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Posts Tagged ‘Mariana Yazbek

Seed bank aims to protect world’s agricultural inheritance from Syria war

Lebanon project aims to recreate Aleppo collection of 150,000 seeds representing knowledge of generations of farmers in Middle East

in Baalbek. February 24, 2016

The wild wheat seed had travelled from Aleppo to the Arctic circle in northern Norway. It has now come almost full circle to Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, where an effort is under way to save the world’s agricultural inheritance from the ravages of the Syrian civil war.

Mariana Yazbek, who runs the gene bank at the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (Icarda), held up the specimen. “Think how much potential is in this seed,” she said. “Humanity is in our hands.”

The return journey from the Arctic to the Middle East was not one the seed had been expected to make.

The Svalbard global seed vault, buried in a Norwegian mountain, contains hundreds of thousands of native seeds from around the world, preserved in the event of a doomsday scenario to help humanity rise from the ashes and help feed a broken world.

The war in Syria, beginning in 2011, changed the calculus.

Icarda’s Aleppo facility, which held a collection of 150,000 seeds representing the knowledge of generations of farmers in the Fertile Crescent, where agriculture began, is now all but inaccessible to the organisation’s staff so out in Lebanon’s agricultural hinterland a grand project is slowly coming to life to recreate it using samples from the Svalbard vault.

Go back 10,000 years, all the farmers that worked in this region and on those crops, there are varieties you cannot find anymore in the field,” said Yazbek. “The only place where you can find them is in the seed bank.” The specimens sent from Svalbard were the first ever withdrawals from the bank.

The young men and women at the Icarda building in the town of  Torbol, Lebanon, methodically go about their business in silence, separating the hay from the seeds, counting and recounting them, treating the fragile little plants for disease with a pink dye meant to ward off fungi.

Their sternness matches the gravity of the task at hand. “What we are losing is the history of these thousands of years represented in crops, and you’re losing your safety net for the future,” said Yazbek.

The aim is to recreate the whole collection that existed in Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital before it was devastated by war, in seed banks in Lebanon and Morocco using the samples from the doomsday vault and other replicas that had been sent to seed banks around the world.

About 85% of the Aleppo collection had been replicated in Svalbard, a process that accelerated when the war began and inevitably reached Aleppo in mid-2012. A third of those samples have now been sent to Lebanon and Morocco.

Many of the wild varieties no longer exist, and those seeds that have been saved represent decades and centuries of genetic selection by local farmers that contributed to humanity’s collective knowledge of agriculture.

Maintaining them is crucial in order to preserve the broad genetic base and diversity of plant life in the region – biodiversity is already under threat as a result of droughts and climate change, over-exploitation and urbanisation that has eliminated the natural cover for much of the region’s plant life.

Icarda, which holds seeds from the Middle East and other dry regions of the world, conducts research to improve the livelihoods of local rural communities, providing technology that local farmers use, improving and breeding plant varieties to make them resistant to harsh climate, and working on land and water management and animal health.

Biodiversity – maintained by the seed banks – offers a form of insurance policy, as it allows local farmers to grow plants and produce that is resistant to extreme weather conditions and disease, proving resilient to diseases that may severely impact mass-produced crops that have high yield but are genetically nearly identical.

A short drive away, in a centre owned by the American University of Beirut, are two cold rooms, one at -20C and another at 4C.

In them are black boxes labelled “Syria” that came directly from the Syrian government, as well as other black boxes containing thousands of silver packets filled with seeds, meticulously labelled, that made the journey from Svalbard.

“It is wonderful to see the vault is already proving its worth and that we have been able to help our friends in the Middle East to continue their vital work,” Árni Bragason, director of the NordGen government agency, which helps to manage the Svalbard seed vault, said. “This is proof that the global system is working.”

Recreating the Aleppo seed bank is a major undertaking.

First they will be planted and allowed to germinate, then they will be replicated, and

second, new copies will be sent back to the doomsday vault for safekeeping. It is a task that keeps Yazbek and her team up at night.

“It’s a burden, the responsibility is immeasurable,” she said. “We have to make sure we give them everything, to make sure they germinate and multiply.”

“We are the keepers of this history and knowledge,” she said.




June 2023

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