Apocalyptic Seed Vault

How we would regrow the planet if we truly needed to

With much of historic Syria destroyed by civil war and the Muslim terror group ISIS, it was with an almost palpable sigh of relief that the organization entrusted with guarding its ancient seed stocks announced recently that the last of the invaluable genetic collection had been secured outside of the embattled nation.

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Ever since the outbreak of civil war in 2011, the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Aleppo, Syria, has been accelerating its program to duplicate a stock of 148,000 seed samples and ship them abroad. It had successfully sent copies of 80 percent of the seeds to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a Norwegian storage facility in the frozen arctic known as “the doomsday vault,” before rebel groups overran Aleppo two years ago.

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Since then, it has been sneaking seeds out of Syria to Turkey and Lebanon, a dangerous task that it finally completed this past week. Two ICARDA staffers have been kidnapped.

The last of the invaluable genetic collection had been secured outside of embattled Syria.

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“We now have 100 percent of the seeds duplicated outside Syria, in gene banks of various partner centers,” ICARDA spokesman Rajita Majumdar confirmed Sept. 28 in an email to LifeZette. The group issued a media release Sept. 26 from its offices in Amman, Jordan.

The effort to save the ancient seed stocks of the Middle East is nothing less than biblical. The seeds were collected over the past four decades from the dry lands of the ancient Fertile Crescent, a region in the Middle East that curves from the Persian Gulf, through southern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and northern Egypt. It is where civilization began.

Seeds also have been collected from other regions in northeast Africa and Central Asia.

Among the seeds are many irreplaceable strains of wheat, barley, lentils, chickpeas, faba beans, peas, and forage crops that can resist drought and heat, as well as disease and pests.

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“Getting those seeds out was very important for that area, and for us,” said Bennie Keith, a seed expert and executive secretary of the Mississippi Crop Improvement Association.

The association is responsible for maintaining the genetic identity of seeds statewide.

Keith, a former professor in seed science at Mississippi State University, told LifeZette that most of the grain grown in America originated in the Middle East and North Africa.

“That region is where some of the most important cereal grains originated — the grasses, wheat, barleys, ryes, and so forth. Over here, we may say, ‘Who cares?’ But a lot of genetic diversity comes only from there,” he said. “If we had lost those, I really don’t know what our position would have been if a true )plant disease) problem affected us here.”

The effort to save the ancient seed stocks of the Middle East is nothing less than biblical.

“We had put all our eggs in one basket for 35, 36 years,” ICARDA Director General Mahmoud Solh in an interview that ICARDA posted in March. Now, the last 28,000 samples — 14,000 each across the borders with Lebanon and Turkey — have been saved.

For the heirloom seed banks of the Middle East, the rescue effort was the last hope. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, that nation’s seed vault near Abu Ghraib was looted and destroyed. Another important seed vault in Afghanistan was destroyed by the Taliban, while Egypt’s seed bank in northern Sinai was destroyed by looters during the 2011 uprisings.

“Even when the war was going on, they were managing to take seeds out of Syria,” said Solh, who gave credit to farmers among the Syrian rebel groups for their help. “To be frank, some of the armed groups that are there did have farmers that we dealt with before, so they knew what we were doing, knew that we were there to help the small farmers, and knew that we were apolitical,” he said.

Before the war, ICARDA regularly dispensed about 25,000 seed samples each year to farmers in Syria and to national programs in developing countries.

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ICARDA was founded in 1977 with a mission to work with countries in dry and marginal areas to develop sustainable agriculture. Since 2002, it has been supported by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, itself established to help secure seed collections around the world. The Crop Trust funded the arctic Svalbard seed vault in Norway, which now has 865,000 seed samples. It is funded by donations that included $45 million from Norway and $30 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The next step for ICARDA is to re-establish its genetic bank in other countries. It is setting up operations in Morocco for cereal crops and in India for legumes such as lentils and beans. It is also protecting livestock breeds in Ethiopia.

Luigi Guarino, senior scientist for the Crop Trust, told LifeZette in an email that ICARDA’s center in Morocco soon would be receiving copies of its rescued genetic samples from the frozen vaults in Norway so it could cultivate them and produce a new generation of seeds.

With its seed banks spreading out, ICARDA will now be headquartered in Lebanon.

Ironically, this was ICARDA’s first home base before a civil war there forced them to relocate to Aleppo. In another irony, Syria’s civil war was sparked in large part by unrest from four years of drought, the very condition that ICARDA’s genetic research aims to overcome with ancient plant varieties.

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