Cary Fowler

Awarded 1985


For working to save the world's genetic plant heritage.

Cary Fowler is a biodiversity champion and author from the USA. He has spent a lifetime working on plant genetic resources, aiming to preserve genetic diversity for future generations. Fowler is known as the “father” of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which he initiated.

Fowler received the 1985 Right Livelihood Award together with Pat Mooney. As international advocates for genetic conservation, they initiated worldwide educational campaigns and proposed far-reaching conservation programmes. One of their proposals was for the establishment of international seed banks, a plan that was adopted by the United Nations in 1983.

Fowler headed the international committee that developed the plan for establishing the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. Today, he chairs the international council that oversees its operations. The Seed Vault provides secure storage for more than 850,000 unique crop varieties which constitute raw material for future plant breeding and crop improvement efforts.

To preserve genetic diversity we must engage in both conservation and politics. As the only species powerful to affect all evolution on the planet, humanity has this responsibility.

Cary Fowler, 1985 Laureate

From 1978, Fowler and Mooney joined forces with the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a small, non-profit organisation that focuses on the socio-economic impact of new technologies on rural societies. Mooney later became the Foundation's executive director. Through RAFI they played a major role in the formulation of the Commission and Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Cary Fowler was born in 1949 and earned his PhD at the University of Uppsala, Sweden. In 2008, he received an honorary doctorate from Simon Fraser University, Canada, where he undertook his undergraduate studies. Fowler has been profiled by CBS 60 Minutes and the New Yorker among others. He is the author of several books on the subject of plant genetic resources and more than 75 articles on the topic in agriculture, law, and development journals.

In the 1990s, Fowler headed the International Conference and Programme on Plant Genetic Resources at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), which produced the UN's first-ever global assessment of the state of the world's plant genetic resources. He drafted and supervised negotiations of FAO's Global Plan of Action for Plant Genetic Resources, adopted by 150 countries in 1996. That same year he served as Special Assistant to the Secretary-General of the World Food Summit. During the negotiation process of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources, Fowler chaired a series of off-the-record retreats with key delegates, sponsored by the Nordic countries.

At the same time, RAFI has organised numerous workshops in Africa, Asia and Latin America to address both global issues and the need for local farmers to secure their own crop genetic diversity. In 1988, Mooney led a research team with Fowler and others to produce The Laws of Life: Another Development and the New Biotechnologies, published as a special issue of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation's Development Dialogue. This work led RAFI to research into international agricultural research institutions and, more recently, into the attempts by private corporations to patent life forms including human cell lines. In one important victory for the campaign to prevent commercialisation of life forms, the European Parliament in 1995 rejected a proposed law that would have permitted the patenting of human genes.

Fowler served as Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust until 2012. Prior to joining the Trust, he was Professor and Director of Research in the Department for International Environment & Development Studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. He was also a Senior Advisor to the Director-General of Bioversity International. In this latter role, he represented the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in negotiations on the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. He is a former member of the National Plant Genetic Resources Board of the U.S. and the Board of Trustees of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico.


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