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Syrian War Compels To Open The Doomsday Seed Vault For First Withdrawal

Researchers from ICARDA, have requested for the backup seeds deposited in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, to restart their collection after the primary gene bank in Aleppo got damaged due to Syria’s civil war.

It’s barely been 8 years since the construction of the world’s doomsday seed vault in 2008, in a frigid Arctic mountainside on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, that the first ever request for withdrawal from the deposit has popped up. Thanks to the ongoing civil war is Syria, which has damaged the Aleppo’s seed vault, derailing it from its role as a hub for seeds growing and seed distribution in the Middle East.

Plant scientists have specifically asked for the drought resistant seed varieties of wheat, barley, and grasses from the vault, to re-establish the crops lost during the war and also continue their research to stay a step ahead of pests and drought and to improve yields.

(Image source: Crop Trust)
(Image source: Crop Trust)

Built precisely for such eventualities, The Global Seed Vault located 800 miles from the North Pole on Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, is designed to serve as ”the final backup” in the event of a doomsday catastrophe like nuclear war, asteroid impact, crippling diseases wiping out large plant varieties or any other apocalyptic scenarios.

Extending nearly 500 feet into the mountain, it is built to survive rising sea levels, power outages and other calamities that could damage the seeds. Even in the event of power failure, the vault would stay frozen and sealed for atleast 200 years. Remoteness of the location and the Arctic chill protects the vault. Also, being inside a mountain increases security, while the permafrost offers a failsafe seed conservation method.

(Image source: Crop Trust)
(Image source: Crop Trust)

With a total capacity to store 2.5 billion seeds (4.5 million varieties with 500 seeds per variety on average), it is already housing more than 860,000 samples from all most every country on the planet. At times like the present century, when we are losing seed diversity every other day due to shift in weather, societal preference, diseases, pests, market pressures and other threats, the vault acts as a critical safety net and safeguards global food supplies and crop biodiversity.

Global Crop Diversity Trust, the company which helps manage the facility, says on their website, “The purpose of the Vault is to store duplicates (backups) of seed samples from the world’s crop collections. It will secure, for centuries, millions of seeds representing every important crop variety available in the world today. It is the final back up.”

(Image source: Crop Trust)
(Image source: Crop Trust)

Across the world there are about 1700 seed banks to maintain biodiversity and food security, but many of them are vulnerable to natural disasters, war and even banal problems like lack of fund or a broken freezer. In light of this, Svalbard’s vault acts as a sort of last resort insurance policy.

The present request for seed withdrawal is first of its kind for Svalbard’s vault coming from another seed bank, The International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), which moved its headquarters from Aleppo to Beirut in the early days of the war. Back in 2012, when armed forces started to move in, ICARDA managed to get most of the nation’s seed varieties out of the country from Aleppo to Beirut, Lebanon. They then shipped the seeds to Turkey and to the Svalbard’s global seed bank for long term preservation.

(Image source: Crop Trust)
(Image source: Crop Trust)

Despite the war, the Aleppo facility continues to function, including a cold storage vault. But with every passing week, they found it more and more difficult to handle requests for seeds from its former headquarters in Aleppo, prompting ICARDA to get some of its deposits back from Svalbard.

ICARDA wants 130 boxes out of 325 it had deposited in the vault, containing a total of 116,000 samples. It is said that, many of the seeds from the Aleppo collection have traits resistant to drought, which could help breed crops to withstand climate change in dry areas from Australia to Africa. Researchers plan to plant the seeds and have a fresh collection of seeds from the harvest. Later, they want to return some of these new seeds back to Svalbard for safe storage.

This is not the first time that seed banks have been damaged. In the recent past, seed vaults in Iraq and Afghanistan were destroyed because of war and one gene bank in Philippines got badly damaged due to floods. It is crisis these (man-made and natural) which makes us realize the importance of these seed banks and the critical role they play in preserving crop biodiversity and providing food security to mankind.

Ravindra Krishnamurthy

Ravindra Krishnamurthy is a freelance science writer covering science, tech, the environment, health, food, and culture.

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