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Two Men Behind Doomsday Seed Vault Win 2024 World Food Prize

Dr. Geoffrey Hawtin and Dr. Cary Fowler have been awarded the 2024 World Food Prize for their crucial roles in establishing the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which has preserved over 1.25 million seed samples and protected crop diversity while promoting global food security.

Saurabh Shukla
Two Men Behind Doomsday Seed Vault Win 2024 World Food Prize (Photo Source: Svalbard Global Seed Vault)
Two Men Behind Doomsday Seed Vault Win 2024 World Food Prize (Photo Source: Svalbard Global Seed Vault)

Dr. Geoffrey Hawtin OBE and Dr. Cary Fowler have been named the 2024 World Food Prize Laureates in recognition of their crucial roles in preserving the world’s crop diversity and ensuring global food security. These two esteemed scientists were instrumental in establishing the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a critical repository that safeguards over 1.25 million seed samples of more than 6,000 plant species.

Located in the Arctic Circle, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, also known as the “Doomsday Vault,” was opened in 2008. It was designed to protect the world's seed collections from global threats such as climate change, natural disasters, and human conflicts. This secure underground facility is carved into a mountain and acts as the ultimate backup for seed banks around the world, ensuring the preservation of essential crop varieties.

Dr. Fowler and Dr. Hawtin's contributions to the field of seed conservation are monumental. Dr. Fowler, currently the U.S. Special Envoy for Global Food Security, conceived the idea of the Svalbard Vault during his tenure at CGIAR, the world’s largest agricultural research organization. His vision was to create a facility that would preserve crop diversity for future generations, a mission he pursued relentlessly by engaging Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and leading the feasibility study.

Dr. Hawtin, as the Founding Director and Executive Board member of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, played a crucial role in the technical design and establishment of the Seed Vault. He also founded the Crop Trust, which now helps finance the Svalbard Vault alongside the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center, NordGen.

Beyond their work with the Svalbard Vault, both laureates have been champions of international collaboration in genetic resource conservation. They were instrumental in the creation of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, adopted in 2001. This treaty facilitates the global sharing of plant genetic materials, laying the groundwork for the Svalbard Seed Vault's global conservation efforts.

The announcement of their laureateship was made during a ceremony at the U.S. Department of State, hosted by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The World Food Prize Selection Committee, chaired by Gebisa Ejeta, recognized the laureates' long-term vision and commitment to preserving crop biodiversity. Their efforts have been crucial in addressing global hunger and ensuring that future generations have access to diverse and resilient crop varieties.

Dr. Fowler and Dr. Hawtin's contributions extend beyond the creation of the Svalbard Vault. They have both been deeply involved in the establishment and management of numerous genebanks worldwide. These genebanks are vital for crop scientists working to breed and develop improved varieties of essential food crops. The genetic material stored in these facilities is crucial for developing crops with enhanced climate resilience, disease resistance, and nutritional value.

Both laureates emphasized the need for sustained investment in crop genetic conservation. Dr. Fowler highlighted the importance of collecting and preserving indigenous crops, particularly from regions like Africa, to enhance plant breeding efforts. Dr. Hawtin called for increased funding for the 1,700 genebanks globally, stressing their role in maintaining the genetic diversity necessary to feed the world.

The real-world impact of their work was evident when the Svalbard Vault was first called upon in 2015. The Syrian civil war led to the loss of ICARDA’s genebank, necessitating the withdrawal of seeds from the Vault to re-establish collections in Morocco and Lebanon. This included seeds initially collected by Dr. Hawtin, underscoring the enduring significance of their efforts.

In honoring Dr. Fowler and Dr. Hawtin, the World Food Prize Foundation acknowledges their visionary contributions to securing global food security through the preservation of crop diversity. Their work serves as a beacon for future generations, inspiring ongoing efforts to protect and utilize the genetic resources that support our global food supply.

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