Tennessean Cary Fowler tabbed to run international trust

Self-described as a “simple, west Tennessee farm boy,” Cary Fowler will soon move to Rome, Italy, and set about saving agricultural diversity and food security for coming generations. This will be done through the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an unprecedented effort to coordinate between and maintain gene banks around the world.

Founded last year, the trust is an independent, international organization initiated by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). To back some 1,500 gene banks located around the world, the trust plans to build an endowment of $260 million through donations from governments, foundations and corporations.

Fowler, who will simultaneously wear fundraising and conservation hats in his new position, has fans in high places.

“Fowler will be a tremendous asset to the trust,” said Norman Borlaug, a preeminent agronomist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. “With more than three decades in the field of crop diversity, he is uniquely qualified to assume the leadership of this vitally important institution and to make the case for crop conservation to farmers, governments, and corporations.”

Currently, Fowler serves as director of research in the Department for International Environment and Development Studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Aas, Norway. He also serves as senior advisor at the Rome-based International Plant Genetic Resources Institute.

In June, Fowler spoke with Delta Farm Press about the job he will soon begin, the importance of maintaining agricultural diversity and the crucial role gene banks play in doing so. Among his comments:

On the importance of gene banks…

Agriculture is inundated with a series of challenges. To have these genetic resources is a treasure trove to access. We can use these resources — in an efficient, cost-effective, environmentally benign, farmer- and consumer-friendly way — to meet some of the challenges we faces. We’re working with the raw material for plant breeders.

In some ways, you could say the gene banks are a Noah’s ark of agriculture. If that’s an image that helps people understand what we’re doing, fine.

How does one become a member of the trust? Are you to be responsible for making sure storage facilities are up to snuff? What are the protocols?

Gene bank, in most cases, is a fancy way of saying, freezer. Freezer or not, many of these are quite huge. The one in Fort Collins, Colo., is a good example of the massive, walk-in variety.

The facilities keep temperatures and humidity low. In such conditions, most orthodox seed will be quite happy and can maintain viability for many years. Some grain crops can be kept this way for hundreds of years.

There are about 6.5 million seed samples currently stored in gene banks. Some 1 million to 2 million of these samples are judged unique. The rest are duplications of the unique samples.

On the trust’s purpose…

Our task is twofold. First, we must identify those 1 million to 2 million unique samples and match them with proper conservation facilities. Second, we must raise funds to accomplish that.

The strategy is to raise the funds, invest the money conservatively and use the interest to finance the conservation of these materials forever.

It’s inconceivable that we can have a viable agricultural system without these genetic resources. If we’re serious about keeping agriculture healthy, we need a financial structure that can ensure it.

Unfortunately, most of our gene banks around the world run on year-to-year budgets. I don’t have to tell producers the lack of attention paid to agriculture by politicians. Now, imagine how much attention the gene banks get: obviously, not much.

Part of the problem is you can go into a meeting and mention gene bank, and people’s eyes glaze over. Maybe they recall a high school biology class they did poorly in. It just seems a bit intimidating, and they usually ask about GMOs first, and the conversation is off the rails almost immediately.

But if you ask, “Do you realize that, at the end of the 1800s, we were growing 7,000 named apple varieties in the United States? Now, 6,800 of those are extinct as the dinosaurs.” That helps explain what we’re in danger of losing.

I’m talking about conserving valuable material for plant breeders. This is material that, in the future, will help us feed the world in the face of drought and pests and nutritional needs. We must guard what we still have.

How primitive are the seeds collected? Are you searching the backwoods of Asia to find the oldest variety of rice? Are you tasked with that?

Indirectly. We don’t anticipate funding collecting expeditions. USDA actually has people who go around plant collecting. They’re looking not just for primitive varieties of potatoes and soybeans; they’re looking for the wild relatives — the weeds — genetically related to them.

Very often, the wild relatives of a modern crop have genetic resistance to disease or pests. More and more, plant breeders are turning to wild relatives to find those qualities for new varieties.

Gene banks hold a combination of traditional cultivars — in some cases very odd stuff collected decades ago — and wild relatives.

The most arresting instances of this are visual. For instance, there’s potted corn. Instead of the husk being over the ear, there’s a husk over each kernel. There’s also rice that can be grown under 20 feet of water and rice that can be grown in semi-arid conditions. Such things are immediately interesting and garner attention.

How do companies or researchers approach a gene bank? Does a researcher come to your organization with a checklist of genetic traits they want to fill?

The gene banks around the world are a combination of public and private concerns — mostly public. Most of the time, we’re talking about national gene banks such as at USDA. (In Scandinavia), there’s a Nordic gene bank collectively run by Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland.

There are banks in poorer countries, too. A huge gene bank in Russia has been on the endangered list for a long time.

Basically, plant breeders go directly to the banks with requests. Some banks have online databases that can be mined for particular characteristics.

The Global Crop Diversity Trust isn’t going to be the go-between. Instead, we’re standing behind the gene banks supporting their efforts. We’re an endowment fund, if you will, to support the ongoing conservation of all this diversity.

The problem is many of the banks are, quite frankly, in poor shape. They can’t support an adequate conservation service without funds. I’ve described some of them as “hospices” — where genetic resources go to die.

It’s a tragedy when these resources are lost, because they’re lost forever. What we must do is identify where the unique material is — find the Mona Lisas of the plant world, not the Xerox copies. Once we find them, we must make them completely secure.

Obviously the scientists you deal with know the value of what they have on hand. Are they open to you — to an outside organization — coming in to offer advice?

They’re completely supportive. Some of these people are truly amazing and humble me.

When the Soviet Union fell apart, some of the scientists in the new satellite countries were going to work with no hope of being paid. Their jobs had been eliminated. But they still went to work because they knew it was critical for the future.

There’s a famous story out of WWII during the Nazi siege of Leningrad. At the time, the premier collection of genetic resources was in the city, partially because of a scientist who’d been imprisoned by Stalin. Somehow, he got on the wrong side of Stalin, and that was a very bad place to be.

When WWII broke out, the institute he ran had the biggest collection of genetic resources of agricultural crops in the world. The Nazis surrounded the city and began choking it off.

What’s amazing is there were a dozen scientists in the institute that died during the siege. They didn’t die of bullets and shrapnel but of starvation. They starved rather than open the seed packets. The rice curator died at his desk with bags of rice piled up around him. Imagine that!

I visited the place for the first time in 1985. It’s kind of spooky once you learn the history. I asked one of the old-timers, “What were these people telling each other? What was the culture inside the building that allowed this?”

I was told, “At the time, we thought the world was being consumed in flames. We thought, ‘If our children are to survive, they’ll need seeds and agriculture. And what we have in this building will re-establish agriculture when this madness is finished.’ So they were willing to make the sacrifice.”

You probably have the pick of many jobs. What attracted you to this job? Is there something that drives you to make sure these resources remain available?

This is an emotional subject for me. I can’t imagine a larger contribution I can make.

When I was growing up, my grandmother always asked if I wanted to be a farmer. While I never became one, this is my way of approaching agriculture. We must do this to maintain agriculture’s viability into the future. I can’t imagine anything more fundamental. This is the base agriculture is built on.

Look at the problems in the world: poverty, climate changes and so many more. The gene banks are a crucial part of any solution to those problems. That isn’t denigrating anything people are doing to solve them, but food will always remain a necessity.

Don’t you get the feeling sometimes that we’re swimming upstream with many problems? Don’t things seem to be getting worse even though so many noble people are striving for answers?

When I look at gene banks, we can at least arrest the loss of genetic diversity. We know how to do it, we have the technology and we know how much money it will cost. We already have the people and institutions in place. This is the only major problem in the world right now that I say, with a straight face, “We can actually solve this! This is the one major problem we can fix, put on the back burner and move on to something else.” If we lose diversity, we’re up the creek with no paddle.

Job expectations? Will you spend more time traveling to gene banks or fund-raising?

I’m guessing that will be 50/50. We have to explain the importance of this to many people.

What’s interesting is a lot of people say, “Well, this isn’t much a problem because I’ve never heard of it.” I hear that frequently and that perception is something to overcome.

If we’re going to build a sustainable system for maintaining diversity, we must be smart. I’m very conservative, especially when it comes to spending other people’s money. I don’t want to create incentives for bad conservation. In other words, if you’ve got a whole load of money to give away but don’t have a clear plan or criteria, then there’s no incentive to behave and do the job properly.

Frankly, what we have now is an ineffective, inefficient system. The U.S. National Academy of Scientists and the FAO have both admitted this. And all the scientists working in the system know it’s true.

What we can provide is a carrot to reform the system and add value.

I’m ready to travel to D.C. to sit down and speak with politicians. I want to show them what’s being spent on this now and say, “Look, for this amount of money, if you’ll let us add a layer of quality control, you’ll have effective conservation guaranteed forever.” There’s no downside to that.

On extinctions and scrapping the barrel’s bottom…

We need to realize that crops are like everything else: success depends on the ability to evolve. One of the problems is, when driving down the road and viewing gigantic fields of corn or soybeans, intuitively most don’t believe they’re viewing an endangered species. But we must realize that extinction is a process not an event. Extinction begins when a species begins to lose the ability to evolve.

In too many of our crops we’ve been scrapping the bottom of the barrel lately. It’s getting harder to find genetic characteristics we need. You know: searching 20,000 samples of sorghum to find a resistant gene to some disease. This is happening.

So we must be careful. Conserving a variety costs only a few dollars a year. And yet the economic payoff is enormous.

If I had all the gene bank managers in one big room, I’d ask, “Do you think it’s likely that out of these 1 million to 2 million unique samples, a handful — say 10 — valuable traits will be found in the next 20 years?” They would laugh at me! They’d say, “You’re crazy! We’ll find many, many more than that.”

Yet, I could give you examples showing that if we only found 10, it would still pay the cost of conservation several times over. This is the most cost-effective government program.

Editor’s note: for more information visit http://www.startwithaseed.org

e-mail: [email protected]

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