Leaders behind creation of Arctic vault protecting millions of seeds receive World Food Prize

May 10, 2024 by No Comments

Two men who played key roles in creating the “craziest idea anyone ever had” of building a global seed vault designed to safeguard the world’s agricultural diversity will be honored as the 2024 World Food Prize laureates, officials announced Thursday in Washington. Cary Fowler, the U.S. special envoy for Global Food Security, and Geoffrey Hawtin, an agricultural scientist from the United Kingdom and executive board member at the Global Crop Diversity Trust, will receive the annual prize this fall, where the food prize foundation is based. They will split a $500,000 award. The winners of the prize were named at the State Department, where Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised the men for their “critical work to advance global crop biodiversity and conserve over 6,000 varieties of crops and culturally important plants, which has had a direct impact in addressing hunger around the world.”

Fowler and Hawtin led an effort starting in 2004 to construct a backup vault of the world’s crop seeds in a location where it could be safe from political turmoil and environmental changes. A site was chosen on a Norwegian island in the Arctic Circle where temperatures could ensure seeds could be kept safely in a facility built into the side of a mountain. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened in 2008 and now holds 1.25 million seed samples from nearly every country in the world.

Fowler, who initially proposed establishing the seed vault in Norway, said his idea was initially met with puzzlement by the leaders of seed banks in some countries. “To a lot of people today, it sounds like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It’s a valuable natural resource and you want to offer robust protection for it,” he said in an interview from Saudi Arabia. “Fifteen years ago, shipping a lot of seeds to the closest place to the North Pole that you can fly into, putting them inside a mountain — that’s the craziest idea anybody ever had.”

Hundreds of smaller seed banks have existed in other countries for many decades, but Fowler said he was motivated by a concern that climate change would throw agriculture into turmoil, making a plentiful seed supply even more essential. Hawtin said that there were plenty of existing crop threats, such as insects, diseases and land degradation, but that heightened the need for a secure, backup seed vault. In part, that’s because climate change has the potential of making those earlier problems even worse. “You end up with an entirely new spectrum of pests and diseases under different climate regimes,” Hawtin said in an interview from southwest England. “Climate change is putting a whole lot of extra problems on what has always been significant ones.”

Fowler and Hawtin said they hope their selection as World Food Prize laureates will enable them push for hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funding of seed bank endowments around the world. Maintaining those operations is relatively cheap, especially when considering how essential they are to ensuring a plentiful food supply, but the funding needs continue forever. “This is really a chance to get that message out and say, look, this relatively small amount of money is our insurance policy, our insurance policy that we’re going to be able to feed the world in 50 years,” Hawtin said. The was founded by Norman Borlaug, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his part in the Green Revolution, which dramatically increased crop yields and reduced the threat of starvation in many countries. The food prize will be awarded at the annual Norman E. Borlaug International Dialogue, held Oct. 29-31 in Des Moines.