Pop!Tech – Backing up global agriculture

The post-lunch session at Friday’s Pop!Tech is called “sustaining the future”. Andrew explains that it could be called, “the improbables”. The speakers in this session are all concerned with finding solutions to problems that may be improbable, but would be catastrophic if they occur – Andrew thinks of them as “comic book” problems.

Imagine if something destroyed agricultural production around the world. We’d need to reboot the global food supply, and we’d need a backup of the world’s agricultural diversity. Fortunately, Cary Fowler and the Global Crop Diversity Trust are on the case, building a “Noah’s ark for agricultural biodiversity.”

Fowler explains that we need our thinking about biodiversity to proceed beyond “whales and pandas” to include wheat and beans. Diversity within species is what allows adaptive evolution to occur. Without that diversity, there’s no way a crop can adapt to deal with climate change.

He asks us to estimate how many varieties of rice exist, telling us that most people guess between ten and twenty. The answer is 150,000, which is pretty amazing, given that there are only 400 breeds of dogs. “These varieties are as different as a beagle and a Great Dane.”

We see photos of a diversity of beans, carrots, and of sorghum, a popular crop in Africa. Many of the sorghum varieties have a “crook neck”. They’ve been bred for this trait, so that they can be hung from a rope in huts, drying away from the birds that would eat the seeds. “Agricultural plants have been co-evolving with humans for the past ten thousand years.”

One plant we might want to breed better is grasspea, or lathyrus. It’s an “insurance crop”, something that lives when every other crop dies from drought. Eating it will keep you alive, and it tastes pretty good… but it contains a neurotoxin, which causes paralysis from the knee down. If we had more diversity of grasspea, we’d be better positioned to breed a less toxic grasspea.

If you want to maintain agricultural diversity, one strategy is to maintain seed banks. Fowler is convinced that we’re going to need these banks soon because climate change is a threat to global agriculture – “the hottest seasons we’ve ever seen are about to become some of the coldest, and I don’t think agricultural crops can deal with it.”

To cope with this problem, his group wants to preserve the 1.5 million species of agricultural crops out there, starting with 165,000 particularly sensitive crop varieties. It’s not especially hard to preserve seeds – you just need a freezer – and Fowler’s building a very big one. It’s located in Svalbard, Norway, the northernmost city you can fly to on a commercial airline. “If you’re flying there from North Africa, when you get to Oslo, you’re halfway there.”

Why put seeds in Norway? Protection – two major seedbanks have been destroyed in Iraq and Afghanistan due to war, and another was destroyed in the Phillipines by a typhoon. This seedbank, built at the cost of $8 million – funded by the Norwegian government – is deep within a mountain under a glacier, a natural icebox. It’s been designed to withstand explosion, as well as substantial global warming. And Fowler is raising an endowment that can pay the $125,000 maintenance fee year after year.

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2 Responses to Pop!Tech – Backing up global agriculture

  1. I’m glad you found Cary Fowler inspirational; he needs to be, if the Global Crop Diversity Trust is going to raise the full endowment it seeks to fund work that goes way beyond the Doomsday Vault.

    There was a fun piece in the LA Times a couple of weeks back, which I blogged about. But the fact is that the rest of the Trust’s work, which I admit is not nearly as glamorous or exciting, just dull old insurance conservation in existing genebanks, needs support too.

  2. Sorry, I messed up the link. The blog post is here.

    I hope I’ve done it right this time.

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