Civil War in Syria Triggers First Ever Withdrawal from Doomsday Global Seed Vault

Civil War in Syria Triggers First Ever Withdrawal from Doomsday Global Seed Vault

(Natural Society) The civil war in Syria has prompted the first withdrawal from the Global Seed Vault, which is buried deep beneath the frozen tundra of the Norwegian island of Svalbard.

The vault is only intended to be opened in the event of a catastrophic event, such as nuclear war or drought, which threatens the extinction of a crop. But Syria has become such a chaotic nation that the guardians of the “Doomsday Vault” felt that preventative measures needed to be taken, for the first time since its creation.

“We just don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Lainoff about the Syria-based International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), one of the Crop Trust’s 11 global seed banks. “Any day that facility could be hit,” he said.

Crop Trust is one of the seed vault’s main stewards.

The primary seed vault in Aleppo, Syria, has been damaged and taken offline in the midst of the raging war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives thus far and made some 11 million citizens into refugees. ISIS has been furiously destroying antiquities and vital infrastructures. [1]

ICARDA has been re-established by Syrian scientists in Beirut, where this week they requested that some of their seeds be returned in order to restart their collection. Plant researchers use the seeds to determine which crops should be planted next in the Middle East in order to prevent crop destruction by pests and drought, and to increase yields to feed the region’s burgeoning population.

Photograph by Jim Richardson // National Geographic Creative

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was built in 2008 and stores more than 850,000 seed samples from all over the world. The seeds would remain frozen and sealed, even if the power were to shut off. Few expected, however, that less than 10 years later, the first withdrawal would be necessary. [2]

“We did not expect a retrieval this early,” Lainoff told NPR. “But [we] knew in 2008 that Syria was in for an interesting couple of years. This is why we urged them to deposit so early on.”

ICARDA has requested nearly 130 boxes out of the 325 it deposited in the vault, containing a total of 116,000 samples, including wheat, barley, and grasses suited to dry regions “to replace “seeds in a gene bank near the Syrian city of Aleppo that has been damaged by the war.” [3]

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The Aleppo site is still functioning, though only partially. A cold storage is still operational, but the seed bank is no longer able to continue as a nucleus to grow seeds and distribute them to other nations, particularly in the Middle East.

“Lots of people think that this vault is waiting for doomsday before we use it. But it’s really a backup plan for seeds and crops. We are losing seed diversity every day and this is the insurance policy for that,” says Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which helps manage the facility.

Photograph by Jim Richardson // National Geographic Creative
Photograph by Jim Richardson // National Geographic Creative

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, farmers are no longer planting an estimated three-quarters of the world’s crop biodiversity, due to shifts in weather, societal preferences, and market pressures. This consolidation makes crops more vulnerable to disease, pests, droughts, and other threats.

ICARDA scientists will use the retrieved seeds to plant and regenerate them at their facilities in Lebanon and Morocco. They’ll also be able to continue their research and replace the samples they had frozen in Norway. [4]

Additional Sources:

[1] National Geographic

[2] Reuters

[3] NPR

[4] CNN

Featured image photograph by John McConnico, AP