Last Monday, researchers requested over 45,000 seed packs from a vault designed to protect the world's biodiversity from "doomsday" scenarios. It is the first such request the seed vault has received since it opened in 2008.
Researchers at the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) hope that the seeds withdrawn from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault will help improve crop yields for the 9.8 million Syrians who are food insecure in the war-torn country.
"Protecting the world's biodiversity in this manner is precisely the purpose of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault," said Brian Lainoff, spokesman for the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which runs the underground storage site as a project of the Norwegian government.
Svalbard is blasted deep into the rock base of Platåfjellet, a mountain on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. Designed to survive any disasters — natural or man-made — Svalbard, sitting 130 meters above sea level, is protected even from the most dramatic rises in the oceans due to climate change.
The seed vault is powered by an electrical plant on the island, keeping it at a constant temperature of minus 18 degrees Celsius. Even if that power plant were to fail, the freezing conditions just 800 miles from the North Pole would preserve the seeds for many years.
Mahmoud Sohl, the director of ICARDA, said Svalbard holds copies of approximately 80 percent of ICARDA's seed collection of nearly 150,000 specimens.
"These seeds are so valuable, it's a wealth of genetic resources," said Sohl. "These seeds are used in our breeding program to develop high-yield varieties, drought-resistant, and cold-tolerant varieties. These varieties are being developed to improve food security in Syria and in the whole region."
In 2012, ICARDA was headquartered in Aleppo, Syria, where it housed its massive seed collection. But fighting in the country's second largest city forced the organization to relocate its base of operations to Beirut, Lebanon. But before doing so, they had to make sure that copies of the seed collection were safely stored and accessible elsewhere. Svalbard is one of a handful of backups that ICARDA has around the world.
Sohl said that withdrawing seeds from Svalbard does not mean ICARDA is depleting an irreplaceable safeguard. Once the seeds requested from Svalbard have been used to breed new copies in local offices around the region, ICARDA will deposit new copies of the seeds in Svalbard next season.
Of the 9.8 million Syrians currently food insecure, 6.8 million are "severely" lacking in food supplies, according to a joint report of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Program.
Monika Tothova, an economist at the FAO said that a combination of factors have led to the lack of food security in Syria today, ranging from a lack of seeds and fuel to damaged agricultural machinery and irrigation systems.
"Food prices have increased sharply in 2015, as government subsidies were curtailed as the currency depreciated," says Tothova. "Prices of many critical goods, such as bread, spiraled [upwards] in the past year."
A central factor in Syria's recent food woes was the onset of a severe drought in 2006. The dry spell led many farmers to migrate from the countryside to urban centers. Some researchers have linked that initial wave of migration to criticism of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
"Now we have migration from the cities to overseas," said Sohl. "A lot of the problems in the region stem from poverty, food insecurity, and lack of employment among the youth."
The drought finally abated this year, but that did not alleviate the situation.
"While the last rains were good, the ongoing conflict continues to seriously hamper agriculture production," said Tothova. "Insecurity has also limited plantings, with the 2015 wheat planting area the smallest since the 1960s."
In addition, the war has greatly diminished the availability of seeds for Syrian farmers. The Syrian government agency responsible for production and distribution of seeds to farmers in the country has lost eight of its 12 seed-processing centers. ICARDA's work could address both of these problems by distributing seeds to farmers and by increasing yields from an already limited planting cycle — or in the event of another drought.
"Improved seeds are clearly welcome," said Tothova. "However, even if additional improved seeds are available, the question of distribution to the farmers, their ability to purchase them, security concerns, and all the other issues I mentioned above remain to be solved."
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