One seed at a time, protecting the future of food | Cary Fowler

One seed at a time, protecting the future of food | Cary Fowler


I’ve been fascinated with crop diversity for about 35 years from now, ever since I stumbled across a fairly obscure academic article by a guy named Jack Harlan. And he described the diversity within crops — all the different kinds of wheat and rice and such — as a genetic resource. And he said, “This genetic resource,” — and I’ll never forget the words — “stands between us and catastrophic starvation on a scale we cannot imagine.” I figured he was either really on to something, or he was one of these academic nutcases. So, I looked a little further, and what I figured out was that he wasn’t a nutcase. He was the most respected scientist in the field. What he understood was that biological diversity — crop diversity — is the biological foundation of agriculture. It’s the raw material, the stuff, of evolution in our agricultural crops. Not a trivial matter. And he also understood that that foundation was crumbling, literally crumbling. That indeed, a mass extinction was underway in our fields, in our agricultural system. And that this mass extinction was taking place with very few people noticing and even fewer caring. Now, I know that many of you don’t stop to think about diversity in agricultural systems and, let’s face it, that’s logical. You don’t see it in the newspaper every day. And when you go into the supermarket, you certainly don’t see a lot of choices there. You see apples that are red, yellow, and green and that’s about it. So, let me show you a picture of one form of diversity. Here’s some beans, and there are about 35 or 40 different varieties of beans on this picture. Now, imagine each one of these varieties as being distinct from another about the same way as a poodle from a Great Dane. If I wanted to show you a picture of all the dog breeds in the world, and I put 30 or 40 of them on a slide, it would take about 10 slides because there about 400 breeds of dogs in the world. But there are 35 to 40,000 different varieties of beans. So if I were to going to show you all the beans in the world, and I had a slide like this, and I switched it every second, it would take up my entire TED talk, and I wouldn’t have to say anything. But the interesting thing is that this diversity — and the tragic thing is — that this diversity is being lost. We have about 200,000 different varieties of wheat, and we have about 2 to 400,000 different varieties of rice, but it’s being lost. And I want to give you an example of that. It’s a bit of a personal example, in fact. In the United States, in the 1800s — that’s where we have the best data — farmers and gardeners were growing 7,100 named varieties of apples. Imagine that. 7,100 apples with names. Today, 6,800 of those are extinct, no longer to be seen again. I used to have a list of these extinct apples, and when I would go out and give a presentation, I would pass the list out in the audience. I wouldn’t tell them what it was, but it was in alphabetical order, and I would tell them to look for their names, their family names, their mother’s maiden name. And at the end of the speech, I would ask, “How many people have found a name?” And I never had fewer than two-thirds of an audience hold up their hand. And I said, “You know what? These apples come from your ancestors, and your ancestors gave them the greatest honor they could give them. They gave them their name. The bad news is they’re extinct. The good news is a third of you didn’t hold up your hand. Your apple’s still out there. Find it. Make sure it doesn’t join the list.” So, I want to tell you that the piece of the good news is that the Fowler apple is still out there. And there’s an old book back here, and I want to read a piece from it. This book was published in 1904. It’s called “The Apples of New York” and this is the second volume. See, we used to have a lot of apples. And the Fowler apple is described in here — I hope this doesn’t surprise you — as, “a beautiful fruit.” (Laughter) I don’t know if we named the apple or if the apple named us, but … but, to be honest, the description goes on and it says that it “doesn’t rank high in quality, however.” And then he has to go even further. It sounds like it was written by an old school teacher of mine. “As grown in New York, the fruit usually fails to develop properly in size and quality and is, on the whole, unsatisfactory.” (Laughter) And I guess there’s a lesson to be learned here, and the lesson is: so why save it? I get this question all the time. Why don’t we just save the best one? And there are a couple of answers to that question. One thing is that there is no such thing as a best one. Today’s best variety is tomorrow’s lunch for insects or pests or disease. The other thing is that maybe that Fowler apple or maybe a variety of wheat that’s not economical right now has disease or pest resistance or some quality that we’re going to need for climate change that the others don’t. So it’s not necessary, thank God, that the Fowler apple is the best apple in the world. It’s just necessary or interesting that it might have one good, unique trait. And for that reason, we ought to be saving it. Why? As a raw material, as a trait we can use in the future. Think of diversity as giving us options. And options, of course, are exactly what we need in an era of climate change. I want to show you two slides, but first, I want to tell you that we’ve been working at the Global Crop Diversity Trust with a number of scientists — particularly at Stanford and University of Washington — to ask the question: What’s going to happen to agriculture in an era of climate change and what kind of traits and characteristics do we need in our agricultural crops to be able to adapt to this? In short, the answer is that in the future, in many countries, the coldest growing seasons are going to be hotter than anything those crops have seen in the past. The coldest growing seasons of the future, hotter than the hottest of the past. Is agriculture adapted to that? I don’t know. Can fish play the piano? If agriculture hasn’t experienced that, how could it be adapted? Now, the highest concentration of poor and hungry people in the world, and the place where climate change, ironically, is going to be the worst is in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. So I’ve picked two examples here, and I want to show you. In the histogram before you now, the blue bars represent the historical range of temperatures, going back about far as we have temperature data. And you can see that there’s some difference between one growing season and another. Some are colder, some are hotter and it’s a bell shaped curve. The tallest bar is the average temperature for the most number of growing seasons. In the future, later this century, it’s going to look like the red, totally out of bounds. The agricultural system and, more importantly, the crops in the field in India have never experienced this before. Here’s South Africa. The same story. But the most interesting thing about South Africa is we don’t have to wait for 2070 for there to be trouble. By 2030, if the maize, or corn, varieties, which is the dominant crop — 50 percent of the nutrition in Southern Africa are still in the field — in 2030, we’ll have a 30 percent decrease in production of maize because of the climate change already in 2030. 30 percent decrease of production in the context of increasing population, that’s a food crisis. It’s global in nature. We will watch children starve to death on TV. Now, you may say that 20 years is a long way off. It’s two breeding cycles for maize. We have two rolls of the dice to get this right. We have to get climate-ready crops in the field, and we have to do that rather quickly. Now, the good news is that we have conserved. We have collected and conserved a great deal of biological diversity, agricultural diversity, mostly in the form of seed, and we put it in seed banks, which is a fancy way of saying a freezer. If you want to conserve seed for a long term and you want to make it available to plant breeders and researchers, you dry it and then you freeze it. Unfortunately, these seed banks are located around the world in buildings and they’re vulnerable. Disasters have happened. In recent years we lost the gene bank, the seed bank in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can guess why. In Rwanda, in the Solomon Islands. And then there are just daily disasters that take place in these buildings, financial problems and mismanagement and equipment failures, and all kinds of things, and every time something like this happens, it means extinction. We lose diversity. And I’m not talking about losing diversity in the same way that you lose your car keys. I’m talking about losing it in the same way that we lost the dinosaurs: actually losing it, never to be seen again. So, a number of us got together and decided that, you know, enough is enough and we need to do something about that and we need to have a facility that can really offer protection for our biological diversity of — maybe not the most charismatic diversity. You don’t look in the eyes of a carrot seed quite in the way you do a panda bear, but it’s very important diversity. So we needed a really safe place, and we went quite far north to find it. To Svalbard, in fact. This is above mainland Norway. You can see Greenland there. That’s at 78 degrees north. It’s as far as you can fly on a regularly scheduled airplane. It’s a remarkably beautiful landscape. I can’t even begin to describe it to you. It’s otherworldly, beautiful. We worked with the Norwegian government and with the NorGen, the Norwegian Genetic Resources Program, to design this facility. What you see is an artist’s conception of this facility, which is built in a mountain in Svalbard. The idea of Svalbard was that it’s cold, so we get natural freezing temperatures. But it’s remote. It’s remote and accessible so it’s safe and we don’t depend on mechanical refrigeration. This is more than just an artist’s dream, it’s now a reality. And this next picture shows it in context, in Svalbard. And here’s the front door of this facility. When you open up the front door, this is what you’re looking at. It’s pretty simple. It’s a hole in the ground. It’s a tunnel, and you go into the tunnel, chiseled in solid rock, about 130 meters. There are now a couple of security doors, so you won’t see it quite like this. Again, when you get to the back, you get into an area that’s really my favorite place. I think of it as sort of a cathedral. And I know that this tags me as a bit of a nerd, but … (Laughter) Some of the happiest days of my life have been spent … (Laughter) in this place there. (Applause) If you were to walk into one of these rooms, you would see this. It’s not very exciting, but if you know what’s there, it’s pretty emotional. We have now about 425,000 samples of unique crop varieties. There’s 70,000 samples of different varieties of rice in this facility right now. About a year from now, we’ll have over half a million samples. We’re going up to over a million, and someday we’ll basically have samples — about 500 seeds — of every variety of agricultural crop that can be stored in a frozen state in this facility. This is a backup system for world agriculture. It’s a backup system for all the seed banks. Storage is free. It operates like a safety deposit box. Norway owns the mountain and the facility, but the depositors own the seed. And if anything happens, then they can come back and get it. This particular picture that you see shows the national collection of the United States, of Canada, and an international institution from Syria. I think it’s interesting in that this facility, I think, is almost the only thing I can think of these days where countries, literally, every country in the world — because we have seeds from every country in the world — all the countries of the world have gotten together to do something that’s both long term, sustainable and positive. I can’t think of anything else that’s happened in my lifetime that way. I can’t look you in the eyes and tell you that I have a solution for climate change, for the water crisis. Agriculture takes 70 percent of fresh water supplies on earth. I can’t look you in the eyes and tell you that there is such a solution for those things, or the energy crisis, or world hunger, or peace in conflict. I can’t look you in the eyes and tell you that I have a simple solution for that, but I can look you in the eyes and tell you that we can’t solve any of those problems if we don’t have crop diversity. Because I challenge you to think of an effective, efficient, sustainable solution to climate change if we don’t have crop diversity. Because, quite literally, if agriculture doesn’t adapt to climate change, neither will we. And if crops don’t adapt to climate change, neither will agriculture, neither will we. So, this is not something pretty and nice to do. There are a lot of people who would love to have this diversity exist just for the existence value of it. It is, I agree, a nice thing to do. But it’s a necessary thing to do. So, in a very real sense, I believe that we, as an international community, should get organized to complete the task. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a wonderful gift that Norway and others have given us, but it’s not the complete answer. We need to collect the remaining diversity that’s out there. We need to put it into good seed banks that can offer those seeds to researchers in the future. We need to catalog it. It’s a library of life, but right now I would say we don’t have a card catalog for it. And we need to support it financially. My big idea would be that while we think of it as commonplace to endow an art museum or endow a chair at a university, we really ought to be thinking about endowing wheat. 30 million dollars in an endowment would take care of preserving all the diversity in wheat forever. So we need to be thinking a little bit in those terms. And my final thought is that we, of course, by conserving wheat, rice, potatoes, and the other crops, we may, quite simply, end up saving ourselves. Thank you. (Applause)

67 Replies to “One seed at a time, protecting the future of food | Cary Fowler”

  1. Finally… crop scientists talking about biodiversity…. thank you TED for presenting responsible food science here. This is very important knowledge.

  2. The varieties weren't created from scratch — they either existed in nature or were crossed from the wide variety existing in nature. If we don't have any genetic variety to start with, we can't really do much in terms of creating varieties to tolerate climate change.

    Also…we might not get a century to develop new varieties.

  3. Wow Letterman looks younger then ever in this video. Didn't even know he did TED talks.
    Haha, interesting talk. TED rocks!

  4. he used the analogy of dog breeds. To get the diversity of dogs you see today it's taken 10,000 years. Seeds are a little easier for obvious reasons of interbreeding and shorter generations. But nevertheless it isn't a quick process.

  5. A pity that he did not mention the negative affect that Monsanto has on all these seeds with its patenting program currently.

    See the documentary 'The future of food'.

  6. imagine in the far future when we're terraforming planets when we can go through all known genomes of crops and grasses trees and animals and whip up a batch of whatever would be most survivable on a new planet. won't that be fun?

  7. Oh, are you saying god will help humanity? Last I checked, god allows attrocities and injustice to happen everyday.

    I guess he's too busy telling people to give him money.

  8. Well I blame religion. When people spend all their time roleplaying that they're in a 3000 year old fantasy novel that says that people never really die they tend to treat the world and life and discovery the sufferings of other and the future as meaningless.

  9. thank you folx, that number enough to give a *care*, while others don't give a *care*, and keep *caring* only for their self *caring* needs.

    well i didnt use care, on my rough draft…TY Greenland, doubt I'll ever, but would I ever, enjoy seeing your place.

  10. hmm. Odd seems to be the biggest problem in america. Every time we make a break through there's active opposition from the multibillion dollar god industry. I guess maybe the god industry is a biproduct of people being lazy selfish and afraid of change. And that it would just find a new way to demonstrate itself. But even dragging the shit people behind we will advance just at a slower pace.

  11. unless those people moving at a slower pace manage to drag us so much we begin moving backwards….

    god i can't wait till all the greatest generation/baby boomers all die off..thanks for fucking up the world and spending the inheritance of your children/grandchildren on a gigantic orgy of tax cuts and fighter jets!

  12. As a species we're always advancing. Would you believe islam was actually the reservoire of all the greek and roman scholarly and mathematical work while the west was involved in the dark ages? Sure it was a time of slow advance but there were some advances made like the conceptualization of the atom durring that period. The scottish charcoal burners were a group of hermit scholars who traded books back and forth and debated ideas.

  13. I voted for obama mainly because of health care reform but the reform he's pushing will change very little for very few people. He's compromised so much on this reform that it will not be noticeable from the status quo. Too many poiticians on both side of the aisle are in the pockets of insurance companies who've spent billions in campaign donations to assure that health care never reforms.

  14. curious people. but the thing is there's always going to be somewhere a person can go to carry knowledge forward where knowledge isn't taboo and they will find that place and keep on pushing forward.

  15. by the time we get to 2070 I doubt genetic variability will be an issue. That's considering how rapidly our understanding genetics and genetic engineering is advancing.

  16. I never TRULY understood why seed variation was so important in my biology class last year, now I really get it! Gees this is a big deal and a good talk!

  17. what chance? If Moores law can give an inkling of an idea into how advanced our technology is going to be then, there's very little chance that we won't be able to handle this.

    The only chance we can take is to ban genetic experimentation on the basis of some fabricated ethical or religious foundation.

  18. weather cycles are a little more predictable on a long term scale, though they're not too heavily tested, so we may just be masturbating our ego.

  19. it may be colder here in NY, but on a global scale the temperature is rising, albeit slowly. I don't think his assertion that the hottest weather now will be peanuts to the coldest then is all that accurate, considering he's trained in genetic variability, not climate change. But it's still not a bad point either way.

    The climate has changed dramatically in the past, and there's no real way of knowing that it won't change again.

  20. I guess it would be most beneficial to do both, but we have to look at the potential costs of doing the reservoir thing. From what I could understand, it seems like it's not very expensive, just kept in poor locations.

    and it's possible we may not even need the actual seed but just their genetic variance in some sort of information based document, like a pdf or a some sort of text file.

  21. all of those species are just dna information, just information.

    If we can sequence the genomes of all species, then store them as data just as we do computer data. Then perhaps that would be the best and safest way to store that information.

  22. Vangalex wrote:
    "Climate change… yes, this is the coldest summer on record in Western New York"

    What exactly with the word "global" you dont understand? Is not called "local climate change" for a reason, it is called "global climate change" implying a global trend of raising temperatures.

    There is total consensus among scientists that the global temperate is rising, but what it is disputed is the degree of human involvement in the temperature rising.

  23. Well you are right, ultimately the main contributor of energy input on the earth system is the Sun, either directly as EM energy or indirectly as stored energy in fossil fuels, biomass etc.
    It is also true that the output of EM energy from the Sun has increased but it doesnt correlate very well with the increase of global temperature, which has been even more dramatic. On the other hand important green house gases have increased which do correlates better with increased temp. over the years.

  24. As an atheist I am opposed to all notions of a God.
    As a human being, familiar with the folly and foolishnesh of mankind, making man a god is infinately worse.

  25. Corporate ownership of genetic material, along with debt-controlled cash-cropping, is a far greater threat to genetic diversity than our global warming (oops) climate change.

  26. i wouldn't put all hope in 1 spotof seed storage, what if there is an earthquake….

    i would definitely split the move some into a different facility just incase something happens.

  27. like hwip and hweat?
    where you kinda pronounce the h first?
    or do you say wu-heat and wu-hip?

    I pronounce them as wip and weat… so no i do not

  28. I wouldn't go as far to say an end of humanity, but maybe an end to society as we know it. Sure there may be widespread disease and hunger strikes, but it wouldn't be enough to eradicate the human race.

    Sadly it might take a few catastrophes across the globe for us to learn how to treat each other and the rest of the world.

  29. I think the long term human solution to overpopulation was created the very day man evolved from whatever spark or collision that created him in the first place. Not to just simplify matters…but… ; he will eat the food until it is gone and die. Sorry to say but that is all living things. It doesn't take mental awareness to know 'Adapt or DIE"! It's even more base than mating.

  30. Diagnostic, the main reason the poor have so many children is lack of education, especially education for women. Education effects many things, among them awareness of contraception. Also, in situations where people are poor they often have large families in hopes that SOME children make it to adulthood to care for their parents. Until we can make sure their 1 child survives, is limiting them just? Think of this, the quake in China leveled that school that is a whole generation in a family dead.

  31. I agree.

    Or if not a universal child cap perhaps a license to have children. It sounds like too much power but really, I would rather the government be giving the right people with good families and economic situations the chance to have kids rather than allowing poor or fundamentalist folks to push out kids in order to gain money or voting power.

    The only question would be how to implement or enforce it.

  32. I disagree, mainly from the standpoint of duplicating work. Suppose we need a crop that can withstand high salt content in the soil; with genetic engineering, it might take several iterations (a couple growing seasons) to find a good crop, when instead we could find one in the seedbank that works with little or no modifications. That one instance is likely more than enough to pay back the cost of running this bank.

  33. Cary Fowler and Dr Vandana Shiva are both heroes for saving seeds. I do hope he is working with her and her organisation Navdanya. We need their combined wisdom to ensure the future of our crops for the next 1,000 years.

  34. It's supposed to say "Cary Fowler: One seed at a time, protecting the future of food". But I'm guessing they couldn't fit all that into the title on youtube

  35. The reality is that this cave, keep the genetic diversity of the world, or better sequester the genetic diversity of tropical countries to usufruct the economically and culturally in the future in and which the Western powers are planning the destruction of existing civilizations to start his so-called new world order.

  36. I felt like nudging him and saying "Psst shut up, don't tell everyone about this amazing seed bank in Svalbard – I'm afraid some nutcase(s) is going to go and blow it up!"

  37. Как жаль, что он не упомянул огромный труд, проведенный в этом направлении Николаем Ивановичем Вавиловым.
    Schade, dass er die gewaltige Arbeit von Nikolai Wawilow in dieser Richtung nicht erwähnt hat.
    What a pity that he did not mention the tremendous work done in this direction by Nikolai Vavilov.

  38. Here in Perí we have a project to store seeds, and is working good and exchanging whit other countries, and in LAtin América is called "REd de semillas" (seeds network)

  39. It worries me that such a magnificent TED talk with such a pressing and profoundly meaningful message only has about 50k views in 10 years, while a TED talk about procrastination has 20 million in 2 years… It kind of exemplifies the problems we are in… Let these procrastinators watch this talk and help/support this work…

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