The Scientists Behind the Arctic ‘Doomsday Vault’ Receive the World Food Prize

Geoffrey Hawtin and Cary Fowler hope the award will help other facilities conserving crop species secure much-needed funding.

Small rectangular building coming out of snowy hill
The two laureates were awarded for their work on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

For fifteen years, a storage facility buried in a mountain on the Norwegian archipelago Svalbard has safeguarded thousands of species of essential food crops. Now, the two scientists behind the Svalbard seed vault, often referred to as the “Doomsday Vault,” have been awarded the 2024 World Food Prize in honor of their contributions to protecting global food security.

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Geoffrey Hawtin of the U.K. and Cary Fowler of the U.S. played instrumental roles in creating the underground seed reserve, some 650 miles from the North Pole. “While creating a global seed vault might seem logical now, people told me at the time that the idea was crazy,” said Fowler in a statement. The scientists hope that the prestigious award, and the accompanying $500,000 cash prize, will lead to more financial support for other genebanks—a term for repositories conserving seeds or vegetative tissue—around the globe.

The Svalbard seed vault opened in 2008 to provide a backup supply of crop seeds in case of global threats to food security such as rapidly spreading plant pathogens or climate catastrophes. It currently houses 1.25 million seed samples conserving more than 6,000 plant species, preserving them at a temperature of just below zero degrees Fahrenheit.

Two men in dark jackets stand against stone wall
Geoffrey Hawtin and Cary Fowler at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault’s growing facility. Courtesy World Food Prize

Fowler, a British scientist who alongside the American Hawtin has devoted much of his career to food and agriculture security, in 2004 proposed the vault to Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He later chaired a Norwegian government committee assessing the proposal’s feasibility and led negotiations for the vault, while Hawtin worked as a member of the project’s study team and developed technical specifications later used in its operation.

The duo was previously involved in developing the 2001 International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which was negotiated by the U.N. to share international plant genetic resources and laid the groundwork to develop genebanks like the Svalbard vault. Hawtin is currently an executive board member and founding director at the Global Crop Diversity Trust, a nonprofit that finances the Svalbard vault, while Fowler acts as the U.S. Special Envoy for Global Food Security.

The Svalbard seed vault has already proven useful

Since its creation, resources from the “Doomsday Vault” have been deposited by more than 100 different institutions, civil organizations and indigenous communities. The first-ever withdrawal occurred in 2015 to help replenish a genebank managed by the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), which was destroyed during the Syrian civil war.

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Folwer and Hawtin were selected as World Food Prize laureates for the example they set with their “long-term thinking and planning for facing climate change and other existential sets,” said Gebisa Ejet, chair of the award selection committee, in a statement. The prize, which will be formally awarded in a ceremony this fall, has for thirty-eight years recognized individuals advancing human development through work on the quality, quantity or availability of food globally. It was initially conceived of by Norman Borlaug, who in 1970 won the Nobel Peace Prize for his achievements in global agriculture.

Amid estimates that the world has already lost more than 90 percent of its crop species, both Fowler and Hawtin expressed their desire that the award would bring attention to much-needed investments in preserving crop diversity. “The genetic diversity of crops and their relatives is as important to biodiversity as it is to food security, and much of it is as endangered as pandas and rhinos,” said Hawtin in a statement. “In receiving this honor, I would like to make a call to arms for urgent and sustained funding for the more than 1,700 genebanks around the world that are working tirelessly to make sure the material that farmers and plant breeders need is conserved and remains available.”

The Scientists Behind the Arctic ‘Doomsday Vault’ Receive the World Food Prize