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Researchers Create Seed Bank in Exile


Ali Shehadeh, a scientist at ICARDA, in shown in one of the greenhouses at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, or ICARDA, site in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. (J.Owens/VOA)

In Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, a non-profit organization stores and grows seeds. The organization used to operate a research center just outside of Aleppo, Syria. But violence in Syria led the group to leave the country.

Now, many employees hope their efforts will help rebuild the country they left behind.

Former site near Aleppo

The organization is named the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas, or ICARDA. ICARDA hopes to produce crops to help feed people around the world.

When it was in Aleppo, the seed bank was spread across 1,000 hectares. It had 150,000 seed samples stored and ready to be grown.

Formerly located just outside of Aleppo, Syria, ICARDA left its headquarters due to the war and re-established sites in Lebanon and Morocco. (J.Owens/VOA)
Formerly located just outside of Aleppo, Syria, ICARDA left its headquarters due to the war and re-established sites in Lebanon and Morocco. (J.Owens/VOA)

Each sample could hold traits that could help crops survive changing weather conditions.

"We try to figure out how to produce crops better adapted to climate change," says Ali Shehadeh, a researcher for ICARDA.

But the group’s work was limited by violence during Syria’s civil war. Ali Shehadeh explains:

"It started when they started stealing the cars from the centers, or even blocking the roads, capturing the cars, stealing the cars by force – it wasn't a pleasant experience for a lot of us."

ICARDA sends seeds out of Syria

In 2012, the ICARDA team copied most of the samples and sent them to Svalbard. Svalbard is a global seed vault dug into a mountain in Northern Norway.

FILE - The entrance to the international gene bank Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) is pictured outside Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, Norway, Feb, 29, 2016.
FILE - The entrance to the international gene bank Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) is pictured outside Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, Norway, Feb, 29, 2016.

In 2015, ICARDA took the seeds from Svalbard to help build collections in Lebanon and Morocco.

An area called Terbol, in the Bekaa Valley, is the new home for ICARDA. The new site has laboratories and a seed bank.

Mariana Yazbeck is a seed bank manager at the new site. She says the work of the bank will become more important as the climate continues to change.

"You will need to make new crops, new varieties that can withstand very high temperature, that can produce yield even with less rainfall."

Climate Change and Conflict

In fact, some analysts say climate change may have contributed to the conflict in Syria.

The Levant region, which includes Syria, began suffering from a drought in 1998. It continued through the start of the war in Syria in 2011. A study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research says this drought is likely to be the worst in almost 900 years.

The drought caused widespread change and challenges. Those factors -- along with other issues in Syria -- put pressure on the country’s economy, government and population.

Since it began, the war has also hurt Syria's agricultural sector. According to a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization or FAO study last year, the war has done $16 billion dollars in damage.

Adam Yao is an FAO representative. "To rebuild the agricultural sector, there will need to be a major rethink of Syria's whole agricultural policy."

He added that ICARDA's experts could have an important role in helping the country.

Although no one is currently at the site, the ICARDA center in Aleppo may still be working. Some 150,000 seeds are still thought to be frozen there, waiting for the researchers to return.

I'm John Russell.

John Owens wrote this story for VOA News. John Russell adapted this story for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.

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Words in This Story

sample – n. a small amount of something that gives you information about the thing it was taken from

trait – n. a quality that makes one person or thing different from another

drought – n. a long period of time during which there is very little or no rain

adapt – v. to change (something) so that it functions better or is better suited for a purpose

vault – n. a locked room where money or valuable things are kept

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