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When last month Norway announced that it would start digging a vault to store 3 million crop seeds in an arctic mountainside, the global media spotlight shone brightly, if briefly, on an issue that normally generates surprisingly little interest.
That subject is agricultural diversity, but it was the drama of the setting that garnered all the attention. Which was not surprising, given that the vault is being dug out of solid rock in permafrost on the remote island of Svalbard, one of the world’s most northerly inhabited places.
The aim of the project is to offer a kind of last-ditch fail-safe for the entire diversity of our crops under the security of bitter cold, reinforced concrete and the island’s aggressive polar bears. The vault is being paid for by the Norwegian government, but its running costs are being met by a group called the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which in turn is funded by the UN, governments and others. I asked the agency’s executive secretary, Cary Fowler, why it was so important.
He began by pointing out that genetic diversity is the key to evolution in the natural world. In any species, each individual will differ from its fellows in subtle ways that affect its ability to thrive in a changing environment. The individuals that survive best get to pass on their genes.
But modern agriculture doesn’t really allow the same kind of diversity to exist in crop species. The world’s fields may be sown with billions of wheat plants, for example, but they are all members of just a few different varieties. Each crop has been bred so that it produces the biggest possible yield under the prevailing conditions in a particular part of the world.
This process has already stripped away much of the genetic diversity of our crop plants - perhaps as much as 75 per cent according to estimates from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. Fowler himself conducted a study that showed that the US once had as many as 7,100 varieties of apple - about 6,800 of which no longer exist.
One result of this homogenisation is that when a new threat comes along, crops around the world are vulnerable in a way they previously weren’t. To combat this, plant scientists around the world are regularly called upon to breed new strains in response to each new hazard.
Right now, for example, plant breeders are trying to develop new varieties of wheat that can resist a kind of airborne fungus or “rust” that can reduce yields by 55 per cent. The disease emerged in Uganda in 1999 and has already begun moving out of Africa. It has recently been reported in coastal Pakistan, raising fears that it could threaten India’s 72-million-tonne wheat harvest.
Potato farmers in Alaska, meanwhile, are fighting the same potato blight that killed millions during the Irish potato famine of the 19th century. It has also been seen recently in large areas of Bangladesh, where according to some reports it caused a 50 per cent drop in yields.
One of the main resources plant breeders use when creating new varieties are the seeds and cuttings stored in some 1,400 gene banks around the world. Gene banks in South America, for example, hold collections of wild and cultivated potato samples that will allow scientists to come up with resistant varieties. Russia’s N.I. Vavilov Research Institute, meanwhile, stores crucial wheat varieties and Kazakhstan’s Talgar Pomological Gardens holds irreplaceable collections of apple varieties.
Each of these banks nurtures a selection of our agricultural biodiversity, cosseting numerous wild and cultivated varieties of crop, many of which haven’t been grown for generations. Without them, the plants we rely on for our survival would be at the mercy of disease, climate change, water shortage or any number of other threats.
The problem is that many of these places are run on shoe-string budgets, stumbling along from one year to the next hoping that the funding will continue, at the mercy of accidents, power failures and understaffing.
It is in this context that the idea for the ice-bound vault arose. All the seeds in the vault will be duplicates of those held in gene banks worldwide, kept safe as an insurance policy against worldwide disaster.
But for Fowler and his colleagues at the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the vault is only part of a wider strategy. Another crucial goal is to raise enough money to serve as capital for an endowment that will fund agricultural gene banks around the world. Fowler reckons they would only need about $260m to achieve that aim.
In the scheme of things, this really isn’t that much - considering that what we have to lose is our source of food. “I keep waiting and hoping that someone will decide they’d rather go down in history as the person who saved wheat - which would cost around $30m - instead of putting their name on a university building,” Fowler says.
So far, the two-year-old trust has raised about $50m for the endowment, which leaves them with a long way to go. Still, Fowler is optimistic. “I often say that if you give me 10 to 15 minutes with anyone I can convince them about this,” he says. “The trouble is, of course, that I don’t often get 15 minutes.”
When Andy Warhol predicted that one day everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, he probably wasn’t thinking about schemes to protect agricultural biodiversity. Still, the drama of the arctic vault has given the issue at least one moment in the spotlight. Let’s hope it isn’t the last.