How a Seed Bank, Almost Lost in Syria’s War, Could Help Feed a Warming Planet 

Icarda’s most vital project — a seed bank containing 155,000 varieties of the region’s main crops, a sort of agricultural archive of the Fertile Crescent — faced extinction.

But the researchers at Icarda had a backup copy. Beginning in 2008, long before the war, Icarda had begun to send seed samples — “accessions” as they are called — to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the so-called doomsday vault, burrowed into the side of a mountain on a Norwegian island above the Arctic Circle. It was standard procedure, in case anything happened.

War happened. In 2015, as Aleppo disintegrated, Icarda’s scientists borrowed some of the seeds they had stored in Svalbard and began building anew. This time, they spread out, setting up one seed bank in Morocco and another just across Syria’s border with Lebanon in this vast valley of cypress and grapes known as the Bekaa.

…Mr. Shehadeh says, [he] is why he is obsessed with the wild relatives of the seeds that most farmers plant today. He eschews genetically modified seeds. He wants instead to tap the riches of those wild ancestors, which are often hardy and better adapted to harsh climates. “They’re the good stock,” he said.

He hunts for the genetic traits that he says will be most useful in the future: resistance to pests or blistering winds, or the ability to endure in intensely hot summers. He tries to select for those traits and breeds them into the next generation of seeds — in the very soil and air where they have always been grown.

…Icarda’s entire collection houses seeds that have sustained the people of the Middle East for centuries, including some 14,700 varieties of bread wheat, 32,000 varieties of barley, and nearly 16,000 varieties of chickpea, the key component of falafel. The Lebanon seed bank houses about 39,000 accessions, and Morocco, another 32,000. Most of it is backed up in Svalbard.

In Sudan, Icarda has introduced a wheat variety it hopes will be more resistant to drought and heat. It is breeding a fava bean variety that can withstand a parasitic weed and lentils that can mature in a short growing season.

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