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Vaults are most often the repositories of money, legal documents, personal effects. But there be - forgive me - there may be nothing more valuable to put in a vault than seeds for the crops that feed humanity. This week the government of Norway started building an underground vault that will hold millions of seeds, the most complete collection in the world. Construction is underway on the remote territory of Svalbard, close to the North Pole.

For one American this vault is the culmination of a lifelong and controversial campaign. Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES reporting:

The ceremony launching the seed vault was a thoroughly Nordic affair. The wind numbed your fingers. Behind Norway's Prime Minister you could see snow covered mountains. Then a lean sandy-haired man in his mid-50s stepped to the microphone and the soft accent of western Tennessee echoed across the rocky mountainside.

Mr. CARY FOWLER (Executive Director, Global Crop Diversity Trust): I suppose the time comes in everyone's life, and indeed in the life of government, when we ask what is our legacy going to be?

CHARLES: The seed vault is at least partly the legacy of this man, Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, based in Rome. Thirty years ago, Fowler was just out of college. The son of a Tennessee judge and grandson of a farmer, he became fascinating by the price of agricultural progress. Farmers around the world were abandoning traditional kinds of rice, wheat and corn, instead planting the products of modern science, new seeds that produced bigger harvests.

Mr. FOWLER: If you're driving in the countryside and you see millions of individual plants of wheat out there, you don't think that wheat is going to become extinct anytime soon.

CHARLES: But Fowler points out all those plants are genetically identical. And being identical, they are identically vulnerable, whether to disease, drought, or insects. He dug deeper and discovered that the genetic diversity that use to exist in fields now can only be found in refrigerated rooms called gene banks. There's one, for instance, outside Mexico City at CIMMYT, the International Center for Improvement of Wheat and Maize, which is another word for corn.

Dr. THOMAS PAYNE (Assistant Director, Senior Scientist and Head, International Wheat Improvement Network): Okay. We're going to go into the CIMMYT gene bank right now, the gene bank vault. We have to go through a number of doors here with secret codes.

CHARLES: Thomas Payne is one of CIMMYT's senior gene bankers. He enters an underground vault, chilled to zero-degrees Fahrenheit. It's filled with shelves holding jars and bags of seeds.

Dr. PAYNE: This room contains over a hundred thousand different wheat varieties, and about 30,000 different maize varieties. The maize varieties come from here in Mexico and Central America.

CHARLES: Many of the wheat seeds come from the Fertile Crescent, where farmers first grew wheat in present day Iraq, Iran and Turkey. In CIMMYT's greenhouse, the full diversity of this collection is on display.

Dr. PAYNE: There's wheats that are as tall as I am. I'm six feet-four inches tall. There are wheats that are short. There are wheats that have dark colored stems, light colored heads, light colored stems.

CHARLES: What you can't see is more important: genes the plant breeders can use to create new, better plant varieties.

Cary Fowler ended up devoting his life to preserving this genetic diversity and free access to it. And even though he's a polite and mild-mannered fellow, that put him right in the middle of some angry international arguments. In the beginning, as an activist at the Rural Advancement Fund in North Carolina, he attacked American seed companies. They were pushing hard for patents on seeds and plant varieties. That amounted to genetic imperialism, Fowler argued. The companies were claiming genetic treasure, trying to profit from plants that farmers in Asia and Latin America developed over many generations.

But Fowler didn't foresee where that argument would lead. In the 1980s, many Third World governments adopted genetic protectionism. They said, unless they were paid they'd share none of their seeds and plants. Here's Ethiopian official, Tuwol Debearhan(ph) making the case a few years ago.

Mr. TUWOL DEBEARHAN (Ethiopian Official): The industrialized countries want to take genetic resources and patent them. We want something out of those resources.

CHARLES: Fowler was appalled.

Mr. FOWLER: That is dangerous. That's really dangerous, to take a resource like this and restrict its use. I think immoral.

CHARLES: So Fowler's second battle started with Third World governments. He recalls one particularly blunt conversation with the minister of agricultural from one African country. This was during the mid-1990s, when Fowler was working for the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.

FOWLER: He said, oh, I just want to tell you that my country has hundreds of millions of dollars worth of genetic resources. I said, do you want my advice about what to do with them? He said, well, yes. I said, good, sell them.

CHARLES: Fowler was being ironic. The fact is, he told the minister, no one's going to pay for access to your small piece of the gene pool. You'll just hurt yourself, cutting your own farmers off from other gene banks. Fowler had moved to Norway by this time, where he's a university professor. He also had transformed himself from activist to insider from critic to deal broker. And the third act of his personal drama became working out a cease-fire in the seed battles that he'd help instigate in the first place.

Just last week in Madrid, negotiators sealed a deal. From now on Third World governments will share most of their seeds freely and companies that use them will pay royalties into an international fund for gene banks. It was a personal triumph for Cary Fowler and so was the groundbreaking ceremony two days later for the Svalbard seed vault.

FOWLER: A facility inside a mountain near the North Pole where the most valuable natural resource on Earth can be securely conserved. This is really a wonderful day.

CHARLES: Fifteen years ago, Fowler opposed a similar proposal to build a big seed vault here. It looked too much like a gene grab by rich countries, he thought. It's different today, he says. The seeds in this vault will be a heritage for all to share. For NPR News, this is Dan Charles.

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