Foresight and the Doomsday Seed Vault

I’ve posted before about the the Svalbard Global Seed Vault: the so-called “doomsday” seed vault tunneled deep into the permafrost of the Norwegian Arctic, but I’d honestly hoped I’d never have to post about a need to use it. After all, it’s stated purpose is to store seeds of key agricultural crops from around the globe so that in the event such crops are lost due to a man-made or natural apocalypse staples like rice, wheat, lentils, etc. can be reestablished. So, in order to use it, something really bad has to happen first.

And then the war in Syria happened…and kept happening. And it was the ongoing devastation in Syria that prompted the first-ever withdrawal from the doomsday seed bank.

In secret shipments last month, about 38,000 seed samples including wheat, barley, lentil and chickpea–strains that had been specifically bred for cultivation in arid parts of the world–were sent from Norway to research stations in Morocco and Lebanon operated by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, or ICARDA. The centre is located in Aleppo but is no longer able to make full use of its facilities due to the war in Syria.

Nearly two-thirds of the specimens withdrawn last month are unique varieties of ancient crops from across the Middle East and Africa. They will be used by ICARDA to fulfill requests for crop diversity from breeders, researchers and farmers around the world, so they can develop and test new strains to cope with a changing climate and new diseases. The varieties delivered to the Morocco gene bank will be sown in the coming season, with some seeds collected and returned to the vaults at Svalbard for safe-keeping.

The costs of the war in Syria (and spilling out into surrounding regions) has been incalculable, first (of course) in human life, but also in the loss of civil society, infrastructure, and even the common heritage of all mankind in the destruction by ISIS of antiquities like those in Mosul, the and historical sites like Palmyra. It would have been all too easy for this contribution to the world’s crop biodiversity to be lost, too, to barbarism and ignorance.

But in this one respect, at least, there is some glimmer of hope that this precious heritage–the legacy of generation of farmers and botanists–has be saved through an act of selfless foresight on the part of we human beings, and that it will be preserved alongside so many others for the benefit of future generations. It is the kind of grand foresight human beings are often possessed of, sadly, only in fiction.

And that, I suppose, gives me hope.

– S.

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October 19, 2015 · 1:00 pm

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