that this resource that you want to conserve is the most important natural resource on Earth? And I thought about it a second, said, well, yes, it is. It's the foundation of agriculture. So that - it almost has to be.

And he said, and are you telling me that Svalbard is the best place on Earth to conserve it? And about that, I was confident. And so I said, yes. And then with just a shrug an upturned palms he said, well, then how can we say no?

GROSS: (Laughter) Wow, what a great meeting.

FOWLER: Really. I don't think a lot of governments function quite that rationally but Norway does. And I felt tingling in my body. And I walked out of the room thinking, my God, did he just say yes to this? Is Norway really going to do this? And, well, the answer to that is yes. He did say yes and, yes, they were really going to do it. And they did. But the construction process itself was fairly straightforward. Norwegians really know how to build tunnels. And that's basically what this is.

GROSS: You're hoping the Seed Vault could last maybe 1,000 years. How long can the seeds in it last?

FOWLER: Well, that's a good question. It really depends on the individual crops. So at the low end, probably 50 or 75 years. And at the top end, close to 20,000.

GROSS: Twenty thousand, what can last that long?

FOWLER: Sorghum, a grain crop that I think will be a lot more important in the future - already important in Africa and even in the United States - but very drought and heat tolerant crop. A lot of our grains are in the 1,000 to 2,000-year range. But when I throw out numbers like that, I also have to say that the Seed Vault is not a time capsule.

So we are conserving a backup copy of what other institutions have. And that means that when seeds in those institutions get to a certain point near the end of their life, their germination rate declines, those institutions will be taking those seeds outside and growing them and getting fresh, new seeds. And so when they do that, they'll send seeds, more seeds to us at the Seed Vault.

So the Seed Vault in Svalbard is a living facility. It's kind of a library of life, if you will, and will continually be getting new seeds. And we'll keep them fresh and updated to essentially forever, as long as we need agriculture.

GROSS: Have you met any polar bears during your time in Svalbard?

FOWLER: I have seen a dozen or 15 along the way. And we had a couple of visits of polar bears during the construction process but not while I was there. And so they can be found anywhere, any time on Svalbard. And they're very fast. They're unpredictable. They can be very aggressive. And they blend in well with the environment, particularly at night. And so you do watch out. When I get out of the car at the Seed Vault, I always turn 360 degrees and see if I can, you know, detect any shapes moving around.

GROSS: Are they both magnificent and frightening?

FOWLER: They are. I think, you know, when tourists go up there, they always yearn to see a polar bear. But I can tell you, you know, having seen them at a distance, you don't want to see one up close.

GROSS: My guest is Cary Fowler, creator of the Global Seed Vault and author of the book "Seeds On Ice." After a break, he'll tell us some of the conspiracy theories that surround the vault. And Ken Tucker will review Waxahatchee's new album. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIK FRIEDLANDER'S "HANKY PANKY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Cary Fowler, the creator of the Global Seed Vault, a vault in a tunnel in a mountain in a remote region near the North Pole. Its mission is to safeguard the world's crops and biodiversity. It now stores and protects nearly 1 million samples of crop varieties from about 5,000 different species. Fowler conceptualized the vault, headed the committee that developed the plan for the facility and is the founding chair of the international council that has overseen the vault since its inception. His new book is called "Seeds On Ice."

So in your book, you write that there have been conspiracy theories surrounding the vault. I want to hear them.

FOWLER: Yes (laughter). I guess I should have expected it...

GROSS: (Laughter).

FOWLER: ...But I didn't.

GROSS: That there'd be conspiracy theories?

FOWLER: Yes. To give you a little rundown, first it was a global eugenics project. I never quite understood that, except that I think the idea was that we were saving seeds there. We were going to put half of the Norwegian population down there. That'd be a couple of million people without a toilet or running water, I might add. And then I guess something terrible would happen with the rest of the world.

And we would emerge with our seeds ready to re-establish agriculture. That was one theory. And then there was another one that it was a secret NATO facility. And then finally, the one that really took root, unfortunately, was that it was a plot by large sea companies, Monsanto being the most famous, to somehow garner all the world's biodiversity of crops and then monopolize it and do what they wanted to do with that.

And, you know, I've discovered a couple of things in this process. One is that people's emotions run really high, that false stories spread very quickly, it's impossible to prove a negative. So if I said, well, no, actually Monsanto didn't fund it, the Norwegian government funded it totally. Some people could say, well, of course you wouldn't admit that even if they did because you're part of the conspiracy.

So I've sort of been left with saying, well, OK, let's everyone calm down and just look at what's actually happening. We've been operating the Seed Vault for nine years. If it were a conspiracy, there hasn't been any evidence that any of those accusations or fears, delusions have come true.

GROSS: Well, in the book, you write you were actually physically threatened.

FOWLER: Well, that's happened too, yes. Some people get really, really angry if they think you're involved in such a diabolical plot. So we've gotten some physical threats. And then other people, kind of amusingly, after lectures of mine have come up and really gotten into my face and been very angry and said, well, you know, can you guarantee that nothing will ever go wrong with this facility?

GROSS: (Laughter).

FOWLER: And I thought, well, who or what do I look like? I don't think I can guarantee such a thing. I mean, there were really just a few of us, comparatively, just a few of us that worked on this facility, that built it, that planned it. And we were trying to do something good to solve a problem that we knew existed. And, no, there really aren't any guarantees.

But we're hoping for the best. And we think we've done a pretty good job of planning. Every once in a while, just to add, that an addendum to that kind of comment that somebody will make is they'll say, well, OK, it's great that you've just conserved all the crop diversity in the world, but what about pollinators? And they'll also have this angry tone in their voice, as if somehow I'm also responsible for that.

And it took me a while, it took me three or four comments like that before I finally figured out the perfect retort, which was, these days, I just look back at those people and say, you know, other than the beehives I have on my little farm, I'm not doing much about pollinators. I thought I'd save something for you to do.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's good.

FOWLER: And that usually stops them. But, you know, when you're trying to do something like this, to be serious, you really have to focus. And to build this facility, to plan it out, we had to have a really, really tight focus on what our goal was and how we wanted to do it, otherwise we would have gone off in 1,000 different directions. And I don't think it would have worked.

GROSS: I don't think zero degrees Fahrenheit is compatible with the needs of bees.

FOWLER: Probably not. (Laughter) There is a sperm bank for bees, though, on the West Coast, by the way, that the USDA is running.

GROSS: Really?

FOWLER: Yes, there is...

GROSS: I didn't know...

FOWLER: ...To try to conserve bee diversity.

GROSS: ...Bees had sperm.

FOWLER: They do.

GROSS: They do?

(LAUGHTER)

FOWLER: Yes.

GROSS: An interesting world.

FOWLER: I wouldn't want to try to extract it. That's somebody else's business.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah. You're working with the less dangerous of the seeds (laughter).

FOWLER: That's right.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Cary Fowler, who is considered the father of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. He proposed its creation and headed the committee that developed the plan for the facility and he's chaired the international council overseeing the Seed Vault since its inception. He also has a book about the Seed Vault called "Seeds On Ice."

We're going to take a short break and then be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Cary Fowler, who is basically the person who came up with the idea for the Global Seed Vault, which is a seed vault in a northern-most part of Norway, a few hundred miles from the North Pole. That stores samples of seeds from around the world. So this is to ensure agricultural diversity, especially in times of catastrophe or crisis. And there's nearly a million different kinds of seeds there. Fowler has a new book called "Seeds On Ice."

So I grew up in Brooklyn, and I've always lived in cities. I don't think a lot about seeds because of that because I don't come in contact with seeds a lot. I don't come in contact with plants a lot outside of trees and flowers and grass. How did you start thinking seriously about the meaning of seeds, the importance of seeds?

FOWLER: Well, I think, you know, in retrospect, I suppose every one's life makes some sense and there's some logic to it. I also grew up in a city. My father was a judge. My mother was a dietician, but her family - we had school teachers but we also had farmers. My grandmother ran the family farm. So I spent some some time every summer on the family farm in Tennessee. And in my family, we really regarded farmers as public servants and people to be esteemed. And so I was always favorably inclined, if you will, towards farmers. And to make the story a bit shorter, I was working on a book many years ago about agriculture and came across the writings of a man named Jack Harlan, who I discovered was probably the most eminent scientist in the field.

And he was talking in very dramatic terms about what it would mean if we lost this genetic diversity in agriculture. And he said that we were facing cataclysmic starvation on a scale we can not imagine. And what he was referring to was that, you know, evolution is always ongoing in the fields. And pests and diseases are constantly mutating and mounting better attacks against our food crops. And the reason that you and I don't have to worry about that too much and the reason that our grocery stores are pretty well stocked is that plant breeders have kept up with these diseases and pests by taking genes, by taking traits from older varieties and crossbreeding it with modern varieties and creating better, newer, more resistant varieties that can cope with environmental stresses and pests and diseases.

But if we lose those traits, if we don't have sense enough to conserve them - and conserving them is very simple and it's very cheap - but if we don't have the sense enough to do that nationally and globally, then we may very well put ourselves in a situation where the trait that we need to give resistance to a particular crop just isn't there anymore. And we have had a number of close calls. And we're having some now even. Again, it's not something that makes the front page of the newspaper, but it's something to be concerned about.

GROSS: What's an example of a close call?

FOWLER: Well we have problem striking wheat now called Ug99. And that's because it was discovered in Uganda in 1999. And there's no resistance for that in the field. We found a few genes that give some resistance to that. And this is a pathogen that spreads through spores in the wind, so it's traveling very, very quickly on its way to India. It will eventually get Australia. It will eventually get to the United States. And we can only hope that when it does, we'll have resistant varieties in the field. Otherwise, we'll be experiencing some major crop losses. And, you know, if you if you look at when Arab Spring started, for instance, it started in a very hot year when agricultural production was down and food prices were up. And we know that there is a very high correlation between hot weather problems with agricultural production and war and civil strife. And that's highly correlated going back 2,000 years.

So when we look at the future and we realize that the hottest years of the past, where we had, by the way, big crop production problems, will in the future be the coldest years. Then we can begin to understand that we're going to really face a lot of trouble. It's projected that by mid-century, half of the cropland of more than than half of the countries in Africa will be in a climate regime that has never before been experienced by agriculture. So we're headed towards climates that are pre-wheat, pre-rice, pre-corn, even pre-agriculture. And I think that, you know, what that's going to do is it's going to put together new assemblages of species where species are already on the move.

So we're going to be growing crops surrounded by new pests and diseases in New climate conditions with different soil microorganisms, different rainfall patterns. And this is going to, I think, create a lot of uncertainty and surprises and heightened risk in agricultural systems and an increased vulnerability among people who are already food insecure. And the take-home message is that our crops don't come pre-adapted to new conditions. They are domesticated crops. Think about that word, domesticated. They've entered the domicile. Their evolution is in our hands.

GROSS: Let's look back at World War II for a moment, which was, you know, a catastrophic war. Millions of people dead, cities wiped out destroyed by bombing - by fire bombing, by nuclear weapons. Did we lose a lot of plants as well during that war, I mean, lose them for good?

FOWLER: It was certainly a challenge for people who were conserving crop diversity at that time. And these were early days, frankly, of crop conservation efforts. But the story that really springs to mind is a very poignant one from Leningrad, now St. Petersburg in Russia, which was surrounded for 900 days by the Nazis and bombarded. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives. And the biggest and broadest seed collection in the world was at an institute in St. Petersburg. And it had been founded by a man named Nikolai Vavilov, who was a famous geneticist. And he really put together the first big global collections of seeds there for plant breeding in the old Soviet Union. But he ran afoul of Lysenko and Stalin. And in the end, during the war, he was imprisoned. And he died anonymously of starvation, ironically, in prison.

But his staff remained there on St. Isaac's Square in St. Petersburg during the bombardment and the encirclement of the city by the Nazis. And about a dozen of his staff members actually perished, died mostly of starvation and starvation-related ailments rather than eat the seeds that they had in the building. The curator of the rice collection died sitting at his desk with bags of rice on the desk. And I remember as a much younger man in 1985 going for a visit to this facility, the Vavilov Institute, and asking, well, you know, what was happening here as the staff were slowly and collectively starving to death? And the answer I got was that they thought that the world was going up into flames. But they were students of Vavilov, and they understood the importance of crop diversity. And they thought that that crop diversity would - was what was going to reestablish agriculture after this hell ended.

GROSS: So since you're so focused on biodiversity, specifically seed diversity, when you go into a supermarket and most of the food outside of the produce section, the food is all kind of packaged. You know, you look at all the canned food and frozen food and you don't think about seeds and plants and crops. You think about which brand you want to buy and whether you're going to refrigerated it or freeze it or put it in the cabinet. And, you know, for so many of us who grew up in cities, we're really disconnected from where food comes from. So what do you think about supermarkets?

FOWLER: Well, I don't I don't spend too much time on those particular aisles. And, you know, I'm living on a small farm now. And we grow a lot of vegetables. We preserve a lot of vegetables. I have a little apple orchard with I guess about 125 different varieties of apples.

GROSS: Whoa. You're kidding.

FOWLER: No. And my wife is growing I think 500 different types of peppers this year. She's writing a book about peppers. And we have a rare breed of cow and a rare breed of chicken. And so we do sort of practice what we preach on the little piece of land that we have.

GROSS: Can you taste the difference between the 125 different breeds of apples?

FOWLER: Not all of them, but certainly there's some really, really dramatic differences. And what you learn if you have that number of varieties is you learn which Apple is good for which purpose. So I have a favorite apple for apple pie. It's called Bramley Seedling. It's a old British Apple. I blend a lot of these apples together that make apple cider every year. It's a great hobby, but it's, you know, it takes some time. And it can be frustrating when the Japanese beetles or the gypsy moths come.

GROSS: What your favorite eating apple?

FOWLER: Well, last year, it was an apple called Kidd's Orange Red, but it kind of changes every year.

GROSS: OK. Thank you so much for talking with us.

FOWLER: Well, thank you very much.

GROSS: Cary Fowler is the creator of the Global Seed Vault and author of a book about the vault called "Seeds On Ice." After we take a short break, rock critic Ken Tucker will review Waxahatchee's new album. This is FRESH AIR.

[CORRECTION: An earlier version of the transcript misspelled Henry Shands’ last name as Schantz.]

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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