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12:01

Lebanon/Germany: Gene banks and refugee seeds - how a Syrian scientist plans on saving mankind

March 29, 2018 at 15:39 GMT +00:00 · Published

An Aleppo-based research project known as the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) counts itself among the victims of the seven-year-long Syrian Civil War. Its precious cargo, a vast collection of crop seeds, is among the exiled refugees who have fled the conflict.

Ali Shehadeh is a Syrian scientist whose job at a seed bank in Terbol, Lebanon, is essentially to save humankind from a potential mass extinction event caused by global warming or war by storing the genetic material needed to reproduce vital crops such as wheat, barley and rice.

He is among the few who are prescient enough to prepare centuries in advance for the point where it becomes impossible to grow everyday produce.

A seed bank can be looked at in one of two ways. It is naturally pessimistic: storing immense accessions of seeds to prepare for an inevitable manmade catastrophe. But the idea that it is possible to repopulate arid wasteland with the crops humans need to survive? That is optimism.

“It is very important for any gene bank to keep resources for humankind, for future generations, because we are keeping very valuable resources, it is world heritage,” Shehadeh explains.

Vast swathes of agricultural land have been gobbled up by the ongoing tug-of-war between government forces, rebel alliances and the so-called Islamic State [formerly known as IS, ISIS, ISIL] in Shehadeh’s homeland.

His employer, ICARDA, aims to reverse the damage caused by the internal strife and restore Syria’s fertility. It does, or once did, have a far higher proportion of arable land than neighbouring Jordan and Iraq.

"There is no doubt that ICARDA will have a big role helping to reconstruct the agriculture sector in Syria: even by providing the seeds to the national programmes, technical packages or the expertise needed to rehabilitate the agriculture sectors in Syria,” Shehadeh says.

But ICARDA has also fallen prey to the war. Its employees have been forced to flee, its vaults left abandoned, and its seeds relocated to Lebanon, India, Jordan, Tunisia, Ethiopia and Egypt, not dissimilarly to the millions of displaced Syrians.

"The conflict arrived in ICARDA in mid-2012 and the decision was made by the management to move out of Tal Hadya to Aleppo. All the expatriates were evacuated. But we continued our activities in Tal Hadya with a local staff,” Shehadeh explains.

By 2015, however, the opposition had consolidated its positions in the north, surrounding Aleppo and Tal Hadya meaning Shehadeh and his team could no longer work at the station.

If accessing the station was one problem, accessing the resources to save the seed bank from oblivion was another altogether.

The vital amenities required to work on over 150,000 varieties of Middle Eastern crops such as gas, vehicles and staff became scarce during times of upheaval.

But it was not just the seeds and gas which were under threat. Local wildlife was as well.

“It was decided to bring our 120 Awassi sheep to Lebanon,” Shehadeh explains. "We brought the sheep because this breed, the Awassi, is one of the most important to the area.”

And of course, they would soon be eaten were they to fall into the wrong hands.

But, thankfully, before war had broken out, a prophetic decision was taken in 2008 to back up the seeds from Syria and transfer them to the icy reaches of the Arctic Ocean.

Svalbard, a Norwegian outpost halfway between Scandinavia and the North Pole, hosts a huge underground vault.

Its remote location and relative neutrality made it the ideal spot for storing the precious seeds.

"What we hope in the long run is to have one copy of each unique sample of seeds from around the world,” explains Marie Haga, the Bonn-based executive of the Crop Trust.

The Crop Trust is the only organisation in the world working globally to manage an effective system of crop conservation. The organisation provides ICARDA with valuable funding and training for genebank operations.

“When the gene bank in Aleppo couldn't work anymore, it was decided in early September 2015 to start withdrawing seeds from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault,” she continues. “The gene bank was then partly established in Morocco and partly in Lebanon. A tremendous job has been done by the scientists at ICARDA.”

She described the vital role ICARDA plays in the Middle East and throughout the globe; the rising importance of hardy, durable plants which can thrive in otherwise inhospitable conditions.

“What we need is plants that can stand a more unpredictable climate,” she explains. “The collection in ICARDA is so fundamentally important, actually more important now than ever before.”

Haga also praised the ICARDA staff for the work they carried out under such harsh conditions, saying that what they have achieved is ‘awfully important for the world.’

But is there any chance of the seeds being able to return home to Syria from their icy exile?

Shehadeh certainly hopes so, and he thinks that he will be able to return home from Lebanon too.

"We are resuming our activities keeping in mind that we will be able go back again to the Tal Hadya station in the near future, we hope,” he says.

Perhaps seed banks are for optimists after all.

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An Aleppo-based research project known as the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) counts itself among the victims of the seven-year-long Syrian Civil War. Its precious cargo, a vast collection of crop seeds, is among the exiled refugees who have fled the conflict.

Ali Shehadeh is a Syrian scientist whose job at a seed bank in Terbol, Lebanon, is essentially to save humankind from a potential mass extinction event caused by global warming or war by storing the genetic material needed to reproduce vital crops such as wheat, barley and rice.

He is among the few who are prescient enough to prepare centuries in advance for the point where it becomes impossible to grow everyday produce.

A seed bank can be looked at in one of two ways. It is naturally pessimistic: storing immense accessions of seeds to prepare for an inevitable manmade catastrophe. But the idea that it is possible to repopulate arid wasteland with the crops humans need to survive? That is optimism.

“It is very important for any gene bank to keep resources for humankind, for future generations, because we are keeping very valuable resources, it is world heritage,” Shehadeh explains.

Vast swathes of agricultural land have been gobbled up by the ongoing tug-of-war between government forces, rebel alliances and the so-called Islamic State [formerly known as IS, ISIS, ISIL] in Shehadeh’s homeland.

His employer, ICARDA, aims to reverse the damage caused by the internal strife and restore Syria’s fertility. It does, or once did, have a far higher proportion of arable land than neighbouring Jordan and Iraq.

"There is no doubt that ICARDA will have a big role helping to reconstruct the agriculture sector in Syria: even by providing the seeds to the national programmes, technical packages or the expertise needed to rehabilitate the agriculture sectors in Syria,” Shehadeh says.

But ICARDA has also fallen prey to the war. Its employees have been forced to flee, its vaults left abandoned, and its seeds relocated to Lebanon, India, Jordan, Tunisia, Ethiopia and Egypt, not dissimilarly to the millions of displaced Syrians.

"The conflict arrived in ICARDA in mid-2012 and the decision was made by the management to move out of Tal Hadya to Aleppo. All the expatriates were evacuated. But we continued our activities in Tal Hadya with a local staff,” Shehadeh explains.

By 2015, however, the opposition had consolidated its positions in the north, surrounding Aleppo and Tal Hadya meaning Shehadeh and his team could no longer work at the station.

If accessing the station was one problem, accessing the resources to save the seed bank from oblivion was another altogether.

The vital amenities required to work on over 150,000 varieties of Middle Eastern crops such as gas, vehicles and staff became scarce during times of upheaval.

But it was not just the seeds and gas which were under threat. Local wildlife was as well.

“It was decided to bring our 120 Awassi sheep to Lebanon,” Shehadeh explains. "We brought the sheep because this breed, the Awassi, is one of the most important to the area.”

And of course, they would soon be eaten were they to fall into the wrong hands.

But, thankfully, before war had broken out, a prophetic decision was taken in 2008 to back up the seeds from Syria and transfer them to the icy reaches of the Arctic Ocean.

Svalbard, a Norwegian outpost halfway between Scandinavia and the North Pole, hosts a huge underground vault.

Its remote location and relative neutrality made it the ideal spot for storing the precious seeds.

"What we hope in the long run is to have one copy of each unique sample of seeds from around the world,” explains Marie Haga, the Bonn-based executive of the Crop Trust.

The Crop Trust is the only organisation in the world working globally to manage an effective system of crop conservation. The organisation provides ICARDA with valuable funding and training for genebank operations.

“When the gene bank in Aleppo couldn't work anymore, it was decided in early September 2015 to start withdrawing seeds from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault,” she continues. “The gene bank was then partly established in Morocco and partly in Lebanon. A tremendous job has been done by the scientists at ICARDA.”

She described the vital role ICARDA plays in the Middle East and throughout the globe; the rising importance of hardy, durable plants which can thrive in otherwise inhospitable conditions.

“What we need is plants that can stand a more unpredictable climate,” she explains. “The collection in ICARDA is so fundamentally important, actually more important now than ever before.”

Haga also praised the ICARDA staff for the work they carried out under such harsh conditions, saying that what they have achieved is ‘awfully important for the world.’

But is there any chance of the seeds being able to return home to Syria from their icy exile?

Shehadeh certainly hopes so, and he thinks that he will be able to return home from Lebanon too.

"We are resuming our activities keeping in mind that we will be able go back again to the Tal Hadya station in the near future, we hope,” he says.

Perhaps seed banks are for optimists after all.

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