Illuminating biography of Bent Skovmand (1945–2007), a prescient Scandinavian scientist who devoted his career to amassing, categorizing and genetically developing a global seed bank that could save the world from famine.
Journalist Dworkin (The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust, 2000, etc.) frames the story of Skovmand’s life with the 1999 outbreak of a new strain of stem rust, “Ug99,” which decimated fields across the globe. Ug99 demonstrated to farmers and researchers everywhere the importance of “plant genetic resources,” Skovmand’s life work. Developments in cross-breeding and selective gene modification enable geneticists to create varieties of seeds that have built-in resistance to biological predators. When a strain like Ug99 emerges, researchers turn to germplasm, or seed, collections—like the one at the Center for Improvement of Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT) in Mexico, where Skovmand worked for close to 30 years—to find the one genetic variation that is capable of resisting it. Then they breed it and provide it to farmers worldwide. Isolating the exact kind of wheat that contains the specific gene required is painstaking work that requires patience, persistence and total dedication. Skovmand possesses these qualities in abundance, and with a fiery passion for feeding the world’s hungry, he was an able advocate and technician. He worked tirelessly against the encroaching bureaucracy for fieldwork funding and a free global exchange of ideas and seeds. But years passed without a protected and inventoried global germplasm collection, and local collections in Iraq, Syria, Mexico and elsewhere were compromised by a lack of resources, war or natural disaster. Not until recently did the political community admit the need for a global seed bank, and in February 2008 the Svalbard Doomsday Vault opened in northern Norway, housing millions of carefully protected seeds.
In vivid language, Dworkin presents Skovmand’s legacy as ample reason for a new generation of genetic researchers to take the cause.