Luckily staff at the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas in Aleppo had decided to duplicate the institute’s irreplaceable seed bank when turmoil first began in Tunisia and Egypt.
And when the unrest spread to Syria, they boxed up the duplicated collection of thousands of varieties of wheat, barley, lentils, chickpeas and bean and shipped it off to the “doomsday” vault in the Norwegian Arctic for safekeeping.
“The last little bit left Syria in a truck going over the border to Turkey just before all hell broke lose,” says Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which helps manage the Svalbard Global Seed Vault safeguarding the world’s seeds.
Nearly 750,000 kinds of seed, more than half the varieties on Earth, are now stashed in the frigid compound that’s carved inside a mountain.
And Fowler, a modern day Noah, said it is critical the job gets finished.
Crop diversity “is about the most important natural resource on Earth, at least to our own species,” said Fowler, who was in Ottawa last week to meet with federal officials.
Climate change, water shortages and food security are daunting challenges. “And it is very hard to imagine that we are going to be able to address any of those issues effectively if we don’t conserve crop diversity,” he said in an interview.
Society needs crops that can produce more food with less water, on less land and in a changing climate. “And we don’t have a magic wand to wave to accomplish all that,” said Fowler. “The only thing we have are collections of crops, which contain an almost infinite number of characteristics, which plant breeders and farmers can use to fashion varieties that are adapted to specific and changing ecological niches.”
What is needed, say Fowler and his colleagues, is a global system with the Svalbard vault as the “safety deposit box” and a network of international seed banks where plant breeders can access seed as growing conditions change or political unrest and natural disaster strike.
Some, such as Canada’s national seed bank in Saskatoon, have duplicated and shared thousands of seed varieties, which are now stashed in the Svalbard vault, designed to last hundreds of years and to survive even nuclear war.
Other seed banks are not nearly as secure.
A typhoon in the Philippines flooded a major seed bank with more than a metre of mud and water a few years ago.
“It was an awful situation,” said Fowler.
And looters raided seed banks during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“They poured the seeds on the floor and made off with the bottles,“ he said.
Others want to keep their seeds to themselves: “There are some African countries that are reluctant to share,” said Fowler.
Government agencies now finance most of trust’s work. And last week the trust and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research announced $109 million in funding over the next five years for 11 international gene banks from Mexico to the Philippines.
“Given all of the turbulent issues surrounding agriculture and food today, from high commodity prices to threats from weather extremes, I think the international community is waking up to the enormous value of preserving crop diversity,” said Margaret Catley-Carlson, outgoing chair of the trust’s executive board and former president of the Canadian International Development Agency, in a statement announcing the funding.
The $109 million is to ensure better storage of the 706,000 crop samples at the 11 gene banks, and to allow for the collections to expand and be catalogued.
While welcoming the new funding, Fowler has his sights on raising a half-billion-dollar endowment he said could provide the long-term financing the global effort needs to be sustainable. He said he’d welcome private donations.
For $35 or $40 million, he said he could put a benefactor’s name on wheat and ensure its diversity lives “forever.” About 200,000 varieties have been created since wheat was first domesticated in Turkey more than 11,000 years ago.
“If you are not in the league of $35 to $40 million, how about $5 million, because we could find a crop for you,” he quipped.
Saving the world’s seeds will be money-saver in the long run, he said.
“What’s really expensive is to lose seeds,” Fowler said – seeds that may have evolved irreplaceable genes and traits that could provide resistance to emerging diseases or pests. Pests that he warns could cost Canadian farmers half a billion dollars a year in crop losses.
Fowler and Asiaug Marie Haga, the trust’s incoming executive director, were in Ottawa last week to meet with officials at Agriculture Canada and the Canadian International Development Agency.
CIDA has provided $10 million in funding to the trust since 2006. As one of the trust’s first major funders, the Canadian grant was key as it provided “legitimacy in the eyes of other donors,” said Fowler, the trust’s outgoing executive director, who will stay on as an adviser.
He and Haga hope Canada will renew the $10-million grant, which runs out in March, but left Ottawa without a firm commitment. They remain hopeful, saying they “received a very positive reception.”
CIDA’s media office had no comment on future Canadian funding for the trust, saying the proposal is under review.