Syrian War Forces First-Ever Withdrawal from Global Seed Vault

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Syrian War Forces First-Ever Withdrawal from Global Seed Vault

After armed conflict destabilized Aleppo gene bank, scientists withdraw seeds from Arctic repository in order to safeguard critical research

"In one sense, it would be preferable if we never had to retrieve seeds from the Seed Vault, as a withdrawal signifies that there is a significant problem elsewhere in the world," said Marta Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust. (Photo: Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food/flickr/cc)

"In one sense, it would be preferable if we never had to retrieve seeds from the Seed Vault, as a withdrawal signifies that there is a significant problem elsewhere in the world," said Marta Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust. (Photo: Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food/flickr/cc)

The ongoing armed conflict in Syria has forced scientists—for the first time ever—to withdraw seeds from the Arctic seed vault that is tasked with safeguarding the world's food supply, the Crop Trust which oversees the repository confirmed Monday.

Buried in the remote Svalbard peninsula in the Arctic and designed to withstand rising sea levels, the vault was established eight years ago by the Norwegian government, the Crop Trust, and NordGen. It preserves roughly 860,000 samples from gene banks around the world—to fortify international supply in case of catastrophe.

The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA)—an important gene bank based in Aleppo, Syria—was one of many from around the world that sent seeds to the Arctic for safe keeping.

"The seeds in ICARDA's care are a globally important collection with 65 percent as unique landraces and wild relatives of cereals, legumes and forages collected from regions such as the 'Fertile Crescent' in Western Asia, the Abyssinian highlands in Ethiopia and the Nile Valley where earliest known crop domestication practices were recorded in civilization," the Crop Trust explained in a statement released Monday.

However, due to ongoing war and conflict, research at the Aleppo facility has been destabilized.

"ICARDA managed to move its headquarters from Syria in the early days of the war, while some of its workers remained at the gene bank in Aleppo in an attempt to save the collection," the Crop Trust said last month. "The organization managed to duplicate 80 percent of its collection in Svalbard as of March this year, where the seeds were safely stored along with others from around the world."

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So, ICARDA scientists asked the Svalbard vault to return their seed deposits to new research facilities in Lebanon and Morocco, to allow them to continue their research.

"The gene bank in Aleppo is still operative, but the uncertain national situation impedes sufficient recultivation of seeds to meet the demand," explained an official statement from Norway's Ministry of Agriculture and Food. "ICARDA therefore has requested the Svalbard Global Seed Vault to return a large proportion of seed samples deposited there in a number of shipments since 2008, aiming to grow new seed supplies."

The Crop trust confirmed on Monday that 38,000 seed samples "were safely delivered to Morocco and Lebanon today, having undertaken a 10,000 kilometre roundtrip. These seeds could hold the key to developing new crop varieties crucial to meeting world food demands with climate change."

Meanwhile, ICARDA earlier this month criticized media reports which stated that the Aleppo facility is completely nonfunctional, stating: "The security situation in Syria has significantly affected ICARDA’s field related activities. However, in spite of all difficulties, the storage facilities of its GeneBank are still operational."

"In one sense, it would be preferable if we never had to retrieve seeds from the Seed Vault, as a withdrawal signifies that there is a significant problem elsewhere in the world," said Marta Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust. "However, we can now see that the Vault as the ultimate fail-safe works the way it was intended to do."

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