A seed bank saved from war will help spur Syria’s agricultural resurrection. The bank, once based in the Aleppo countryside, will help the country’s agriculture industry recover from the devastation of seven years of conflict.
Scientists from the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) rescued tens of thousands of seed samples in the war-ravaged region of Aleppo.
Most of ICARDA’s expatriate staff left the site in Aleppo in 2012, but scientists at the center continued to maintain the original seed samples and send duplicates to other seed banks.
Ali Shehadeh, an ICARDA scientist working from Lebanon, said ICARDA evacuated all of the expatriates and their family from Syria when they realized the situation was no longer safe.
“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,” Shehadeh said.
ICARDA scientists managed to save the collection by shipping it to vaults in Morocco and Lebanon. Samples from Aleppo were also sent to Norway’s Svlabard Global Seed Vault, which stores back-up copies of seeds from around the world.
ICARDA’s seed bank contains more than 150,000 seed varieties from hundreds of different plant species.
Shehadeh says ICARDA’s seed collection will undoubtedly play a role in resurrecting Syria’s agriculture sector. Scientists also hope the collection might save mankind from the potential devastation caused by climate change.
Climate change, new diseases and modern industrial agriculture are threatening many of the plant species humans rely on. The Svlabard Global Seed Vault, which sits 800 miles above the Arctic Circle, was designed to ensure that nature’s genes aren’t lost or destroyed.
For now, the Svlabard Global Seed Vault is focused primarily on saving seeds used for food crops. But future banks may also focus on plants used for medicinal or therapeutic purposes, such as cannabis, which has been used medicinally since 2700 BC.
The seeds stored at Norway’s global seed bank are kept at 0F to ensure the samples remain viable in case of a global catastrophe.
Scientists chose Svalbard, Norway to establish the seed bank because it was believed to be a polar desert. The weather is typically cold and dry, with little rain and snow.
For many years, a small drainage ditch was all that was needed to divert rainwater that streams down the mountain.
But global warming appears to be working faster in Svalbard than many other places in the world. The changes have led to avalanches, warming temperatures, rain and melting permafrost, which is especially damaging to the seed bank.
The facility currently holds more than 930,000 seed samples for 5,000 species of plants.
The vault is located behind heavy doors, in three rooms deep inside of the mountain. The permafrost is believed to offer cost-effective freezing. If a power outage should occur, it would take a long time for the bank to thaw.
The bank is still protected by the mountain, despite the changes going on outside. But scientists will complete work on the entrance to the bank by 2019, which will make the facility more resistant to changes related to climate change.