When we think of food security, we think of farming intensification and greater resource management. In Aleppo, the capital city in Syria, as rebels began looting and razing ancient artifacts this past spring, a new definition emerged. There, the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) began developing its own emergency operation to safeguard their collection of 150,000 different seed populations (known as accessions) for wheat, barley, lentil and faba beans.
Why are genebanks important?
Rice, wheat and maize (corn) provide more than 50 percent of the world’s plant derived calories. Maintaining and understanding genetic materials and their corresponding phenotypes is essential to food security on our planet. Through cross-breeding various wild species of seeds, scientists can develop new, more resilient seed accessions, better able to withstand environmental and pest stresses. As an example, in the 1970s, grassy stunt virus disease threatened almost all tropical rice varieties in Asia, and caused significant crop loss. Scientists were able to successfully cross-breed a resilient rice seed, oryza nivara – but only after testing 6,000 different accessions. Dr. Susan McCouch, Director of the McCouch Rice Lab at Cornell University explains in her article, Agriculture, Feeding the Future, that, “high-yielding seeds will be the cornerstone for sustainable, intensified food production”.
Management of agricultural biodiversity is not a new field. In fact, it was often undertaken at the household level to ensure survival. Nikolai Vavilov, a Russian botanist during the early 1900s, is often credited as the grandfather in conservation and utilization of plant genetic resources. Crop germplasm collection began during the 1970s, around that time there were 54 facilities dedicated to seed storage and maintenance. Currently, CGIAR oversees 11 regional collections, and researchers are working to “back up” seed traits to Svalbard, deemed a “doomsday vault” enclosed in a temperature controlled mountain in Norway.
The ICARDA headquarters have been in Syria since 1977, when the location was chosen because of ongoing civil wars at the time in Lebanon, the original location. Past civil wars have caused gene banks to disappear from Afghanistan, Burundi, Rwanda and the Solomon Islands, and they can also be at risk to natural disasters like floods, or simply power outages. These organizations believe that a complete collection of seeds is necessary to support forward-looking agricultural programs, such as, Seeds for Needs, an effort to crowdsource information from 8,000 farmers to understand which varieties respond best in certain geographies.
At DivSeek Genesys, researchers are working to amass an online catalog of crop traits in an effort to improve crop diversity and resilience, globally. They believe that shared knowledge can improve crop performance and allow for faster response to disease and pest outbreaks – and in turn, reduce food insecurity and malnutrition.
Before the conflict escalated in Syria, the staff at the center duplicated 26,000 seed accessions and transported them to alternative storage facilities in Turkey and Lebanon. To date, the rebels involved in the takeover have continued to maintain the center to preserve the biodiversity within the region. While this could be a partial solution to more resilient agriculture, it poses even larger questions for the field of agricultural engineering.