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In A Remote Vault In Norway, Repository Stores The World's Seeds


And now for something that may sound like the beginning of a fairy tale. Deep inside a mountain on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago, between continental Norway and the North Pole, there's a massive vault built into an icy mountain. It's a repository of seeds - hundreds of millions of seeds - everything from wheat and barley to the seeds of food crops most of us have never heard of, like prickly poppy and bastard cabbage. They're actually spare copies of seeds that are being stored away just in case diseases or pests wipe out our crops and we need to develop new ones. Cary Fowler is an adviser to the trust that manages this vault, and he's written a book about it called "Seeds On Ice." He joins us from New York. Hi there, Cary.

CARY FOWLER: Hi, Allison.

AUBREY: So I am so curious about this place. I mean, part of it is the allure of this remote location, close to the North Pole. What's it like to be at the Global Seed Vault? Can you describe it for me?

FOWLER: Sure. Well, when you step off the plane you know you're in a different place. The air is clean and wonderful, and you're just - a smile will come onto your face. It's an incredible landscape around there. And being in the seed vault itself is - it's an emotional experience. And it's a humbling experience because you're there amidst what is probably the largest collection of biodiversity in the world, certainly the largest collection of food crop biodiversity in the world.

AUBREY: Now, I have read that there are seeds of 150,000 different types of wheat and rice, 15,000 different kinds of peanuts in the vault. I mean, who knew? Why do we need all these seeds?

FOWLER: Well, there's no such thing as the best variety because obviously our agricultural crops are evolving and so are pest and diseases. So the diversity that we're holding in the seed vault is there to protect our natural resource in agriculture and to give us options for the future for plant breeding so that our crops can continue to evolve. And that's why we need as much of that diversity as we can gather and conserve. The more diversity we have, the more options we have for the future.

AUBREY: I mentioned that there are lots of seeds of crops that we've never heard of - things like prickly poppy, bastard cabbage. What do you find to be some of the weirder things in the vault?

FOWLER: Yeah, I've been working in this field for 35, 40 years, and there are things I'm saying what is that? You know, there's a rattlebox, zombie pea (ph), love-lies-bleeding - maybe I should know, but I really have no clue. But this is part of the fabric, the tapestry of agriculture in this world.

AUBREY: So I gather that this vault works like a repository. Countries around the world store seeds there, and then if they want them back, they can request a withdraw. Has anyone ever made such a request to withdraw?

FOWLER: Well, so far just once. And you're right, this works like a safety deposit box at the bank where a country or an institution will deposit a duplicate copy of the seeds that they're storing for their own purposes. And then, if something happens to their seed bank, then they have their duplicate copy and all is not lost. So the first time that we had to send seeds back was actually September last year. And what happened was that one of the major international collections of wheat, barley, lentils, chickpeas and a wonderful little crop called grass pea were being stored by this institute in a facility outside of Aleppo, Syria. And we all know what is happening in Aleppo these days and...

AUBREY: Lots of violence there.

FOWLER: Oh, it's terrible. So the scientists at this facility had to re-establish themselves, and they did that in two locations - one in Morocco and one in Lebanon. And so they requested a return of the seeds that they had stored. And we had worked, when Arab Spring first started, to get a safety duplicate copy of their collection up to Svalbard. And we succeeded in getting, I guess, the last batch of seeds out of Syria and into safety just a couple weeks before, really, all hell broke loose there.

AUBREY: So are they using these seeds to grow out new crops, or do they just now have their seed bank restored?

FOWLER: Well, they've taken a portion of the seeds that they deposited in this Svalbard. They took about 30,000 varieties. And they'll use that in their plant breeding programs. They'll reconstitute their entire seed bank. And they'll again multiply those seeds. And obviously, they'll be highly motivated to send us a duplicate copy back because they know what kind of insurance policy this is.

AUBREY: You know, I've often heard this vault referred to as something that could save us from Armageddon if all of our crops were wiped out. But I'm wondering if there might be another use as well. There's kind of a pushback against industrial agriculture. People say tomatoes all taste the same, bananas all taste the same, they all came, you know, from the same variety. Could we - could scientists or breeders ever use all of these seeds that are stored to kind of just create new flavors?

FOWLER: Oh, sure. Because really what we're storing is not just a lot of different varieties, it's a collection of traits. It's the gene pool. So anything and everything that you might want a tomato to be in the future - or a wheat plant, is going to be created, if you will, fashioned by plant breeding by farmers and scientists in the future based on the kind of diversity that we have in the seed vault.

AUBREY: Well, thank you. Cary Fowler is the author of "Seeds On Ice," which comes out next month. Thanks for joining us, Cary.

FOWLER: Sure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.