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Rare Seeds Escape Syria's War

Saving the seeds of the most important crops on Earth.

Some 11,000 years ago, the Fertile Crescent birthed humanity’s modern food supply. In a great band of productive soil stretching from modern-day Egypt to the Persian Gulf, people planted roots, figuratively and literally, giving up the hunter-gatherer modus operandi for the settled life of agriculture. They planted wheat and barley in controlled environments, using irrigation and tilling the soil. With the resulting bounty of food, human populations swelled, requiring still more food. Today, the nearly 8 billion people of Earth are dependent on these staple crops, the genetic descendants of those wild varieties, now bred to be even more productive.

40 years ago, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), established a gene bank in Tel Hadia, 20 miles south of Aleppo. In 2014, as Syria's civil war raged, scientists at ICARDA had to evacuate but they had already shipped off a resource of incalculable value: the seeds of the most important crops on Earth.

The destination of these little bits of genetic information was the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a frigid facility sticking out of the permafrost on a remote Arctic island. ICARDA staffers had been among the first to deposit seeds after the vault opened in 2008, stashing away unique varieties of chickpeas, lentils, and alfalfa, among many others. They were backing up their own collection, a standard practice among some 1,700 seed gene banks dotted around the world, which are meant to preserve the genes that code our essential crops for resistance to disease, pests, and climate change.

Syria’s civil war had been the most dramatic example why you’d want to do such a thing: The treasures inside the ICARDA facility required constant upkeep, and as the war raged on, it became increasingly difficult to tend to them.

Ultimately, the researchers sent three more shipments north between 2012 and 2014, before abandoning their own facility. All told, they ended up sending some 116,000 accessions - or seed samples representing a population of plants from a certain location - to chill in Svalbard’s -18 degrees C (-0.4 degrees F) stacks. Those samples represented 83 percent of ICARDA’s total holdings at the time of the outbreak of civil war.

In time, humanity may look back on the successful transfer of the gene bank from Syria to Norway as one of the most vital acts of preservation ever undertaken.


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