Tuesday, February 26, 2008; 12:00 PM
"Crop diversity will soon prove to be our most potent and indispensable resource for addressing climate change, water and energy supply constraints, and for meeting the food needs of a growing population," said Cary Fowler, head of the
Fowler was online Tuesday, Feb. 26, at Noon ET from Norway to answer questions about the "doomsday vault."
A transcript follows.
Cary Fowler: Hi. Cary Fowler here in Svalbard, Norway, to talk about the seed vault which opened today.
Philadelphia, Pa.: Who is funding this project? It sounds like a great idea and I wish you all the best.
Cary Fowler: The Norwegian government has paid the entire cost for constructing it and the Global Crop Diversity Trust. It's an international organization which has as its mandate devising and funding a global system to ensure the conservation of crop diversity in perpetuity. We are structured as an endowment fund for this purpose. The crop trust will be funding the operational costs of the seed vault here and we are also financing the shipment of seeds from developing countries to the seed vault. We received a grant from the Gates Foundation for that particular purpose.
Washington, D.C.: Does the U.S. have plans for their own secure seed vault? I know we have the National Seed Depository Laboratory in Fort Collins, Colorado -- maybe they should move it to NORAD!
Cary Fowler: The National Seed Bank of the U.S. is a fabulous facility. Interestingly the director of that facility was here today and because the U.S. is a supporter of this feed vault and has sent a large number of duplicate samples from its collection to Svalbard as an insurance policy.
Washington, D.C.: It's referred to as the "doomsday vault." Why?
Cary Fowler: A couple of years ago, that's the way a journalist described it, that's how it started.
We believe that in the case of a regional or global catastrophe that this feed vault would prove to be very, very useful. However, it wasn't primarily with that in mind that we started the planning of this facility. We're losing crop diversity everyday in very mundane ways. We have many feed banks in the world but virtually none work on a secure multiyear budget and equipment failures and accidents, mismanagement are commonplace. Occasionally a feed bank will get in the way of someone else's fight. We've lost feed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan not because they were a target but because they were in the way.
For individual crop varieties, doomsday does come every day. We want to put an end to that. We cannot afford to continue to lose crop diversity, regardless of the cost.
Cary Fowler: The seed vault operates much like a safety deposit box at the bank. Feed banks such as the one in the U.S. deposit a duplicate copy of what they have and then if for some reason they lose it, we have the copy in Svalbard so it doesn't mean extinction. This is not a seed vault that's supposed to supply directly to farmers to plant their fields. we're an insurance policy for existing feed banks and serve plant breeders and researchers. We're trying to conserve crop diversity that functions as the raw material for crop adaptation to pests and diseases, climate change, etc.
Arlington, Va.: It took them next to no time to build that! Can we get that work ethic here?
On a serious side though -- how much does it cost countries to store these seeds? And who controls the release of them? Is this science or actual security policy by countries? (Say France stores seeds there, can only the government of France ask they be released? I'm just thinking in the worst-case scenario of a major attack wiping out an entire country and their potential rare seeds that aren't stored -- who decides to release them?)
Cary Fowler: The seeds remain the property of the depositor. The conservation service is free of charge.
Every country in the world has a very strong interest in conserving its crop diversity. As to exactly what the rules will be in the case of a global catastrophe, I'm afraid we haven't written the play book for that.
Reading, Pa.: Are any genetically-modified seeds included in the vaults?
Cary Fowler: No.
Fairfax, Va.: How secure is the facility?
Cary Fowler: It's extremely secure. It's more secure than any other feed banks in the world by many orders of magnitude. We're near the North Pole and it's inside of a mountain. We have multiple security systems -- electronic and physical. By the way, the largest earthquake in Norway history took place last week just 160 kilometers from here and it didn't even shake the frost off the ceiling (inside) -- no damage. We feel that nature has thrown its best punch and we didn't even twitch.
We really have planned for this. If all the ice in the world melts -- Arctic, Antarctic, Greenland -- we'll still be 60 meters above the new sea level.
So, yes, this is an incredibly secure facility.
Slippery Rock, Pa.: What good are seeds without people who know what to do with them?
How will the knowledge and agrarian skill set survive?
Cary Fowler: Each of the seed sample deposited in Svalbard is backup by a database of information about that seed sample, held both by the depositing seed bank and ourselves. However, we believe that it's important to learn even more about the diversity contained in these samples and to that end we have a competitive grants program to provide support for screening the collections in particular to find traits important for adapting to climate change and characteristics that would be useful for the poor of the world.
Raleigh, N.C.: I work in the organic farming industry, and am deeply thankful that this new secure seed vault exists. I see daily the shrinking variety in a wide range of crops, and the level of difficulty in finding various heirloom seeds. I have heard scenarios that within 10 years, all corn seed in the world will be controlled by one of three companies. That sort of potential terrifies me as it so terribly restricts our plant diversity. I just want to say thanks to you and everyone internationally involved with this project. What is being done with the seed vault is so important, and I truly appreciate it.
Cary Fowler: Thanks. We have already safeguarded thousands of varieties of corn in the seed vaults.
Cary Fowler: To follow this story further, go to www.croptrust.org. There are lots of pictures and links to all kinds of information for the lay person and for the scientific types.
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