Host apocalyptic: Syria makes first withdrawal from Svalbard seed vault as war damages facility with key crops

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Its creators hate the term “Doomsday Vault,” but for Syria that day has arrived.

A historic first “withdrawal” from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on behalf of Syria occurred during a visit Sunday by Norwegian and European Union leaders. A seed bank in the city of Aleppo is still partially operational despite the civil war that has heavily damaged the city, but can no longer function as a hub for providing seeds to other countries in the region.

“The gene bank wants back some of the seeds already this fall to produce and harvest them, said Norwegian Minster of Agriculture and Food Sylvi Listhaug in an interview with Verdens Gang during the visit. “Then they will put new seeds up here again as a backup. They will be sent to other countries in the Middle East since Syria is still affected by war, but for security reasons we will not say where.”

The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), a non-profit agricultural institute that manages the gene bank, is requesting nearly 130 boxes out of 325 that have been deposited in the Svalbard vault since it opened in 2008, according to the ministry. Among the species are wheat, barley and grasses suited for dry regions.

ICARDA moved its headquarters to Beirut from Aleppo in 2012 because of the war.

“We did not expect a retrieval this early,” said Brian Lainoff, a spokesman for the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which manages the Svalbard vault, in an interview with NPR. “But (we) knew in 2008 that Syria was in for an interesting couple of years. This is why we urged them to deposit so early on.”

About 80 percent of the seeds from the Syrian bank were deposited in the Svalbard vault between 2008 and 2014, according to the trust’s database for the vault.

The Svalbard vault can store about 4.5 million seed samples in its three storage rooms chilled to minus 18 degrees Celsius, the largest such facility in the world. At present there are about 860,000 samples from crops found in every country on Earth.

During their visit, officials also deposited the first seed samples from the Czech Republic.

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