Seeds to Save a Species
Around the world, scientists are risking their lives to retrieve seeds destined for a massive vault near the North Pole. Their work just might save mankind
To visit the Shola market, a teeming maze of stalls in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, you’d never know that the human race’s food supply was in jeopardy. Massive sacks stuffed with dried chili peppers overflow onto piles of vegetables-potatoes, beets, carrots, onions, tomatoes. Enticing smells waft from the spice sellers’ stalls, crowded with colorful mounds of cumin, turmeric and ginger.
Wandering the market’s muddy corridors, Luigi Guarino stoops to smell frankincense and examine fistfuls of legumes. To the casual observer, they’re just sacks full of beans. But to the 48-year-old crop scientist, each one is a tiny buffer against worldwide starvation. Guarino fingers the dried seeds with reverence, because he understands how valuable-and fragile-they really are. He has spent much of his career trolling remote and exotic lands, gathering the genetic diversity of the plants that sustain humanity. His work has taken him to roadless villages in Oman’s mountains and across the desolate Sahara between Algeria and Niger, all in search of crop varieties with unique traits that could someday save the world’s harvest-and its people-from infestation, blight or drought.
Looking up, Guarino explains that in certain countries, industrial progress has left some of the world’s most important food crops at risk of obliteration. When it comes to gathering food, “people used to be more mobile,” he says, as the beans sift through his fingers. “Now they have nowhere to go. They’re more vulnerable to things like drought. As population increases and more farmland is converted to urban areas, you have less land on which to produce more food.”
Until the End of the World
Meanwhile, because the efficiency of modern farming has made crops so genetically uniform, the plants on which humans depend-those we’ve bent to our will over thousands of years-are at the mercy of chance. They simply aren’t diverse enough anymore. To endure, crop plants, like their wild counterparts, need varied gene pools. But the genetic diversity of our food supplies is withering. In the past 200 years in the U.S. alone, 75 percent of the variety within crops has vanished. That’s a disaster waiting to happen.
To help prepare for the worst, in February the Norwegian government, together with the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an organization in Rome for which Guarino now serves as science coordinator, will unveil an immense fortress, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, built on a frigid, wind-whipped archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, 600 miles from Norway.
The Crop Trust’s mission is to safeguard agriculture, and it has raised more than $130 million of a $260-million goal to do so. It plans to permanently endow a network of seed and gene banks-archives of essential plant materials-around the world. The Svalbard vault is its ultimate defensive measure: a last-ditch reserve, ready if all else fails.
Dug nearly 400 feet deep into a sandstone mountain, the vault’s interior temperature is immune to changes in the surrounding permafrost. It sits roughly 425 feet above sea level, protected against flood even if all of Antarctica were to melt. The entry tunnel passes through a series of steel doors and a highly sophisticated video surveillance system before reaching three chambers capable of holding 4.5 million samples of vital crop seeds. Safe from nuclear warfare, terrorist attacks, natural disasters and global warming, the seeds stockpiled at Svalbard just might revive our food stores in the event of a global catastrophe. Svalbard’s feasibility study, conducted by an international team of scientists, concluded, “Our existence on earth rests on how well we take care of these seeds; and their existence depends on us.”
But before they can be dehydrated, sealed in special foil packages, and laid in their frozen resting place, the seeds must first be collected in the field. Guarino is part of a small but dedicated band of such seed collectors.
They’re a far-flung bunch. From Aleppo, Syria, where he curates one of the most important collections of wheat and the wild ancestors with which it shares genes, an intrepid Australian named Ken Street leads annual expeditions across lawless tracts of central Asia and the Caucasus in search of new genes for dry climates. Daniel Debouck, an ebullient Belgian scientist based in Cali, Colombia, has spent three decades roaming the Americas on the trail of unique beans. “He’s married to the bean,” Guarino jokes, “but recently he had an affair with a cassava.” And dozens of other crop scientists, botanists and biologists each struggle, on meager budgets, to retrieve seeds from similarly remote and dangerous regions.
Why Diversity Matters
If the word “biodiversity” triggers any associations for you, they probably have to do with rainforests and gorillas, not fields of neatly planted corn, peas and pineapples. But agricultural crops are subject to the same basic laws of biology and natural selection as all living things. To adapt and evolve, to survive disease and adjust to changing environmental conditions, their gene pool must be a mixed bag.
Crop yields will need to roughly double in the next 50 years to keep up with the pace of population growth. As a result, protecting agricultural biodiversity is more important than ever, and the preservation of raw material necessary for crops to adapt is “the most fundamental thing you can do to ensure their survival,” says Cary Fowler, a native Tennessean who is the Global Crop Diversity Trust’s executive director and the main visionary behind Svalbard.
The raw genetic materials are stored in gene banks all over the world as seeds, plant tissue and whole plants, which these banks then loan out. Farmers and breeders can obtain plant material to grow in the field or to use for breeding specific traits. But these banks are also an archive, and preserving the genetic material is a complex undertaking. Some seeds can survive frozen for decades but must still be periodically thawed, tested for viability, and regrown-a time-consuming operation. Other plants don’t respond well to the drying and freezing process. Apples, for instance, should instead be cryogenically frozen, an expensive effort impossible at all but the best-funded gene banks, like the U.S. Department of Agriculture facility in Fort Collins, Colorado. Coffee plants, meanwhile, need to be continuously grown in the field. And still more plants are cultured and stored in test tubes, which takes a great deal of time and money.
Preserving crop plants in gene banks is a hedge against unknown future threats. It ensures that diversity will be there when breeders need it to breed plants that are tolerant of saltier soils, for example, or resistant to invading insects. “You don’t actually know what will be needed by what country when,” says Julian Laird, the Crop Trust’s director of development. “It could be in Rwanda or it could be in Colorado.”
Gene banks are one of the few reliable sources of plant material that might save the day. A breeder whose country faces a particular infestation will need to experiment with a wide variety of genetic material within that crop to find a resistant gene. “My job,” Street says, “is to put together big gene pools so that breeders can dig into them.” Street’s facility in Syria may look like nothing but a tidy storehouse for a few crops, he explains, but within that collection there’s a wide variety of genetic material. “Wheat from the highlands of Ethiopia is likely to be very different than wheat from the highlands of Turkmenistan because they evolved to be quite different-just as you have a Pygmy perfectly adapted to running through a forest and a Dinka adapted to running through the plains.”
An international network of gene banks called the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) stores collections of many crops, with funding from the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and others. Debouck and Street each curate CGIAR centers, which serve as a home base for their field expeditions. Many countries also maintain their own gene banks, and those sometimes house the only specimens of a particular seed variety.
Similarly, the Global Crop Diversity Trust is trying to create a linked chain of gene banks by endowing the most important of them around the world. “Gene banks are clearly one of the basic building blocks of a healthy agricultural system,” says Roy Steiner, a senior program officer in agricultural development at the Gates Foundation, which gave $30 million to the Trust. “It’s this library that nature has given us from millions of years of evolution, and the fact that we’re allowing these incredible books to be lost is a tragedy.”
Gene banks tend to be underfunded, disorganized, and located in hard-luck places, partly because much of the planet’s genetic diversity arose in what are now the poorest countries. Many of the 1,400 facilities around the world that describe themselves as gene banks are, Fowler says, places “where you wouldn’t want to store a kid’s milk for lunch.”
Before it gained notoriety for its prison, Abu Ghraib was the site of Iraq’s national seed bank. It was destroyed and looted after the 2003 American invasion, its collections of lentils, rye, barley and other seeds gone forever. Afghanistan’s seed bank was obliterated during mujahadeen fighting in the 1990s; a clandestine seed collection established afterward and hidden in a private house in Jalalabad was also looted-robbed for the plastic bottles used to store the seeds. In 1985, a starving group of homeless people broke into Peru’s National Agricultural Institute and made off with its sweet-potato collection. Last year, a typhoon washed away the Philippines’s gene bank-countless variations of sweet potato, taro and banana carried off in a river of mud.
What did we lose, exactly? It’s impossible to say. “The problem in explaining it to the public,” Fowler says, “is we don’t know what was lost. And you can say, ‘Well so what?’ And I can’t answer, ‘Well, what we’ve lost was the last form of resistance to a disease that we’re going to encounter five years from now.’ “
Saving the World, Invisibly
The foot soldiers of biodiversity have an extraordinarily important mission, but the particular irony of their efforts is that if things turn out as they hope, and the biodiversity of plant life is preserved, the material they bring back to the impenetrable vault in Norway will never truly be needed. If all goes well, no one will know the lengths to which scientists like Guarino and Fowler went.
Anonymity and thanklessness have always been part of this work. Across the sprawl and chaos of Addis Ababa from the Shola Market is the Institute for Biodiversity Conservation. Guarino has come to Addis with Fowler to discuss an endowment for the Ethiopian national gene bank and its relationship with the Svalbard vault. For three hours, the two men sit with a group of Ethiopian officials, sipping thick sweetened coffee and snacking on roasted barley as they hammer out an agreement to ensure the continued safety of the country’s collections of nine crucial cereal crops.
Downstairs, the objects of their attention are waiting, vacuum-sealed and frozen: wheat, sorghum, teff (the grain used to make Ethiopia’s national bread, injera). Up to 400 species of these and other crops are housed here, 60,000 bags, each containing between 3,000 and 8,000 seeds from the same species and location. Ethiopia has retained the largest amount of traditional diversity of any country. Several of the crop varieties stored here are extinct in the fields and exist only within these walls, in one of the world’s poorest countries, on the planet’s most volatile continent.
In the lobby of the Addis gene bank is a life-size photograph of Nikolai Vavilov, the Russian botanist who in the early 20th century developed a landmark theory about the origins of cultivated crops. Gene banks tend to have a shrine to the man somewhere on the premises. The area where a crop has had the most time to evolve, Vavilov posited, will be the area where that crop contains the greatest breadth of genetic diversity, and therefore the area you’ll want to visit if you’re seeking a particular trait to breed into the plants. If, for instance, Ireland’s genetically fragile potato crop is hit with a crushing blight, kicking off widespread famine, a gene for resistance would logically be found in the Andes, Vavilov reasoned, where the potato originated and where there are several thousand known varieties of the tubers.
Today, crop scientists still rely on Vavilov’s notion of “centers of diversity” and hail him as both a hero and a martyr. He spent his career crossing places like China, Bolivia and Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia) on foot, camel and donkey, gathering what was at that time the world’s largest collection of seeds, both cultivated and wild, for conservation. The genetic diversity contained in those seeds, he believed, represented humanity’s hope for survival. But politics got in the way of his work. Stalin wanted nothing to do with genetics, and Vavilov’s progressive ideas amounted to heresy. In 1940, in his early 50s, Vavilov was jailed for pursuing “impractical science.” Three years later, he starved to death in prison.
Vavilov wasn’t the only Russian scientist who died in the name of crop diversity. During the 872-day Nazi blockade of Leningrad, Vavilov’s colleagues holed up inside the gene bank he founded, determined to protect the seed collection from the Germans and the city’s hungry residents. There, locked inside a building filled with seeds, roughly a dozen scientists died of starvation.
“The rice breeder literally died sitting at his desk with bags of rice,” says Fowler, shaking his head. “I remember visiting the Vavilov Institute in 1985 and trying to understand what had gone on in this building that people would starve to death rather than eat food on their desks.” He posed the question to a woman then connected to the Russian institute. “She looked at me quizzically and said, ‘They were students of Vavilov.’ As though that explained it all.”
What it Takes To Be a Seed Hunter
Each seed gatherer involved with Svalbard is particularly passionate about plants from certain parts of the world. For Street, the Caucasus represents a potential goldmine of genetic diversity both because it’s a Vavilov center of diversity (a “rich genetic soup”) and because the Iron Curtain left the region essentially cut off from the West, so it’s underrepresented in gene-bank collections. His current preoccupation is “plugging eco-geographic gaps”: pinpointing areas where particular plants grow and might have interesting genetic variations but have not yet been collected.
One such gap in Street’s CGIAR collection is the wild cousins of the chickpea, which happen to grow in very inhospitable areas. “Relatives of the chickpea are distributed in southeast Turkey”-bordering Iran and Iraq-“which is kind of dangerous,” he says. “And then there’s the bottom of the Caspian Sea in Iran, where it’s difficult to get in because they’re touchy about foreigners running around.” When he heard rumors of wild chickpeas growing in the republic of Georgia, a highly unstable former Soviet territory-, he planned a trip to the region anyway. He describes it the way a CIA operative might: “The mission was targeted to grab these wild relatives.”
Street’s “missions” involve driving clunky old Russian jalopies through deserts or over mountain passes-wild and woolly lands where Kalashnikovs are common and where the police demand constant bribes, sometimes by force-to distant villages where camel’s milk is plentiful but outsiders are rare. “We come in, and it’s as if a UFO has landed,” he says. “All these guys jump out of the trucks with their hats and cameras, and the villagers are like, ‘Who are these dudes?’ But they always offer hospitality, and vodka.”
Debouck’s work has sharpened his skills as a detective. In the 1980s, he was on the trail of gigantic lima beans that grow in Peru and Bolivia, kin to certain North American varieties. Conversations with farmers about the relative bitterness of their beans, images of beans painted on ancient pottery, and examinations of wild lima beans growing at the edges of farmers’ fields combined to lead Debouck and his team to a discovery about the origins of lima beans. “We were able to provide the physical evidence that you had two domestication events for lima beans,” he says proudly. “One in meso-America and one in the Andes.”
Debouck’s bean collecting has taken him through the fields and forests of much of the Americas, scouring the ground in search of uncataloged species. He also combs the collections of the world’s top herbaria. Several years ago, while rummaging through an herbarium in Paris, he stumbled on a misplaced specimen: a bean from North America lost in a box of woody plants from all over the world. “I realized that that plant was collected by a French explorer, exploring an area from Florida to the area that is today Quebec,” he says. “It might even be a new bean species for the eastern United States.”
He is currently tracking a wild bean that grows only in southern Florida. Luckily, one area is protected public land, making it possible that some of the wild plants still exist. But other bean populations grow on private land and are unlikely to survive any future development. “This,” he says, “is the sort of race gene banks are in.”
A Solvable Problem
Svalbard and its missionaries-Guarino, Street, Debouck, Fowler and the rest-are, in a sense, working to protect us from ourselves. “What’s the biological basis for agriculture?” asks Steiner of the Gates Foundation. “It’s in the diversity. Nature has been experimenting for millions of years, developing all these species designed for particular ecosystems. Agriculture is very local. At the end of the day, in most places monoculture isn’t the most sustainable way.”
Even Ethiopia’s crops are now threatened by industrial farming. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, the director general of Ethiopia’s Environmental Protection Authority and a frequent representative for all of Africa on international treaties, believes his country is at a crossroads in terms of protecting its traditional crops. “Now that humanity has begun to learn of the loss of modernizing without protecting genetic resources,” he says, “it’s time not to make that mistake here.”
“This is the only world problem we know we can solve at this point in history,” Fowler agrees. “There’s no clear solution for some things, like climate change, and the price tag [for that] is incredible. But for a rather limited amount of money, we can actually solve this one.”
Despite the abundance found in the Addis market, much of Ethiopia lives on what Guarino calls “the knife edge.” One bad year can be devastating. As he drives us back through the countryside south of the city, where donkeys are more plentiful than trees, he gestures around him. “Say someone gives them a hybrid crop, they grow it, and it does well for a few years,” he says. We pass a group of barefoot boys, some wearing threadbare business suits over T-shirts, guiding ox plows across brown fields. “So now they’ve largely lost their old seeds, but then there’s a drought or something and the new crop can’t survive. And they’ve got nothing else.”
Only a network of gene banks, with Svalbard as the backup, offers insurance against disaster. Vavilov’s students believed their work was important enough to die for, Fowler points out. Svalbard is built in that spirit. “They thought the world was going up in flames,” he says, “and this would be the seeds from which the world would be resurrected.”
Hillary Rosner, a contributor to Al Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth, writes about science for the New York Times and other publications.