The insecurity of the world’s priceless crop gene banks

Virginia Gewin writes: During the past few years of civil war in Syria, rebel fighters have destroyed Shia mosques and Christian graves, and burned and looted Christian churches while the Islamic State group has demolished priceless artifacts in the region. Nothing seemed sacred to the disparate groups vying for control of the region. Yet, so far, a store of ancient seeds has been left alone.

In 2012 rebel fighters seized control of the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas, a research field station and gene bank about 20 miles (32 km) south of war-torn Aleppo that maintains a unique collection of 150,000 different populations of wheat, barley, lentil and faba bean seeds from 128 countries.

“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,” says Ahmed Amri, head of ICARDA’s genetic resources unit. “But we cannot predict how each day will be.”

ICARDA is just one of the hundreds of institutional crop collections, or crop gene banks, around the world that meticulously preserve samples of distinct crop populations and their wild relatives, even creating duplicates for storage elsewhere, so that this vast genetic diversity is not lost. Seeds are the easiest samples to store, and remarkably, the rebels have allowed five remaining ICARDA staff, all Syrians, to maintain that country’s seed collection.

Before the situation in Syria deteriorated in early 2012, ICARDA staff members diligently duplicated 26,000 accessions that had not yet been safely stored outside Syria and transferred them to Turkey and Lebanon. Since 2012, they’ve continued to secure duplicate samples at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway and other locations outside Syria, and now plan to reconstruct the collection in Morocco so they can continue to distribute seeds. Their efforts garnered them the Gregor Mendel Innovation Prize, which recognizes contributions to plant breeding, in March 2015. [Continue reading…]

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