Safeguarding seed varieties is essential for protecting our biodiversity and agricultural resources. Seeds are commonly stored in seed banks at research centers. Some seed storage facilities, like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault set 1300 kilometers beyond the Arctic Circle, are built to withstand extreme weather. The main seek bank for the Middle East has been for years hosted at the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Aleppo, Syria. Because of the war, ICARDA, its personnel and its seeds have had to be relocated.  

Dr. Mahmoud Solh, is the Director General of the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), recounts the story of the move from Aleppo to Lebanon and the transportation of the seeds to secure locations. 

This interview was carried out by Michael Condon of ABC Rural. Below is a transcript: 

Syria was unfortunately occupied by armed forces. At the beginning, we managed to keep reasonable working relations because they had put somebody with a PhD in Agriculture in charge. So, he understood the value of ICARDA. Another interesting issue was that some of these armed groups are farmers who used to deal with ICARDA before. They had received seeds from us in the past with improved wheat, barely, chickpea, lentils, and faba beans. They value the center and know that the center is a-political. We have nothing to do with the government, however being an international center. We managed to keep working for the first 2 years. 

ICARDA kept planting 630 hectares, and our gene bank continued to be operational. Even now, our gene bank is operational. However the armed groups have been changing, so now the two groups who are there are growing the land and are harvesting the crops for their own good. They are allowing us to keep the gene bank operational. In spite of everything we still have the long-term storage well kept at minus 20 to minus 18 degrees, as well as having the active collection at five degrees centigrade. 

Didn’t you need to move part of the Gene Bank out?

Yes. When the problem started in Syria, the first question I asked our gene bank manager was; how much of our gene bank is already duplicated? To which the answer was 87%. We usually duplicated germplasm thinking about earth quakes, fire and so forth. At this point, I felt our top priority as a research center was to move the remaining 13%. 13% out of hundred and forty three thousand excisions is a lot of germplasm. With that, we moved 14,000 excisions within 3 months to Turkey. I have to commend the Turkish government for accepting this germplasm on such short notice. Our board member, Professor Masum Burak,who is the director of Agriculture and Research, came himself to the boarder to let the seed in. The other 14% was sent to the American University of Beirut and Lebanon. 

We really moved out 99% of the germplasm. We have a remaining 1% of very little seed yet to move out. But still, we consider the seed bank to be well saved. This collection is considered to be one of the most unique collections representing dry areas. It’s important to many parts of the world including Australia, and we do have big programs with Australia on germplasm. Both the Grains Research & Development Corporation (GRDC) and SCR support ICARDA in many projects on germplasm improvement and germplasm exchange and collection. 

The news has just been released recently that the US and Australia are going to be involved in bombing raids in Syria. What’s the facility like now, is it still under Kea taker ship, or what’s happening?

Fortunately, the buildings are intact, and we are in contact with the government to make sure that the Syrian army does not bombard the facility. Rumors came to us that the armed groups are going use the labs for storing ammunition and so forth. It was then that we really made contact with influential people in Aleppo, who put pressure on them not to use it for that. We know that if this is really true, then I am sure that there is justification to bombard the facility. So, we were lucky this way so far, but as you know  Civil war can change every hour. 

Do you think there must have been setbacks for having moving out the time wasted and things lost? 

Oh yes, let me tell you – in terms of equipment; we lost some old cars, certainly some implements, and all of the tractors. What we did before leaving Syria was move all of our sophisticated equipment to Aleppo, and to apartments that were rented by the ex-patriots who left. So now, they are really safe in Aleppo. We also moved tractors we used have to a school in Aleppo, so they are now in the school yard. In terms of a loss of germplasm, we have been fortunate. Very fortunate, frankly. Why? Because we knew the value. We made top priority to keep every seed that we have safe. 

For more information: