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The+New+Yorker (1)

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Subscribe home New Yorker magazine articles Blogs Audio & Video Reviews of New York events: Goings on About Town New Yorker Cartoons New Yorker Topics Complete New Yorker Archives and Digital Edition The New Yorker Reporting & Essays ANNALS OF AGRICULTURE SOWING FOR APOCALYPSE The quest for a global seed bank. by John Seabrook AUGUST 27, 2007
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Cary Fowler is engaged in the Noah-like task of gathering the seeds of some two million varieties of food plants. 2 Recommend Share Print E-Mail Single Page A Correction appended . cold drizzle was falling over St. Petersburg last March, and the gray morning light filtered through the grimy windows of the ceremonial rooms of the Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry, one of the oldest seed banks—and the most storied—in the world, situated on St. Isaac’s Square. In one of the rooms, a woman in a smock sat at a table with a brown packet, and its contents, pea seeds, spilled out over the table in front of her. She did not look up from sorting through the seeds as two visitors passed, and, with her lips moving silently, she appeared to be lost in thought, or prayer. Cary Fowler had an appointment to meet the director general of the Vavilov Institute, Nikolai Dzyubenko, in order to discuss the institute’s seeds. Fowler, an American, is the world’s seed banker. It’s a nebulously defined position, yet a critical one. As the executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which funds the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, in Norway, Fowler is engaged in the Noah-like task of gathering the seeds of about two million varieties of food plants—both the familiar domesticated crops and many of their wild relatives—in order to create the first global seed bank.
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We tend to imagine apocalypse coming in the form of a bomb, an asteroid, or a tsunami, but should a catastrophe strike one of the world’s major crops Fowler and his fellow seed bankers may be all that stand between us and widespread starvation. Any of the diseases currently active in the United States—the rust fungus attacking soybeans; the potato late blight (the same one that caused the Irish potato famine), which turns potatoes into a black mass of rot; the Western bean cutworm, which feeds on corn plants—has the potential to turn into a devastating nationwide scourge. Should that happen, the only remedy—genetic resistance—might lie in an obscure variety, stored in a seed bank. The Vavilov Institute is a monument to the extraordinary sacrifices people have made in order to save seeds. During the winter of 1941-42, when Hitler’s troops were blockading Leningrad, cutting off food and supplies, the scientists who worked there protected the seeds stored inside the buildings, which amounted to several tons of nutritious food, from the starving Russians outside. At night, thousands of rats would invade the laboratories; the staff guarded the seed collections with metal rods. When some collections of potatoes needed resowing during the winter, institute workers found a plot outside Leningrad, near the front. Eventually, much of
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