Seed bank saved from war to serve Syrian agricultural resurrection
Tens of thousands of precious seed samples were rescued by scientists from the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in the war-ravaged Aleppo countryside at the height of the conflict in Syria.
Although most of ICARDA expatriate staff left the Aleppo site in 2012, the center’s scientists continued to maintain original seed samples in Syria for years, while also sending duplicates of the seed pool to other seed banks.
“When we realized that the situation was not perfect, not suitable to resume our activities, and for the safety of the expatriates themselves, ICARDA management took the decision to evacuate all the expatriates and all their families outside of Syria,” Ali Shehadeh, an ICARDA scientist working from Terbol, Lebanon told RT's Ruptly video agency. “But we continued our activities in Tal Hadya (outside Aleppo) with a local staff so it never, ever stopped until October 2015, when there was no possibility of accessing Tal Hadya because we were banned from the station by the rebels there.”
Facing grave risks, ICARDA scientists managed to preserve the collection by shipping it to vaults in Lebanon and Morocco. Samples in Aleppo were also delivered to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, which stores ‘back-up’ copies of seeds.
While numerous seed banks remain in operation around the world, ICARDA’s collection represents a trove of seed genes that are gathered from the world’s dry regions. Established in 1977 to solve food insecurities in the region, over the ensuing few decades scientists deposited thousands of seed samples that one day could be withdrawn to replenish crops lost in conflict areas. Currently, the bank holds over 150,000 seed varieties from hundreds of plant species. Syria, which faces food security risks in many parts of the country following a lengthy battle with armed insurgency and Islamist terrorism, could benefit greatly from ICARDA’s collection.
“There is no doubt that ICARDA will have a big role helping to reconstruct the agriculture sector in Syria: even by providing the seeds to the national programs, technical packages or the expertise needed to rehabilitate the agriculture sectors in Syria,” Shehadeh explained.
Besides helping Syria, scientists hope that one day ICARDA’s collection might save mankind from the potential effects of climate change, which impacts irrigation and water management across the planet.
“It is very important for any gene bank to keep resources for humankind, for future generations, because we are keeping very valuable resources, it is world heritage,” Shehadeh noted.
“ICARDA gene bank is particularly important because it has seed from the area, plants that originate in Syria like wheat and barley, and these crops for obvious reasons are very well adapted to a dry climate,” Marie Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust, told Ruptly. Her organization is the only one in the world working globally to manage an effective system of crop conservation. “Crop diversity that we safeguard in seed banks is actually one of the most important natural resources in the world.”