This site uses cookies. By accepting cookies you can optimise your browsing experience. Read more.
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.

12:01
No Account? Sign up!
Description

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.

M/S Workers in fields, Terbol, Lebanon

C/U Worker's hands

M/S Workers in fields

C/U Field

W/S Seed facility

C/U Ali Shehadeh

C/U Ali Shehadeh

SOT, Ali Shehadeh, ICARDA scientist: "Seeds and genetic resources, in general, why are we keeping these? We have multiple tasks. First of all to conserve the seeds as genetic resources for any breeding programme to be used by different levels of research. But it is important to highlight a very important idea: why are we keeping these seeds? To be used in the second generation, in the future. For any reason: catastrophes, natural hazards, whatever. This is why there was the idea created what is called the Global Seed Bank in Svalbard. This is for the human kind, sometimes they call it 'doomsday vault' which is not correct but it is very important for any gene bank to keep resources for humankind, for future generations, because we are keeping very valuable sources, it is world heritage and it can be used anytime, in any aspect."

C/U Shehadeh opening up fault

C/U Vault

SOT, Ali Shehadeh, ICARDA scientist: "It's not only climate change, using chemicals. Not weapons. using chemicals excessively to control weeds and pest. This is one aspect, one dangerous aspect because sometimes you kill the predators. And sometimes you need predators to run successful agricultural systems."

C/U Collection of seeds

M/S Ali Shehadeh in vault

C/U Apparatus

C/U Apparatus

SOT, Ali Shehadeh, ICARDA scientist: "Each accession has its uniqueness of characters for any particular environment or factors. I'm pretty sure that genetic resources, a lot of genetic resources, were lost in Syria. We will be able to provide the Syrian Government with these."

W/S Greenhouse interior

C/U Plants

C/U Plants

M/S Plants

SOT, Ali Shehadeh, ICARDA scientist: "The conflict arrived to ICARDA in mid-2012 and the decision was made by the management to move out of Tal Hadya and resume our activities temporarily in the offices in Aleppo. When we realised that the situation is not perfect, not suitable to resume our activities and for the safety of the expatriates themselves ICARDA management took the decision to evacuate all the expatriates and all their families outside of Syria."

M/S Ali Shehadeh walking in green house

W/S Ali Shehadeh walking in green house

W/S Seed facility

SOT, Ali Shehadeh, ICARDA scientist: "But we continued our activities in Tal Hadya with a local staff so it never never stopped until October 2015 when there was no possibility to access to Tal Hadya because we were banned to access the station by the rebels there. They controlled the area and they didn't want us to get inside the station anymore. Therefore we continued our activities here."

M/S Workers

C/U Crops

C/U Worker sorting crops

C/U Worker sorting crops

C/U Worker sorting crops

SOT, Ali Shehadeh, ICARDA scientist: "When the conflict happened nearby to ICARDA and the decision was made to evacuate from the station of the headquarters, it was decided to bring what was left of our Awassi sheep to Lebanon. We succeeded to bring 120 sheep from Aleppo to Lebanon with a special agreement from the Government."

W/S Sheep

W/S Seed facility

W/S Seed facility

SOT, Ali Shehadeh, ICARDA scientist: "We brought the sheep because this race [breed], the Awassi race, is one of the most important races in the area. It is an historical race, it has its uniqueness in characters in terms of quality, meat quality, milk quality and wool quality."

M/S Files

M/S Ali Shehadeh

SOT, Ali Shehadeh, ICARDA scientist: "The main headquarters is still in Aleppo, in Tal Hadya. Now what we have in Lebanon is a parallel headquarters and we are very, very optimistic that we will go back to Aleppo to Tal Hadya station, to resume ICARDA's activities. We are very confident about the role of ICARDA in the region. It is not only for Syria."

W/S Fields

W/S Seed facility

M/S Seed facility

SOT, Ali Shehadeh, ICARDA scientist: "There is no doubt that ICARDA will have a big role to help reconstruct the agriculture in Syria: even by providing the seeds to the national programmes, or to provide the technical packages, the expertise needed to rehabilitate the agriculture sectors in Syria."

C/U Crops

C/U Crops

SOT, Ali Shehadeh, ICARDA scientist: "We will go back but when, nobody knows. Because when they would like to go back to ICARDA in Syria that means everything should be in a perfect way."

W/S Outside the Crop Trust in Bonn, Germany

C/U Crop Trust sign

M/S Executive Director of the Crop Trust Marie Haga

C/U Haga working

M/S Haga working

C/U Haga working

C/U Haga

C/U Haga

SOT, Marie Haga, Executive Director of the Crop Trust: "Crop diversity that we safeguard in seed banks is actually one of the most important natural resources on the globe."

W/S Haga working

C/U Crop Trust sign

SOT, Marie Haga, Executive Director of the Crop Trust: "What we hope in the long run is to have one copy of each unique sample of seeds from around the world that exist in the gene banks in Svalbard so that if something happen, whether it is war or natural catastrophes, the material is not lost forever."

C/U Documents

C/U Document

SOT, Marie Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust: "ICARDA gene bank is particularly important, because it has seed from the area, plants that originate in Syria like wheat and barley and these crops for obvious reasons are very well adapted to a dry climate. Not the least of what we need in the time ahead is to breed plants that can stand higher temperatures, that can stand a drier climate and in many ways a more unpredictable climate and the plant that originate in this part of the world do have these traits and that is why the collection in ICARDA is so fundamentally important. Actually more important now than ever before."

C/U document

SOT, Marie Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust: "When the gene bank in Aleppo couldn't operate anymore, it was decided in early September 2015 to start withdrawing seeds from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The gene bank was then partly established in Morocco and partly in Lebanon. A tremendous job has been done by the scientists at ICARDA. Because the first withdrawal from Svalbard was 38,000 variety of seeds."

Poster

C/U Poster

SOT, Marie Haga, Executive Director of the Crop Trust: "What we do know is that the ICARDA staff has no access to the facilities. We do think that the cold storage is still operating but we don't really know about that. We, of course, hope that the seeds are intact. But if they are not, it's comforting to know that we are in the midst of re-establishing the seed bank in Morocco and Lebanon."

C/U Haga hands *CUTAWAY*

SOT, Marie Haga, Executive Director of the Crop Trust: "If I were to add something it would again be to celebrate the work that has been done by the staff in ICARDA, they have worked under extremely difficult conditions and what they did in terms of backup in Svalbard was awfully important, not only for Syria, not only for the region, but probably for the world."

W/S Haga leaving

C/U Crop Trust sign

M/S Crop Trust offices

W/S Crop Trust offices

Video Feed
Providing you with the best in breaking news, politics, science, sports, tech, viral and entertainment content
All latest videos
Russia: Massive ‘Centre 2019’ military drills begin in Orenburg
02:11
Russia: Massive ‘Centre 2019’ military drills begin in Orenburg
September 16 at 13:09 GMT +00:00
Africa's flashiest freestyle footballers battle it out for big bucks in Lagos
03:14
Africa's flashiest freestyle footballers battle it out for big bucks in Lagos
September 16 at 13:03 GMT +00:00
Luxembourg: Johnson and Juncker 'cautious' ahead of Brexit talks
01:12
Luxembourg: Johnson and Juncker 'cautious' ahead of Brexit talks
September 16 at 13:00 GMT +00:00
Turkey: Erdogan, Putin hold bilateral talks ahead of Syria summit
00:40
Turkey: Erdogan, Putin hold bilateral talks ahead of Syria summit
September 16 at 12:28 GMT +00:00
Germany: FM Maas voices concern over Saudi Arabia oil attacks
01:49
Germany: FM Maas voices concern over Saudi Arabia oil attacks
September 16 at 12:01 GMT +00:00
Turkey: Putin arrives in Ankara for trilateral Syria summit
01:46
Turkey: Putin arrives in Ankara for trilateral Syria summit
September 16 at 11:50 GMT +00:00
Austria: US 'condemns Iran’s attack on Saudi Arabia' oil supplies - Eng Sec Perry at IAEA conference
01:48
Austria: US 'condemns Iran’s attack on Saudi Arabia' oil supplies - Eng Sec Perry at IAEA conference
September 16 at 11:27 GMT +00:00
China: Hong Kongers rallying outside British consulate 'shameful' - FM spox.
02:08
China: Hong Kongers rallying outside British consulate 'shameful' - FM spox.
September 16 at 10:22 GMT +00:00
Mexico: Obrador celebrates first Cry of Dolores on Mexican Independence Day
02:23
Mexico: Obrador celebrates first Cry of Dolores on Mexican Independence Day
September 16 at 08:33 GMT +00:00
Canada: PM Trudeau celebrates US Open champion Andreescu in hometown rally
03:02
Canada: PM Trudeau celebrates US Open champion Andreescu in hometown rally
September 16 at 07:13 GMT +00:00
Syria: Displaced Syrians return to homes in Hama, Idlib provinces
02:09
Syria: Displaced Syrians return to homes in Hama, Idlib provinces
September 16 at 05:54 GMT +00:00
'A ton of schnitzel' breaks world record in Bavarian town of Mengkofen
02:16
'A ton of schnitzel' breaks world record in Bavarian town of Mengkofen
September 16 at 05:09 GMT +00:00
All latest videos