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Seeds of hope, concern after vault's first year

As birthday parties go, it's something of a downer when the conversation is about getting people to worry about a food crisis a century from now when paying for groceries today is a struggle.

But those celebrating said the current global economic crisis offers an opportunity as they try – literally – sowing seeds of hope for the future.

Warnings went unheeded about reckless financial behavior by politicians and consumers more interested in immediate gratification, agreed many of the scientists, agriculture officials and others gathering for the first anniversary of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Similar apathy and denial about climate change are widespread despite an avalanche of scary research, making preventative projects such as the vault difficult to pursue.

"Again I would say what's going on in this area is a bit of neurotic behavior," said Sam Dryden, CEO of Emergent Genetics LLC, a private developer and marketer of biotechnology-enhanced seeds. "Consumers want a lot of food, they want it cheap and and they want it fast. They don't even care about the nutritional quality."

Governments want economic growth and stability, Dryden said, while industrial food processors "want increased sales, reduced costs and higher earnings"

"Once they get a model to do that they're highly resistent to change," he said.

His remarks were part of three days of presentations and discussions by more than 50 participants Feb. 25-27, including a midday visit to the seed vault on the anniversary of its Feb. 26 opening. The vault, burrowed more than 100 meters inside the permafrost of a mountain about a kilometer from the Longyearbyen airport, is designed to store 4.5 million seed varieties provided by countries and institutions who have exclusive access to them in the event of a catastrophe.

The vault generally got only passing mention during the seminars, which focused on the likely impacts of climate change, the challenges agriculture faces and what is necessary to make it an issue people are willing to confront.
Temperatures are likely to increase 2C to 3.5C (3.6F to 6.3F) degrees by 2100, with the lower estimate occurring even if utopian policies on carbon emissions are enacted, said David

Battisti, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington. He said we now produce carbon dioxide at 100 to 1,000 times the rate nature can convert it into oxygen.
Earth is already "the warmest it's ever been for many millions of years" after a .85C (1.5F) degree increase during the past 100 years, Battisti said. By 2050 large portions of the world's equatorial region will be experiencing record seasonal heat, along with more severe but less frequent storms, and by 2100 such conditions will exist for virtually the entire planet.

"I don't think we should be discussing the details of what happened the past 100 years because what happened the past 100 years is small" compared to the future, he said.

That threat is why "crop diversity" was the buzzword from many of the presenters at the conference. M.S. Swaminathan, 83, a member of India's parliament known as the "father of the green revolution" in that country, said global vulnerability to vanishing species is already being felt in drastic ways such as a severe rice shortage last year that caused deadly food riots and sent prices skyrocketing.

A "blend of traditional wisdom and modern science" is necessary to cope, Swaminathan said. Certain species of rice are highly adaptable to varying water levels and drought conditions, for instance, which allowed some crops to survive a 2004 tsunami that killed 225,000 people and displaced more than 1 million more in 11 countries primarily in Southeast Asia.

"They would have disappeared, but some farmers from their own knowledge knew they were more resistant to seawater and were able to retain them," Swaminathan said.

Crop breeding programs and other preventative measures aren't getting the funding or other support necessary, said Cary Fowler, executive director of The Global Crop Diversity Trust.

"There are a number of seed banks around the world, not all of which are operating at maximum capacity or up to international standards," he said. "A number of those seeds are dying."

The trust is working to replace such seeds, but "we really don't have the crop diversity in any one country that any one country is going to need to make that transition" caused by climate change, Fowler said. He showed a slide of the last Norse church in Greenland, now in ruins as the Norse farmers refused to follow the example of natives who became hunters when a cooling period hit the area.

"We can say it's too far down road in the future, so we don't have to worry about it now," he said. We can say it's too expensive. But history teaches us that societies that don't make adjustments to climate change end up in photographs like this."

Scary statistics and recent catastrophes aren't proving enough to get people to take the threat seriously, many at the conference agreed.

Particular concern was expressed about the U.S., where polls show residents are roughly divided on whether humans are responsible and about one-third say global warming is nonexistent. A front-page Sunday story in the New York Times on March 1 headlined "Obama’s Backing Raises Hopes for Climate Pact" drew at least as many derisive remarks as supportive ones in the readers' comments section.

"The very greatest benefit of this recession is this: no American politician will be dumb enough to throw serious money at the ludicrous, pseudo-religious, moralizing 'hysteria of the elites' that is 'global warming,'" one commenter wrote.

Frank Loy, an environment adviser to President Obama, told those at the conference that most Americans believe global warming is real and man-made, "but when you ask them to list the most serious problems, climate change drops to the bottom again and again."

There's also a mentality among many of the world's politicians to save one person with an immediate need even if it means sacrificing 100 people in the future, participants said. It's also tough to argue hypothetical future problems deserve resources instead of current ones.

"I can't say to policy makers 'Do this instead of AIDS or girls' education,'" said Mark Cackler, manager of the World Bank's agriculture and rural development department. "But those of us who are in this field do have a responsibility to advocate for what we think does work."

"Every study I've seen shows the rates of return on agricultural research are sky high....(and) there's too few funds going into these areas."

Some also wondered with frustration "who's in charge" when it comes to coordinating a plan involving all interests, with few good answers to be found.

"Nobody's in charge and nobody's going to be in charge," said Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation. "The only way to succeed is creating win-win scenarios where industry also benefits."

Third parties such as non-governmental organizations can play a crucial role in resolving the inherent tension between the government and private sector, Dryden said.

"We fiercely protect the materials that we develop in the markets, but I think it's important that we focus on the common good," he said.

Zambia rejected food donations in 2002 because some of it might be genetically modified, said Nina Federoff, the U.S. secretary of state's chief science advisor. She said crop breeding is too slow to deal with a crisis and "unfortunately there are people around the world who believe genetically modified crops are harmful and untested." There wasn't universal agreement among participants on the latter point, with Peter Johan Schei of Norway's Fridtjof Nansen Institute observing the subject is "highly debatable" and an obvious topic of future discussion.

Many of the participants will also attend the United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen in December, where 192 countries will try to agree on a climate policy for 2012 and beyond. Lars Peder Brekk, Norway's minster of agriculture and food, said policy making needs to shift focus "from scientists and experts to policy for people and farmers."

"We don't believe that people and farmers understand the challenges and the problems," he said. "The financial crisis has given us the opportunity to think anew, and it is in fact important to invest more in green food, green energy and green policy."

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