Syrian War Prompts Calls for Dipping Into Doomsday Seed Storage Vault
By Burt Carey
Forget those Hollywood portrayals of doomsday preppers building fortified bunkers, storing food and other supplies, and hoarding cases upon cases of ammunition in preparation of post-Armageddon survival. There’s a real
doomsday vault above the Arctic Circle on a Norwegian island about 800 miles from the North Pole that stores more than 850,000 stocks of seed for grains and other crops around the world, and it’s being tapped for the first time.
Fighting in and near Aleppo, Syria, has caused officials from the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) to request a withdrawal of seed samples it provided to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, marking the first request of its type.
Aleppo’s occupation by armed factions is preventing experts from continuing their work developing and conserving seeds to grow cereals with resistance to drought and warm global temperatures. That’s one of the reasons the doomsday vault was opened in an abandoned mine in 2008.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was built on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, near Longyearbyen in the Arctic Svalbard archipelago. Deep inside a mountain, permafrost guarantees the frozen preservation of a wide variety of plant seeds that are duplicates of samples held in gene banks throughout the world. While the vault is commonly referred to as a “doomsday” facility, its very existence is an attempt at insuring against the loss of grains and other food-producing seeds due to large-scale regional or global crises.
Reuters reported that the seeds requested by researchers include samples of wheat, barley and grasses suited to dry regions to replace seeds in a gene bank near Aleppo that has been damaged by the war. Grethe Evjen, of the Norwegian Agriculture Ministry, said the seeds had been requested by ICARDA, which moved its headquarters from Aleppo to Beirut in 2012 because of the war.
ICARDA reportedly asked for nearly 130 boxes out of 325 it has in the vault, containing some 116,000 samples. It hopes to reproduce the samples at its facilities at American University in Beirut, and in Morocco.
“We are, of course, very sad and frustrated at the situation in Aleppo, but at the same time it shows that having a backup facility is important and it works,” said Asmund Asdal, who runs the vault on behalf of the Nordic Genetic Resources Center. “We hoped that we would never get such a request. Ideally, all the world’s seed gene banks would function normally but, of course, we are prepared for this.”
“These seeds are very valuable to the world,” ICARDA’s Director-General Mahmoud Solh told NBC News. “It is an important source for breeding programs, particularly for crops that have drought immunity or are resistant to the hotter temperatures we are getting because of global warming.”
The Svalbard seed bank has 865,871 samples from every country in the world, Asdal said, including countries that no longer exist. Before the facility was built in an abandoned coal mine, a feasibility study determined that the vault could preserve seed for most major food crops for hundreds of years.
Syria’s civil war has killed a quarter of a million people since 2011 and driven 11 million more from their homes, according to United Nations estimates.
History points to the importance of seed banks in general, and the Svalbard vault in particular. Seed gene banks in Iraq and Afghanistan were destroyed during wars in those countries, and a seed bank in the Philippines suffered damage due to flooding and then was destroyed by a fire. There are 1,750 seed banks around the world.