Cary Fowler: Can We Preserve Seed Diversity For The Future? Biodiversity archivist Cary Fowler explains how the Svalbard Global Seed Vault will prepare humans for the climate change and its effect on our environment and our food supply.
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Can We Preserve Seed Diversity For The Future?

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Can We Preserve Seed Diversity For The Future?

Can We Preserve Seed Diversity For The Future?

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Today on the show, Anthropocene, ideas about the age of humans and the impact we're having on our planet and our future. And that future may depend on a single building 800 miles from the North Pole, a building entirely closed to the public and empty most of the time.

CARY FOWLER: Yeah. Well, there have been - there have been a lot of stories on the internet if you believe everything you see on the internet about what's really, really going on there (laughter).

RAZ: Yeah, I bet.

Cary Fowler is the executive director of a group that built and runs this building, which is nestled into a snowy cliffside on a polar island owned by Norway.

FOWLER: Around that particular building is almost nothing.

RAZ: In fact, you can't even see most of the building itself. It's underground. But what you can see is this gray concrete wedge just jutting out of the ice.

FOWLER: It's very simple, austere, modern-looking wedge with a door on the front of it.

RAZ: So what's inside?

FOWLER: Well, once you open the door, you're looking down a very long tunnel just chiseled out of solid rock. And you go through a set of airlock doors at the end of the tunnel, and then you get hit with a blast of cold air in your face. And what you're looking at are row after row of shelves.


FOWLER: It's a - it's a room, by the way, that's about 90 feet long and about 30 feet wide and about 15 feet high. It's white. It's spray-on concrete we put in there to sort of brighten it up. And you're looking at shelves, and on the shelves are boxes.

RAZ: And what's inside the boxes?

FOWLER: What's inside is the largest collection of seeds in the world.

RAZ: Seeds from 850,000 crop varieties to be exact.

FOWLER: Which makes about 500 million seeds.

RAZ: Cary Fowler explained why there is a building full of frozen seeds on an island off Norway and what it has to do with the age of humans from the TED stage.


FOWLER: I've been fascinated with crop diversity for about 35 years from now ever since I stumbled across a fairly obscure academic article by a guy named Jack Harlan. And he described the diversity within crops, all the different kinds of wheat and rice and such, as a genetic resource. And he said this genetic resource - and I'll never forget the words - stands between us and catastrophic starvation on a scale we cannot imagine. What he understood was that biological diversity, crop diversity, is the biological foundation of agriculture. It's the raw material, the stuff of evolution in our agricultural crops - not a trivial matter. And he also understood that, indeed, a mass extinction was underway in our fields, in our agricultural system and that this mass extinction was taking place with very few people noticing and even fewer caring. And I want to give you an example of that. In the United States in the 1800s - that's where we have the best data - on farmers and gardeners were growing 7,100 named varieties of apples. Imagine that - 7,100 apples with names. Today, 6,800 of those are extinct, no longer to be seen again.


RAZ: Cary Fowler says we don't just lose diversity when crops disappear. We actually lose adaptability because many of the crops we eat today, they exist because they were bred with other crops and, in some cases, crops thought to be completely useless to humans but that contained a key characteristic, like immunity to a disease. But the biggest threat to the future of agriculture isn't disease. It's the Anthropocene, our human influence on the planet. And Cary says in the future in some countries, even the coldest growing seasons are going to be hotter than anything crops have ever experienced in the past.


FOWLER: Is agriculture adapted to that? I don't know. Can fish play the piano? If they haven't - if agriculture hasn't experienced that, how could it be adapted? South Africa, by 2030, will have a 30 percent decrease in production of maize because of the climate change already in 2030. Thirty percent decrease of production in the context of increasing population. That's a food crisis. It's global in nature. We will watch children starve to death on TV.

Now, you might say that 30 - 20 years is a long way off. It's two breeding cycles for maize. We have two rolls of the dice to get this right. We have to get climate-ready crops in the field, and we have to do that Rather quickly. Now, the good news is that we have conserved. We have collected and conserved a great deal of biological diversity, agricultural diversity, mostly in the form of seed. And we put it in seed banks, which is a fancy way of saying a freezer.

Unfortunately, these seed banks are located around the world in buildings, and they're vulnerable. And disasters have happened. In recent years, we lost the gene bank, the seed bank in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can guess why. And every time something like this happens, it means extinction.


RAZ: And so to prevent this from happening, Cary Fowler and a bunch of scientists got together to establish a global seed vault, a vault dedicated to preserving as many crops as possible from around the world. And they chose to build it in Svalbard, this tiny remote island off the coast of Norway, for a couple of reasons.

FOWLER: One is obviously it's really remote. And so we wanted to have this safety backup, this insurance policy, in a remote place because it would avoid a lot of the dangers we see in the real world. But the second was that it's cold.

RAZ: The seeds are frozen at minus 18 Celsius, about the temperature of your kitchen freezer. And they can stay preserved for centuries. So it's like a library of life in the Anthropocene.

FOWLER: It is. It's the biggest collection of agriculture-related biodiversity in the world. And when you walk down there, you have to have a - it has to be a humbling experience because you're there amidst these seeds, which have made it all the way to the present day. In other words, they've experienced an unbroken successful chain of evolution to survive this long. And your ancestors and mine were involved in their selection and their care, their development.

So it really represents the past, the history of agriculture. It represents everything that agriculture, our crops, have experienced in the past and had to adapt to. On the other hand, it also represents pretty much everything our agricultural system can be in the future. It's a big repository, if you will, of traits, of diversity, of options.

RAZ: So if it's a library, it's more like the Library of Congress, right, because it's - it's like if every book burns, you know, in the world, the Library of Congress still has a copy.

FOWLER: That's right. That's what we aim to do.


FOWLER: This is a backup system for world agriculture. I can't look you in the eyes and tell you that I have a solution for climate change or the energy crisis or world hunger or peace and conflict. I can't look you in the eyes and tell you that I have a simple solution for that. But I can look you in the eyes and tell you that we can't solve any of those problems if we don't have crop diversity because quite literally if we don't - if agriculture doesn't adapt to climate change, neither will we. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a wonderful gift that Norway and others have given us, but it's not the complete answer. We need to collect the remaining diversity that's out there. We need to put it into good seed banks that can offer those seeds to researchers in the future. And my final thought is that we of course by conserving wheat, rice, potatoes and the other crops, we may quite simply end up saving ourselves. Thank you.


RAZ: Cary Fowler - he is the executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which helps run the Svalbard Seed Vault in Norway. You can check out his entire talk at


CASS ELLIOT: (Singing) There's a new world coming and it's just around the bend. There's a new world coming. This one's coming to an end. There's a new voice...

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show on the Anthropocene this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out or the Ted app. Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Brent Baughman, Meghan Keane, Neva Grant and Sanaz Meshkinpour, with help from Rachel Faulkner and Daniel Shukhin. Our intern is Camilo Garzon (ph). Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Kelly Stoetzel and Janet Lee. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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