The Salt
11:41 am
Fri March 2, 2012

The Ultimate In Heirloom Wheat Arrives At Seed Vault

Originally published on Sun March 4, 2012 10:00 am

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.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, to a couple of stories about food, and what it says about the people make and consume it. First, this past week, scientists placed thousands of small packages of grain, mostly wheat and barley, in an underground storage vault on a remote Arctic island. That vault holds a growing collection of seeds from all the different kinds of crops that people around the world grow for food.

As NPR's Dan Charles reports, each of those seeds also represents the culture and history of the people who grow it.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: That vault is inside a mountain on a group of islands called Svalbard. It's legally part of Norway but it's way up in the Arctic Ocean, just 600 miles from the North Pole.

Cary Fowler was there in the darkness, and wind and cold, to see this latest shipment of seeds arrive. He's director of the organization that runs the vault, the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

DR. CAREY FOWLER: We got 25,000 samples, about 500 seeds per sample, from really all over the world.

CHARLES: Collections like this are sometimes called gene banks, because they're supposed to preserve 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. They disappeared because farmers turned to a handful of varieties that promise bigger harvests and more profits.

But Fowler says the old ones may have genetic traits that we will need someday to fight off diseases or cope with a changing climate.

FOWLER: The seeds that we have up here in Svalbard are the last remnants of these varieties. If those seed samples are lost in some way, then it's extinction for that particular variety.

CHARLES: Every seed that arrived this week has its own story. There's barley that came to the U.S. from Poland in 1938; a plant called amaranth collected from a small farm in Ecuador, South America in 1979. Also, 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 got in touch with Alexei Morgunov. He's a Russian but he lives in Turkey now and works for CIMMYT, an international research center devoted to corn and wheat. I reached him using Skype.

When you go to Tajikistan, Morgunov says, you see something you cannot find most other places: farmers still planting and harvesting all the traditional kinds of wheat; the same kinds their ancestors have grown for thousands of years.

DR. ALEXEI MORGUNOV: People don't want to give up growing them...

CHARLES: They don't want to give up the traditional wheat, Morgunov says, because those varieties have the taste and texture they want.

MORGUNOV: They prepare especially a homemade bread.

CHARLES: Homemade from home-grown wheat is the centerpiece of life in Tajikistan, Morgunov says. People there get half of all their calories from it. And when they leave home they're likely to take some along.

MORGUNOV: They always bring this homemade bread to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CHARLES: Is that right?

MORGUNOV: They take a flight from Duchanbe to Istanbul, with Turkish Airlines, and they know that there is breakfast and then drinks and bread. They still take a couple of, you know, flat breads with you, just in case.

CHARLES: Morgunov says plant breeders like him have changed their tune about the old varieties in recent years. A few decades ago they'd encourage farmers to replace them with modern, more productive kinds of wheat. Now, he says, he's more likely to work with those older wheat lines, improving them using traditional techniques, but keeping as much as possible. The idea is to preserve them in the fields and not just in gene banks.

Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.