Meet the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group: Cary Fowler

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In this regular series we profile advisors of the Nourishing the Planet project. This week, we feature Cary Fowler,  Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

Name: Cary Fowler

Affiliation: Global Crop Diversity Trust

Location: Rome, Italy

Bio: Dr. Cary Fowler is the Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. Previously, Dr. Fowler was Professor and Director of Research in the Department for International Environment & Development Studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. He was also a Senior Advisor to the Director General of Bioversity International. In this latter role, he represented the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in negotiations on the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

Why should consumers, particularly in rich countries, care about agricultural diversity?

(Photo credit: Global Crop Diversity Trust)

Because they eat! Behind every packet of cereal, bag of salad or pre-cooked dinner there are a handful of different crop species– whether it is the corn in the glucose syrup or the oregano on the pizza topping. These crops are grown commercially and each is the subject of research and breeding with a long history of domestication that has got them to where they are now. For every crop variety that is now grown and sold commercially in some form or other in our supermarkets, hundreds or thousands of varieties have been used, tested or improved. Crop diversity is the basis of the foods we eat and the foods that our descendants will eat. So far nothing – no artificial foods – have replaced it!

What can the average consumer do to preserve biodiversity? What about farmers, how can they reintroduce or conserve biodiversity on the farm?

There is a multitude of ways to support the conservation of biodiversity. By keeping abreast of biodiversity issues you can make informed decisions about what you eat, what you buy, where you go on holiday, how you furnish your house, etc. There are sites specific to crop biodiversity on the web that you can follow (e.g. Global Crop Diversity Trust, Agrobiodiversity Network) A visit to a botanic garden will help you to appreciate diversity in its living form. Farmers’ markets or specialist shops also sell some of the more unusual varieties of apples, tomatoes or vegetables.

Many organizations focus on wildlife or biodiversity conservation. The majority of countries have a national genebank, where farmers are able to request for samples of some of the many thousands of varieties that are conserved. There are also NGOs and farmers’ or community groups that specialize in conserving traditional crops or varieties (e.g. Seed Savers Exchange in US)

How has the Crop Diversity Trust determined priority crops?  Why are they being saved with more urgency?

The priority crops on which the Global Crop Diversity Trust focuses are determined by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The Treaty is signed or ratified by 138 countries, which have come together in order to ensure that crop diversity is shared freely across national boundaries. The Treaty recognizes that no one country has all the diversity it needs to sustain crop research and agriculture. In this aspect all countries are interdependent. The Treaty names 35 major crops (and further species that are animal forages) that together cover a major part of the diet of the world’s peoples, ranging from major crops like wheat and rice to more regionally-important crops like yam and pigeon pea.

The seed bank is being created for future catastrophe, but how does it take action to prevent the loss of more and more biodiversity in the present? Can you talk about some of your activities?

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is set up to house a safe copy of the diversity that is kept in genebanks around the world. Experience has shown us that keeping precious things in one place is a risky thing to do. People long ago stopped putting their savings under the bed. No one thinks twice about backing up the contents of computer hard disks – it is routine! This is how the Seed Vault works. War, typhoons, floods, financial disaster will continue to destroy the contents of genebanks but now countries or institutes can go to the Seed Vault and request the materials that they have safely put there for such an event.

The Trust is currently supporting more than 80 institutes in 68 countries to deposit their materials in the Seed Vault and also in other international organizations that are able to keep materials (especially for those crops that don’t produce seeds) safe for the long-term future.

We also have a unique granting system based on an endowment fund. Our feeling is that important international genebanks providing a service to the world by conserving and making available crop diversity would function more efficiently and soundly if at least the minimum essential conservation activities are securely funded for the long term. The endowment system allows us to provide financial support routinely, year after year, for the most essential conservation activities into the indefinite future.

What is your opinion of the role of GMOs in terms of sustainable agriculture and food security?

The Trust focuses on the conservation of diversity for use. Our passionate desire is to see that this diversity is used to its full potential for the benefits of all. We do not take sides in the political debates about plant breeding techniques. Some feel we should, but we are a small organization and to achieve our goals we must maintain a tight focus. In the long run, regardless of the outcome of the current GMO debates, we think everyone will appreciate what we are able to accomplish as a result of concentrating on the mission of the Trust. We understand that the mechanisms that are used to bring diversity into agriculture are many and evolving all of the time; some suited to certain situations better than others. Scientifically based discussion and debate is always to be welcomed.

In your article, “Of Pandas and Peas” you make the argument that people use the term biodiversity synonymously with nature but never think about it in terms of the food they eat.  Can you elaborate on this and its implications for food security?

My aim in the article was to illustrate that there is a very utilitarian and everyday importance to biodiversity. There is an urgency and sympathy to save large charismatic animals for the very good reason that, among other things, they play a major role in maintaining forests, watersheds, oceans and every other kind of ecosystem. However, there is an even more immediate threat to our well being posed by the same trends causing habitat and biodiversity loss – a threat that has a serious and negative impact on the supply of our daily meals.

People’s dissociation between the threats to biodiversity and what we eat is perhaps understandable given that for the large part in rich countries there is an oversupply of rich and diverse foods. Food culture is very vibrant and alive in the world’s cities. It is hard to believe that it is under threat. But in countries or regions where farmers grow almost all that they eat, or in areas where families are suffering from a poor diet – in the Pacific, for instance, where rates of diabetes and obesity have rocketed, the dependence on biodiversity as a source of healthy food is felt much more intensely. It is essential that we do not lose that link between biodiversity and our food.

In your book Shattering, you write that the “loss of genetic diversity in agriculture is leading us to a rendezvous with extinction—to the doorstep of hunger on a scale we refuse to imagine.” What are future implications of this mass extinction and what role does the Trust have in preventing widespread food insecurity?

Let me reiterate the point I have been making above with an example. More than 40 years ago, a new highly productive form of wheat contributed so well to easing the anguish and insecurity in several countries worldwide, that the scientist, Norman Borlaug, who orchestrated its breeding received the Nobel Peace Prize. Wheat-consuming nations have benefited ever since from the varieties that he bred. In 1999, a new form of fungus disease appeared in Uganda that destroys most modern wheat varieties. The disease has spread into the Middle East and is being taken very seriously. Where do you suppose scientists are looking for a way to deal with the disease? Just as Professor Borlaug did, they are screening hundreds of varieties of wheat to find one that shows resistance to the disease. Where would we turn if we did not have that diversity available in genebanks?

This is what I mean when I say that for every tasty restaurant meal or take-away dinner hundreds and thousands of crop varieties have been cultivated, used, researched and depended upon.

The loss of crop diversity, if not halted, will end up removing the options our crops need to adapt to climate change, water shortages and energy and fertilizer constraints. And this will literally lead to a global catastrophe. To end on an optimistic note, this is an avoidable catastrophe. We know how to conserve crop diversity. This is precisely why I find working with the Global Crop Diversity Trust so satisfying. It gives my colleagues and me a chance to make a real contribution to current and future generations. And that is a huge privilege.

To read more about the benefits for both farmers and the environment of preserving crop biodiversity see: “Endangered Species” Means More Than Animals, Traditional Food Crops Provide Community Resilience in Face of Climate Change, Keeping Weeds for Nutrition and Taste, Creating a Well-Rounded Food Revolution, Malawi’s Real Miracle, and Homegrown Solutions to Alleviating Hunger and Poverty.

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