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The Most Important Room in the World

Cary Fowler and the Svalbard Seed Vault


  • Franco Vogt

When people think of extinction they think of whales, California condors, tigers. I'm very much focused on the slow, invisible losses of crop diversity—not just having the library burn down, but losing an individual book now and then," says Cary Fowler, a scientist, conservationist, and biodiversity advocate, who is best known as the mastermind behind the Svalbard Seed Vault.

Though approaching 70, Fowler's kind face is framed by boyish, strawberry blonde curls. He has a strong chin and expressive blue eyes set behind gold wireframe glasses. A lilting drawl hints at his Southern upbringing.

Fowler was raised in Memphis and spent summers at his grandmother's family farm in Madison County, Tennessee. These visits cemented an appreciation of farming, which has been at the heart of Fowler's career.

Public Service

Fowler comes from a long line of public servants. His father was a judge and his paternal grandfather was the head of the Memphis Housing Authority. On his mother's side, his grandfather was Commissioner of Education for Jackson, Tennessee, until his death. "Agriculture in my family was seen as public service," he says. "I suppose I was poised to try and marry those influences."

Amidst the political turmoil of the civil rights movement, Fowler strove to find meaningful work. In his early 20s, he worked for the Institute for Southern Studies in North Carolina, which published a journal called Southern Exposure. He wrote a piece for the publication about the rapid disappearance of family farms like his grandmother's. "That was the first thing I had ever done concretely about agriculture." The article was a jumping off point for Fowler, who subsequently began researching farming and the various challenges the industry was facing as it shifted away from small farms and toward large-scale monocultures. This trail eventually led him to the underpublicized issue of diminishing crop diversity.

Fowler read the work of Jack Harlan, an American scientist and plant breeder whose startling articles bore provocative titles like "The Genetics of Disaster." He learned that due to social and environmental factors like urbanization, the industrialization of farming, and the standardization of seed supply, large numbers of local crop varieties and their wild relatives were disappearing at a rapid rate. "I thought to myself, 'If the most knowledgeable scientist in the world is ringing the alarm bells this loudly, then it must be an important issue.' But the politicians and the powers that be weren't paying a lot of attention." So Fowler became an interpreter for the masses, working to popularize Harlan's scientific work on crop diversity and to get people to pay attention.

Willpower or Dumb Luck?

At 23, with this new career just budding, Fowler was diagnosed with terminal melanoma. The doctors gave him six months to live. Against the odds, he recovered. However, a decade later, in 1982, he was diagnosed with seminoma, a completely different cancer, though again terminal. He says, "The second time I just didn't believe I would die."

Whether through sheer willpower, divine intervention, or dumb luck, Fowler did survive again. With good-humored defensiveness, he says, "Most people make more to-do out of the cancer stuff. I was pretty determined and focused before I got cancer. It wasn't like a conversion experience. But I don't have a control group, so I don't know what my life have been like without that."

Throughout the 1980s, Fowler worked long hours writing, lobbying, teaching, and researching. By the early '90s, he was internationally recognized as an expert in the field of plant genetic resource conservation. The United Nations commissioned him to lead a global assessment of the state of crop diversity and strategize a plan for conservation and use of these resources. Fowler's team found that the UN's much touted "global system" of gene banks was not preserving much of anything. Instead, the underfunded facilities were sites of ongoing deterioration—faulty cooling systems, high humidity, and other technical problems involved in archiving were resulting in the destruction of seed samples. The study made exceedingly clear how much work remained to be done to ensure the future of crop diversity and food security.

In 2003, Fowler was splitting his time between the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). CGIAR's seed samples were not all housed in secure locations nor did they have safety duplicates. An abandoned mine shaft in the mountains of the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard was one of the few repositories for duplicate samples in the world, which gave Fowler and his colleagues the idea for the Seed Vault.

Where Polar Bears Outnumber People

Svalbard is the world's northernmost year-round settlement. Above the Arctic Circle, the subsurface temperature never climbs above 28 degrees Fahrenheit and polar bears outnumber people two-to-one. This remoteness insulates the islands against development as well as against major political and climate events. Even if all the world's glaciers and ice melted, the location Fowler and his colleagues envisioned for the Seed Vault would remain more than 20 yards above the water level.

Working through his vast network of gene bank managers, policy advisors, and research institutes, Fowler garnered support for the idea of a Seed Vault in Svalbard, coaxing it from a one-page concept paper to a fully fledged contract with Norwegian authorities over the course of three years.

In May 2007, a groundbreaking ceremony was held with the prime ministers of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland all present. It took two years to carve out the 18,514 square-foot tunnel. The finished vault has the capacity to hold 4.5 million seed samples. At present, it holds 930,000 varieties of food crops. There are over 150,000 samples each of wheat and rice, but there are also samples of lesser known plants with archaic names like wolf's bane, skullcap, and saltbush. Italian maize varieties for making polenta share an aisle with hundreds of potato samples from Parque de Papas, an indigenous Peruvian potato conservation group. Each of these samples holds countless genetic traits, any one of which may be the key to pest, disease, or climate resistance in the future.

At Home in Rhinebeck

When he is not traveling, Fowler dabbles in plant breeding on a 200-acre-farmstead outside Rhinebeck. He has cultivated over 125 varieties of apple trees and 50 breeding lines of grass pea, a little-known African legume with big potential as a famine solution due to its extreme drought tolerance. His wife, Amy Goldman, is an author, artist, and reigning authority on heirloom vegetables. Since buying the farmstead in the late 1980s, she has developed extensive ornamental and vegetable gardens, which serve as the testing ground for heritage varieties of annual and perennial species alike. In her own right, Goldman has worked to preserve crop genetic diversity through the Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit of heirloom gardeners that she chaired for over five years. The 2013 documentary Seeds of Time explores both the Seed Exchange and the Seed Vault as important and complementary efforts.

  • Franco Vogt

"The biodiversity the Seed Vault protects is a common heritage of all humanity. By default and necessity, we are its guardians," writes Fowler in the introduction to Seeds on Ice. The book, released in fall 2016, is a stunning compilation of photos of Svalbard, Norway, the Seed Vault itself, and Fowler's own writing. A "testimonial to unvanquished optimism," the book tells the tale of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

"People think about [the Seed Vault] as a time capsule," Fowler laments, "Something we'll walk away from and rediscover in a hundred years. It is not that. It is a living institution and facility. The facility operates like a safety deposit box. It is an insurance policy for the different institutions and seed banks around the world."

Gene banks around the world regularly send "deposits" to Svalbard. But this is high-stakes banking and the prerequisites for withdrawal are stark. Fowler explains, "Every time a depositor needs to come to us for seed that means that, by definition, we have avoided extinction."

He continues, "A woman in Svalbard said to me last week, 'That is the most important room in the world.' She is right. But the vault has to have a back-up." With the unlikely permafrost repository established and operating smoothly, Fowler has turned his attention to the other components of a comprehensive conservation plan, namely financing an efficient, effective, sustainable global system of seed banks.

"I wake up everyday eager to do something. I don't have any moments of boredom. Zero. To be really good in this field you have to connect dots between genetics and biology and politics and environmental science and history. I won't come anywhere near to knowing everything there is to know on this subject," he concludes with childish wonderment.

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