News Article | April 23, 2017
For more than four years, the headquarters of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in the Syrian town of Tal Hadya has been occupied by the anti-Assad groups Al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. ICARDA is one of 15 major international agricultural research centers, and the site of a seed bank housing some 150,000 samples in temperature-controlled vaults. Periodic bulletins have assured the public that ‘the seeds are safe’ in the midst of conflict, duplicated at seed banks outside the country. The Syrian war precipitated the first ever withdrawal from the subterranean seed vault at Svalbard in the North Pole last year when ICARDA staff requested previously deposited material to populate new seed bank facilities in Lebanon and Morocco. Yet remarkably, while ancient archaeological sites are destroyed and Syrian people experience inconceivable loss, the seed bank in Tal Hadya continues to operate. Its refrigerated vaults remain powered, and a small number of Syrian staff are permitted by occupying rebels to maintain the facility. Why? The answer illuminates what it takes to wage war in the 21st century. Even before conflict around Aleppo hastened the departure of foreign staff, the backup generators kicked in as the heat of the summer caused regular power outages throughout the region. With its specimens carefully preserved at -20 degrees C (4 degrees F), ICARDA’s seed bank cannot sustain any failures. The facility’s diesel-fueled backup generators insulate it from the blackouts experienced elsewhere. And these power outages are key to the seed bank’s survival. ICARDA is a state-of-the-art facility, but its utility to factions in the war is in large part as a power source. Occupying fighters use ICARDA to charge laptops and mobile phones, and some profit from the black market in fuel needed to power the generators. But this isn’t enough of an explanation for the seed bank’s continued operation in wartime. While ICARDA ordered expat staff out of Syria, many native managers and technicians remained. They continued their work, negotiating daily passage to the facility to retrieve important data and check the operations of the seed bank. Meanwhile, the herbarium — a valuable collection consisting of 16,000 dried and pressed wild cereal and legume specimens from the Fertile Crescent region in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iran — was packed into dozens of metal filing cabinets and trucked to a safe house in Aleppo’s city center. The survival of this unique collection remains uncertain. Employees without the means to flee crisis have preserved the facility, at considerable risk to themselves. In this, they are like the staff of the Vavilov Research Institute in Russia who would rather starve during the Siege of Leningrad than consume or surrender the seeds they guarded. ICARDA’s effort is itself a result of previous conflicts. In 2002, the American war in Afghanistan destroyed the national seed bank in Kabul, and looters completed the destruction unfinished by combat. ICARDA’s collection holds seeds salvaged from Iraq’s national seed bank in Abu Ghraib. These are among the collections duplicated in Svalbard. Founded in 1977, ICARDA’s headquarters were originally in Lebanon, but the Lebanese civil war compelled Syria’s former president Hafez al-Assad to invite the seed bank to establish itself in Syria, hoping it would help the country increase crop yields. Forty years later, drought and increasing fuel prices plunged Syria’s agriculture into crisis, and Syrian farmers became some of the Assad regime’s fiercest opponents. Observers applaud ICARDA staff for anticipating threats to its seed bank from conflict and other disasters. Indeed, since 1985, ICARDA has duplicated its collections in seed banks abroad, and made continuous use of regional facilities in Turkey, Lebanon, and Morocco. Since 2008, ICARDA staff sent 116,475 additional samples to the Svalbard seed vault. Despite such heroism, the occupation in Tal Hadya is a reminder of the limits of institutions conceived as safeguards against natural and human-made disaster. The intended failsafe for cryogenic conservation is Svalbard. This great passive house of cold storage represents the hope that, long past the failure of human energy systems, the ice caps will preserve biodiversity threatened by development and conflict. Yet, seed banks are not magic reservoirs that can restore ruined countries — much less ecologies — to prosperity. The destruction of Iraq’s seed bank in Abu Ghraib in 2003, and the subsequent domination of Iraqi agricultural reconstruction by U.S. agribusiness interests, provides a cautionary tale. Here, destruction and reconstruction occurred over a decade rather than a millennium, transforming rural economies. When war ravages a country, the continuity of its agricultural systems is also destroyed. Farmers might keep their lives but lose land and seed stocks carefully stewarded for generations because they lack the resources for reconstruction. By preserving agriculture’s deep past, seed banks allow the possibility of a future. But they don’t dictate the terms of that future. Governments, the agencies and NGOs that support them, and the businesses with whom they work are the ones that decide agriculture’s future, including how to exploit preserved seed stocks. In Syria, gargantuan energy systems created to preserve life have been repurposed to extinguish it. Perhaps the seeds are safe. We can admire those who saved them, and we can value seeds as artifacts of cultural heritage and ancient history — but we should not fetishize them at the expense of their cultivators who still lack safety, security, and free passage from destruction. This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
News Article | April 26, 2017
The world has more than 50,000 edible plants. But 90% of the world's energy demands are fulfilled by just 15 crops, according to estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. About two-thirds of our calorie intake is provided by three: rice, maize (corn) and wheat. Dependency on a handful of crops is problematic. In cultivating countless generations of a few staples, we have inadvertently lost some of their most valuable properties. Modern crops are susceptible to changing climatic conditions, for example, and are heavily affected by pests, which can claim 30–40% of global production of staple crops such as maize, rice and potatoes1 and call for ever-stronger pesticides. The nutritional content of what we grow is also declining. “Breeding and intensified cultivation for high yield tend to reduce the concentration of nutrients,” says Donald Davis, now retired, but who in 2004 documented, with colleagues at the Bio-Communications Research Institute in Wichita, Kansas, the nutritional decline of dozens of fruits and vegetables over a 50-year period2. Modern staples may produce more grain or fruit than their ancestors, but the edible product is not able to absorb or synthesize a corresponding amount of nutrients, Davis explains. In broccoli, for instance, iron has fallen by 32% and zinc by 37% since 1950. “Bigger heads mean lower mineral concentrations,” says Davis. “I always buy the smallest heads I can find.” Demand for food is set to increase over the next few decades (see page S6). To address issues of nutritional quality, scientists are looking to nature for help. Millions of years of adaptation to varied and often extreme environments has created a rich genetic diversity of wild relatives of modern staples. These plants represent an immense library of valuable traits with the potential to improve the quality and resilience of modern crops. Across the globe, researchers are trying to endow domesticated crops with these traits through interbreeding. “Plant-breeding programmes benefit from such genetic diversity by creating new crop varieties that are nutritious, use natural resources more efficiently, and are able to respond to stringent environmental conditions and destructive pests and diseases,” says Nora Castañeda-Álvarez, a plant biologist at the Crop Trust, a non-profit organization in Bonn, Germany. But if the full potential of plant-breeding programmes is to be realized, scientists need to conserve the many wild varieties that are threatened with extinction, before these plants disappear and take their secrets with them. The humble tomato is a staple crop in a large part of the world. It is the third most cultivated vegetable crop, according to the FAO, after potatoes and cassava; in 2014, around 170-million tonnes were produced, belonging to about 7,500 varieties of the species Solanum lycopersicum. But there is room for improvement. Wild tomatoes grow in a wide range of habitats, in defiance of pests and soil quality, and researchers are exploring whether these traits could be transferred to commercial varieties to improve resilience. A commercial tomato that could naturally fight off pests would be a major asset. Peter Hanson and Mohamed Rakha, plant geneticists at the World Vegetable Centre in Tainan, Taiwan, are using the wild tomato species Solanum pimpinellifolium, Solanum galapagense and Solanum cheesmaniae, all of which are found on the Galapagos Islands, to create new tomato varieties that are resistant to multiple diseases and insect pests. These wild tomatoes can fight off insects thanks to small hair-like structures called glandular trichomes that cover the leaves and stems. “These trichomes produce acyl sugars and other compounds that repel or are toxic to a wide range of insects,” says Hanson. Endowing a commercial tomato with these insect-repelling hairs involves 'back-crossing' with one of the wild species. Hanson is using a tomato elite line (a stock of pure seeds with certain traits) called CLN3682C, which is already resistant to bacterial wilt, tomato yellow leaf curl virus, root-knot nematodes and fusarium wilt. The plants that result from a cross are screened to identify those that carry the wild trait of interest as well as those already held by the elite variety, explains Hanson. If the wild insect-resistance traits have been genetically sequenced, selection can be accelerated — rather than monitoring expression, researchers can simply look for the presence of the gene or allele, known as marker-assisted selection. The selected plants are then crossed with each other, and the subsequent generation crossed with the elite variety to increase the odds of a plant carrying every possible desirable trait. “Insect-resistant varieties must also produce high yields of high-quality fruit,” says Hanson. This whole process is repeated for each wild species, so it takes time. “Each cross and selection takes most of a year to complete,” says Hanson. He estimates it will take about five years before a commercial tomato variety bearing the wild traits of insect resistance is available. In 2016, Mark Tester, a plant biologist at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia, and PhD student Yveline Pailles found that S. galapagense and S. cheesmaniae are also able to thrive in highly salty soils3. The aim now is to breed this trait into commercial lines. “Tomatoes are the world's biggest horticultural crop, by far, and they use a lot of water,” says Tester. Commercial tomatoes need fresh water — an increasingly limited resource. “A major water source that is currently unused is brackish water,” he says. “This is the driver of my research.” He estimates that new lines of salt-tolerant tomatoes could reach breeders in a couple of years. Researchers are also improving the nutritional properties of tomatoes. In 2003, Hanson and colleagues released two tomato varieties in Taiwan that were bred to pack up to six times more vitamin A than the average tomato. The source of this, as well as their characteristic orange colour, is a gene called Beta, discovered in the wild tomato Solanum habrochaites in 1950, Hanson explains. “We hope our high-beta carotene cherry tomato varieties can become popular in home gardens in countries like Bangladesh where vitamin A deficiency is a problem, especially among children,” Hanson says. But demand in the first ten years has been poor. Hanson attributes this to difficulties in convincing people that orange-fleshed tomatoes are as good and tasty as the familiar red varieties. “The key factor is creating consumer demand,” he says, but a lack of resources has hampered the promotion of his tomatoes. At Oregon State University in Corvallis, vegetable breeder and geneticist Jim Myers is also creating more-nutritious tomatoes. He has bred purple tomatoes that are rich in antioxidants called anthocyanins. Tomato breeders have been trying to generate an anthocyanin-rich variety from various wild species, including Solanum lycopersicoides, Solanum peruvianum, Solanum chilense and S. cheesmaniae, for half a century, with little success. The one variety produced from these efforts, the Purple Smudge, was created in the 1950s and only weakly expresses anthocyanin-producing genes. Myers and his team crossed S. chilense and S. cheesmaniae. “If we combine the genes from the two wild species, then we obtain a dramatic increase in pigment expression — tomatoes as black as an eggplant,” Myers says. The result is the Indigo Rose, which contains between 10 and 30 milligrams of anthocyanin per 100 g of fresh fruit; the average tomato contains none. There are more than 20 Indigo Rose cultivars commercially available in the United States, most of which have been bred from the original lines that Myers created. Breeding wild traits into commercial crops is a lengthy process. To speed things up, neglected crops can be used in their entirety (see 'Investment in indigenous crops') or commercial plants can be genetically modified (GM). Indigo Rose tomatoes are not classed as GM — Myers used only conventional breeding techniques. Genetic modification techniques allow researchers to insert genes of wild varieties directly into plants, greatly increasing the speed at which new cultivars can be created. Genes can also be sourced from different organisms, such as bacteria. “At that point, the possibilities of introducing new characteristics into our crops will be, in principle, unlimited,” says Francesca Quattrocchio, a plant geneticist at the University of Amsterdam. But although GM crops are accepted in Australia, the United States and most of South America, there is significant opposition elsewhere. GM crops are either banned or have to go through an intensive authorization process in many European and African countries. Any time saved in the creation of a new variety through genetic modification is lost by hold ups further down the line, and restrictions on who can use it. The valuable genetic diversity held in wild-crop relatives could be at risk, however. More than 70% of wild relatives have been identified as being in urgent need of conservation4. As a whole, around 20% of the world's plants are threatened with extinction5. The expansion of agriculture into natural ecosystems is one of the leading causes of this decline, Castañeda-Álvarez says. And plant species in the tropics are twice as likely to be threatened as those in temperate regions5. “These plants and animal breeds have developed and survived because they were best adapted to a given territory,” says Edie Mukiibi, vice president of Slow Food International, an organization in Bra, Italy, that works to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures. “We must take care of this biodiversity because it represents the best of several millennia of agriculture.” The International Potato Center in Lima is seeking to protect potato varieties in situ through their Chirapaq Ñan network. The idea, says Severin Pohlreich, a plant geneticist at the centre, is to record locations across Peru, Bolivia and Chile with a rich diversity of potato varieties. “This network will help enable and support in situ conservation monitoring of the world's largest potato gene pool, right at its centre of diversity,” he says. Other projects focus on conserving wild varieties outside their natural habitats. Around the world, about 1,750 gene banks, as well as botanical gardens, hold more than 7.4 million seeds or plant tissues from thousands of crop species. Nearly 90% of these samples are held in national gene banks — the Centre for Genetic Resources (CGN), part of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, for instance, currently holds one of world's largest and most diverse collection of lettuces. To protect against the loss of seeds in collections such as these, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault acts as a backup. Located deep in a mountain on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, the bank has capacity for 2.5 billion seeds; currently, it holds more than 880,000 samples, representing the world's major food crops. The seeds are meant to be used only in an emergency — be it a major catastrophe or incremental loss of diversity over time. “Each gene bank prepares a duplicate of their collection and sends this to Svalbard,” explains Castañeda-Álvarez. “External users, like you and me, can't make seed requests directly to Svalbard — this can only be made through the corresponding gene bank in case of emergency,” she says. The only withdrawal so far was made by the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in 2015, to re-establish its collection after it relocated its gene bank to Lebanon and Morocco from Aleppo, Syria. In February, ICARDA returned more than 15,000 seeds to Svalbard. The Crop Trust, which is responsible for the vault, sees the preservation of crop diversity as a crucial means of attaining global food security. The trust also heads a US$50-million research initiative on crop wild relatives, in collaboration with the UK's Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and a number of breeders and researchers around the world. The ten-year initiative launched in 2011 and is funded by the Norwegian government. The aim of the project is to collect and preserve more than 450 wild relatives of 29 priority crops, says Hannes Dempewolf, Head of Global Initiatives at the Crop Trust. In the long term, the plan is to breed a new generation of superior crops that carry one or more of the desirable traits of their wild relatives. Pre-breeding programmes — in which genetic traits are isolated and introduced into breeding lines that are easier to cross with commercial varieties than wild plants — have been established for 19 wild relatives, including aubergines and rice. Wild-crop relatives look set to be a part of the answer to the food-insecurity problem, whether they are used to form new crops or growers simply make better use of the neglected crops already available to them. “The genetic diversity available in wild varieties is, at the moment, the best solution,” says Quattrocchio, at least until GM crops gain wider acceptance. Castañeda-Álvarez agrees, “Crop wild relatives can help us to continue producing more sustainable food, in the amount and quality the world needs.” But first, she says, “we need to conserve them to secure their availability”.
News Article | October 5, 2016
A major seed bank in Aleppo, Syria, holds genes that might help researchers breed crops to survive climate change. But the conflict tearing the country apart has rendered the bank largely inaccessible for the past four years. Now an effort to duplicate its seed collection at more-accessible locations is ramping up. On 29 September, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), which runs the bank in Aleppo, officially launched a sister bank in Terbol, Lebanon, which now hosts 30,000 duplicates. Together with a new bank in Rabat, Morocco, it will make thousands of seeds available to researchers. “The situation in Syria did not allow us to continue our core activities,” says Ahmed Amri, head of genetic resources at ICARDA’s research station in Rabat. “I’m happy that we [ICARDA] have established ourselves back to normal.” Seed banks function as bank accounts for plant genes. Collectors deposit seeds, which can later be ‘withdrawn’ to replenish crops lost in conflict or disaster, to breed new traits into crops — such as pest or heat resistance — and to research the evolution of plants over the ages. ICARDA’s collection, previously held entirely at the bank in Aleppo, is especially valuable because it aims to collect seeds from the world’s dry regions. That includes the Fertile Crescent, which spans parts of North Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus and west Asia, and is thought of as the birthplace of modern agriculture. The collection contains many wild relatives of modern crops such as wheat, barley, lentils and grass pea. The centre provides researchers and breeders with an average of about 20,000 samples each year, says Amri, with most material going to the United States, to institutions in the nation’s breadbasket such as Kansas State University and North Dakota State University. Many wild varieties from arid regions have traits that may help crops to meet the challenges posed by climate change, including resistance to drought, heat and pests, and adaptations to salinity. ICARDA’s gene bank harbours wheat seeds that are the product of thousands of years of adaptation and natural selection, says Maricelis Acevedo, associate director for science for the Delivering Genetic Gains in Wheat project at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “Only a small amount of wheat genetic diversity has been utilized and explored.” Although most staff left ICARDA’s Aleppo site in 2012, the vault there is intact, according to the last inspection three months ago. But seeds can no longer be moved in or out easily. Almost all of the seeds in ICARDA’s bank have previously been duplicated and sent to banks elsewhere, mainly to the super-secure Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway — a.k.a. the ‘doomsday vault’ — which was set up to provide back-up copies of seeds held in banks worldwide. But this trove is not easily available to scientists. By contrast, ICARDA’s collection is mainly meant to be ‘active’: in other words, available to farmers, researchers and breeders. In 2015, ICARDA made its first withdrawal of seeds from the Svalbard bank and is now using them to build up stocks in Terbol and Rabat. It will return the stocks to Svalbard and withdraw several more batches to reconstruct the entire Aleppo collection. Duplicating the collection in more-accessible gene banks is vital, says Mogens Hovmøller, a plant pathologist at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, who also leads the Global Rust Reference Center. That project was co-founded by ICARDA and is part of an effort to minimize the world’s vulnerability to devastating wheat-rust diseases. The choice of Terbol as a location is a “brilliant move”, says Michiel van Slagaren, who worked for ICARDA from 1988 to 1994 and is now at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens site in Wakehurst, UK. Terbol lies in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, which provides a gradient of conditions from semi-desert to high-rainfall areas and so is ideal for testing how seeds grow in different ecosystems, he says. But the move may also bring risks. The gene bank looks out on the Anti-Lebanon mountain range that forms much of Lebanon’s border with Syria and is not far from the conflict. The Bekaa valley also hosts refugees fleeing the civil war. Van Slageren ponders the potential for the conflict to spill into Lebanon. “You do have to wonder how their minds have been put at ease,” he says. He notes that when ICARDA was set up in 1977, its headquarters were in Lebanon, but moved to Syria because of the Lebanese Civil War. The latest move has also posed staff challenges. Many long-serving members were already close to retirement when ICARDA left Syria, says Amri, and so did not move to Terbol. And funding remains an issue, although ICARDA received significant financial help with the move from various agencies, including the CGIAR Consortium, a global partnership aimed at alleviating poverty and hunger. The current capacities of the banks in Terbol and Rabat — 100,000 and 35,000, respectively — do not add up to enough to duplicate all 141,000 seeds, representing some 700 species, that Aleppo holds, let alone take on new seeds (see ‘Caught in conflict’). Amri is confident. Among other things, previous unrest in Lebanon did not disrupt ICARDA’s Terbol station. “It’s gone through 20 years of fighting, and we never had any problems,” he says. Still, the Moroccan talks wistfully of his years working in Syria. “We enjoyed our lives in Aleppo. It was one of the nicest places to live — wonderful people and a good environment for research at ICARDA.”
News Article | February 24, 2017
A frozen tundra is perhaps the worst place in the world to grow crops. But that didn't stop people from bringing nearly 50,000 seeds of potatoes, lentils, wheat, barley and other food staples to the Arctic Circle this week. The seeds won't be sprinkled across frozen farmlands. Instead, they'll be stored indefinitely at a global seed vault on Norway's Svalbard archipelago. SEE ALSO: This vault filled with seeds in Norway could help bring Earth back from an apocalypse The vault is designed to safeguard the world's food sources from any variety of doomsday scenarios: nuclear war, climate change, natural disasters or even an asteroid strike. This week's seed deposit includes samples from seed collections in Benin, India, Pakistan, Morocco, the Netherlands, Belarus, the U.K., Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as the United States and Mexico, Crop Trust announced on Wednesday. Crop Trust is the charity organization helping to fund and manage the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which sits between mainland Norway and the North Pole and is operated by the Norwegian government. With the latest shipment, the seed vault now holds nearly 931,000 seed samples of just about every known crop in the world. The vault still has plenty of space left, with a total capacity for 4.5 million samples. "Collective efforts to conserve crop diversity and produce a global food supply for tomorrow continue to be strong," Marie Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust, said Wednesday in a press release. "Crop diversity is a fundamental foundation for the end of hunger," she added. Opened in 2008, the Svalbard vault is designed to last 1,000 years. It also acts as an insurer for other seed collections by holding duplicate samples, which owners can withdraw as needed. This recently happened with a major gene-bank in Syria. The International Center for Agriculture Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), previously located in Aleppo, is working to develop drought- and heat-resistant crops. But the tragic, protracted Syrian civil war forced researchers to relocate to Morocco and Lebanon. ICARDA had been storing some of its seed inventories — sourced from around the Fertile Crescent — in the Arctic vault. In 2015, the team began withdrawing those samples so they could start planting seeds in their new fields, away from the fighting in Syria. Their efforts have been so successful that researchers are returning a portion of their seed samples to Svalbard for safekeeping. "We are demonstrating today that we can rely on our gene-banks and their safety duplications, despite adverse circumstances, so we can get one step closer to a food-secure world," Aly Abousabba, director general of ICARDA, said in the press release.
News Article | September 23, 2015
Scientists remove first seeds from ‘doomsday’ Arctic seed vault. Why? War in Syria. The ongoing war in Syria has led researchers to make the first withdrawal of seeds from a "doomsday" vault in an Arctic mountainside, to protect global food supplies. The Crop Trust reports that the newly-removed seeds, which include samples of wheat, barley and grasses suited to dry regions, were requested by researchers elsewhere in the Middle East to replace seeds in a gene bank near the Syrian city of Aleppo which was damaged by the conflict. “This diversity provides our scientists, breeders and farmers the raw material needed to improve agriculture to overcome the challenges of climatic changes, population growth, pests, and diseases,” the researchers say. PRI did an amazing profile of the Aleppo seed bank earlier this year. You can listen or read here. “We’re very lucky that [the rebels] realize the importance of conserving biodiversity; it’s one of the activities that has never been interrupted in Aleppo,” Ahmed Amri of the Syrian seed bank told the radio news network a few months ago. “But we cannot predict how each day will be.” "Protecting the world's biodiversity in this manner is precisely the purpose of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault," said Brian Lainoff, a spokesman for the Crop Trust, which runs the underground storage on a Norwegian island 1,300 km (800 miles) from the North Pole. The vault, which opened on the Svalbard archipelago in 2008, is designed to protect crop seeds - such as beans, rice and wheat - against the worst cataclysms of nuclear war or disease. It has more than 860,000 samples, from almost all nations. Even if the power were to fail, the vault would stay frozen and sealed for at least 200 years. Their seed bank in Aleppo miraculously managed to keep functioning, partly, until now. The Syrian location included a cold storage, despite the ongoing war. But the Aleppo bank was unable able to perform its duty as a hub where seeds could be grown and distributed to other nations, primarily in the Middle East. The vault was established in 2008, and is built to survive rising sea levels, power outages and other calamities that could affect the seeds. Its main storage area is kept well below freezing to preserve the contents, and it can hold 4.5 million varieties. “There are seeds in the vault that have originated from nearly if not every single country,” Lainoff says. “It really is kind of the only example of true international cooperation. There’s seeds sitting on the same shelf from North Korea and South Korea, and they get along just fine up there.” Around 500 seeds of each variety are contained within the vault, according to Lainoff, and the different varieties are key to genetic resistance against potential disease that could affect the world’s major crops. What has caused the first withdrawal from the global vault is man-made, however, as fighting between the Syrian government and rebel groups, as well attacks from Islamic State militants, have devastated the country. The conflict has killed hundreds of thousands and forced more than 4 million people to become refugees. ICARDA managed to move its headquarters from Syria in the early days of the war, while some of its workers remained at the gene bank in Aleppo in an attempt to save the collection. The organization managed to duplicate 80 percent of its collection in Svalbard as of March this year, where the seeds were safely stored along with others from around the world. More from The Crop Trust's news release In food security, as with computer security, redundancy is key. How amazing does the Svalbard seed vault look? I want to go there.
News Article | April 15, 2016
It’s simultaneously one of the most forward-thinking endeavors humans have ever undertaken — and one of the most obscure. Since 2004, the Crop Trust, an international group based in Germany, has been funding, equipping and coordinating so-called genebanks around the world, which preserve repositories of vast amounts of seeds and the unique genetic material they contain. Yet another copy of all of that diversity is then stored in a vast “doomsday” vault on the remote Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, which tries to back up these collections with additional samples. It stores over 860,000 different varieties of global seeds, according to the Crop Trust, and has room for many, many more. This entire endeavor — which exists not only to preserve the genetic information needed to create the food we eat, but also to facilitate new plant breeding as the world faces challenges from war, climate change and population growth — has now received a key global endorsement in the form of major new funding. The Crop Trust announced in Washington Friday that the size of its endowment will be doubled to $ 300 million, meaning that half a billion dollars in total has now been invested by governments and the private sector in this endeavor since 2004. Funds were pledged from groups ranging from the governments of the U.S., the U.K., Germany, India and Ethiopia to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “This is the basis for our morning slice of bread, for our morning coffee, for our afternoon tea,” said Marie Haga, the Crop Trust’s executive director, in a call with the Post discussing the announcement. “Almost all we eat has its origin in seeds, and the diversity of seeds.” Last September, an unfortunate example of the importance of this mission occurred, when the Svalbard Global Seed Vault had to allow for its first ever withdrawal, thanks to the war in Syria. The seed withdrawal was requested by a local genebank, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), which used to be based in Aleppo, but had moved to Beirut due to the war. In essence, ICARDA had deposited backup seeds in Svalbard but then needed them back as it tried to “restart their collection away from the horrors of the Syrian Civil War,” according to the Crop Trust. The incident underscores the dual nature of this system: There are “genebanks” around the world that store seeds, like ICARDA. The goal is to be able to restart agricultural systems in the case of disaster — the more global seeds we have, the more genetic diversity can be drawn upon as a resource in the breeding of new plants. And it also doesn’t hurt to preserve a record of the plant evolution that humans have driven over the course of civilization, as well as of wild plant varieties. But then there’s also the giant Svalbard vault, very deliberately located in an exceedingly remote and resilient location, so if the world melts down in war or some other type of disaster — the Syrian crisis, but on a much larger scale — presumably this last ditch backup will still persist. The vault is “built to survive rising sea levels, power outages and other calamities that could affect the seeds,” says the Crop Trust. So in sum, the historic withdrawal from Svalbard is evidence of the master plan working just as it is supposed to in the case of disaster — on a country scale, rather than a global one. And it also underscores that you really can never be too careful with the irreplaceable products of biological evolution. But preserving the diversity of crops isn’t just about staving off calamity; it’s also essential to more immediate planetary goals — fighting hunger, making agriculture more sustainable and adapting it to a changing climate. The United Nations’ new Sustainable Development Goals, unanimously adopted in New York last September, explicitly mention how important it is to back up our supply of crop diversity as part of goal 2: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” Under that goal is the following sub-goal: In an interview, Haga explained that perhaps the biggest reason that the quest is now so important is climate change. “The trouble these days is that the plants that are the basis of our food are not able to adapt as fast as the climate is changing,” Haga said. “And that is why we need to breed new varieties of our major crops that can stand high temperature, a more unpredictable weather, that give high in nutritional value, and this gives better meals. And this is fundamentally challenging. But it can be done, but it’s very hard to see how you can do this without going back to the building blocks of agriculture, this diversity of seeds.” Haga noted some amazing figures — the world contains about 4 and a half thousand varieties of potato, 35,000 of corn, 125,000 of wheat, and 200,000 of rice, she said. Any one of these varieties could turn out to be of critical importance at some point in the future. “It might be a wheat plant that has lived up on a mountaintop for many thousand years,” she continued. “This wheat plant might not really look like a wheat, but it is genetically a wheat, and if it has lived up there on the mountaintop for a thousand years, it’s likely that it doesn’t need much water. And one of the things we really need to work on now is plants that can grow and give you good yields and good food without much water.” Every day, Haga said, breeders are trying to create new plants out of the genetic diversity contained within genebanks. As the planet keeps changing — and there are more and more people to feed — we may be very glad that the world has managed to archive as much of that diversity as it already has.
News Article | February 25, 2017
Around 50,000 seed samples were deposited into the world's largest seed depository that was built to protect the world's plant species and food sources in case of wars or natural disasters. Some of the newly deposited specimens into the Svalbard Seed Bank were simply returned after an unexpected withdrawal in 2015. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located in the Arctic over 600 miles from the North Pole in the Svalbard archipelago. It was built underground in permafrost zone as a master backup plan in case of warfare or natural disasters that could wipe out the world's food sources. When it was opened in 2008 by the Norwegian Government and the Global Crop Diversity Trust, it was meant to be a global deposit box for the world's seeds. Being located underground in the freezing Arctic, the idea was that in case of any natural disaster or warfare that could severely deplete world food sources, the Svalbard Seed Vault will be there to provide a restart for the world's crops. With other seed banks across the globe, the Svalbard Seed Vault was supposed to be the final backup plan when all else fails. However, what started as a vault for distant disasters came in handy less than ten years after it was built, proving that it was built right at the perfect time. With the mounting unrest in their original headquarters in Aleppo, Syria, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) was forced to move to Beirut in 2012. However, as the civil war ensued, scientists had a difficult time in retrieving the seeds in their own Syrian vault. Because of this, ICARDA withdrew the initial deposit that they made to the vault in 2008 to aid their new headquarters in Beirut. The scientists of ICARDA worked on these seeds for 17 months, duplicating and distributing them until they were able to once again complete their set. On Feb. 22, the ICARDA deposited over 15,000 specimens along with seeds from Benin, India, Pakistan, Lebanon, Morocco, Netherlands, Mexico, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belarus, the United States, and Britain. The newly deposited seeds include major food sources such as chickpea, lentil, rice, and wheat. "We are demonstrating today that we can rely on our gene banks and their safety duplications, despite adverse circumstances, so we can get one step closer to a food-secure world," said Aly Abousabaa, director general of ICARDA. © 2017 Tech Times, All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.
News Article | November 10, 2016
This technology has already given us genetically modified (GM) plants that produce bacterial pesticides, GM mosquitos that are sterile and GM mice that develop human cancers. Now, new biotechnological techniques are promising to deliver a whole host of new lifeforms designed to serve our purposes – pigs with human organs, chickens that lay eggs containing cholesterol controlling drugs, and monkeys that develop autism. The possibilities seem endless. But do these genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have conservation value? The biodiversity of life on earth is globally recognised as valuable and in need of protection. This includes not just wild biodiversity but also the biodiversity of agricultural crop plants that humans have developed over thousands of years. But what about the synthetic forms of biodiversity we are now developing through biotechnologies? Does anyone care about this synbiodiversity? It's a question I was compelled to ask while conducting research into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV). The SGSV is the global apex of agricultural biodiversity conservation, an approach to conservation where collections of diverse seed samples are kept in frozen storage in genebanks for future use by plant breeders. The SGSV is a frozen cavern in a mountain on the arctic island of Svalbard, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. It has been called a Noah's Ark for crop plants (also the "doomsday vault") because it is the place where genebanks from all around the world send backup copies of their seed collections for safe-keeping. Here the seeds are sealed inside bags sealed inside boxes locked in a freezer locked in a mountain. They are sent there to be kept safe from the threats genebanks can face, such as energy shortages, natural disasters and war. Seeds in the SGSV can only be accessed by the genebank that deposited them and only one withdrawal has been made so far, by researchers from the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA ) seeking to restore their collections after the destruction of Aleppo in war-torn Syria. The SGSV is managed through a collaborative agreement between the Norwegian government, the Crop Trust and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen). It opened in 2008 and currently houses 870,971 different samples of 5,340 species from 233 countries, deposited by 69 institutes. Are there any GMOs frozen in the vault? During my research into the SGSV I asked if it held any GM seeds. Despite initially receiving conflicting responses, the formal answer was ultimately "no". But different reasons were given for this and all are open to change. The vault is not a certified facility for GMO storage Facilities working with GMOs require certification to do so. While the SGSV is not currently certified, it could be since requirements typically relate to ensuring strict containment and the SGSV is already oriented towards this goal. Also, since no analysis of seeds is performed at the SGSV or required for deposits, the collections may actually be unintentionally (and unwittingly) contaminated. This is because a mixing with GM crops could have happened via seed or pollen flow before the material was sent to the vault. There is no political will to include GM crops Currently, no one in the SGSV management wants to become (any further) entangled in the controversy surrounding GM crops. They already face what they see as false conjectures about the role of the biotechnology industry (fuelled no doubt by the fact that organisations involved in the biotechnology industry have donated funds to the Crop Trust). Several of the depositing genebanks also actively support biotechnology research. Therefore, if they wanted to store GMOs in the future, the will to seek certification may certainly change. Norway has a strict GMO policy that requires not just evidence of safety but also of social utility and contribution to sustainable development. This means no GM crop has yet been approved for either cultivation or import. But this is currently being challenged by a government committed to speeding up assessments and advocating for weakened interpretations of the law. This further indicates the potential for political will to change. GM crops do not meet the requirements for multilateral access The International Plant Treaty is a crucial foundation for the SGSV. As such, depositing genebanks are required to agree to multilateral access to their collections if they wish to deposit backup copies in the SGSV. But GM crops are not freely accessible to all as part of the common heritage of humanity. They are patented inventions owned by those claiming to have created them. The SGSV requirement that deposits be available for multilateral access can be waived though. But if GM crops are not in the SGSV, should they be? Do GMOs have conservation value? Very little work has examined the moral status and conservation value of GM crops. As the fields of genome editing and synthetic biology are now undergoing rapid development though, we have an important opportunity to consider how we relate to biotechnological forms of biodiversity. We can also think about whether it might be possible to navigate through syn- to symbiodiversity. That is, instead of focusing on these life forms as synthetic human inventions, we could begin to think about them as co-creations of human-nature interactions. In doing so, we may then shift the focus away from how to make synthetic organisms to satisfy our needs and place more emphasis on how to interact with other life forms to establish symbiotic relations of mutual benefit. The French sociologist of science and anthropologist Bruno Latour has urged us to love our monsters, to take responsibility for our technologies and care for them as our children. Certainly it seems fair to argue that if we don't care for our biotechnological co-creations with a sense of (parental) responsibility, perhaps we shouldn't be bringing them to life. How do we care for GM crops? The model of freezing seeds in genebanks and backing up those collections at the SGSV is one way to conserve biodiversity. Another, however, is the approach of continuing to cultivate them in our agricultural landscapes. While this model of conservation has generated and maintained the biodiversity of traditional crop varieties for thousands of years, there is now a significant shift taking place. More than 90% of traditional crop varieties have now disappeared from our fields and been replaced by genetically uniform modern varieties cultivated in large-scale monocultures. Meaning, there may be no GM crops frozen in the SGSV, but there are plenty in the ground. So this leaves me questioning what it is we really cherish? Are we using our precious agricultural resources to expand the diversity of humanity's common heritage? Or are we rather placing our common heritage on ice while we expand the ecological space occupied by privately owned inventions? And who cares about synbiodiversity anyway? Explore further: Thousands of crop varieties from 4 corners of the world depart for Arctic seed vault
Christmann S.,ICARDA |
Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment | Year: 2012
Climate change has been identified as an additional major risk for pollinators, but pollinators are key species for agriculture, interaction within interdependent ecosystems and climate change adaptation of agro-ecosystems. Though agro-ecologists proved enhancement of crop production by wild pollinators, applied agricultural research and development did not take up such results to increase farm income as an incentive for farmers to engage in protection of wild pollinators. We suggest farming with alternative pollinators (FAP) as an integrated agro-ecological-socio-economic approach and a self-sustaining win-win-strategy for farmers, agro-ecosystems and climate change adaptation. In the course of climate change we regard wild pollinators and FAP as more reliable option than honeybees, particularly in higher elevations. © 2012 Elsevier B.V.
News Article | December 15, 2015
An ice covered entrance door to the international gene bank Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) near Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, Norway, October 20, 2015. Plastic boxes on shelves hold seeds from the Icarda in Syria at the international gene bank Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) near Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, Norway, October 20, 2015. A worker opens the iced entrance door to storeroom 1 at international gene bank Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) near Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, Norway, October 20, 2015. An ice covered entrance door to the international gene bank Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) near Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, Norway, October 20, 2015. Seeds are stored on shelves at the international gene bank Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) near Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, Norway, October 20, 2015. The entrance tunnel to the international gene bank Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) near Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, Norway, October 20, 2015. Aluminium bags with the seeds inside are seen at the international gene bank Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) near Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, Norway, October 20, 2015. Asmund Asdal, Senior Adviser from NordGen, holds 4 different samples of rice seeds from the Philippines at the International gene bank Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) near Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, Norway, October 20, 2015. Asmund Asdal Senior Adviser from NordGen inspects seeds in storage at the international gene bank Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) near Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, Norway, October 20, 2015. The vault - which opened on the Svalbard archipelago between Norway and the North pole in 2008 - is designed to protect crop seeds such as beans, rice and wheat against the worst cataclysms of nuclear war or disease. It already has more than 860,000 samples, from almost all nations. Even if the power were to fail, the vault would stay frozen and sealed for at least 200 years. "The seed vault is the back-up of the back-up," said Cierra Martin, a spokeswoman for the Crop Trust, the Bonn-based organization which manages the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. She said two deposits were planned for next year, but that the details of the deposits were as yet unclear. "The deposits are due in March and May," she said. To protect the seeds, the vault is rarely opened. Syria's civil war prompted the first withdrawal of seeds from the vault in September, following a request by the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA). ICARDA moved its headquarters to Beirut from Aleppo in Syria in 2012 because of the conflict. "ICARDA had to move collections in Syria to Morocco and Lebanon and the seed vault helped them reestablish their collections," said Martin. Many of these seeds, which included samples of wheat, barley and grasses suited to dry regions, have traits resistant to drought, which could help breed crops to withstand climate change in dry areas from Australia to Africa.