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we have some qualms about partnership with large seed companies

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Nestled in the Norwegian Arctic, secure in an underground vault, rests one resource mankind cannot live without: seeds. The vault is a piece of a larger project of agricultural pioneer Cary Fowler in a passionate race against time to protect the future of our food supply, as captured in a documentary film Seeds of Time.

We sat down with Fowler in advance of our Earth Day screening of Seeds of Time to learn more about preserving biodiversity in agricultural crops and what filmgoers can do to help.

NYBG: How and when did you get the idea for a global seed bank?

Fowler: It was about 2003, and I was doing some work with a group of international agricultural research centers around the world. I took the idea to them, and with their blessings, drafted a letter to the Norwegian government asking whether they might consider doing something like this. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs called me and appointed me to head the committee of the feasibility study.

NYBG: Why did you pick Norway?

Fowler: The main reasons were twofold. First, that the Svalbard archipelago was sort-of the perfect location. It was cold, and we wanted the natural freezing environment. It was remote, which meant it was safe, but it also was accessible. Second, the Norwegian government was trusted. No other location could match that.

NYBG: Who decides what seeds are stored in the vault?

Fowler: Svalbard Global Seed Vault’s mission is to conserve seeds related to food and agriculture. Within that group of plants, we don’t make any value judgment. We don’t know what is going to be useful for agriculture 500 years from now. We simply say to other depositing institutions, if you have made a commitment to long-term conservation, send us whatever you have that we don’t already have. We’re a back-up, an insurance policy for other seed banks. You could flip that coin and say they’re also an insurance policy for us. We want a unique sample in at least two places.

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