A frozen Garden of Eden: Cary Fowler, consummate seed saver

CARY FOWLER

It’s not a movie you’re likely to find at the local multiplex, nor will it rake in the bucks of record-grossing “Jurassic World,” but there’s a film out now that should be of interest to agriculture.

“Seeds of Time” — a documentary now being shown in a few theaters around the country and in hosted community/group screenings wherever there’s adequate interest and support — spotlights Tennessee native Cary Fowler and his missionary work to preserve world crop diversity by collecting and saving seed for crops no longer used in modern agriculture, but from which germplasm may be needed in the future.

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Much has been written about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the world’s largest secure seed storage facility, located 800 miles beyond the Arctic Circle in Norway. It’s constructed in rock and maintains a constant temperature of 18 degrees below zero Celsius. It has been called “a frozen Garden of Eden,” and holds the seeds of many tens of thousands of varieties of essential food crops such as beans, wheat, and rice.

THE SVALBARD GLOBAL SEED VAULT in Norway is a fail-safe seed storage facility, built to stand the test of time — and the challenge of natural or man-made disasters. It represents the world’s largest collection of crop diversity.

“Seeds of Time” spotlights Fowler’s work as executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, coordinating efforts of organizations all over the globe, and also notes the efforts of predecessors such as pioneer Soviet seed saver Nikolai Vavilov, who collected more seeds, fruits, and tubers from around the world than any other person in history. He started collecting in about 1916 and continued until his arrest and imprisonment by Stalin in the early 1940s.

Fowler, who was recently nominated by President Obama to the Board for International Food and Agriculture Development (BIFAD), grew up on a farm near Memphis. On a recent visit home, he was interviewed by the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper.

If he is confirmed for the BIFAD post, he said, a goal is to promote increased plant breeding by universities. “I think we’re going to need substantially more resources in plant breeding of different crops if we’re going to expect them to increase yields … given the kind of weather, water, and nutrient constraints that most of our crops face.”

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Confronted with a projected world need for 50 percent to 70 percent more food by mid-century, he says, “Crops are not simply going to do that because we would like them to. That has to be organized, planned for, and implemented.”

DVDs of “Seeds of Time” are expected to be available for purchase this fall.

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