How this seedbank saved its precious seeds from Syria's civil war (Video)

ICARDA
© ICARDA

War not only threatens lives and a nation's political and economic stability -- it can also threaten biodiversity. To date, the Syrian conflict has killed over 210,000 people, and displaced over 3 million, but is also threatening one of the world's seed banks, part of a global network, located 19 miles south of Aleppo.

It's a harrowing story that shows how deeply war can affect humanity's common heritage, a legacy preserved in seeds. According to Wired, the country's violent civil war was closing in on the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), where 141,000 packets of seeds -- mainly wheat and durum varieties, some of them with an agricultural history developed over thousands of years, since the advent of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent -- are kept in cold storage. The fear was that the conflict would endanger staff, or cut out power for the refrigeration.

Hear how Dr. Mahmoud Solh, director general of ICARDA, explains the situation:

So as soon as fighting began in early 2011, researchers there hatched a plan to save their seeds, by gradually taking them out of the country to be stored in other seedbanks in the international genebank network, in countries like Lebanon, Turkey and Norway's Svalbard. But it wasn't easy:

Importing seeds and other agricultural materials can be difficult—just think of that half-eaten apple you had to throw away during your last trip through customs. The Center’s employees milked every connection they had to get the job done. When they evacuated half of the vulnerable samples to Turkey, the Turkish agricultural minister drove to the border to escort the seeds into his country.

Now, over 99 percent of ICARDA's seeds have been evacuated elsewhere, or "backed up" in some way. ICARDA is now running new initiatives in Mexico, India and Morocco, as part of a plan to decentralize operations, after the realization that they had too many of their "eggs in one basket," as Solh analogizes in his interview. During these uneasy years, the center has had to deal with the evacuation of its holdings, and most of its staff, and even a couple of kidnappings. Despite the danger, the center is still operating, and the genetic legacy of local agricultural practices remains, for the most part, safe. It's an inspiring story of bravery and dedication in the face of war; read more over at Wired.

Tags: Agriculture

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