by Paul Watson, Torstar News Services
Sept. 1, 2014 (TSR) – In the middle of a savage civil war, a team of scientists in Syria has been quietly rescuing tiny bits of a global treasure: seeds with genetic roots running back to the beginning of civilization.
Most of the seeds, which could prove crucial to feeding millions of people as the world’s climate warms and deserts spread along with pests and diseases, are now in safe storage behind heavy steel doors, deep in a mountainside in Norway‘s High Arctic.
The struggle to rescue the Syrian seeds is part of a worldwide effort to preserve and nurture the genetic heritage of plants that feed us today, along with strains abandoned by commercial farmers long ago or others that only grow wild.
Preserving the widest variety of seeds allows scientists to look for solutions to future food crises in the genes of species passed over in favour of those that now dominate modern agriculture.
It’s also prudent insurance against the day-to-day earthquakes, fires, wars and other catastrophes.
“The most common misconception is that this is a ‘doomsday vault,'” said Ola Westengen, who co-ordinates operations and management for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, where the Syrian seeds were sent for safekeeping.
“It’s not for Armageddon. It’s for the smaller natural and political disasters that can strike gene banks around the world. You shouldn’t keep your eggs in one basket.”
Throughout history, human diets have included more than 7,000 plant species, but farmers grow fewer than 150 of those today, according to Svalbard.
Norway opened the vault in 2008 on a remote archipelago in the High Arctic. It invited any of more than 1,400 gene banks around the world to send duplicate seeds so their priceless genes won’t be lost if disaster strikes.
The seeds are sealed against moisture in specially made packets with several layers of plastic and aluminum foil, and then stored in boxes, on high shelves, frozen in one of three underground chambers, beneath the permafrost.
The oxygen level is kept low to slow the seeds’ aging. Electronic monitors constantly sniff for any gases that might endanger them.
The vault is a high-security facility, monitored by closed-circuit television cameras. The seeds are at the end of a 125 m tunnel, on the other side of a series of four doors, each locked with a coded key, 150 m below the mountain’s surface.
As with jewels stored in a bank’s safe deposit box, the potato, sorghum, lettuce wheat and other crop seeds are still owned by the gene banks that deposited them. No one but the depositor is allowed to open the seed packets.
Norway paid around $9 million to build the Svalbard facility, but it is jointly managed by the Norwegian government, the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre.
The battle-scarred former headquarters of the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (Icarda) is near the ravaged Syrian city of Aleppo, where experts carefully gathered and stored an invaluable cache of seeds in a refrigerated room for decades.
“We are trying our best to continue our work without jeopardizing the lives of the staff,” Ahmed Amri, head of Icarda’s genetic resources unit, said in reply to emailed questions.
“These genetic resources are valuable for humankind to ensure supply of genes needed to ensure sustained agricultural development and food security for generations to come.”
This isn’t the first time Icarda’s seeds have been saved from civil war.
Its headquarters were moved to Tel Hadya, about 33 km southwest of Aleppo, from neighbouring Lebanon in the late 1970s to save the seeds, and the staff, from Lebanese bloodletting.
The research centre’s work is crucial because it focuses on crops, such as chickpeas, lentils and barley, that feed some of the world’s most vulnerable populations in the Middle East, India and other countries, said Axel Diederichsen, curator of Canada’s National Plant Gene Bank.
“These are very important crops for areas that are challenged economically and by the changing climate,” Diederichsen, a federal research scientist, said from Saskatoon.
“It’s also an important source for an industrialized country like Canada,” where University of Saskatchewan researchers have worked with Icarda on breeding pulse crops such as lentils, he added.
For decades, experts at Tel Hadya kept alive globally important strains of wheat, barley and other domesticated cereal species and legumes, along with wild relatives, including seeds with a genetic lineage traced back to the birth of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent.
Then Syria’s civil war threatened them.
The insurgency against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, which began with peaceful protests in January 2011, quickly engulfed the country, where neolithic farmers sowed some of the first grain seeds some 9,000 years ago.
The ICARDA research centre, which includes modern labs and a 950-hectare farm, fell under opposition control. A November 2012 YouTube video shows signs of significant damage.
“In spite of the hard situation at Tel Hadya station, the gene bank cold rooms are still functional and Icarda’s team in Syria is able to maintain the base and active collections and to distribute the seeds upon request despite the situation,” Amri said.
Other gene banks haven’t been as fortunate as Icarda, which had enough time, despite intense fighting in and around Aleppo, to transfer some 80 per cent of its stored seeds to the Svalbard vault.
In September 2006, Typhoon Milenyo flooded the Philippine gene bank, the National Plant Genetic Resources Laboratory, at Los Baños, and knocked out power. Some 70 per cent of its seeds were lost.
Looters ransacked Egypt’s Desert Research Centre, stealing computers and destroying labs at the gene bank in El Sheikh Zowaid, in North Sinai, during the 2011 revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
Iraq’s gene bank suffered a similar fate following the U.S. invasion in 2003, likely destroying seeds linked to the dawn of agriculture, Westengen said.
Developing countries such as India have long been wary of letting unique seeds out of their hands for fear that western corporations will genetically modify them and make their farmers dependent on the patented seeds.
But a special delegation from India, which included a senior bureaucrat, brought seeds of Indian origin to the Svalbard vault in April.
They were so concerned about the security of their deposit that they carried the seeds in hand luggage on the long flight to the Arctic.
“It was a very small deposit, at the symbolic level,” Westengen said. “They came in person, which also has to do with trust. They wanted to see it and talk to us about what we were doing.
“They now say they will start to make use of the seed vault for duplicates.”
Brazil, another country that carefully guards its seeds, has also put some in the Svalbard vault, a huge step for a country that has been burned before by corporations eager to profit from plants.
Canada has been part of the Svalbard project from the beginning and has deposited 25,868 different seed samples collected by Canadian researchers at home and abroad, Westengen said.
To some, the Svalbard vault is a sad comment on how much humans have harmed their planet, and a warning of how much worse things may get.
But Westengen sees it as a hopeful sign of co-operation among countries that are often deeply suspicious of the West.
“I think that’s quite beautiful,” he added. “We have both North and South Korea with boxes sitting in the vault. They have sent a lot of seeds and they are very easy to work with. They are very constructive.
“And there are a lot of countries here that you probably wouldn’t have expected to take part in such international collaboration. But I think it’s because, from a gene bank manager’s point of view, it makes sense to back up your collections.”