Doomsday Vaults, Genebanks and Plant Breeding in the Age of Climate Change



Dr. Cary Fowler, Senior Advisor, Global Crop Diversity Trust

Date and Time

May 6, 2015 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM



RSVP required by 5PM May 05.

Read a full event summary here

Agricultural crops are on the front lines of climate change. Can we expect increased food production in the context of global warming? Do our crops come pre-adapted to a climate not seen since the dawn of agriculture, or must we take bold measures to prepare agriculture for climate change? This talk will focus on the role that crop diversity must necessarily play in facilitating the adaptation of agricultural crops to new climates and environments. Genebanks, the “Doomsday Vault” near the North Pole, and possible new roles for plant breeders and farmers will be explored. 

Dr. Cary Fowler is perhaps best known as the “father” of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has described as an “inspirational symbol of peace and food security for the entire humanity.” Dr. Fowler proposed creation of this Arctic facility to Norway and headed the international committee that developed the plan for its establishment by Norway. The Seed Vault provides ultimate security for more than 850,000 unique crop varieties, the raw material for all future plant breeding and crop improvement efforts. He currently chairs the International Council that oversees its operations.

In 2005 Dr. Fowler was chosen to lead the new Global Crop Diversity Trust, an international organization cosponsored by Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). This position carried international diplomatic status. During his tenure, he built an endowment of $130 million and raised an additional $100 million (including the first major grant given for agriculture by the Gates Foundation) for programs to conserve crop diversity and make it available for plant breeding. The Trust organized a huge global project to rescue 90,000 threatened crop varieties in developing countries – the largest such effort in history - and is now engaged in an effort Dr. Fowler initiated with the Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew) to collect, conserve and pre-breed the wild relatives of 26 major crops. He oversaw development of a global information system to aid plant breeders and researchers find appropriate genetic materials from genebanks around the world. These initiatives at the Crop Trust, positioned the organization as a major path-breaking player in the global effort to adapt crops to climate change.

Prior to leading the Global Crop Diversity Trust, Dr. Fowler was Professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Ås Norway. He headed research and the Ph.D. program at the Department of International Environment and Development Studies and was a member of the university committee that allocated research funding to the different departments. 

The U.N.’s FAO recruited him in the 1990s to lead the team to produce the UN’s first global assessment of the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources. He was personally responsible for drafting and negotiating the first FAO Global Plan of Action on the Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources, formally adopted by 150 countries in 1996. Following this, Dr. Fowler served as Special Assistant to the Secretary General of the World Food Summit (twice) and represented the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR/World Bank) in negotiations on the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources. He chaired a series of Nordic government sponsored informal meetings of 15 countries to facilitate negotiations for this treaty. And, he represented Norway on the Panel of Experts of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Cary Fowler was born in 1949 and grew up in in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of a judge and a dietician. He studied at Simon Fraser University in Canada where he received a B.A. (honors – first class) degree. He earned his Ph.D. at Uppsala University in Sweden with a thesis on agricultural biodiversity and intellectual property rights. Dr. Fowler has lectured widely, been a visiting scholar at Stanford University and a visiting professor at the University of California – Davis. He is the author or co-author of more than 100 articles and several books including the classic Shattering: Food, Politics and the Loss of Genetic Diversity (University of Arizona Press), Unnatural Selection, Technology, Politics and Plant Evolution (Gordon & Breach Science Publishers) and The State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources (UN-FAO).

Dr. Fowler currently serves on the boards of Rhodes College, the NY Botanical Garden Corporation, the Lillian Goldman Charitable Trust and Amy Goldman Charitable Trust. He remains associated with the Global Crop Diversity Trust as Special Advisor. He is a former member of the U.S. National Plant Genetic Resources Board (appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture) and former board and executive committee member of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico. He has served as chair of the national Livestock Conservancy. He is the recipient of several awards: Right Livelihood Award, Vavilov Medal, the Heinz Award, Bette Midler’s Wind Beneath My Wings Award, the William Brown Award of the Missouri Botanical Garden and two honorary doctorates. He is one of two foreign elected members of the Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences and is a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. 



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Cary Fowler
Rosamond Naylor

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