Lizzie Wade of Wired shared this encouraging story from Syria.
When civil war erupted in Syria, Ahmed Amri immediately thought about seeds.
Specifically, 141,000 packets of them sitting in cold storage 19 miles south of Aleppo. They included ancient varieties of wheat and durum dating back nearly to the dawn of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, and one of the world’s largest collections of lentil, barley, and faba bean varieties—crops that feed millions of people worldwide every day. If these seeds were decimated, humanity could lose precious genetic resources developed over hundreds, or in some cases thousands, of years. And suddenly, with the outbreak of violence, their destruction seemed imminent.
[Ahmed] Amri is the director of genetic resources at the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), one of 11 international genebanks charged with conserving the world’s most vital crops and their wild relatives. Each center has a speciality—you’ll find the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, for example, while the International Potato Center is based in Peru—and this one focuses on preserving and protecting crops from arid regions, mostly in developing countries. The Center’s crown jewel is its genebank, where its samples are identified and stored for future use, either by the center’s scientific staff or plant breeders around the world.
[. . .]
At the beginning of Syria’s civil war, the fighting was concentrated in the south, far from the Center’s headquarters in the north. But Amri knew it wouldn’t take guns or bombs to destroy the genebank. All it would take was a power outrage that knocked out the facility’s air conditioning. The seeds, preserved in cold rooms for decades, would warm quickly and become unusable. The bank had backup generators, but how long would they last? What if it became impossible to buy fuel? What if the generators were stolen, or commandeered by soldiers?
Luckily, the Center had been preparing for its own destruction since day one. It already had sent emergency backups of about 87 percent of its collection to genebanks in other countries. Even under the best political conditions, “you worry about fire, you worry about earthquakes,” the Center’s director general Mahmoud Solh says in this video interview. Creating emergency backups is standard practice for international genebanks, from Mexico to Nigeria.
But that left 13 percent of the Syrian collection—more than 20,000 samples—that hadn’t been backed up. As soon as the fighting started in the spring of 2011, the genebank’s staff switched gears from collecting and distributing seed samples to devising a rescue plan. People there became very familiar with northern Syria’s back roads as they drove the seeds out of the country.