Q&A with Cary Fowler: Saving seeds to protect our food supplies

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Before Cary Fowler’s TEDTalk posted on Monday, the TEDBlog caught up with him in Norway, via phone. We asked the difficult questions and he provided calm, leveled answers on the food crises of today. He’s taken on a challenging role, as director of the largest seed bank in the world and the Global Crop Diversity Trust, but his hope and enthusiasm were enough to inspire faith in the largest of skeptics.

What was TED like for you?

I met some extraordinary people, both other speakers and people in the audience. Some people I think I’ll keep in touch with for a long time. But what was really special was being there with my son. You know, all TED speakers can bring one person, and I brought my son. He was the youngest person in the audience. It was wonderful to see it through his eyes. He came away saying, “Everything is possible.”

How does one come to do what you do? Why did you decide to make saving seeds your life’s work?

Well, it was not the result of some sort of logical thought process. It was a combination of personal factors. To begin with, I’ve always known that I was a little bit different. And, I have a lot of relatives who own farms. I grew up in the American South where political issues and issues of justice were at the forefront. What I do now is a combination of all these factors.

The drive behind what I do is really to make sure that people don’t go to bed hungry. It’s not just that I have a love of diversity, it’s the importance of the uses of that diversity.

I first went into social services, and when I did my PhD I looked at intellectual diversity rights as they apply to biological material. At the time, I never thought of what I’m doing now as a career. I thought I wouldn’t find employment doing this.

How often do you go to the remote seed vault in Norway and how much time do you spend there?

Not long. I go up maybe four, five, six times a year for about a week to 10 days. The facility is designed to run by itself. We need to go up there to check on things and to place seeds in the vault, but that’s it. We coordinate the shipments so that we’re not hanging out, waiting for the seeds to arrive. It’s designed to work without human beings and that’s one of the integral functions.

Wow. I admit that a facility that functions without people conjures up images of the end of the world or Armageddon for me.

A lot of people ask about Armageddon, but really it’s just an insurance policy for all the different seed banks in the world. We don’t need Armageddon to make this a useful facility. Unfortunately, we’ll probably have to use it quite frequently.

But, the facility is a sign of hope, not hopelessness or fear or dread about the future. We know that there are problems, my sense of despair comes when I know we’re not addressing the problem.

Speaking of addressing problems, in your talk, you mentioned the goal of finding crops that could weather climate change. How far out are we from doing that?

We have a long way to go because we’re going to have to do it for the every crop. The means for adaptation are also very complicated. Not only is the temperature going to rise but, for example, in Southern Africa we’re going to have a big increase in very hot days, so that will reduce the growing season of the crops. There are many ways to address this. One of the things heat does is to kill pollen, so maybe the plant needs to flower earlier in the day, before the pollen dies. We have a lot of work to do just to identify these traits. Sometimes it will be earlier flowering, sometimes a different leaf structure. There are a lot of things we need to learn about how plants adapt to less water and more heat.

How do you produce these new crops? Would you call what you’re doing genetic modification, and how do you feel about genetic modification?

You could say that genetic modification has been going on forever. Most people get that phrase confused with genetic engineering. There are only five or six crops where scientists have taken genes from distant species and inserted them. There’s traditional plant breeding going on, what Mendel did with his peas in the 19th century — dipping a paintbrush in the pollen of one plant and placing it on another. We are going to have to use these methods as climate change is happening so rapidly that natural selection will not have occurred before it’s too late.

You know, my dog has just come over to say hello and he’s a genetic modification, whose father is a poodle and mother is a golden retriever. Somebody bred those two dogs to achieve the desired traits in my dog. It happens all the time! If there were to be a ban on all GMOs, virtually everyone in the US and Europe would be affected. Ninety-five percent, or more, of the world still uses food crops that have been traditionally bred and technically speaking that’s a modification. It’s just not one that upsets anybody these days.

And, while we’re on controversial topics … you’re saving seeds for free, so how do you feel about copyrighting seeds, as for example, Monsanto does?

I understand why intellectual property rights exist, to protect inventors and support innovation. But, the important thing in our field is to make sure the base stock remains available to use. The support that we give for collecting and conservation is all directed towards supporting diversity in the public domain. We think of it as the common heritage of mankind. This heritage dates back a long, long time, before the nation-state even existed. Rice dates back 12,000 years. This is not a crop that any individual or corporation can claim as their own.

But, agriculture is a big field and there are many fights. In most of those, we don’t have a dog in the fight, so to speak. We have a long, long time horizon. We’re planning hundreds of thousands of years in advance, so a lot of today’s fights are kind of peripheral to our longer-term goal.

Will you ever distribute seeds? Is that part of the plan at all?

Most people think of us as purely operating the seed vault, but that’s only one component of a larger system we’re trying to build. We provide about two million dollars in grants to preserve collections of 13 major crops across the world. These seed banks are the resources for plant breeders and researchers. And of course, all of these are backed up at the Global Seed Vault.

We don’t distribute directly from that vault because the users should be able to get the same seed from the bank that originally provided them. That makes the Svalbard facility feasible and efficient. It doesn’t make sense for us to go all the way up there frequently and take seeds out. It really is like a safety deposit box or an insurance policy. We hope we’ll never have to use it, like every insurance policy, but unfortunately it seems that we will be using it quite frequently.

That sounds a bit sad, but the sad part really is that before the seed vault, every time a seed bank lost a variety, that variety was gone forever. Now, if a disaster affects a seed bank, we’ll still have that variety at the vault.