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Syria, Spitsbergen and Seeds

Updated Monday, 13 November 2017
How are the civil war in Syria, the remote Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, and the future of the world’s food supplies connected? 

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ICARDA returns seeds to Svalbard Vault

In this film, Dr Oliver Zanetti examines how the civil war in Syria jeopardised vital research into food and agriculture, and shows how a revolutionary project seed banking project on the Arctic island of Spitsbergen made it possible for that research to continue.


Hi, I’m Dr Oliver Zanetti. I’m a PhD graduate of The Open University’s Department of Geography where I currently work as a Research Associate.

I’m going to examine how conflict in the Middle East risked disrupting research into the future security of the world’s food supplies, and find out how a revolutionary project on the remote island of Spitsbergen acted to keep that research going.

This case captures, for me, what makes Geography such an exciting subject to work in and study. The events I’ll describe connect the human world of science and politics, and the non-human world of material objects and other living things like plants, in a way that only a subject like Geography can do.

So we start in Syria, a place which has been the site of intense armed conflict and political and social instability. The immediate human cost of war is something we often see in the news. But far less reported, is war’s environmental or biological consequences. These are often equally destructive.

Syria is a country in a region of the world known by biologists as the ‘fertile crescent’. As its name suggests, this arc of land is a place where plant life grows in abundance. More importantly, it’s a very diverse landscape, with a considerable range of different environments all crammed into a relatively small area. As a result, it’s home to enormous levels of plant biological diversity, known as biodiversity.

This means that a huge range of plants grow here. But it’s the area’s agricultural biodiversity that we’re particularly interested. This is broken into two types. First, the plants which have been selectively bred into food crops by people. And, second, the so-called ‘crop wild relatives’. These are the wild plants that food crop plants were bred from.

In a time of a growing global population, as well as significant environmental change, concern is increasing about the future security of the world’s food supplies. Questions are being asked like, ‘in the future, will we have enough food?’, ‘will climate change make it more difficult to grow the food in the locations where it has typically been grown?’, and even, ‘will the food we grow provide adequate nutrition to keep those who eat it healthy’?

This is something agricultural biodiversity has the potential to help with. There’s a tendency by some to look at the crops that were grown in the past as out of date or obsolete. And on the face of it, that does seem to make sense. Twenty-first century agriculture is the most productive in human history. It’s hard to imagine an out-of-date crop being useful. Harder still to see the use of a crop wild relative.

However, and perhaps surprisingly, these old plant varieties could be key to our future global food security.

Rather than seeing these plants as whole, coherent varieties, plant scientists increasingly see them as big bundles of genetic traits. So while an old crop variety as a whole might not be very useful to today’s food production, there might be within it a trait that could be useful. An old wheat plant, for example, might produce a very low yield of low quality grain but yet have an adaptation which would be helpful to the plants we grow today. For example, that old wheat plant might be very good at tolerating drought, a trait which could be vital if rainfall patterns change. Or, it might produce a grain high in a particular vitamin, again, really important if we’re to ensure that everyone in the world is well nourished by the foods they eat. So crop plant biologists all over the world work hard to identify important traits. They do this by growing old plants, and examining them for traits of potential use to today’s agriculture.

Until recently, this kind of research also took place in Syria. The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, or ICARDA, is a research body which focuses on the food security concerns specific to dry parts of the world. It has regional programmes across northern and eastern Africa, the Middle East, India and Asia. One of those regional programmes was based near Aleppo, the Syrian capital, located in the north part of the country. Plant scientists at the ICARDA’s base near Aleppo had a history of developing important new strains of drought resistant and heat resistant wheat, taking traits from crop varieties grown in the past.

These old crop varieties are hard to come by. Farmers don’t grow them in their fields any more, and there are few patches of wild ground where the crop wild relatives might sprout by chance. However, and luckily, these old crop varieties haven’t disappeared completely.

The ICARDA research station, like several thousand other plant research stations across the world, wasn’t just home to plant researchers. It was also home to over 135,000 different varieties of the region’s key crops – a stock of global importance including wheats, barleys, lentils and chickpeas. These varieties were kept, not as plants growing in a field, but as seeds – carefully cleaned and packaged, and securely stored in cold, dry conditions that prolong their life.

In 2011, when civil war broke out in the country, one of ICARDA’s first priorities was to keep that stock of seeds safe. Just as computer users know they must back up irreplaceable data, so those working in seed banks always keep backups of their irreplaceable genetic data. They do this by keeping seeds in seed banks. It’s good practice to keep copies of each variety in several different seed banks around the world, as a precaution. While in this case, the risk was war, seeds in seed banks face innumerable other risks – ranging from something catastrophic like fire, to something as banal a package of seeds just getting misplaced. In fact, human error, rather than catastrophe, is the most common reason for varieties being lost. Given how important any one of those varieties might be to the future of agriculture, it makes sense not to take any chances.

So the researchers in Aleppo deposited their backups at what must be the gold standard in seed security – the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located on Spitsbergen, a small island in the Svalbard archipelago, half way between Norway and the North Pole. The Svalbard Seed Vault holds the world’s largest collection of crops diversity. It aims to be the central backup of every seed bank on earth, storing the genetic resources of all the world’s food plants. With 860,000 varieties stored there so far, and space for 4.5 million, it already holds the planet’s most diverse seed collection.

The Vault is an epic construction. It was funded by the Norwegian government and its establishment owes a great deal to the work of a man called Cary Fowler, who dedicated much of his career to the preservation of crop plant genetic diversity. The vault itself consists of a tunnel-like structure dug deep into the rocky hillside of Spitsbergen’s frozen landscape. Building began in 2006 and it officially opened on the 26th of February 2008. It’s located 130 metres above sea level, and is buried 120 metres inside the sandstone mountain. In many ways, the location of the Svalbard Seed Vault is central to its ability to do its job.

First, Spitsbergen is cold and dry, the ideal conditions for seed storage. Even so, the vault’s atmosphere is artificially cooled to -18 degrees Celsius and the humidity lowered still further to ensure conditions are perfect. If the power should fail the conditions will remain stable for long enough for repairs to be made. Second, the area is tectonically inactive, so there’s no risk of earthquakes or volcanoes damaging the facility. It’s also high up the mountain side, out of the way of possible flooding. Finally, the vault is miles from large centres of human activity. Thus, civil disruption. like war. is unlikely, but so too are the more everyday risks of human presence.

The seeds in the seed vault are stored in black box conditions much like a bank vault. The seed bank provides the infrastructure but neither it, nor the Norwegian government, is allowed to access the seeds themselves. They remain the property of the depositing country.

For all of its short history, the direction of travel of plant genetic resources has been in to the Svalbard Seed Vault. In October 2015, as a result of the conflict in Syria and for the first time in its history, withdrawals were made from the Vault.

Though the Aleppo research station is still in existence, and its gene bank stocks are still there too, the political situation in the country meant that ICARDA was forced to wind down the day-to-day research activities. The research projects themselves though were too important to stop. Projects that had been going on in Syria were transferred to research stations in nearby countries, with some projects moved to Lebanon and others to Morocco. However, the genetic resources that the researchers were working with weren’t available at these new sites, and the conflict made it impossible to ship them out. Relocating the research and continuing its practice would have been impossible, had there not been a backup available.

128 boxes, with a total of 38,073 seed samples were dispatched from the Svalbard Seed Vault out to the two countries. 57 of these boxes were sent to Lebanon, the other 71 to Morocco. The Lebanese were sent the seeds of peas and beans and animal forage crops, and the wild relatives of cereals and pules. The Moroccans were sent cultivated varieties of wheat and barley, lentils and chickpeas. Thanks to that redistribution, the research projects could continue. What’s more, these seeds were once again available for research and use by plant scientists, plant breeders, and farmers worldwide.

The significance of this simply cannot be underplayed. Growing the food we need to eat is one of the biggest social, technical and environmental challenges we face. Around the world, everyday, plant researchers are working on ways to improve plant varieties –especially the varieties of staple crops like grains and pulses. They want to get plants to produce more and better quality yields, and to do so with less agrochemical inputs. They also want to ensure we have the food plants which will allow us to feed ourselves as our climate changes. This kind of vital research is going on worldwide. For instance, the UK is home to one of the world’s oldest research stations called Rothamsted Research.

It will, I’m sure, come as a relief to know that many research stations have their seeds safely backed up in the Svalbard Seed Vault.

If you’ve enjoyed learning about this example, you may be interested in studying The Open University’s Human Geography modules DD205, ‘Living in a Globalised World’, or DU311, ‘Earth in Crisis’.

In DD205 we examine a case with many similarities to seed banking: the bioprospecting work done by pharmaceuticals companies who collect and study biological materials from rainforests in their search for new compounds for use in medicines, amongst many other engaging topics.

And the DU311 module explores both the Fertile Crescent and the concept of biodiversity in much more detail and also looks at future challenges around food and agriculture.

I hope you’ve learnt something new today and thanks for watching.


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