Food & Crops

Dry, arid and remote farming regions are vulnerable to water shortages, but scientists are working on a promising new solution.

Photo by Amir Shahabi on Unsplash

California has been plagued by perilous droughts for decades. Freshwater shortages have sparked raging wildfires and killed fruit and vegetable crops. And California is not alone in its danger of running out of water for farming; parts of the Southwest, including Texas, are battling severe drought conditions, according to the North American Drought Monitor. These two states account for 316,900 of the 2 million total U.S. farms.

But even as farming becomes more vulnerable due to water shortages, the world's demand for food is projected to increase 70 percent by 2050, according to Guihua Yu, an associate professor of materials science at The University of Texas at Austin.

"Water is the most limiting natural resource for agricultural production because of the freshwater shortage and enormous water consumption needed for irrigation," Yu said.

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Katie Navarra
Katie Navarra is an award-winning writer who covers education, horses, farming, and business/leadership.
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The Svalbard Global Seed Vault preserves more than one million of the world's seeds deep inside Platäfjellet Mountain.

(Photo credit: Svalbard Global Seed Vault/Riccardo Gangale)

The impressive structure protrudes from the side of a snowy mountain on the Svalbard Archipelago, a cluster of islands about halfway between Norway and the North Pole.

"Before, we trusted the permafrost. We do not trust the permafrost anymore."

Art installations on the building's rooftop and front façade glimmer like diamonds in the polar night, but it is what lies buried deep inside the frozen rock, 475 feet from the building's entrance, that is most precious. Here, in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, are backup copies of more than a million of the world's agricultural seeds.

Inside the vault, seed boxes from many gene banks and many countries. "The seeds don't know national boundaries," says Kent Nnadozie, the UN's Secretary of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

(Photo credit: Svalbard Global Seed Vault/Riccardo Gangale)

The Svalbard vault -- which has been called the Doomsday Vault, or a Noah's Ark for seeds -- preserves the genetic materials of more than 6000 crop species and their wild relatives, including many of the varieties within those species. Svalbard's collection represents all the traits that will enable the plants that feed the world to adapt – with the help of farmers and plant breeders – to rapidly changing climactic conditions, including rising temperatures, more intense drought, and increasing soil salinity. "We save these seeds because we want to ensure food security for future generations," says Grethe Helene Evjen, Senior Advisor at the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food .

A recent study in the journal Nature predicted that global warming could cause catastrophic losses of biodiversity in regions across the globe throughout this century. Yet global warming also threatens the permafrost that surrounds the seed vault, the very thing that was once considered a failsafe means of keeping these seeds frozen and safeguarding the diversity of our crops. In fact, record temperatures in Svalbard a few years ago – and a significant breach of water into the access tunnel to the vault -- prompted the Norwegian government to invest $20 million euros on improvements at the facility to further secure the genetic resources locked inside. The hope: that technology can work in concert with nature's freezer to keep the world's seeds viable.

"Before, we trusted the permafrost," says Hege Njaa Aschim, a spokesperson for Statsbygg, the government agency that recently completed the upgrades at the seed vault. "We do not trust the permafrost anymore."

The Apex of the Global Conservation System

More than 1700 genebanks around the globe preserve the diverse seed varieties from their regions. They range from small community seed banks in developing countries, where small farmers save and trade their seeds with growers in nearby villages, to specialized university collections, to national and international genetic resource repositories. But many of these facilities are vulnerable to war, natural disasters, or even lack of funding.

"If anything should happen to the resources in a regular genebank, Svalbard is the backup – it's essentially the apex of the global conservation system," says Kent Nnadozie, Secretary of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture at the United Nations, who likens the Global Vault to the Central Reserve Bank. "You have regular banks that do active trading, but the Central Bank is the final reserve where the banks store their gold deposits."

Similarly, farmers deposit their seeds in regional genebanks, and also look to these banks for new varieties to help their crops adapt to, say, increasing temperatures, or resist intrusive pests. Regional banks, in turn, store duplicates from their collections at Svalbard. These seeds remain the sovereign property of the country or institution depositing them; only they can "make a withdrawal."

The Global Vault has already proven invaluable: The International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), formerly located outside of Aleppo, Syria, held more than 140,000 seed samples, including plants that were extinct in their natural habitats, before the Syrian Crisis in 2012. Fortunately, they had managed to back up most of their seed samples at Svalbard before they were forced to relocate to Lebanon and Morocco. In 2017, ICARDA became the first – and only – organization to withdraw their stored seeds. They have now regenerated almost all of the samples at their new locations and recently redeposited new seeds for safekeeping at Svalbard.

Rapid Global Warming Threatens Permafrost

The Global Vault, a joint venture between the Norwegian government, the Crop Trust and the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen) that started operating in 2008, was sited in Svalbard in part because of its remote yet accessible location: Svalbard is the northernmost inhabited spot on Earth with an airport. But experts also thought it a failsafe choice for long-term seed storage because its permafrost would offer natural freezing – even if cooling systems were to fail. No one imagined that the permafrost could fail.

"We've had record temperatures in the region recently, and there are a lot of signs that global warming is happening faster at the extreme latitudes," says Geoff Hawtin, a world-renowned authority in plant conservation, who is the founding director of -- and now advisor to -- the Crop Trust. "Svalbard is still arguably one of the safest places for the seeds from a temperature point of view, but it's actually not going to be as cold as we thought 20 years ago."

A recent report by the Norwegian Centre for Climate Services predicted that Svalbard could become 50 degrees Fahrenheit warmer by the year 2100. And data from the Norwegian government's environmental monitoring system in Svalbard shows that the permafrost is already thawing: The "active layer," that is, the layer of surface soil that seasonally thaws, has become 25-30 cm thicker since 1998.

Among the 35 depositors were several bringing their seeds to Svalbard for the first time, including the Cherokee Nation, which deposited nine heirloom seed varieties that predate European colonization.

Though the permafrost surrounding the seed vault chambers, which are situated well below the active layer, is still intact, the permafrost around the access tunnel never re-established as expected after construction of the Global Vault twelve years ago. As a result, when Svalbard saw record high temperatures and unprecedented rainfall in 2016, about 164 feet of rainwater and snowmelt leaked into the tunnel, turning it into a skating rink and spurring authorities to take what they called a "better safe than sorry approach." They invested in major upgrades to the facility. "The seeds in the vault were never threatened," says Aschim, "but technology has become more important at Svalbard."

Technology Gives Nature a Boost

For now, the permafrost deep inside the mountain still keeps the temperature in the vault down to about -25°F. The cooling systems then give nature a mechanical boost to keep the seed vault chilled even further, to about -64°F, the optimal temperature for conserving seeds. In addition to upgrading to a more effective and sustainable cooling system that runs on CO2, the Norwegian government added backup generators, removed heat-generating electrical equipment from inside the facility to an outside building, installed a thick, watertight door to the vault, and replaced the corrugated steel access tunnel with a cement tunnel that uses the same waterproofing technology as the North Sea oil platforms.

To re-establish the permafrost around the tunnel, they layered cooling pipes with frozen soil around the concrete tunnel, covered the frozen soil with a cooling mat, and topped the cooling mat with the original permafrost soil. They also added drainage ditches on the mountainside to divert meltwater away from the tunnel as the climate gets warmer and wetter.

New Deposits to the Global Vault

The day before COVID-19 arrived in Norway, on February 25th, Prime Minister Erna Solberg hosted the biggest seed-depositing event in the vault's history in honor of the new and improved vault. As snow fell on Svalbard, depositors from almost every continent traveled the windy road from Longyearbyen up Platåfjellet Mountain and braved frigid -8°F weather to celebrate the massive technical upgrades to the facility – and to hand over their seeds.

Among the 35 depositors were several bringing their seeds to Svalbard for the first time, including the Cherokee Nation, which deposited nine heirloom seed varieties that predate European colonization, and Israel's University of Haifa, whose deposit included multiple genotypes of wild emmer wheat, an ancient relative of the modern domesticated crop. The storage boxes carried ceremoniously over the threshold that day contained more than 65,000 new seed samples, bringing the total to more than a million, and almost filling the first of three seed chambers in the vault. (The Global Vault can store up to 4.5 million seed samples.)

"Svalbard's samples contain all the possibilities, all the options for the future of our agricultural crops – it's how crops are going to adapt," says Cary Fowler, former executive director of the Crop Trust, who was instrumental in establishing the Global Vault. "If our crops don't adapt to climate change, then neither will we." Dr. Fowler says he is confident that with the recent improvements in the vault, the seeds are going to remain viable for a very long time.

"It's sometimes tempting to get distracted by the romanticism of a seed vault inside a mountain near the North Pole – it's a little bit James Bondish," muses Dr. Fowler. "But the reality is we've essentially put an end to the extinction of more than a million samples of biodiversity forever."

Lori Miller Kase
Lori Miller Kase, an award-winning journalist based in Connecticut, writes frequently about health, the environment, food and the arts. She is Health Editor at Large for CoveyClub, and her work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including Discover, Aeon, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Boston Globe Magazine. She also teaches creative writing for kids, and is currently working on a young adult novel.

While lab-grown meat is not yet ready to crisis-proof the food supply chain, it offers key benefits that could make it an important solution beyond this pandemic.

(Lab-grown meat concept photo © tilialucida/Adobe; Regular hamburger photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash)

The coronavirus pandemic exposed significant weaknesses in the country's food supply chain. Grocery store meat counters were bare. Transportation interruptions influenced supply. Finding beef, poultry, and pork at the store has been, in some places, as challenging as finding toilet paper.

In traditional agriculture models, it takes at least three months to raise chicken, six to nine months for pigs, and 18 months for cattle.

It wasn't a lack of supply -- millions of animals were in the pipeline.

"There's certainly enough food out there, but it can't get anywhere because of the way our system is set up," said Amy Rowat, an associate professor of integrative biology and physiology at UCLA. "Having a more self-contained, self-sufficient way to produce meat could make the supply chain more robust."

Cultured meat could be one way of making the meat supply chain more resilient despite disruptions due to pandemics such as COVID-19. But is the country ready to embrace lab-grown food?

According to a Good Food Institute study, GenZ is almost twice as likely to embrace meat alternatives for reasons related to social and environmental awareness, even prior to the pandemic. That's because this group wants food choices that reflect their values around food justice, equity, and animal welfare.

Largely, the interest in protein alternatives has been plant-based foods. However, factors directly related to COVID-19 may accelerate consumer interest in the scaling up of cell-grown products, according to Liz Specht, the associate director of science and technology at The Good Food Institute. The latter is a nonprofit organization that supports scientists, investors, and entrepreneurs working to develop food alternatives to conventional animal products.

While lab-grown food isn't ready yet to definitively crisis-proof the food supply chain, experts say it offers promise.

Matching Supply and Demand

Companies developing cell-grown meat claim it can take as few as two months to develop a cell into an edible product, according to Anthony Chow, CFA at Agronomics Limited, an investment company focused on meat alternatives. Tissue is taken from an animal and placed in a culture that contains nutrients and proteins the cells need to grow and expand. He cites a Good Food Institute report that claims a 2.5-millimeter sample can grow three and a half tons of meat in 40 days, allowing for exponential growth when needed.

In traditional agriculture models, it takes at least three months to raise chicken, six to nine months for pigs, and 18 months for cattle. To keep enough maturing animals in the pipeline, farms must plan the number of animals to raise months -- even years -- in advance. Lab-grown meat advocates say that because cultured meat supplies can be flexible, it theoretically allows for scaling up or down in significantly less time.

"Supply and demand has drastically changed in some way around the world and cultivated meat processing would be able to adapt much quicker than conventional farming," Chow said.

Scaling Up

Lab-grown meat may provide an eventual solution, but not in the immediate future, said Paul Mozdziak, a professor of physiology at North Carolina State University who researches animal cell culture techniques, transgenic animal production, and muscle biology.

"The challenge is in culture media," he said. "It's going to take some innovation to get the cells to grow at quantities that are going to be similar to what you can get from an animal. These are questions that everybody in the space is working on."

Chow says some of the most advanced cultured meat companies, such as BlueNal, anticipate introducing products to the market midway through next year. However, he thinks COVID-19 has slowed the process. Once introduced, they will be at a premium price, most likely available at restaurants before they hit grocery store shelves.

"I think in five years' time it will be in a different place," he said. "I don't think that this will have relevance for this pandemic, but certainly beyond that."

"Plant-based meats may be perceived as 'alternatives' to meat, whereas lab-grown meat is producing the same meat, just in a much more efficient manner, without the environmental implications."

Of course, all the technological solutions in the world won't solve the problem unless people are open-minded about embracing them. At least for now, a lab-grown burger or bluefin tuna might still be too strange for many people, especially in the U.S.

For instance, a 2019 article published by "Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems" reflects results from a study of 3,030 consumers showing that 29 percent of U.S. customers, 59 percent of Chinese consumers, and 56 percent of Indian consumers were either 'very' or 'extremely likely' to try cultivated meat.

"Lab-grown meat is genuine meat, at the cellular level, and therefore will match conventional meat with regard to its nutritional content and overall sensory experience. It could be argued that plant-based meat will never be able to achieve this," says Laura Turner, who works with Chow at Agronomics Limited. "Plant-based meats may be perceived as 'alternatives' to meat, whereas lab-grown meat is producing the same meat, just in a much more efficient manner, without the environmental implications."

A Solution Beyond This Pandemic

The coronavirus has done more than raise awareness of the fragility of food supply chains. It has also been a wakeup call for consumers and policy makers that it is time to radically rethink our meat, Specht says. Those factors have elevated the profile of lab-grown meat.

"I think the economy is getting a little bit more steam and if I was an investor, I would be getting excited about it," adds Mozdziak.

Beyond crises, Mozdziak explains that as affluence continues to increase globally, meat consumption increases exponentially. Yet farm animals can only grow so quickly and traditional farming won't be able to keep up.

"Even Tyson is saying that by 2050, there's not going to be enough capacity in the animal meat space to meet demand," he notes. "If we don't look at some innovative technologies, how are we going to overcome that?"

Katie Navarra
Katie Navarra is an award-winning writer who covers education, horses, farming, and business/leadership.