Two Win World Food Prize for Securing Agricultural Seeds

by Ella

Around two decades ago, Cary Fowler and Geoffrey Hawtin embarked on a mission to safeguard the world’s food supply and combat hunger. Their visionary concept was to establish a “doomsday vault” for plant seeds—a secure storage facility designed to preserve a diverse collection of seeds against potential threats such as war, climate change, or other crises. The location they chose for this ambitious project was a mountain north of the Arctic Circle.

“To a lot of people today, it sounds like a perfectly reasonable thing to do,” Fowler remarked in an interview with the Associated Press from Saudi Arabia. He emphasized that seeds are a crucial natural resource in need of protection. However, he reflected on the initial reactions to their idea, saying, “Fifteen years ago, shipping a lot of seeds to the closest place to the North Pole that you can fly into and putting them inside a mountain… it was the craziest idea anybody ever had.”


The World Food Prize

This bold idea materialized into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the Norwegian island of Svalbard, which opened in 2008. Today, the vault houses 1.25 million seed samples from almost every country in the world. Embedded into the side of a mountain, it safeguards the seeds of over 6,000 agriculturally significant plants. According to the Crop Trust website, the vault’s purpose is to serve as a backup for genebank collections, ensuring the security of the future food supply.


Last week, Fowler and Hawtin were honored with the 2024 World Food Prize for their groundbreaking work. Fowler currently serves as the U.S. special diplomat for global food security, while Hawtin is an agricultural scientist from Britain. The announcement was made at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, where Secretary of State Antony Blinken commended the pair for their “critical role in preserving crop diversity.”


The Impact of Climate Change

For many years, countries have maintained seed banks to store seeds for future use. However, Fowler voiced concerns about the impact of climate change on agriculture, which heightens the importance of a secure seed supply. Hawtin, an executive board member at the Global Crop Diversity Trust, highlighted the increasing threats to crops, including insects, disease, land degradation, and political unrest. He noted that climate change exacerbates these issues by introducing new pests and diseases, adding further complexity to an already challenging situation.


Fowler and Hawtin hope that winning the World Food Prize will draw attention to the need for continuous financial support for seed banks worldwide. Although operating these facilities is not overly expensive, sustained funding is crucial. “This is really a chance to get that message out and say, look, this relatively small amount of money is our insurance policy—our insurance policy that we’re going to be able to feed the world in 50 years,” Hawtin stated.

The Legacy of Norman Borlaug

The World Food Prize was established by Norman Borlaug, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his contributions to the “Green Revolution”—an initiative aimed at increasing crop productivity to feed the world’s growing population. This fall, Fowler and Hawtin will formally accept their award in Des Moines, Iowa, where the World Food Prize Foundation is headquartered. They will also share the $500,000 prize. The presentation will take place at the annual Norman E. Borlaug International Dialogue, scheduled to be held in Des Moines from October 29 to 31.



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