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Nobel Conference: Cary Fowler

“Food Security in a Frightening and Finite World.”

Cary Fowler, Ph.D., executive director, Global Crop Diversity Trust, Rome, Italy

Cary Fowler offered the second lecture of the conference, speaking to us about sustaining genetic diversity in crop plants as a means of providing some security against the challenges of a growing population and changing climate on a local and global scale. He also gave us a nice introduction to the seed bank in Svalbard, Norway. As before, below is my summary of the lecture in tweets. The full lecture, including the Q&A afterward with all the invited speakers, is available on YouTube.

  • But first, a shout-out to the ASL interpreter. :)
  • Due to green revolution, we are the first generation to take abundance of food for granted.
  • Africa is an exception to production growth, just reaching 1960s levels.
  • Production increases have come due to much greater expenditure of resources: land, water, fertilizer, pesticides, etc.
  • Land use increases stopped being as important to agriculture growth in 80s. Water usage is unsustainable. Drawing on aquifers.
  • Water rights may lead to increased international conflict as food needs increase.
  • When Kuwait recognizes Peak Oil (as they do now), the impact on food production must be considered.
  • Natural gas is a requirement for current nitrogenous fertilizers.
  • Climate change will change growing seasons and patterns.
  • Hot summers have traditionally decreased production ~25%. Those will be the good years with projected climate change.
  • “We are living through less than 1/2 of 1% of the history of agriculture, but I can promise you it will be the most interesting.”
  • Most people think of biodiversity as a Rousseau painting: exotics. More important is diversity within species.
  • Maintaining diversity determines whether we survive climate change, or just the next pest or disease.
  • Flooding in Philippines hit their seed bank, causing the extinction of several species. We will lose more seed banks.
  • Loss of more seed banks, with the additional diversity, is a completely predictable event.
  • Svalbard seed bank is far from human and weather dangers. Naturally frozen as well.
  • “Doctor, are you telling me the genetic diversity in this seed bank is the world’s most important natural resource?” “I think so.” “And that Svalbard is the best place for it?” “I believe it is.” “Then how can we refuse?” [Norwegian government's response]
  • The most drought-resistant crop in Addis Ababa contains a neurotoxin. Starve or become paralyzed?
  • [From Ben's Twitter stream] “If you can’t go down to the supermarket because you have no money and there is no supermarket…”
  • Collecting seeds allows the crop to be bred to reduce toxins without losing drought resistance.
  • “If you want to be bored and depressed [by the situation], you don’t have to do anything. It will come naturally.”
  • “But these problems can be solved. You can help solve them, and it’s fun.”
  • We also need to find and preserve the wild relatives of our crop plants.
  • Subsistence farmers maintain much of the world’s crop diversity, but they are also the most vulnerable, and they’re not curators.
  • Fruit diversity threatened by Russian law that may force development of land growing plants that don’t grow well from seed.
  • Most national seed banks are of poor quality. “You wouldn’t want to store your kid’s lunch in them.”