Humanity has had to cash in on its insurance policy earlier than expected.
Deep in the side of a mountain in the Arctic archipelago is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Coined the “Doomsday Vault,” this bank operated by the Norwegian government is meant to be humanity’s back-up in the event of a devastating catastrophe that decimates crops.
But that was not what caused scientists to have to dip in and make a withdrawal. Rather, it was because of the most preventable of manmade disasters — war.
Death, devastation and unimaginable brutality has become the hallmark of the bitter civil war ravaging Syria. In the midst of one of the most contested areas in Aleppo sits a treasure trove of food crop genetic material made inaccessible by war.
The gene bank in Aleppo, run by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, or ICARDA, houses an important collection of seeds gathered from around the Fertile Crescent and beyond.
ICARDA’s gene bank in Aleppo, one of the most important in the world, includes more than 135,000 varieties of wheat, fava bean, lentil and chickpea crops, as well as the world’s most valuable barley collection.
“These are land races that were inherited from our grand-grand-parents, most of them are unfortunately extinct now,” ICARDA Director General Mahmoud El-Solh said. “And this is where the cradle of agriculture [was] 10,000 years ago. In this part of the world, many of the important crops were domesticated from the wild to cultivation.”
ICARDA needs to reconstruct its collection of genetic material stocks since it can no longer access its own vault in Aleppo and plant the lands around it.
And that is where the war in Syria connects to a remote seed vault in the Arctic.
“This is a rescue mission; these seeds cannot be replaced” said ICARA representative Thanos Tsivelikas, who is overseeing the withdrawal from the vault.
The ICARDA Aleppo center had sent nearly 80% of the seeds and samples to the Global Seed Vault as a back up by 2012, with its last deposit being in 2014.
And now, Solh and his ICARDA team have the challenge of keeping and reproducing one of humanity’s most important collections of food crop genetic lines.
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