April 16, 2018

Citizen Leadership Medalist Cary Fowler Honored by Batten on UVA Founder's Day

(Editor’s note: The original article appears in UVA Today. This excerpt is posted with permission.)

International agriculturalist Cary Fowler spoke Thursday, April 12 at Batten. His presentation is here.

On Founder’s Day, UVA celebrates achievement in fields admired by Jefferson.

From left, Citizen Leadership medalist Cary Fowler, Architecture medalist Sir David Adjaye, UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan and Law medalist Judge Frank Easterbrook. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)


The University of Virginia marked founder Thomas Jefferson’s 275th birthday on Friday, April 13 by awarding UVA’s highest external honors—the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medals—to honor extraordinary achievements in fields that the third president admired.

UVA and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello jointly awarded the medals in Architecture, Citizen Leadership and Law during the Founder’s Day festivities on Friday. (The Foundation is the independent, nonprofit organization that owns and operates Monticello.) Each medalist also presented lectures on Grounds.

Morgan Carrington “Cary” Fowler Jr. received the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Citizen Leadership, which is sponsored by Batten. Fowler is an American agriculturalist who led the conservation of more than 930,000 seed varieties in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, the world’s largest collection of crop diversity.

Fowler spoke Thursday, April 12, at a luncheon at Batten, and also delivered a lecture on Friday at Monticello.

Fowler has “devoted his career to safeguarding the world’s food supply,” said Batten Dean Allan Stam in introducing the international leader on Thursday.

Fowler is known as the “father” of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which he called one of his favorite places in the world. The Arctic facility is buried in a mountain near Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago that is the northernmost destination for any commercial airline.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault (photo from the Crop Trust)

Fowler showed photographs of the vault behind him as he spoke of founding, and leading, the critical work of the seed vault, which is protected by permafrost and rock.

“This room has, by some definitions, the largest collection of biodiversity on earth,” Fowler said. “It really is the foundation of agriculture; humanity really does depend on it.

“This facility takes in duplicate copies from seed banks around the world and stores them in a safe, secure location, forever and for free.”

Cary Fowler speaking in the Great Room of Garrett Hall (photo by Carl Briggs)

The temperature is kept at minus-18 degrees Celsius, safeguarding seeds for up to 20,000 years, depending on the crop variety.

There are seeds from 234 countries, representing nearly every crop in the world. The seeds can be used to replenish crop varieties that are at risk for extinction and supplement the global food supply.

Fowler and his team believe Svalbard is among the safest – and coldest – locations on Earth for the seed vault. Other seed vaults around the world are at risk from natural disaster or man-made conflict.

Svalbard told students of one prominent vault in Aleppo, Syria that he helped evacuate, getting the last seeds out about two weeks before fighters overtook the facility.

Cary Fowler (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

More generally, he said, global agriculture is at risk due to dwindling water supplies, shortages in land and nutrients and climate change, which Fowler said worries him most of all.

“Agriculture faces the largest number of serious challenges since the dawn of agriculture, really,” he said.

He sees the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and other efforts to preserve crop diversity as a key step in protecting agriculture and preparing for whatever unknown changes the future might bring.

“I don’t know what kind of agricultural system we will have 500 years from now,” Fowler said during the question-and-answer portion of the event. “But, any system I can conceive of will require genetic diversity. The best I can do right now is try to conserve that diversity.”

(photo by Carl Briggs) 


You may read more about Founder’s Day activities and UVA’s recognition of Cary Fowler here, here, and here. You may read more about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault here, here, here, and here.