Business View: The world wheat crisis and a Noah's Ark of seeds

The present wheat crisis reminded me of the first time I met Professor Cary Fowler. It was over supper at one of the three restaurants on the Arctic island of Svalbard and we were debating if we dared try the whale steak. Neither of us was brave enough, choosing instead beefburger and chips. Over dinner, the professor, the world's authority on crops, explained why he had spent the past 20 years badgering governments about the need for a single safe storage place for all the seeds on the planet which give us our food.

Professor Fowler said that while most countries have seed banks for their indigenous crops, many seeds were being lost. That was because they were either becoming extinct or casualties of war, as with the case of the Iraqi seed bank, or just going missing through ineptitude – thieves looted the seed bank in Zambia thinking it was a money bank. The US crop geneticist was so worried that the world could be losing its most basic resource that he came up with the idea of an international vault where duplicates of the 100 million or so of the world's crop species could be guarded. A Noah's Ark, if you will, holding all the seeds needed to restart the world should our food supplies be wiped out by nuclear war or mankind's other idiocies.

As head of the Rome-based Global Crops Diversity Trust, Professor Fowler spent years persuading governments to agree to share their seeds with each other. But this wasn't easy as so many countries were frightened of giving away such precious resources – as precious to some as metals such as gold.

But he won his battle, getting international agreement in June 2006, which is when we met on the wild Arctic island to celebrate. It was the oddest occasion: a stone-laying ceremony on a windy hill on the site of the new vault, with a few lucky reporters mingling with the prime ministers of Norway, which funds the vault, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. The PMs had flown in by private jet on their way to a nearby Nordic council meeting. Professor Fowler recommended the island because of its icy remoteness: it's the most northerly inhabited place in the world, some 500 miles from the North Pole. Being there is like standing on the edge of the planet. Not somewhere terrorists are likely to seek out.

To show what this Doomsday vault might look like, Fowler took us to see the Nordic Seed Bank already on Svalbard, buried deep in an old coal mine where the permafrost keeps the rock frozen. Locked away inside a disused shaft was a giant black container in which the 32,000 seeds of all the crops now growing in the Nordic countries are kept. Here the seeds will stay fresh for thousands, if not millions, of years.

Then his visions for his international safety box seemed worthy, romantic even, if not a little far-fetched. Now, with today's chronic food shortages and soaring wheat prices, he looks smart.

Drought over the past two years in Australia, and erratic US weather, have led to the greatest shortage of wheat in decades. Meanwhile, the decision by American farmers, the world's biggest wheat exporters, to grow crops for biofuels, backed by heavy subsidies, has prompted them to switch to corn and soya. US wheat inventories are down to their lowest since 1946, with enough stocks to cover just 12 per cent of consumption.

There are bigger problems. Water shortages – 70 per cent of the world's water is used for farming – and changing weather patterns due to global warming are affecting the sorts of plants that can be grown. Some 100,000 species are close to extinction because so many developing countries are not protecting their seed collections and because of the return of the deadly wheat stem rust, a disease known since Roman times, which has now spread to Iran.

Speaking to Professor Fowler again on Friday, back in Rome after the formal opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, he is more worried about food supplies than last time we spoke, warning of a "perfect storm". There are only two ways to improve food production, he says: reclaiming more land and higher yields. He says the latter is the most vital – one of the reasons he is working with climatologists and geneticists to look at crop varieties that can withstand the new weather patterns emerging from global warming.

It was the 1970 food shortages that stirred him to embark on his mission to save diverse crops. Then it was caused by what seemed a trivial matter – anchovy shortages in South America. Cattle farmers, who had been feeding their animals the fish switched to wheat, causing prices to soar and leading to starvation in Africa. As he warns, there is a domino effect to everything we do.

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