Syria war prompts ‘doomsday’ seed bank withdrawal

A grimly telling story in the news this week. The Aleppo-based International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), with an extensive collection of indigenous seed stock from Syria and the Fertile Crescent, took refuge in Beiirut in 2012. ICARDA director Dr. Mahmoud Solh told Radio Australia that rebel forces allowed his team to depart with some 140,000 seed packets from freezer storage as Aleppo descended into war. "The center was occupied unfortunately by armed forces… but some of them are farmers and they had received seeds from us," he said. "They understood the value of the center and they know we are apolitical and have nothing to do with the government." But not all of ICARDA's seed samples made it out, and now Dr. Solh is requesting a withdrawl from a remote Arctic "doomsday" seed bank with samples from around the world to be safeguarded in the event of global catastrophe. Reuters reports that ICARDA wants some 130 boxes out of 325 it had deposited with the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, containing a total of 116,000 samples.

ICARDA is affiliated with the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), with such research centers in several countries around the world. It has collected and studied ancient varieties for their resistance to drought and saline conditions—seen as especially vital research in light of the impacts of climate change in the region. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is maintained by the Crop Trust on a Norwegian island some 800 miles from the North Pole. It has more than 860,000 samples, from almost all nations on Earth. It opened as recently as 2008. Did the Crop Trust anticipate that the first emergency withdrawals would come in just seven years?

The edge is always closer than it looks.


  1. Syrian seed bank still functioning in Aleppo?

    A feature in Earth Island Journal tells us the ICARDA is still functioning in Tal Hadya outside Aleppo, which is said to be under control jihadist forces. It doesn't mention the facility's relocation to Beirut which was reported over two years ago (see above). We also question whether there are still rebel-controlled pockets in the Aleppo area. A New York Times story on the facility from last October is similarly ambiguous.