The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, affectionately dubbed the “doomsday” vault, is our global biodiversity insurance policy. Located on a remote archipelago north of the Arctic Circle—its steely, monolithic entrance designed to withstand bomb blasts and earthquakes—the facility safeguards seeds from all over the world beneath the snow in the belly of a frozen mountain.
“The fate of humankind is resting on these genetic resources,” Cary Fowler, chair of the International Advisory Council at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, said in Seeds of Time, a documentary about the vault. “So nothing could be more important.”
But before doomsday, there’s just today—and plant breeders have plenty of work to do. Across the globe, scientists and breeders working at the seed banks that have been duplicated at Svalbard have a laborious job: making sure the world can continue to grow enough food no matter what curve balls climate change throws our way. Agriculture faces a tall order: Maintain food security as the population rises by an additional 3 billion people by 2050, requiring an estimated 60 percent increase in global food production. Farmers are already grappling with increased instances of drought, floods, and record heat waves, not to mention degraded soil.
“We seem to be entering a period of relatively unstable climate, and that’s the hardest thing to breed for," said Matthew Reynolds of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center. “It’s exciting [work], but a lot of people’s food security depends on it, which makes it urgent.”
These are the crops of the future.
World Vegetable Center
Technically, Peter Hanson is a tomato breeder, but his skills have the potential to be more broadly applied.
“It’s matchmaking,” he explained.
First, he decides what traits a new, climate-hardy variety of tomato needs. Accessing the World Vegetable Center gene bank, he chooses one plant to improve and crosses it with a second plant that has the characteristics he wants to introduce. In this way, tomatoes have been bred to be more disease resistant or to withstand periods of intense heat. One new plant variety can take three years to develop—and only then comes the additional field testing to determine a new strain’s adaptation to local environments. It’s slow work, but the results of the process can make a big difference to farmers who depend on the crop for their livelihoods.
Farming is a precarious endeavor, subject to the whims of weather and pest. Whereas the problems in a given locale are usually a known quantity, that’s changing. “I’m finding more tropical diseases showing up in more places,” Hanson said, “and I’m finding it happening through much of the year, whereas in the past it was confined to certain seasons.”
For tomatoes, tomato yellow leaf curl virus, spread by whiteflies, is one such threat—it’s one of the most damaging pathogens to tomatoes grown in tropical and subtropical areas of the world. The World Vegetable Center is conducting trials in India to assess the performance of 15 tomato lines with genes for resistance to the disease.
“It will benefit perhaps thousands of farmers in India alone,” Hanson said. “I expect we’ll see more of this kind of impact in other parts of South Asia and hopefully East Africa in the near future too.”
It would not be the first time such discoveries have made a difference to local farmers. The World Vegetable Center developed the top disease-resistant tropical tomatoes in Tanzania, where plants must withstand drought, excessive heat, declining soil fertility, pests, and diseases. Seeing the results of new tomatoes in the field can be one of the most rewarding parts of the job, Hanson said.
“I see that I can help solve problems that [farmers] are wrestling with,” he said. “They may not know who I am, but I feel it’s an honor that I can do something to help them.”
Rice is a daily staple for about half the globe’s population—many of those people are food insecure—and its production provides a livelihood for more than 1 billion people. Managed flooding of rice paddies is integral to production, but if plants are submerged for more than four days, they can die. In Asia, where most of the world’s rice is grown and consumed, about 50 million acres of paddies are at risk of flooding; in especially flood-prone areas, such as Bangladesh and India, rising waters can cause $600 million in annual crop losses.
This is one of several challenges the International Rice Research Institute breeds for in its program to produce climate-smart rices. In 2006, scientists were able to identify a gene for flood tolerance in traditional Indian varieties of rice, and they have used its genetic code to breed varieties that continue to produce grain after being flooded for as long as two weeks. IRRI has since released flood-tolerant rices in India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar, Laos, and Nepal.
This summer, IRRI held field demos in India to show off flood-resistant BINA Dhan11 to farmers. When the new variety was planted side by side with a widely grown variety called Lalat, it was impossible to not see the difference: Beside the flat Lalat, which looked as if it had been trampled, the BINA Dhan11 stood tall.
IRRI’s International Rice Genebank is home to 127,000 rice varieties from around the world, including wild relatives of the crop, which was first domesticated between 8,200 and 13,500 years ago in China. These wild rices—including the slender black grains native to the Great Lakes region of the U.S.—have thrived in native ecosystems without human interference, naturally developing desirable traits for agriculture, such as tolerance for stresses like drought and heat. The wealth of genetic material these plants contain is of enormous importance to plant breeders, and crosses made with wild species have led to cultivated varieties that are resistant to a host of diseases.
In 2002, in the dry, northeast region of Zimbabwe, a group of women farmers grew frustrated with their poor harvests of hybrid maize planted from seeds they’d received from ag companies and the national government.
“They said they would rather go back to their original crops rather than depend on maize,” explained Andrew Mushita of the Community Technology Development Trust, a development organization in Zimbabwe that has worked closely with the women over the last decade. “So we had some discussions: What are your original crops?”
The women talked of small grains and cereals—varieties of sorghum, millet, and legumes that had been the mainstays of agriculture in the region. Some of the seeds had been lost locally but were stored in regional and national germplasm banks. The community was able to access the seed-bank stocks and began to grow the crops once again, rebuilding and improving on the system that existed before hybrid corn arrived. As Mushita explained, seed companies focus their efforts on high-value crops like maize, barley, and wheat because they offer higher returns than the small cereals. But not all farmers have the capital to invest in the pesticides and fertilizers that would make the most of these crops.
The Zimbabwean farmers now independently manage the 3,500-member Chibika Community Seed Bank, which makes the traditional seeds free to all. Biodiversity has exploded in the region since the seed bank opened, and farmers grow a variety of indigenous vegetables, legumes, and small cereals, including finger millet, amaranth, groundnuts, okra, pumpkin, and a leafy green called blackjack.
In addition to distributing seeds, the bank holds annual seed fairs, which are an opportunity for farmers to exchange seeds and to share information about cultivating the revived crops. It is also a chance for policy makers to witness how seed security is enhancing “the food and nutrition aspects of their livelihoods,” Mushita explained. Two thousand people attended the seed fair in September, including Zimbabwe’s deputy minister of women affairs, gender, and community development, who stressed the need to recognize the work that women farmers have done to preserve indigenous crop varieties.
Since ditching corn, farmers in the region “have increased their food production tremendously, and they’re no longer very much exposed to these droughts where they have to beg for food,” Mushita said.
Recall the grade school lesson of the Irish potato famine: A country relied on one type of potato for much of its sustenance, and when a blight wiped out that crop, 1 million people died of hunger, and another million were displaced. That should give you a pretty good bearing on the importance of the work carried out by the International Potato Center (CIP). The center holds more than 80 percent of the world’s native potato and sweet potato cultivars and more than 80 percent of the known species of wild potato. Breeders in 100 countries around the world work with the germplasm, which was used in the development of vitamin-A-enriched, climate-resilient sweet potatoes that garnered four CIP scientists the World Food Prize in 2016.
CIP’s orange-fleshed sweet potato varieties can also withstand dry spells and were distributed to more than 134,000 households in drought-plagued Mozambique. Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children and increases the risk of disease and death from infection in children as well as pregnant and lactating women.
While CIP is on the cutting edge of agronomy, it also relies on and has a deep respect for the rich knowledge of indigenous farmers who have been the stewards of crop biodiversity for centuries. In recognition of that, the center has a unique partnership with the in situ conservation area in Peru’s Sacred Valley, which is tucked in the Andes near Cusco. As opposed to being stored in a gene bank, or ex situ, the Potato Park “seed bank” is in its original place, managed and protected by 7,000 Quechua people who live there and cultivate more than half of the known potato varieties in the world. They have shared more than 200 of the 900 wild potato varieties that are native to the area with scientists at the CIP, enabling breeders to cultivate new climate-smart potato varieties.
It is difficult to get Matthew Paul Reynolds, head of wheat physiology at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), to tell a “success story” about his breeding work. When pressed, he shared that his team released cultivars of wheat adapted to grow in heat-stricken Pakistan, where record temperatures in Karachi caused the deaths of more than 1,300 people in 2015. It’s also routine work, he said, to release cultivars resistant to Ug99, the most virulent race of wheat stem rust and a huge threat to global wheat production.
“These are tests that are ongoing and have huge importance, but they’re not dramatic,” he said. “They would be dramatic if we didn’t do them.”
The dogged, plodding pace of plant breeding, in other words, is not for drama seekers or glory hounds. Adapting plants for climate change happens incrementally, Reynolds said, with heat- and drought-adaptability characteristics accumulating over time. Just as Apple didn’t leap from the first generation to iPhone7, he said, “you don’t make a cross and come up with something that has 20 percent better yield. It doesn’t happen.” CIMMYT, for its part, has been at it since the 1940s.
Yet there is a mounting time pressure to deliver dramatic solutions. Research has shown that wheat yields decline 6 percent for each 1-degree-Celsius rise in temperature.
That is why the center takes on Herculean efforts that build on promising and incremental progress. In March, scientists from CIMMYT announced they had genetically characterized a collection of 8,400 centuries-old Mexican wheat varieties that had, over time, adapted to varied and sometimes extreme conditions—a gold mine of genes for new cultivars of heat-adaptive wheat in Mexico and around the world.
If a treasure trove of genes isn’t sufficiently dramatic, a treasure chest of financial benefits could be. A study in 2010 revealed that $30 million of public funding that went toward wheat research yielded $2.2 billion to $3.1 billion in benefits—an impressive yet frustrating figure given the constant challenges of securing funding.
“I want to spend 90 percent of my time solving these food-security issues, as I’m trained to, as a scientist—how to make a wheat plant more adapted to heat or drought,” Reynolds said. “I don’t want to spend, as I do, 50 percent of my time as a bureaucrat.”