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Photo: Damian Caisson
The future of food is in peril, warns the documentary film Seeds of Time. Gorgeously shot, the film follows the global odyssey of agriculture pioneer Cary Fowler to help ensure food security for the world’s population. Here, we dig a bit deeper with Fowler about what makes for a sustainable food system.
In the film you say agriculture is facing a perfect storm of threats. What do you mean by that?
What makes the current situation so daunting is that agriculture faces multiple threats simultaneously, each of which would be difficult to address on its own: climate/weather, water availability, rising demand, loss of cropland and land degradation, new pests and diseases (plus increasing resistance to chemical controls), and terribly inadequate investments in agricultural research and plant breeding, particularly for crops other than the major staples. We need agriculture to produce 50 to 70 percent more food by midcentury, but little in our actions conveys confidence that we’re committed to making this happen. Yet, if it doesn’t, hunger and malnutrition will increase dramatically, food prices will rise, and incidents of war and civil strife will likely increase.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault near the Arctic Circle has been called a Noah’s Ark for the world’s crops. So why can’t we simply sit back and rest secure that the work ends with stocking the vault?
The Seed Vault has put an end to the extinction of the crop varieties it holds: 864,000 different ones at the moment. It is a backup to traditional seed banks, and is necessary because many of those seed banks operate sub-optimally, without the ability to guarantee conservation. Moreover, those seed banks—the depositors of seed in Svalbard—are responsible for researching the diversity they hold and providing it to plant breeders and other researchers. It is not enough simply to conserve diversity. We must build comprehensive inventories of the traits held in the seed samples so that when the need arises for a particular type of pest or disease resistance, for example, we will know where to find it.
How would you respond to those who say the future of agriculture lies in genetically engineered crops?
I don’t think the future of agriculture lies with any particular technology, but I do think it depends significantly on research and plant breeding. With climate change we are entering unchartered waters and we are doing so very quickly. The adaptation and evolution of our domesticated crops is in our hands, and yet for a number of crops there are zero scientifically trained plant breeders. There are, I believe, only six yam breeders in the world. This is not a crop easily bred by farmers. How secure can the future of yams be in a rapidly changing environment? Sadly this is the situation faced by many crops.
What can the average person do to help preserve our food heritage?
Many people can participate concretely in conserving diversity by growing endangered varieties and seed saving. If you have room for a tomato plant, you have room for a dwarf apple tree of a rare variety! But everyone—whether they have a garden or farm or not—has the ability to provide support to organizations active in this field, such as Seed Savers Exchange or the Global Crop Diversity Trust. Everyone also has the capacity to send a letter to their political representatives. Since our politicians don’t expect any mail on this topic whatsoever, a single letter can grab their attention. Personally, I advocate more public support for our national germplasm [living genetic resources, such as seeds] system, including the national seed bank for the U.S. in Ft. Collins, Colo.
Seed banks are never high on the priority list for funding. In fact, they are largely invisible. Imagine that—the biological foundation of agriculture, and it’s of no particular concern! In real terms, the national seed bank in Ft. Collins gets by at or somewhat below its budget of a decade ago. It rather should be getting more funding and gearing up to provide the tools needed to help our crop varieties adapt to climate change.