The seeds that could save humanity


The seeds that could save humanity
Wheat in Ethiopia is being tested for the virulent disease wheat stem rust.

Designed to survive any threat—failures of refrigeration, terrorism, explosions, rising sea levels, and the worst climate change predictions—the Global Seed Vault stands cached in the Arctic landscape of Plateau Mountain on an island in the Norwegian archipelego of Svalbard. 

In "Seeds on Ice: Svalbard and the Global Seed Vault," images by renowned Norwegian photographer Mari Tefre, National Geographic and Traveler photographer Jim Richardson, and author Cary Fowler, who led the initial effort to establish the vault, take readers inside the facility, to the surrounding area where polar bears outnumber humans two-to-one, and to the far reaches of the Earth, where the seeds that fill this genebank were harvested.

Outside the vault at night
© Mari Tefre
Outside the vault at night

"The Vault, perhaps one of the world's most important buildings, was as my second home for years while I was living in Svalbard," says Mari Tefre. "To be a part of such valuable work, saving seeds for future generations, was tremendous."

Living and photographing in such a harsh climate brings rewards as intense as the challenges, says Tefre. "Photographing in the Arctic could be challenging with either total darkness, freezing fingers, or bright midnight sun. I was sometimes afraid a polar bear would join me. It was great and emotional. I loved it."

<i>Isbjorn</i> in Norwegian, ice bears, are the royalty of Svalbard.
© Mari Tefre
Isbjorn in Norwegian, ice bears, are the royalty of Svalbard.

Photographer Jim Richardson describes the story as a "Quixotic quest to save one of mankind’s greatest gifts: our seeds."

"The Svalbard Global Seed Vault jutting from an arctic mountain harbors not just the heritage of 10,000 years of agriculture but also the dreams of Cary Fowler and his cohort, people devoted to our survival in the face of unknown dangers," says Richardson. "I’m so proud to have a few of my images in these pages and to perhaps add a footnote to a grand saga. Altogether it is a beautiful story and a beautiful book." 

Fowler's eloquent narrative reveals his love and respect for the area and for the mission. It's fascinating, gripping, and more than a little terrifying when you grasp the importance of genetic diversity in our food sources and how many varieties have already been lost to extinction. The traits that come from genetic diversity are what might protect a crop from catastrophic failure, and once lost those traits are lost to future varieties.

Published by Prospecta Press, "Seeds on Ice: Svalbard and the Global Seed Vault" is a beautiful, engaging documentation of a project that may save us all one day. 

Joan Sherwood is the senior editor of Professional Photographer.

Tags: documentary photographypersonal photography project

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