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How Scientists Are Ensuring Syria’s Seeds Survive War and Climate Change

Emma Beals

Between climate change and war, Syrian agricultural history and diversity are under unprecedented threat. Here’s a glimpse into the ways that scientists are working around the clock to ensure that the country's seed diversity doesn’t get wiped out...

Editor's Note: Welcome to the last installment from our three-part series on the critical role that seeds, wheat, and bread play in the current Syrian crisis, as reported by journalist Emma Beals. In the final installment, Beals reports on how the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway, is trying to save critical Syrian seeds despite the current conflict. Click here to read the first installment on wheat as a weapon of war, and here for the second installment on how Syrian bakers are making bread against all odds.

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Exterior of the Svalbard Seed Vault. All photos courtesy of Global Crop Diversity Trust.

Between climate change and war, the Middle East's agricultural history and diversity are under unprecedented threat. And the so-called "Doomsday Vault" in a frozen archipelago north of the Norwegian mainland will save it. That's the hope at least, says Cierra Martin of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, who emphasized that we are "losing crop diversity every day" ahead of a recent deposit event at the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway, which saw thousands of new seeds deposited into the large storage vault in the ice for safe keeping. "Agricultural Armageddon" may seem hysterical, but with the myriad threats to our crop diversity—and therefore our environment and food security—from war, natural disaster, climate change, or heavy, single-variety commercial farming, it's not such a far-fetched thought.

In war-torn Syria, the vault and the intricate system of seed banks that sit below it are already proving their worth as NGOs and partners salvage the seed supply and interrupt the control of populations by warring parties who use the food chain as a way of exerting power. This is done by implementing localized reproduction programs and small-scale farming projects in order to protect food security.

READ MORE: The Arctic Doomsday Vault Might Save Our Food Future

Last year, the vault had its first withdrawal made and the importance of the nearly-decade-old project was proved. In October, 2015, The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), who oversees the seed bank system in Syria and the surrounding countries, withdrew 128 boxes out of 350 in total on-site, containing 38,073 seed samples from the Syrian deposit. The seeds were sent to Lebanon—where a new seed bank is being built in the Bekaa Valley—to accommodate the seeds and Morocco for further research and distribution.

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Comprising a range of native species of essential food crops, ICARDA Director General Mahmoud El Solh says the reason for the withdrawal was to keep the crops in circulation: "Between 2011 and 2014, we had always been meeting the demand of collaborators to ask for germplasm. Every year, we distribute 25,000 accessions to many developing countries and institutions to use them in breeding work. Our working collection—the seeds that we work with—had been almost depleted." The withdrawal is allowing Syrian scientists to ensure that the crops are bred and distributed within the country to alleviate some of the damage done to the agricultural sector and crop diversity from the now five-year long conflict raging in the country. It is hoped that the success of this withdrawal will lead the way for future preservation and replication projects elsewhere.

"Our mission is to conserve crop diversity and make it available for future food security worldwide. Food security is a huge part of that," says Martin. The withdrawal shows that the vault is fulfilling its aims. Daniele Donati, Deputy Director at the United Nation's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) Emergency and Rehabilitation Division, who works to improve food security and access in Syria, has worked with the regional seed vault. This vault received the withdrawal to ensure that the seed is distributed to agricultural projects within the country: "We try with ICARDA to revamp some of the multiplication activities in the country. On the international markets it's not always possible to find the same biological make up of the seeds."

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Hallway leading into the seed vault.

Due to the civil war in 2012, the Syrian seed bank itself—part of ICARDA's global network of 11 international gene banks with 110 participating countries—was moved away from the vicinity of Aleppo, into the northern part of the country. At the time, says El Sohl, 13 percent of their collection, or 28,000 accessions, was not duplicated anywhere other than Aleppo and comprised many extinct of landrace (developed over hundreds of years in the natural environment) varietals. Eighty percent of the seed stocks were moved to Svalbard and the remainder was moved to neighboring Lebanon. Lessons of previous conflicts ensured that this action took place before the center, subject to a quasi-ceasefire between the rebels and the regime, was immediately under threat of a violent take-over or similar, after lessons were learned in previous regional conflicts that displaced valuable stocks.

In neighboring Iraq, Abu Ghraib—now better known for the horrific torture of Iraqi prisoners at the hands on US troops that went on in a the prison there—was also the neighborhood that Iraq's gene bank was based in, just 40 km out of Baghdad. Years before in 1996, a "black box" of seeds was taken across the Syrian border for safekeeping at ICARDA's Aleppo facility and now resides in Lebanon. These were saved when the seed bank was looted in 2003, just after the US-led invasion began. Any remaining seeds in Abu Ghraib were destroyed, except for a thousand samples that one of the employees, Dr. Sanaa Abdul Wahab Al-Sheikh, had managed to save. "The seeds… carry with them the identity and sovereignty of their country," she told interviewers, having hidden them in her own home or on the grounds of the seed bank.

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Seed rows.

Prior to this was the case of Afghanistan's seed bank, whose misfortune had, in fact, inspired the Iraqis to send part of their collection out of the country. It began in 1992, when fighting between the government and the Mujaheddin in Kabul led to the loss of the main vault. Hundreds of varieties of staple crops like wheat, melons, pomegranates, chickpeas, nuts, barley, and lentil bred over generations to flourish in the local conditions present in the country were endangered or wiped out. The worsening violence prompted an emergency conservation effort by ICARDA. Scientists hid as many remaining seeds as they could find in the then-relatively peaceful towns of Ghazi and Jalalabad before leaving the country. But in 2002, those who set out to recover the seed stores only found empty rooms; empty except for piles of now-unlabeled seeds strewn about. News reports from the time say that the seeds themselves weren't of interest: apparently, only the plastic and glass containers they were stored in were stolen perhaps only weeks before the scientists came to retrieve them. The scale of the loss was made worse by the fact that unlike when war came to Iraq the following year, there was no outside "black box" for Afghanistan's repository, which had to be rebuilt from stocks worldwide with inevitable gaps in the genetic record.

Seed banks in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Burundi have also suffered similar fates due to conflict, and also from famine resulting from conflict that leads farmers to plant seeds set aside for the future merely to survive in the present. In all of these cases, the process of restoring the collections has taken years of painstaking work by botanists and agronomists who diligently source seeds from banks around the world. In doing so, their aim is to try to patch the historical picture that was lost back together while ensuring a supply of seeds for farmers and agriculturalists in the countries to maintain their crops. Complicating the latter in Syria right now is the fact that the national seed distributor, GOSM, has been crippled by the war and the commercial seed markets are not easily accessible or fairly priced.

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Seeds from the Svalbard Seed Vault.

Of course, the seeds are only as safe as the vault itself is, and not all catastrophic losses have been conflict-related. Climate can also hinder these efforts. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch destroyed the national seed bank of Honduras. Typhoon Milenyo slammed into the Los Baños seed bank in the Philippines in 2006: 70 percent of the national depository's stocks were destroyed in a single day due to flooding and power outages. However, a nearby rice gene bank was spared.

All of these incidents helped to build the case for building the Svalbard Seed Bank to serve as a truly global repository deemed to be physically remote enough and well protected from climate, natural disaster, and conflict.

The largest vault, of more than 1,700 worldwide, can store up to 4.5 million varieties of crops, each containing around 500 seeds, which approximates to roughly holding 2.5 billion seeds, but it's not there yet.

The entire complex cost US$9 million to build and is ultimately owned and operated by the Norwegian Ministry of Food and Agriculture, though the Global Crop Diversity Trust provides support and arranges for the shipments from less wealthy nations. The vault finally opened in 2007 after over a decade of lobbying to build the case for it.

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For ICARDA, this has meant the chance to reproduce and ensure the survival of local varieties of crop, says El Sohl: "What you see now... very impressive crops are grown. We started harvesting the lentils now—and the wild relatives of these crops being grown—they look healthy and very good. We will be harvesting in June [through] July and will be duplicating these accessions to send back to Svalbard to replace what we took out."

Svalbard acts as an insurance policy for the world's crops. It is not just war and or climate disasters that make the seed banks invaluable. With the increasing move from diverse crops to the homorganic landscape of highly commercialized farming, many countries or regions are one pest invasion or disaster away from huge food security or environmental disaster. The uniformity of certain crops to speed up growth has a drawback: everything with the same genetic blueprint is equally vulnerable to the same diseases or changes in the weather. And with profitably, the paramount concern for the major agribusiness concerns, setting aside plants for future diversity or crop emergencies seems expensive in the short-term, though it is not in the long run. Thorny legal questions also remain as to how and when farmers or government agencies or NGOs can access and exchange seeds stored there.

Yet seed banks, whether managed by a farmers' collective or a multinational coalition like the "Doomsday Vault," can preserve stocks that may prove to be particularly drought-resistant or disease-proof in the right conditions. Martin says: "We are losing varieties every single day and I don't think people understand that. You walk into the supermarket and there are so many varieties, there's food everywhere. But that's largely an illusion. The illusion is that it's diverse." The Seed Vault and the system of gene banks ensures the impact of any one event on that diversity, and the lessons learned in Syria mean the impact would be short lived. After all, there is no 100 percent safe place or method to store seeds, even in a deep Arctic vault. Having nations' genetic archives widely distributed and duplicated worldwide can cushion the impact of further crop-killing disasters, man-made or otherwise.