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Cars - the crunch! Part 3

Robyn Williams: Is it more and more distracting on our roads with all those sneaky contraptions
trying to put us off? Nicky Phillips with this report.

Listener 1: I have been driving for over 40 years. They have made the roads so unsafe with so many
signs, contradictory signs.

Listener 2: One of the issues I've found with driving through the 40-kilometre speed zones for the
schools is you spend all your time looking at your Speedo to make sure you're not doing more than
40 rather than watching the road.

Listener 3: We're a tourist town and our school holidays vary among the schools here, and
travellers coming from other places may not be aware that our schools are in when theirs are on
holiday. I think that maybe crossing monitors could cover the signs during holidays or days when
the school's not in.

Listener 4: I drive regularly to Byron Bay from Sydney, and between Hornsby and Ballina there are
exactly 117 times when you've got to change the speed limit. That wasn't including school zones.

Nicky Phillips: You also counted the signs. How many did you find?

Listener 4: We reckon there's an average of between eight and ten traffic warning signs or
something that drivers are meant to comprehend every kilometre. There's 760 kilometres.

Nicky Phillips: A few of your thoughts on driving distractions. And thanks for contributing online
to Cars: The Crunch. Many listeners agreed there are too many signs, speed cameras and advertising
billboards distracting drivers. Another pet peeve seems to be changing speed zones. Brian Smole
wrote on our online forum: 'I am constantly looking for what zone I am in or whether I've missed a
speed sign. At the same time I'm looking for street signs, watching out for traffic, huge trucks,
cyclists and pedestrians. In the meantime I have to be conscious of what day constitutes a school
day.' They are sentiments felt by many on our Cars: The Crunch forum. Keep your comments coming
online at

In our first program we asked if you knew of any research into the effects increased visual clutter
or technology could have on drivers. Well, Garth Nicholson, a neurologist from the University of
Sydney, contacted The Science Show with some research he's done on vision. He says our vision is
never 100% accurate and we can make errors even when we're looking straight at an object.

Garth Nicholson: Out on the peripheral vision, finding a point is quite inaccurate unless that
point is moving. The closer you can get a sign to central vision the better it will be, but I feel
that particularly where it's important to change your speed drastically, like for a school where
you've got to use a 40kph limit, a warning sign which uses that flashing red circle is much more
likely to alert people because it's flashing and actually moving.

Nicky Phillips: Garth Nicholson says the present system of fining drivers for not attending to
signs such as speed changes isn't just punishing the bad drivers but all drivers. Now, if you do
manage to see all the signs you pass while driving, chances are you won't remember them all. Jim
Youngman, a retired traffic scientist, did an experiment in New Zealand in the 1960s to see if
drivers take in all the information presented on signs.

Jim Youngman: We were able to ask the traffic police to stop cars and ask the drivers what the sign
was that they had just passed, and usually that one was one that was relevant to where they were.
There was a very significant number of people that just did not know that they'd passed a sign.
It's dangerous for us to rely entirely on signs to alter people's behaviour the way that's wanted.

Nicky Phillips: But Jim says all this research about signs distracting drivers is old news. He and
his colleagues knew about this years ago.

Jim Youngman: There was a great awareness that too many signs could prove a distraction. If there
were too many signs that were irrelevant to a driver at the time they passed them, they tended to
not really notice so much any subsequent signs that they passed. In the environment of too many
signs, people often don't see the important ones.

Nicky Phillips: Right, so that research is going back almost 50 years ago. Two weeks ago on the
program we spoke about the distraction of signs. Has this research not been taken into account?

Jim Youngman: Somehow I seem to observe a lot of research is repetitive of things that we did way
back. I just guess that there's a lack of memory of the history of the discipline. There's also a
lot of political pressure to put signs in to solve problems. So, there's an accident on a corner,
we've got to do something about it, let's put a sign in because that's cheap.

Nicky Phillips: Back in the 1960s we didn't have speed cameras or traffic lights or any electronic
signs. So do you think they've added to the issues we've had with visual distraction or do you
think maybe they've helped?

Jim Youngman: I think they've added to the problem in many ways. When they're used properly they
almost certainly do help, but too many of them are too busy. Any advantages they may have can be
offset by the disadvantages, and I think professionals try to look at that very closely.

Nicky Phillips: One of the last comments you made on the forum was that during your time as a
traffic scientist some of your research was ignored, for either commercial or political reasons.
What kind of research are you talking about?

Jim Youngman: A few things that I found that were politically unpalatable and weren't taken
seriously at the time was that I felt the data on red light cameras indicated no evidence of them
having reduced traffic accidents at all, and if anything they just might have increased accidents.
That was ruled out because no-one could see how putting camera up at the lights could increase
accidents, but I hypothesised (and it would be great if someone was to pick this up and follow it
through) that people either drive through red lights because they haven't seen them and putting a
camera there won't stop those people. The other group that are likely to go through are those that
are impatient and just want to get where they're going as fast as possible. They know the cameras
are there (at the time the cameras were all signposted) and reluctantly stop and delay their
journey. The next intersection that did not have cameras on, they would be more likely to go
through because their impatience has built up even further, and therefore there'd be a small
increase in the number of crashes.

Nicky Phillips: Our first Cars: The Crunch program didn't just look at distraction outside the car
but inside as well, which prompted one listener Susan to write: 'All technology has unexpected
consequences. Cars are not lounge rooms, entertainment rooms, or big toys.' And another Science
Show contributor Bruno Rime says modern cars are restricting the senses he uses to drive.

Bruno Rime: I tend to find that modern cars in particular are insulating us from those feedback
mechanisms that we'd normally assess with speed. So there's not as much wind noise, feedback
through the steering has been limited, power steering, for instance, or a linear application of the
brake pedal. Braking forces generally aren't linear, the faster you go the much more effort you
need to stop, but those sorts of mechanisms have been taken away from the driver.

Nicky Phillips: Bruno is a game developer, and while you may not think that there's a link between
driving on the road for real and playing a car game, it seems game designers are creating exactly
what drivers on the road need.

Bruno Rime: We simplify details which are unnecessary to the player. We define details which are
more important to the player, and sometimes we enhance details as well, so we exaggerate features
to make them more obvious to the player. For the most part we're trying to turn a couch into a car,
and it appears from my point of view that car design is trying to turn a car into a couch.

Nicky Phillips: Psychologist Mark Horswill from the University of Technology Queensland confirms
what many of us experience. His latest research shows modern-day cars are so quiet they confuse
drivers' sense of speed.

Mark Horswill: We found that if you reduce the sound level inside the car then often people lose a
sense of how fast they're going, and when you reduce the level of the sound inside a car they tend
to drive faster.

Nicky Phillips: Why is that?

Mark Horswill: When you reduce the level of noise inside a car it actually makes the speed that you
go at feel slower than it actually is. So, for example, we did an experiment where people were
having to compare two video scenes of a film from the driver's perspective of a car driving along,
and they had to say which of the two scenes looked faster. For some of the scenes we fiddled around
with the internal level of car noise, and what we found is if you reduce the level of car noise by
about five decibels people think the speed they're driving at is about five kilometres an hour
slower than it actually is.

Nicky Phillips: Wow, that's a lot.

Mark Horswill: If you actually put that into the calculation which maps fatality risk onto driving
speed, if you crash your car at, say, 65 kilometres an hour rather than 60 kilometres an hour, your
chance of dying in that crash actually increases 35%. So this is a difference that actually does
have quite a big impact on fatality risk.

Nicky Phillips: So are things like insulating a car at all regulated?

Mark Horswill: No. The current practice in car design is to try and make the car as quiet and
comfortable as possible, with the idea that when you've got in-car things like stereos and that
sort of stuff that the car noise isn't interfering with that. But the problem with that design
philosophy is that you're removing the very cues people are using to judge speed and judge danger.

Nicky Phillips: Psychologist Mark Horswill. Next week on Cars: The Crunch should road authorities
build roads that can handle any driver error, whatever the consequences, or, as cognitive
neuroscientist John Reid suggests, should we focus more on people's motivations and state of mind
while driving?

John Reid: One of the streams in road safety research says that it's a waste of time blaming the
drivers for crashes, what you have to do is make the environment driver proof. I think that's
ridiculous, I think that clearly the driver has the responsibility for crashes. You make a road
reasonably safe, but on the other hand you don't do as one accident research organisation
suggested, cut down all the vegetation on country roads 30 metres from the roadside.

Robyn Williams: John Reid on what drivers should take on, and your responses so far to Cars: The
Crunch, put together by Nicky Phillips.

Plant chemistry and interaction in ecology

Robyn Williams: I've found out for the first time in my life that's where vanilla comes from. How

Monique Simmonds: Yes, vanilla pods, one of the commercial products made from orchids that has
captured the imagination especially as a flavour, there's nothing really like it.

Robyn Williams: Professor Monique Simmonds at what used to be the Kew Centre for Economic Botany,
now called the Sustainable Users of Plants Group, and they find medicines and useful chemicals,
often by having heard that animals such as chimpanzees use them to make their upset tummies feel

Monique Simmonds: Yes, looking at the use of plants by animals is quite interesting and, as you
say, chimps have been well studied, and we're actually gaining more knowledge about some of the
other herbivores, like cows et cetera, elephants grazing specific plants when they maybe have got
stomach problems. It's interesting to know the relationship between their feeling of being unwell
and the plants that they use to alleviate those symptoms.

Robyn Williams: So you can actually see a pattern? They keep going back to particular ones, is that

Monique Simmonds: They seem to go back to particular species. It's quite well documented in cases
of cows when they'll go back and get plants that have a high concentration of salt and, say,
sugars, but we're getting even more experience of doing it. It doesn't always work out well though
because there are some plants that the animals will go to, and they seem to get a little bit like a
high, like our alcohol, which can cause problem because of course they can get drunk.

Robyn Williams: Cows do that, do they?

Monique Simmonds: There's evidence that cows will go to, say, some fermenting products, also

Robyn Williams: With such a huge range of plants and indeed chemicals therein, where do you start?
What's been the pattern in Kew looking at these things?

Monique Simmonds: For a long time we were looking at the role of plant chemicals in the
relationships amongst different plants within a family, within the genera, and then at a species
level, to see if they could be used as characters. With the advance of molecular characters, the
DNA characters, plant chemistry has very much come to the fore, and it's got a lot of uses. For
example, if you've got these new phylogenies that are based on the DNA which shows the
relationships with plants and you now superimpose our knowledge about the plant chemistry, that can
highlight plants that we would like to select, say, for a particular use as a drug. Or at times we
can use that knowledge to deselect plants, because if you've got one plant with a known compound
then related plants will most likely have a similar type of chemistry and sometimes you want to
avoid wasting your time identifying something that's already known.

Robyn Williams: An awful lot of these chemicals are often developed in plants to make other animals
and other creatures just go away, they're repellent, they're poisonous or something like that. What
are the other reasons that you get various chemicals turning up, because essentially a plant wants
to do something fairly simple, and you don't want the luxury of another four or five chemical
pathways to have to maintain.

Monique Simmonds: Yes, to produce some of these so-called secondary metabolites is very actually
expensive to the plant to produce, so there must be a reason for doing that, and the fact that they
can't walk away from somewhere means that they really have to defend themselves well. We have an
interest in the role of plant compounds as deterrents for insects, as antifeedants, compounds that
stop the insects from feeding, and they can actually be very host specific. Some actually have
worked the other way, they're used by the insects as kind of sign stimuli that they've got the
right species.

But the other uses of plant compounds is protecting them from UV radiation, and that is a use for
humans because a better understanding of how a plant does it is maybe a way that we can be looking
at some of the plant compounds for potential UV protectants for humans.

Robyn Williams: Yes, ultraviolet light would be damaging, wouldn't it, if it just went straight
into those delicate leaf cells.

Monique Simmonds: It could be very damaging with UV light, and plants at a higher altitude usually
have to protect themselves better and they can do this chemically but they can also do it
physically. There's a lot more to be learned because we thought we knew about the types of
compounds and we put them into different classes, like phenolics, the flavonoids having this role,
but we need to unravel that because there are an awful lot of flavonoids and which ones are
actually better at doing this job.

Robyn Williams: What about HIV? What's the connection with AIDS and ways in which you're
approaching plants to find some sort of remedy?

Monique Simmonds: We were doing some work back in the 1980s in which we identified some plant
compounds that actually affected insects but also affected transmission of viruses and these were
shown to have some potential in the control of HIV because they interfered with cell-to-cell
recognition and therefore the transfer of a virus from one cell to another. So they have a role in
nature and here there's potential use with humans. But what we've been doing in recent years is
actually working with some of the communities, especially in Africa, and looking at some of the
plants that they've been giving to HIV patients. That's quite fascinating because it's a disease
that is relatively new, so how are they selecting those plants?

So we're dealing not with a long history of traditional use, this is something that's evolved in
the last, say, 20, 30, 40 years, and some of the plants when we take them to the laboratory we can
see an effect, not always on the actual virus but on the immune system. So they equip the people
with better ability, you could say, to cope with the virus. But one of the big challenges we face
is that some of these people will be also on anti-viral drugs, and some of the plants can interfere
with the action of those drugs, and so we really need to do more of this work in combination with
those that are giving out the western pharmaceuticals.

Robyn Williams: So clues from animals, clues from people, and I'm reminded also of clues from
evolutionary history because the story of malaria turns out to be a parasite that used to be a
plant, it's got a chloroplast in it. That's being followed up at the University of Melbourne. Have
you come across that story at all?

Monique Simmonds: The control of malaria actually goes back to Kew's history. In our economic
botany collections here we've got some of the early samples of Jesuit's bark from the Cinchona tree
that was used to help develop the production of quinine within the UK. So it's fascinating at Kew
how we have all these crossovers with some of the economic value of plants, especially the samples
that we have in our collections.

Robyn Williams: Quinine, yes, of course, the sort of thing that you get in gin and tonic, from
another was actually developed, what, way back?

Monique Simmonds: Yes, the quinine samples go back to the 1600s and 1700s. You get it coming into
parts of Europe, and the samples that we have are from the mid 1850s onwards, and for a long time
was the main remedy that could be given for malaria, and now more recently we've got the Artemisian
from the Artemisia. So we've gone back to nature in this case to come up with some potential drugs
against malaria.

Robyn Williams: Isn't it interesting. Do you find yourself returning to some of the collections
when you get clues about other plants and you think, well, hang on, what about those that have been
there for decades, why don't we go back and have a look at them? Does that occur very much?

Monique Simmonds: Over the last few years we have been putting a greater emphasis on what we term
the ethno-botanical information, the traditional use information. We've just done a screen for
plants for the treatment of TB and we've taken some that have got a lot of traditional use, and the
hit rate for those that are used traditionally is much greater than going out and just taking
something that's random. But it doesn't always mean you're going to come up with something that's
safe to use, but there are a lot of those plants out there that definitely justify further
scientific use, especially taking on board the advances that we have now in understanding those
diseases and the better analytical equipment we have to be able to study the chemistry of the

Kew Gardens' Botanical Gallery

Robyn Williams:And so to Kew and a time when there were no speed cameras on our roads, only horses
to set the pace.

Nigel Taylor: It became a scientific institution in 1841 when it was transferred from the royal
estates to be a government funded institution. Its role from there on was largely scientific.
However, as a botanic garden it started in 1759 when the first head gardener in charge of the
botanical collections was appointed by Princess Augusta, the mother of George III.

Robyn Williams: And that's the anniversary we're looking forward to at the moment?

Nigel Taylor: That's right.

Robyn Williams: Nigel Taylor is curator and historian at Kew Gardens which, over its 250 years has
established strong links with Australia. Indeed its present director is from Perth. But there's

Nigel Taylor: Kew Gardens is the first place in Europe where kangaroos were found after they were
brought back from Australia. We have the bones to prove it and we also in the royal archive have
correspondence from George III saying to his courtiers, 'Would you please accept a kangaroo for
your estate, sir?' And they replied, 'No, Sire, we have no fences high enough to contain them.'

But perhaps the more interesting thing from an Australian context is that at least a part of the
Australian sheep industry had its origin in Kew because in 1810 Sir Joseph Banks was ordered by
George III during one of his bouts of madness to auction off his livestock, including Merino sheep
that had been acquired from Spain, probably under rather dubious circumstances, for the king. And
these were then auctioned off around the pagoda. So there was a curious connection between the
pagoda and the Australian sheep industry because the man who bought the Merinos exported them to

Robyn Williams: Nigel Taylor. And so to the herbarium.

So what's this?

Alan Paton: This is a type specimen of a plant called Calceolaria darwinii. The material here came
from Charles Darwin, communicated by Hensel, his friend at Cambridge and supporter. Darwin's top
set is at Cambridge so there will be another specimen of this one at Cambridge. We have it bar
coded here which means that the specimen is available as an image through a website and its details
can be found online. It's a rather sweet little thing. There are several other specimens on the
sheet here, various collections, all from the southern tip of South America, from the Magellan
Straits. This label here, you can see a 'CD', that's Charles Darwin's initials in his own writing.

Robyn Williams: So any idea roughly when he would have been there collecting it himself, Charles
Darwin? It would be something like the 1820s, I suppose. Very elegant handwriting.

Alan Paton: Yes, it's lovely, isn't it.

Robyn Williams: 'Elizabeth Island, Strait of Magellan, CD.'

Alan Paton: Yes, and you'll see that originally this plant was called Calceolaria darwinii Bentham.
So Bentham looked at it...the collection was originally in Hooker's collection, Bentham looked at
it, thought it was a new species and called it darwinii after Charles Darwin on the basis of his

Robyn Williams: But it was the man himself and it was his handwriting itself, and it's part of
history. How many specimens of Darwin's do you think you have roughly?

Alan Paton: I'm not sure. We've probably got a couple of hundred. The top set is in Cambridge, but
we do have a reasonably good collection of his duplicates.

Robyn Williams: Alan Paton is the assistant keeper in the Kew Herbarium. It's a gigantic, airy,
barn-like building, with files reaching up to the immensely high ceiling.

Alan, what are you doing up that ladder?

Alan Paton: I'm trying to locate a specimen collected by David Livingstone of a plant known as
Scutellaria. Scutellaria is an interesting genus, it occurs in most of the places of the world,
about 350 species around the planet, and it also grows in Scotland which, I think, if I can find
the specimen, it will illustrate to you...

Robyn Williams: Let's take it down and go over by the window there. Now, when we say the name
'Livingstone'...which Livingstone?

Alan Paton: David Livingstone was a missionary, opened up the large part of south central Africa in
his tours, and a very famous explorer.

Robyn Williams: And was met by someone, Stanley, looking for him, and he said...what did he say?

Alan Paton: 'Dr Livingstone, I presume?'

Robyn Williams: And he was right. I wonder if it really happened. I'm just looking at the sheet.
It's got four plants or pieces of plants stuck onto the page, and I can see your writing here,
February 1990. I can't see Livingstone's writing. Oh, down there.

Alan Paton: This is it here. I examined this genus as part of my work on African plants and I was
trying to understand what plants existed, how you told them apart, how you could identify them and
how they may be related. So in doing this I came across this specimen here which is Scutellaria
livingstonii from Dr Livingstone's notebook, received at Kew 1874. And this little bit of plant
material here was the thing that was held in David Livingstone's notebook and brought back to Kew,
and we have Livingstone notebooks in our archive here at Kew.

Robyn Williams: I see. So this tiny envelope of stuff which I can actually touch...I imagine I'm
supposed not to amazing.

Alan Paton: And these are just other samples of the plant from the same area, so by having more
than one sample you can see how variable a plant can be.

Robyn Williams: Was it known that Livingstone collected plants in such a systematic way?

Alan Paton: He did collect plants but he had his own botanist with him, Dr John Kirk, who later
became governor of Zanzibar. Kirk was a very accomplished botanist and collected lots of plants on
Livingstone's expedition. Today the botanical journal of Zimbabwe is called Kirkia, named after

Robyn Williams: We're in the herbarium at Kew Gardens, immensely famous, very, very large. What
percentage of the world's plants do you think you've got here?

Alan Paton: We probably have representation of around 95% to 98% of all plant genera. There are
around about 14,000 genera of plants, that's groups of closely related species. In all there are
around 350,000 plants species, and we don't have them all, but if pushed I would say we had about
70% of them.

Robyn Williams: So 70% of those, but otherwise 98% of the upper limit of the different types.

Alan Paton: Of the genera, yes.

Robyn Williams: When did people start collecting here at Kew?

Alan Paton: The herbarium here has been on site since 1853, as the Royal Botanic Gardens was
becoming established as a scientific institute. The first director William Hooker was its director,
and the herbarium started here as Hooker's own private collection. It has been subsequently built
on by other large...initially fairly large collections, George Bentham who was a relation of Jeremy
Bentham who was a very famous botanist, and his collections came to Kew in around 1870.

Robyn Williams: Jeremy Bentham you can actually meet if you go to University College London. He's
stuffed....yes, in a glass case and famously (I've said this on the program before) he's wheeled
into council meetings of the university and makes very useful contributions through his silence and
consistency. But the other Bentham actually...

Alan Paton: The other Bentham was very important. He worked with William Hooker's son, Joseph
Hooker, who was the second director of Kew, and they together wrote one of the first major
treatises on plants, the Genera Plantarum, a list of all the genera of plants at that time, which
was a fairly massive achievement. Bentham worked a lot on this family, this is the mint family
we're looking at, mint and basils is Lamiaceae, which also contains teak, and Bentham was an expert
on it. He was actually an expert in a lot, he was also an expert on legumes, in beans. He wrote the
first Flora Australiensis, of Hong Kong as well.

Robyn Williams: Flora Australiensis, way back then.

Alan Paton: Way back then.

Robyn Williams: Tell me, do you sometimes have that happen when you're in search of a particular
plant and you happen to see, my gosh, that's David Livingstone or that's Darwin or someone like

Alan Paton: Yes, it does happen. Most of the collection isn't catalogued individually. We are
increasingly data basing our collections, so you can find things like...tell me where all the
Darwin specimens are...and because we've been data basing our type specimens of Latin America we
already have a few Darwin specimens in that database, so you can begin to see how many we actually
have. The top set of Darwin collections, for example, is in Cambridge.

Robyn Williams: Of course it was at Cambridge, at Christs College, so that's not so surprising. But
people often forget what a bloody good botanist he was, he was just...orchids and all sorts of

Alan Paton: Yes, he collected a wide range of plants species, he wasn't just interested in small
groups, he was looking at the big picture I think.

Robyn Williams: How long have you been here then, Alan?

Alan Paton: Eighteen years, so maybe I'm becoming institutionalised.

Robyn Williams: You're settling in. And were you possibly in Scotland doing similar work?

Alan Paton: Yes, I did my degree in Edinburgh, the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, working on
this plant actually.

Robyn Williams: Oh really, on the mint?

Alan Paton: Yes.

Robyn Williams: Which you get in the highlands, do you?

Alan Paton: There is a species...not the same species as this but one which actually is very
similar which grows very commonly on inland waterways in Britain. It does occur in the Forth, and
one of the reasons why I think Livingstone was carrying this strange little scrap of plant in his
pocked book is it looks very similar to a plant which would have grown by the mills in the region
of Blantyre in Scotland.

Robyn Williams: And he would have known it.

Alan Paton: And he would have known it, yes. He grew up by the mill streams and this thing grows in
that area.

Robyn Williams: The building is gigantic and of course you've got the stores, the cupboards going
on forever like some giant's library. Is this the only site or do you go elsewhere as well?

Alan Paton: The only site of Kew's herbarium collection is here. At the moment we have some
specimens down at Wakehurst Place which is our seed bank site. The reason is we just ran out of
space. And if you look over in that direction you'll see our new building going up, and the new
building will provide us about 40 years expansion space for the collection. The original herbarium
occupied one room of this original house. Every 30 years or thereabouts afterwards we have built a
wing onto this building.

Robyn Williams: But Britain itself, with very few specimens...I didn't realise that...was it
because so many had been allowed to languish and then disappear, or because England, this area in
general, wasn't blessed with too many?

Alan Paton: You mean plant species? We've got about 1,500, which in the great scale of things is
not a lot. The reason is that after the last glaciation Britain was largely covered by ice, and
there was a relatively short period of time after the ice left and before the English Channel
formed, so the time for migration wasn't that large. So as a result the British flora is
disproportionate when you compare it to France, Belgium. So it's just that some things just didn't
make it back.

Robyn Williams: But you obviously have a number of arrangements with a number of herbaria, not
least ones in Australia I suppose.

Alan Paton: Yes, we work with many herbaria worldwide. We work quite closely with Australia. We
have an Australian liaison botanist who is appointed by the Australian government who works at Kew,
and his role is to facilitate transfer of information on plants from Kew back to Australia.

Conserving seeds of agricultural crops

Robyn Williams: But what if something happens to all those specimens in Kew and in our own botanic
gardens in Australia, or in seed banks around the world? Well, if there is some kind of disaster,
Cary Fowler and his trust can come to the rescue, at the most unlikely place.

Cary Fowler: Well, we are trying to conserve all of the biological diversity of agricultural crops
and we're trying to do it forever. So we're putting together a global system for that purpose, a
network of gene banks, seed banks, that will essentially conserve this seed, mostly in a frozen
form, with a backup, a safety net, if you will, an insurance policy, in Svalbard, Norway, near the
North Pole, in the middle of a mountain.

Robyn Williams: In the middle of a mountain, I see, it's going to be a sort of strong room down
below, nice and secure.

Cary Fowler: There will be a James Bond movie there some day.

Robyn Williams: It surprised me to learn not long ago that if you look at the cereal crops there
are remarkably few that we actually depend on, there's a small handful of regular crops. Is that

Cary Fowler: That's right. There are 10 or 12 crops that supply most of human nutrition but there
are about 300 crops that have been grown and traded worldwide throughout history, but we really
depend on just a handful.

Robyn Williams: And why do you want to store them? Is it that they're so restricted genetically
like maybe bananas or...was it carrots...that you're worried that if one big disease goes through
them, they're gone?

Cary Fowler: Most people don't realise there's a constant turnover of varieties in the field. So a
wheat variety might last for ten years and then we need to put a new variety out in a farmer's
field, and that's because pests and diseases are not in the business of becoming extinct
themselves, they're always mutating, figuring out a better way to attack the crop, and plant
breeders have to intervene. These are domesticated plants, so their evolution is in our hands. And
plant breeders, wheat breeders, corn breeders, potato breeders are working on new varieties all the
time to get out there, to be more productive or to combat the latest pest or disease or just to
figure out a way to help the crops adapt to climate change.

Robyn Williams: Has it been straightforward, collecting the samples that you need to store?

Cary Fowler: Hardly. There are some hundreds of seed banks in the world, and they contain a lot of
diversity in the form of seed, which they're freezing, but we've constructing this backup facility
and we're trying to get all of the unique diversity up there just in case. And just in case what? I
don't know; natural disaster, human error, equipment failures, civil wars...seed banks get in the
way, and when that happens we can lose diversity. Not losing it like you lose your car keys but
losing it like the dinosaurs are lost, they're extinct.

Robyn Williams: Do you have to have a relationship with various countries so that they provide
their seeds on a kind of official basis, or do you just phone your mates around the world and they
send it in an envelope?

Cary Fowler: No, unfortunately. I wish we could do that. It has to be pretty official, and some
countries get very uptight about sending seeds abroad, they regard their agricultural heritage as
their national patrimony. But we're offering a free insurance policy for them, no exchange of
property rights, so countries that send their seed samples up to the North Pole with us, they don't
transfer ownership in the process, and it's a free gift to them, a free insurance policy. We think
that diversity up there of course is what's going to help agriculture adapt to climate change and
feed a growing world population.

Robyn Williams: Countries have the right to draw on the bank, do they?

Cary Fowler: We don't want countries or individual scientists going up there requesting materials
straight from that source. We really function as a backup. So a plant breeder that needs breeding
material for a new program would go straight to the gene bank that supplied the material to the
seed vaults near the North Pole.

Robyn Williams: I remember doing something on the The Science Show via the Royal Botanic Gardens in
Kew with which some of our botanic gardens in Australia have a relationship where we provide some
of the zillions of different plants we keep discovering in hot spots, for example, so
that...especially in Western Australia, a vast area, so that they've got a bank. But you're doing
it specifically for crops, so that's more refined.

Cary Fowler: That's right, and you have a number of seed banks in Australia. One I visited recently
was in Horsham which deals with cereals and other crops. This facility in northern Norway near the
North Pole is really a backup for places like that.

Robyn Williams: What's your specific role in this?

Cary Fowler: I'm the head of the Global Crop Diversity Trust and we're structured as an endowment
fund, so we're sort of the catalyst for putting together a global system, crop by crop, for
conserving the diversity.

Robyn Williams: Before that, what was your speciality in the field?

Cary Fowler: I was a professor of environment and development studies at the Norwegian University
of Life Sciences, and before that I authored the first UN assessment of the state of the world's
crop diversity.

Robyn Williams: How much is the public aware, do you think, of what might be the fragility of the
crops upon which they rely so much?

Cary Fowler: Almost not at all. I think as long as shelves are fairly well stocked in the
supermarket everybody assumes that everything is okay. But we have to realise that what's in the
supermarket really depends on a fairly fragile and narrow genetic base, and if we don't conserve
that base we run into some deep, deep troubles. I mean, these agricultural crops are domesticated
crops, their natural selection, if you will, is in our hands. So we know from Darwin's time
actually...the first chapter of Darwin's On the Origin of Species was on variation in domesticated
crops and animals. He understood that what you need if you're a crop is you need variation, you
need natural selection (that's in our hands as plant breeders), and you need time. Unfortunately
we're in trouble in all three of those areas.

Robyn Williams: Yes, one of the problems is that the F1 generation, the one that gets a sort of
hybrid has a sort of vigour, but the next one after that has got bugger-all vigour at all.

Cary Fowler: That's right. Farmers typically don't save their seed or don't save it for very long,
and with hybrids they don't save it at all. You have to realise that agriculture itself is
fundamentally an artificial system, it's not nature's way to plant vast acreages of single crop and
in straight rows, it just doesn't happen. So we have to be careful about how we manage that part of
the ecosystem.

Robyn Williams: Is any particular variety of crop being elusive for you?

Cary Fowler: The minor crops, the ones where there's not a lot of commercial interest, are
typically crops where the diversity in the field hasn't been very well collected, and you might
have some crops which have no plant breeders at all working on them, quite literally, in particular
some of the root and tuber crops that are important for poor people; cassava, yams, taro, these are
crops that I really feel for.

Robyn Williams: Cary Fowler is the executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, with the
special vault near the North Pole. Who'd have thought? Right next to Father Christmas.