From Syria to Lebanon, Saving the Seeds That Could Save Humanity

The story behind the seed genebank, or “doomsday vault,” and how it thrives despite war and displacement

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From Syria to Lebanon, Saving the Seeds That Could Save Humanity
People stand in front of the entrance to the international gene bank Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV), on February 25, 2020 outside Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, Norway / Lise Åserud / NTB Scanpix / AFP via Getty Images

The seeds that could save humanity were in a vault in Syria. Then the war came, and the seeds were relocated to Lebanon for safekeeping. The move was actually a return to Lebanon, where ICARDA was first headquartered, before Lebanon’s civil war forced their move to Syria in 1984.

The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) emerged from and expanded the former Arid Land Agricultural Development (ALAD) Program of the Ford Foundation that operated in Lebanon in the 1960s and 1970s. ICARDA’s objectives are numerous, but they all boil down to improving the livelihoods of the resource-poor across the world’s dry areas, from utilizing limited water resources to improving the production of staple food crops.

But the Levant region, where ICARDA’s presence is essential to its mission, keeps delivering its own turmoil. In 2015, 30 years after fleeing to Syria from Lebanon’s civil war, ICARDA relocated its genebank back to the relative stability of Lebanon, this time in full flight from Syria’s war.

The genebanks managed by ICARDA aren’t only the world’s biggest; they also hold a large number of unique wild accessions — seed samples held in a genebank for conservation — from the Fertile Crescent, where agriculture first evolved over 7,000 years ago.

The specific ecological and environmental conditions in the Fertile Crescent from early on have optimized wild relative species in the region to be genetically resilient to drought, increased temperatures, heatwaves, and disease outbreaks — the very same adverse threats brought on by climate change.

In other words, the accessions in ICARDA’s possession already have the genetics required to survive on a hot planet. So, if a grown sample in a colder region isn’t able to withstand frequent heat waves and gets wiped out, the genetically resilient samples created in ICARDA’s genebank would come to the rescue — a salvation that scientists expect they’ll need in the near future.

In Terbol, Lebanon, where ICARDA has relocated, one woman was single-handedly tasked with the tedious process of building an entirely new genebank system from scratch, down to putting together a team, a facility, and rebuilding the seed collection. “We sweated blood and guts for five years to get the genebank up and running,” Mariana Yazbek, scientist and genebank manager at ICARDA, told Newlines. “We stopped being just agricultural scientists. We became architects, engineers, and interior designers.”

“The genebank in Lebanon is here to stay,” says Yazbek, affirming that the relocation in 2015 from Tel Hadia to Terbol is the first and only fathomable option, as agreements with the government of Lebanon had already been established.

But the relocation was not as simple as Yazbek makes it sound. Before they were forced to shut down in January 2014 due to the raging war, the Syria team in Tel Hadia (20 miles south of Aleppo) needed to pull off a heroic attempt to save the seeds they already had in store. The problem was finding a place to store the seeds before the Lebanon location was ready to receive them. Between 2012 and 2014, ICARDA’s Syria team maintained, prepared, and shipped 14,363 accessions to the only place they could: the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located in the Svalbard archipelago between Norway and the North Pole. Amid the war, the seeds made a pit stop in Aleppo for testing and certification before moving on to Damascus. From there, they traveled to the Vault in Svalbard by international courier as air freight. In 2015, this meticulous effort earned the team the internationally prestigious Gregor Mendel Innovation Prize.

When one of the first seed shipments from ICARDA arrived in Svalbard on Nov. 21, 2013, the remote arctic island was pitch black, as it would remain for the next two months of the dark season, when daylight hours are at a minimum. Along with a group of scientists, Ola Westengen, then coordinator of operations and management for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, handled the momentous rescue operation of an invaluable collection of seeds arriving from ICARDA’s genebank in war-torn Syria.

Call it what you want, the world’s most important room or Noah’s Ark of plant diversity, Svalbard’s Global Seed Vault is this planet’s ultimate food supply insurance policy, built to withstand earthquakes, explosions, and just about any natural consequence climate change might throw at humanity.

Owned and administered by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food on behalf of the Kingdom of Norway, the seed vault receives support for its ongoing operations from The Global Crop Diversity Trust and is operated by The Nordic Genetic Resources Center. It has the capacity to store 4.5 million seed samples, though it currently houses over a million of them, making it the world’s largest collection of agricultural biodiversity.

The idea of the seed vault was originally conceived by Cary Fowler, a former executive director of the Crop Trust, right after the Sept. 11 attacks, when it dawned on Fowler that no building in the world is safe. Fowler then approached the Norwegians and asked if they would look into the feasibility of establishing a global seed vault near the North Pole. His goal was to offer long-term protection to a wide variety of unique plant seeds from across the world as an insurance policy against a large-scale regional or global crisis to conserve crop diversity, the raw material required for plant evolution on planet Earth.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault alone contains the entire history and future of agriculture all in one room — every single seed that once was or ever will be.

The seed vault quickly became known as the “doomsday” vault, conjuring up images of survivors on the hunt for a seed reserve after a global apocalyptic catastrophe or the only remnant after an atomic bomb. In a sense, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault alone contains the entire history and future of agriculture all in one room — every single seed that once was or ever will be.

And Svalbard seemed just right for such an endeavor. With the northernmost town on earth, frequent flights to the mainland, and a reliable source of energy from local coal supplies, it ticked many boxes. It is low in radiation and, needless to say, among the world’s most secure areas in terms of geopolitical conflict. Buried over 100 meters (328 feet) inside the Platåberget mountain, the vault is also guaranteed to remain naturally frozen, even if mechanical cooling systems fail and external air temperatures rise.

While the 1,700 genebanks running worldwide continue to be vulnerable to natural catastrophes, war, and operational errors like a malfunctioning freezer, the seed vault in Svalbard has kept its promise to guarantee the safety of its deposits.

When the seed vault officially opened its doors to depositors in February 2008, more than 320,000 seed accessions were deposited in the minus 18 degrees Celsius (minus 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit) freezer. ICARDA was among the first genebanks to back up their own unique collection of staple food crops from the Fertile Crescent such as wheat, barley, lentils, and fava beans.

In October 2015, ICARDA’s team in Syria went back to the arctic island once more, this time to retrieve the seeds they had deposited in the vault. That year, ICARDA became the first and only organization in the history of humanity to make a withdrawal from their collection of seeds, 128 boxes out of a total 350 to be exact. Their goal was to set up new genebanks in Lebanon and Morocco and work on regenerating the seeds.

In 1984, following the establishment of an agreement with the Syrian government and CGIAR (the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research), ICARDA set up its main station in Tel Hadia, northern Syria, at the heart of the Fertile Crescent where a true Mediterranean climate is represented — essentially the single most important factor determining the location of genebank.

Launching its research activities with temporary offices and laboratories, it took ICARDA 13 years to set up new buildings and labs in Tel Hadia and move administration from their government-provided offices in Aleppo. A new building, fully funded by the Italian government, was also established, complete with a genetic resource department and multiple storage facilities.

As things turned out, the Global Seed Vault at the Arctic Archipelago was indeed serving the very purpose for which it was originally built, though in truth the repository was never intended to be put to use this early on. If it weren’t for the seed vault in Svalbard, the accessions that could ensure humanity’s survival could have been wiped out forever, the genebanks in Lebanon and Morocco never established.

And although Svalbard’s Global Seed Vault provided the optimal safe haven for the threatened accessions, the mere act of preservation was not enough. Seeds still need to be regenerated, multiplied, and distributed to the international community of farmers and researchers as the preliminary material needed for research and education.

The looming threat of climate change urged ICARDA’s scientists to speed up the regeneration process — the renewal of germplasm accessions by planting and harvesting the seeds — and ultimately distribute the invaluable seeds to researchers and scientists globally.

Genebank facilities were then quickly set up in Lebanon and Morocco after the site at Tel Hadia was deemed definitively inaccessible, and an entirely new challenge had emerged. The site in Lebanon was built to specialize in the regeneration, conservation, and distribution of forages, fava beans, Lathyrus, and the wild relatives of cereals and pulses. The one in Morocco, on the other hand, focused on accessions of cultivated barley, bread wheat, durum wheat, lentil, and chickpea.

“We quickly resumed our genetic resources activities by using, in the beginning, the experienced people from Syria in Lebanon and hiring and training young curators and assistants in both Morocco and Lebanon,” says Ahmed Amri, honorary head of genetic resources at ICARDA. Amri says the biggest challenge the genebank relocation brought along was the funding, which the institute eventually secured through additional donations from Genebank CPR, the European Union, GIZ (Germany), and the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which have shown ongoing support to genetic resource activities at ICARDA.

Along with her team members in Lebanon, Yazbek began the regeneration process by taking into consideration how particular species reproduce and then adjusting the growth plan of action accordingly, all the while using rented facilities from the American University of Beirut while they worked on building their own. Some accessions required large isolation cages, built to prevent cross-pollination. The team also worked on creating duplicates — new samples genetically resilient to climate change conditions using the retrieved accessions — which basically serve as building blocks for breeders or for long-term storage in other genebanks.

In the vast fields of Terbol, Lebanon, almost 30 different species of wild relatives from different countries were growing right next to each other, all under the team’s watch. The process of regenerating seeds is lengthy and exhaustive, to say the least. It’s an intricate system that requires an increased capacity in irrigation, testing for germination percentage, drying, packaging, and numerous other activities.

Handling the accessions was never-ending, complex, and extremely precarious. If a fire broke out, for instance, the team would instantly lose thousands of samples that could not be recovered. The loss of a crop variety is as irreversible as the extinction of a dinosaur, a consequence surely not lost on those trusted with the seeds that are to save the world.

In 2020, the team reaped their rewards. Today, the entire collection of over 140,000 accessions retrieved from the seed vault has been regenerated and multiplied by ICARDA in Morocco and Lebanon. The team was also able to send 81,007 fresh samples to the seed vault at Svalbard in September for long-term backup, a full-circle moment seven years in the making. Thanks to the efforts made by the team, ICARDA’s genebank in Lebanon now has one of the world’s largest facilities for the regeneration of wild and cross-pollinated species.

Even more significantly, accessions have also become available free of charge upon request to plant breeders and researchers all around the world. This allows them access to the genetic traits that could help other crops withstand foreseeable climate change consequences, such as drought and heat. “The seeds conserved and distributed from ICARDA are a tremendous resource for agricultural research for development not only in the region of Syria but all around the world,” Westengen told Newlines by email.

Although scientists in Lebanon and Morocco received some 100,000 accessions from Svalbard six years ago, the process of regenerating seeds necessitates several cycles that are predicted to continue up to 2030 or even longer, depending on the funding ICARDA acquires.

The decadelong, catastrophic war in Syria exemplifies the importance of international cooperation in safeguarding crop diversity and ensuring sustainable and socially equitable agri-food systems. The accessions’ long journey to and from the seed vault is proof that genebanks do not work in isolation; rather, their success depends on recognition of a common goal to safeguard humanity’s food supply not only from natural disasters but also from social, political, and economic crises — the very same goal that is underpinned by the opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

This applies to Lebanon, too, which is not the same place it was six years ago when ICARDA’s genebank mission began. Indeed, the country has been knee-deep in a series of ongoing economic and political crises since October 2019, when protestors took to the streets to overthrow the political class that had been ruling the country for decades. The dire situation has caused a staggering increase in the price of basic goods and necessities, rising unemployment rates, seemingly sporadic road closures, and the calamitous collapse of the local currency, still in free fall.

Fortunately for the team at Terbol, says Yazbek, the economic situation in Lebanon hasn’t affected them so far, with future activities expected to run according to plan. But their seeming composure doesn’t mean alarms haven’t gone off yet. “Very well-thought risk management and business continuity plans are in place, and the safety of the collection and the facilities are at the front of our concerns,” says Yazbek.

After witnessing peaceful demonstrations spiral into a full-fledged civil war in Syria, the team in Lebanon know very well this might just be the calm before the storm. For Yazbek, the pressure to create duplicates conserved in other genebanks is as intense as it ever was. “It saved us once,” says Yazbek. “Hopefully we do not need to revert to it again.”

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