Doomsday Seed Vault Makes First Ever Withdrawal for Syria

September 24, 2015 | Sarah Tse

Entrance to the Global Seed Vault ("Doomsday" Vault) in Norway
Photo credit: Miksu/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

The Syrian civil war has forced Middle Eastern plant scientists to request seeds from the “Doomsday” Seed Vault — the first withdrawal in history.

If an apocalypse wiped out all our crops, you probably wouldn’t expect an archipelago in the utmost northern reaches of the world to provide any relief. But hidden away in that frigid wilderness is the last hope for humanity’s food supply: the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The Arctic conditions actually provide a perfect environment to store the seeds of over 850,000 crops from all over the world, preserving a good portion of the planet’s biodiversity in case of catastrophe. And for Syria, doomsday has come early.

The country’s ongoing civil war has decimated both its civilian population and the landscape. The destruction of crucial infrastructure wiped out the Middle East’s primary seed bank in Aleppo, where plant scientists had stored seeds for the hardy species of wheat, barley, and grasses that thrive in the region’s dry climate. After the Aleppo facility suffered damage in 2012, the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) was forced to relocate to Beirut. Sadly, they had no way to reclaim the seeds trapped in the middle of the capital’s conflict.

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So, Norway’s “Doomsday” Seed Vault has received its first-ever request for a withdrawal. ICARDA has asked for 130 boxes of seeds out of the 325 boxes originally deposited during the vault’s opening in 2008. These seeds will replenish their supply and allow ICARDA scientists to resume their duties of growing and distributing seeds to countries throughout the region. Once they plant and harvest those seeds this fall, they will return a new batch to the vault and restore their original deposit. Crop Trust, the company that runs the vault, will fulfill the request once paperwork is completed, reports Reuters.

The Svalbard vault represents the ultimate safeguard against a biodiversity disaster, a result of true international collaboration. While there are over a thousand other seed banks dotted across the globe, they are still vulnerable to natural disasters, power outages, and war, as demonstrated by the fate of the Aleppo seed bank. Svalbard’s remote location in northern Norway ensures that it will outlast any international squabbles. The facility is tucked into a mountainside, where the surrounding permafrost provides a natural, failure-proof freezer. Even as sea levels rise, the seeds will remain safe in their lofty sanctuary.

A withdrawal less than a decade after the “Doomsday” Vault’s opening might seem premature, but according to Crop Trust’s executive director Cary Fowler, this is exactly the sort of situation for which they established the vault. “I'd say doomsday is happening every day for crop varieties,” he said in an interview with National Geographic. “Lots of people think that this vault is waiting for doomsday before we use it. But it's really a backup plan for seeds and crops. We are losing seed diversity every day and this is the insurance policy for that.”

Recent trends in agricultural practices and global demand for certain crops has caused many farmers to grow a limited number of species with little genetic variation. These “monocultures” — vast fields containing just one variety of a crop — are more vulnerable to pests and climate change. The rich biodiversity preserved by the Svalbard Seed Vault will be a crucial resource for future plant scientists as they work to develop resistant varieties that can feed our growing population.

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