Deep within a mountain in the Arctic circle lie hundreds of thousands of seed samples from around the world, housed under tight security and frozen in permafrost, to be used should drought, disease or catastrophe destroy humanity’s ability to feed itself.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in northern Norway was set up as a guarantee against mass starvation. The world’s governments poured in their countries’ seed samples – unique strains of every crop – and the doors were closed in 2008, when no one expected them to be opened for many generations.
But in early September scientists from the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (Icarda), previously based in Aleppo, Syria, made an extraordinary request: to remove thousands of samples, because of the effects of the Syrian war.
The first batch of Svalbard “doomsday” seeds have now been transferred to a vault in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, neighbouring Syria, and stored at -20C to ensure that, whatever the human cost of the Syrian war, the country’s unique agricultural heritage is safeguarded and available for use.
Dr Mariana Yazbek, the gene-bank manager in Terbol, Bekaa, said of Svalbard’s vault: “It was not expected to be opened for 150 or 200 years ... It would only open in the case of major crises but then we soon discovered that, with this crisis at a country level, we needed to open it.”
The need to secure thousands of years of farming heritage in Syria became clear in 2012 as Aleppo was torn apart by fierce fighting. An Icarda facility in the city held virtually all of its seed stocks, 13 per cent of which was unique to the vault. Although duplicates were quickly made and placed in other locations, control of the province changed hands between rebel groups and the city suffered daily bombing by regime forces.
Access to the Icarda facility’s stocks became almost impossible for the scientists.
“So the decision was made: if we can’t access the collection, we need to reconstruct the whole collection,” said Dr Yazbek. “When we get requests from a scientist in Europe or the US, for example, we can’t simply go and get the seeds for them.”
And Icarda faced two options: rounding up copies from sites across the world or taking them directly from Svalbard. Athanasios Tsivelikas, Icarda’s gene-bank manager in Morocco, was given the job of heading to the Arctic. “I was feeling nervous by the time the cargo left Svalbard and during the entire journey back,” he says, adding that he was constantly expecting something to go wrong even until the last moment.
This fear was muted by his excitement at the enormity of the task at hand. “When you trace back the history of these seeds, [you think of] the tradition and the heritage that they captured,” he says.
“They were maintained by local farmers from generation to generation, from father to son and then all the way to Icarda’s gene bank and from there to the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard. You realise the load of responsibility.” The seeds will now be multiplied and copies sent back to the Arctic site.
When rebel groups began encircling Aleppo, Icarda pulled out all foreign staff. From 800 people, the operation is now run by 50, all dedicated Syrians who visit the site every few days, dependent on the mood of whichever rebels control the site.
“Some knew our work, as they were previously farmers, and know that Icarda is a non-profit organisation working for the welfare of small farmers. But you never know, since some do not care,” said Dr Mahmoud Solh, director general of Icarda, in his Beirut office.
For now, expensive diesel bought on the black market has kept the generators running in Aleppo during power cuts, to ensure the seeds remain below -20C, and rebels have continued to allow Icarda staff to access the gene bank.
But Majd Jamal, Icarda director in Damascus, says: “It’s a risky situation. We have two or three people going every other day. Sometimes they are prevented from entering and sometimes they [the rebels] let them in. It depends on their mood.”
Mr Jamal says agreements with those in control of Aleppo have to be renegotiated constantly. Islamist coalition Ahrar al-Sham are currently in charge but that could change at any moment. Regime attacks continue, the menace of Isis looms and the province has been pummelled by Russian bombs in recent weeks.
Icarda scientists say that, while the contents of the gene bank has been protected, adjacent farmland in Aleppo province has been damaged.
“The first year [of the war] we were able to farm but then people came and said that we could not,” Mr Jamal says. “The groups using it are destroying the rotation; they are planting cotton, potatoes. We had only planted cereals and legumes.”
For farmland to remain fertile, it has to be planted in rotation, with varying crops each season. Now that this system has been neglected, were Icarda to regain the land tomorrow, it would still take years to get back to normal, Mr Jamal says.
For Mr Jamal, his Syrian staff members are an inspiration. “They are heroes to me: they are living in very difficult circumstances and negotiating with these people.”
He says the work they are doing is not just important for the research centre but for all mankind.
“It is one of the most important gene banks, especially for crops, it is really a unique collection. The benefit of this collection is for the whole of humanity.”
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