The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, nicknamed "the doomsday vault" by the media, has for the first time distributed vital samples to assist researchers caught up in Syria's on-going Civil War.
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Completed in 2008, the vault is home to more than 860,000 varieties of seeds from around the world. The overarching goal of the facility is to safeguard these vital specimens in the event of some catastrophic global event. As has recently been shown with the situation in Syria, however, the vault also has an ongoing role to assist with regional conflicts as well.
When the first hints of civil war began in early 2011, the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), located in Aleppo, Syria, began forming a plan to transfer its collection of seeds to Svalbard. The nonprofit's research is vitally important for agriculture-based populations in dry regions around the world, with more than 25,000 seeds distributed annually to assist farmers.
While ICARDA's own cold storage facilities were operational, the land surrounding the genebank –– vital to replenish seed stocks –– was increasingly threatened by the conflict. To prevent further loss of both research and seed stocks, the group began systematically shipping its varieties around the world. Of the 146,352 seeds in ICARDA's collection, more than 116,000 were shipped to Svalbard in the Arctic including wheat, barley, lentil, Kabuli chickpea, faba bean, peas, grass pea and forage crops.
With Syria still embroiled in conflict, ICARDA has relocated its headquarters temporarily to Beirut, Lebanon and Morocco. This has triggered a partial withdrawal from the Global Seed Vault to once again allow the group to fulfill its research and distribution missions.
"In one sense, it would be preferable if we never had to retrieve seeds from the Seed Vault, as a withdrawal signifies that there is a significant problem elsewhere in the world," Marie Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust, said in a statement. "However, we can now see that the Vault as the ultimate failsafe works the way it was intended to do."
ICARDA plans to take this first withdrawal of 38,000 seed samples and make duplicates for future safekeeping at Svalbard.