A few days ago, amid darkness and freezing winds, thousands of small packages of seeds were carried into an underground storage vault on a remote Arctic island. That vault holds a growing collection of seeds from all the different kinds of crops around the world that humans grow for food.
The seeds — 740,000 samples and counting — are stored inside a mountain on a group of islands called Svalbard, which is legally part of Norway, but is located far out in the Arctic Ocean, just 600 miles from the North Pole.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault — along with dozens of other, less-secure collections around the world — is supposed to preserve a vital part of the world’s botanical gene pool; in this case, all the varieties of corn or peas or tomatoes that have disappeared from farmers’ fields.
Those varieties disappeared because farmers turned to varieties that promise bigger harvests and greater profits. But Cary Fowler, director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which runs the Svalbard vault, says the old varieties hold underappreciated genetic traits that we may need someday in order to fight diseases or cope with a changing climate.
The preserved seeds “are the last remnants of these varieties,” he says. “If those seed samples are lost in some way, it’s extinction for that particular variety.” (NPR aired a profile of Cary Fowler in 2006, when work began on the Svalbard vault.)
Every seed that arrived this week has its own story. The shipment included seeds from a barley variety that came to the U.S. from Poland in 1938, and from a kind of amaranth collected from a small farm in Ecuador in 1979.
It also included the first seeds from Tajikistan — a small mountainous slice of the former Soviet Union, just north of Afghanistan.
To find out more about those seeds, I called Alexey Morgounov. He’s a Russian who now lives in Turkey,and works for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.
When you go to Tajikistan, Morgounov says, you’ll see something you can’t find most other places: farmers still planting and harvesting the same kinds of wheat that their ancestors have grown for thousands of years.
“People don’t want to give up growing them,” he says, because they know that those traditional varieties of wheat are the key to making bread with exactly the taste and texture that they want.
Homemade bread, from homegrown wheat, is the centerpiece of life in Tajikistan, Morgounov says. People there get half of all their calories from it.
And when they leave home, they like to take some along with them.
“They always bring this homemade bread to me,” he says. “They take a plane from Duchanbe to Istanbul, with Turkish Airlines, and they know that there is breakfast, and drinks, and bread. They still take some flat breads, just in case.”
Morgounov says he and his fellow plant breeders have changed their tune in recent years, when it comes to the old varieties. A few decades ago, they encouraged farmers to replace them with modern, more productive kinds of wheat.
Now, he says, he’s more likely to work with those older lines of wheat, using traditional techniques to improve them, but keeping as much as possible. The goal is to preserve them in the fields, and not just in gene banks.