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An International Rescue Mission from Syria to Svalbard

When war broke out in Syria in 2011, the future of one of the world’s most important seed collections was put at risk. What followed was an internationally coordinated rescue to ensure the preservation of this priceless heritage. 

A report in this week’s issue of Nature Plants, ‘Safeguarding a Global Seed Heritage from Syria to Svalbard,’ details how the rescue was pulled off. “It felt important to document and analyze this event,” said lead author Ola T. Westengen, an associate professor of Norwegian University of Life Sciences, and former Coordinator of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which was central to the rescue. “Two things stand out most to me: the dedication and professionalism of the ICARDA staff and the importance of international collaboration.”

 

Shelves inside the Svalbard Global Seed Vault holding the first boxes deposited by ICARDA in 2008. Photo: Mari Tefre/Crop Trust

 

The genebank at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) houses the largest collection of crop diversity from the Fertile Crescent, including barley, durum wheat, faba bean, chickpea and lentil. The story begins back in 2008, when ICARDA, then based at Tel Hadia, just outside Aleppo, Syria, was among the first genebanks to deposit safety duplicates of its seeds at the opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Carved into a mountain on the isolated island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago, Norway, the Seed Vault provides a disaster-proof place for institutes to store their precious seed collections in case something goes wrong with their own genebanks. 

Little did the Seed Vault’s creators realize that the first withdrawal of seeds would come so soon. 

The outbreak of war in Syria put ICARDA in crisis, with most staff leaving in 2012 save for a few Syrian nationals. In order to save its historic collection, they cranked up the work, preparing and shipping 14,363 accessions to the Seed Vault between 2012 and 2014. NordGen – the organization tasked with coordinating seed deposits – opened the Seed Vault especially to receive the ICARDA shipments. 

Through the hard work of genebank staff and their partners, 83% of all the accessions in the ICARDA genebank prior to the start of the war were deposited in the Seed Vault, with an additional 13,939 accessions sent to the national genebank in Turkey.

Lebanon and Morocco stepped in to host the collection and the seeds ICARDA staff had painstakingly backed up in case of calamity could – in these two new locations – finally be regenerated for conservation and made available for use. In 2015, ICARDA staff returned to the Svalbard Seed Vault to make the first withdrawal of seeds and began the process of re-establishing the collection. 

 

Seed boxes from Global Seed Vault start journey to the new ICARDA locations. Photo: NordGen

 

“It was a monumental task,” said report co-author and ICARDA scientist Mariana Yazbek. “Given the importance of the collection, when we obtained those materials we knew we had something very precious in our hands. We are entrusted to multiply these seeds, to take care of them and actually make them available again for the whole world.”

Each year since 2016, more than 30,000 samples have been regenerated, that is, grown out to provide enough seed to conserve and meet the needs of researchers and breeders.

“Not a single seed sample was lost and we were very happy to hear that all samples germinated well,” said Seed Vault Coordinator Åsmund Asdal. “And thanks to well coordinated efforts by all involved partners, the rest of the seeds were returned without problems in 2017 and 2019.”

Of the 141,052 accessions in the Tel Hadia genebank, ICARDA successfully backed-up almost 99%, only losing 1,657 accessions to the war. “This is an important, positive story of different countries and institutes working together to save a unique global resource that we could not possibly have replaced if it had been lost,” said co-author of the paper, Charlotte Lusty, Head of Programs and Genebank Platform Coordinator at the Crop Trust.

“It is concrete evidence that this global system for conservation and use of crop diversity is actually working and that mechanisms such as the Seed Vault and  the Crop Trust endowment are worth investing in.”

 

Seed regeneration plots at ICARDA’s Terbol station in Lebanon. Photo: Michael Major/Crop Trust

 

After years of hard work in both Lebanon and Morocco, ICARDA is well on its way to reconstructing its entire collection and continues to supply seeds to requestors.

“These important seeds are once again available to breeders and scientists who are working with farmers on  the frontlines of adapting agriculture to a rapidly changing climate, ” said Westengen. 

The work of reconstruction is not yet done, and will continue at least until 2030, depending on the availability of funding. The Nature Plants report pointed out that regenerating seed samples is a major undertaking requiring the right mix of environmental conditions, facilities, and skills.

But the effort is worth it. The collection is irreplaceable. 

Said the Crop Trust’s Lusty, “We can and should do more to save unique collections that are under threat all over the world. The Seed Vault is the last line of defence. We should not need it, but it’s good to know that it’s there when we do.” 

 

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