Last week, in a remote part of Norway, a former Memphian placed 100 million seeds into the heart of a mountain. But what he was planting was a contingency plan.
Crop Trust executive director Cary Fowler is the man behind the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
Built into the permafrost, the vault will contain seeds from more than 24,000 crop species worldwide.
"It's not a time capsule," Fowler explains from his home city of Rome. "We don't close the door and walk away and forget everything. This is a living institution."
Located on an island 600 miles from the North Pole, the vault is equipped with motion detectors, a security door, and the protection that comes with being in the heart of polar bear country.
"We had a long list of criteria, and it met all of them," Fowler says of the location. "We wanted a place that was remote ... but it also needed to be accessible. Svalbard is the farthest north you can fly on a regularly scheduled airplane, though it's only once a day when the weather is good."
Norway is also a stable country. In recent years, regional seedbanks have fallen prey to natural disasters and, in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, have met their ends during human conflicts.
"They weren't targets," Fowler says of those lost seed banks, "but they get in the way. They're buildings."
The facility in Norway will operate much like a bank safe-deposit box, if it were refrigerated at minus-29 degrees Celsius. Countries can store seeds there until they need them, whether because their own seed bank collection has been destroyed or for more dire reasons. Seeds will only be released when all other seed stores have been exhausted.
Fowler cautions that the vault — though it might come in handy during some doomsday scenario, such as a nuclear disaster — is meant to maintain diversity in the face of today's changing environment.
"Doomsday is happening every day for crop diversity," he says. "We're losing unique varieties of agricultural crops every single day. ... It's not in the same sense that someone loses their car keys. When we lose them, these crop varieties become extinct."
And as varieties go extinct, the species lose their ability to adapt and survive. "Any species that doesn't have diversity can't make changes and will go the way of the dinosaurs," Fowler says. "That includes wheat and rice. They don't get a free pass."
It's a sobering thought in a world of 6 billion people.
The idea for a global seed vault had been floating around Fowler's small circle, but in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, plant scientists decided to be safe instead of sorry.
When the vault opened February 26th, the Crop Trust received more than 250,000 varieties of seeds the first day. The vault has room for 2 billion seeds.
Though seeds can last a long time — experimental data suggests sorghum seeds can last 20,000 years — seeds begin to lose their ability to germinate, even under the best conditions. When this happens, vault scientists will grow the plant and harvest new seeds.
Already, a little bit of the Mid-South has been stored. Seeds from this region include Tennessee teardrop pepper, Mississippi purple black-eyed peas, and Missouri turkey beans.
"Many are varieties that simply aren't grown any more; the only place they exist is in seed packages," Fowler says.
He's scheduled to be back in town March 10th to speak at the Pink Palace Museum. Fowler's talk, "Seed Banks and Polar Bears: The Quest To Save Agriculture's Past and Our Future," will focus on the seed vault and the importance of crop diversity.
"I don't think people understand how much diversity is out there. Most people think of rice as white, brown, and Uncle Ben's, but there are more than 100,000 types of rice," Fowler says.
Many people also don't think about pestilence or disease.
"We can't assume our food supplies are as secure as they are today," Fowler says. "People will say their Wonder Bread tastes no different than it did 25 years ago, but I can promise you, it is made from a different variety of wheat than it was 25 years ago."
Having different varieties — even if it's just in seed packets at the top of the world — can help botanists breed crops that are disease-resistant or resilient to climate change.
"Crop diversity is essential to the survival of our agricultural system and civilization. We lose this crop diversity at our own peril," Fowler says. "It's so easy to save that diversity, it would be foolish not to."
It might be food for thought today, but tomorrow, it may just be food.