Case Studies

Preserving the Diversity of the World’s Food

Preserving the Diversity of the World’s Food

Seven years ago, a new organization was formed, driven by the conviction that a series of seemingly unrelated events—like the re-emergence of a crippling wheat fungus in Uganda; the loss of Afghanistan’s valuable seed collection during the country’s civil war; and the steady, silent, and permanent loss of crop diversity due to poor funding and equipment failures—could one day imperil the survival of the human race.

For the Global Crop Diversity Trust, all of these problems were part of a troubling global trend. From Africa to Asia to Europe and the Americas, myriad forces natural and man-made were steadily threatening the diversity of food crops that literally make human civilization possible.

The Trust approached Burness with what was initially a relatively simple goal: to communicate clearly why the steady loss of crop diversity around the world was not an esoteric concern but a looming and significant threat to us all. The goal: to build an endowment to conserve the world’s crop diversity in perpetuity.

What resulted was a partnership between Burness and the Trust to implement an intensive global communications plan focused on crop diversity. It involved everything from making sure the Trust figured prominently in major meetings, such as the World Food Summit and the World Summit on Sustainable Development, to drafting and disseminating targeted press releases and compelling yet scientifically sound reports on the many threats to crop diversity.

The Trust masterminded a modern day Noah’s Ark that would preserve for centuries seeds of every crop variety on the planet. The “doomsday seed vault” is carved deep in an Arctic mountain on a remote island in the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago. Today, the Trust and its Nordic partners operate the vault, a fail-safe facility that will allow humans to reboot their agriculture systems should they crash under the weight of a catastrophic event, like a nuclear war, or require restoration following loss in an individual seed bank. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened in February 2008. With help from Burness, the project—and by extension the Trust and its mission—has attracted a deluge of coverage from every major media outlet in the world. Not coincidentally, the Seed Vault was named one of the 50 best inventions in 2008 by TIME magazine.

“We have accomplished in a relatively short period what I would have never thought possible,” says Trust Executive Director Cary Fowler. “We have moved the cause of crop diversity from a position of relative obscurity to the mainstream of public consciousness.”

By 2009, the Trust had built a $100 million endowment. And in addition to operating the vault, it had raised funds for and embarked on an historically unprecedented global effort to rescue from extinction more than 100,000 endangered crop varieties.