Deep in a mountain on a remote island above the Arctic Circle in Norway, scientists conserve thousands of varieties of seeds so they can be studied and used for future food needs. The seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault are the backup for other gene banks around the world, including one in Syria that’s been threatened by civil unrest.
On Monday, Earth Day, the director of the trust responsible for the seeds, Marie Haga, spoke about its conservation work, which has been focused lately on saving seeds that growers will need to develop crops in the face of changing growing conditions caused by climate change.
That includes cataloging some of the wild ancestors of the domesticated crops that feed the world today, said Haga, the Norway-based executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust.
"What we really do when we conserve all these varieties is conserve options for adapting agriculture in the future," she said. "It’s very clear that agriculture is facing major challenges these days."
Haga recently traveled to the United States to talk to Congress about the trust’s efforts to build its endowment from $135 million to $500 million for projects such as its seeds database.
Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What does the Global Crop Diversity Trust do?
A: We have a very specific but very fundamental function in the food security chain. What we do is quite simple: to make sure that the many varieties of the major food crops are conserved.
Before I started in this business, I thought rice was rice. But rice, of course, is 120,000 varieties. Another example is the varieties of apples in the United States. Back in the 1800s, it’s documented that you had 7,100 varieties of apples. Today, you have 1,000 varieties of apples, which means that we have lost 6,100 varieties.
You can say, “Well, wouldn’t 1,000 varieties of apples do? Isn’t that sufficient?” Our answer to that is it might be that one of those 6,100 varieties that have been lost might have had a trait which we need today to fight a disease, to make the apples better adapted to a hotter climate, maybe to a wetter climate, at least to a changing climate.
We need the variety in order to make sure that we have options to adapt agriculture to new environments. Or protect them from diseases. We know one degree increase in temperature will reduce the production rate 10 percent. Which is pretty dramatic.
We run the danger of some of our crops producing smaller yields, and at the same time we know that the global population will increase quite dramatically over the next few years. We need to feed 2 billion more people by 2050.
Q: What kind of work has the trust done with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other U.S. researchers?
A: If you’re working on wheat and you need wheat that is more heat-resistant, you can go into this (data) system and find out which traits make it more heat-resistant or more tolerant to drought. Everybody has access. It’s an open system.
Q: Climate change seems to be a major focus of the research work right now.
A: Yes, and if people don’t like the word climate change, I usually say, “Environments change. They change all the time.” We need the ability to adapt, whether you believe climate change has come about because of a consequence of human activities or for other reasons. For example, in Europe climate change is vividly discussed, and our work is seen in that perspective.
Q: What other work are you doing to ensure the future of major food crops?
A: We’re also doing an interesting project on what is called “wild relatives” of these domestic crops. We are searching around the globe for wild relatives to these major domesticated crops in order to see if they have traits that can be useful.
We have also done what is, in all fairness, the biggest biological rescue operation ever. We have screened 246 collections in 77 countries. We have rescued and regenerated 76,000 varieties in these countries. We did find that 10,000 of these varieties were dead. It says something about the urgency of the work. We are on our way in duplicating material and getting it to Svalbard. What we think is the major job right now is to collect the wild relatives.
Q: What did you ask for when you visited Washington, D.C.?
A: The conservation of crop diversity, that is not rocket science. We know how to do that. But it does cost money to do it. And what we tried to do in the trust is to build an endowment which is sufficiently big so that the interest from the endowment will be sufficient to safeguard these seeds – as most of them are – forever.
We think this is such a fundamental challenge that it needs to be endowed. So we are slowly building the endowment, and the U.S. has contributed to the endowment and we hope the U.S. will continue to support the endowment. I think this is a very cheap insurance policy for the world. Because all of us eat, quite simply.