In a ground-breaking move, Syria just deposited 49,000 crop varieties to Svalbard's Seed Vault, Mary Beth Griggs reports for Popular Science.
It’s the latest move in Syria's seed saga. It all started in 2011, reports Griggs, during the Arab Spring. At the time, an advisor to the Crop Trust, which operates the vault in Svalbard, reached out to the Syrian-based seed bank to ask if they needed to back up their seeds. Though officials initially refused, they eventually acquiesced—just in case. Soon after, the political situation began to degrade. The seeds arrived in Svalbard just before turmoil hit Aleppo.
Located in the permafrost-covered Arctic Circle, the Svalbard seed vault was founded in 2008 with the hopes of securing backup samples of the world’s seeds. Think of the vault as the ultimate storage unit; it's there just in case some kind of of catastrophe wipes out the plants humans need to grow crops and other plants. The bulk of the facility is underground. Inside, there’s room for 4.5 million varieties of crops—a total of 2.5 billion seeds when it’s at capacity. Right now, it stores over 864,000 samples, according to the vault’s website.
As Smithsonian.com reported in 2015, scientists managed to save 80 percent of Syria’s seed bank from the country’s civil war. Svalbard, meanwhile, kept its backup deposit safe. However, since the vault's samples were considered a "safety duplicate," each had a fairly small quantity, Wired’s Lizzie Wade reported at the time. Later in 2015, researchers then withdrew those seeds from Svalbard, heading to Lebanon and Morocco to use the withdrawal not only to conduct research, but to bulk up future deposits.
Now, Griggs reports, that new backup is on its way back to Svalbad. In a release, Crop Trust writes that the seed vault will have over 930,000 seed samples with the help of the new backup—and that the withdrawal and re-deposit proves that seed system works.
The success is worth celebrating, but the work to save the world’s biodiversity is far from done. As Smithsonian.com’s Natasha Geiling notes, preserving seeds is a complicated business—and though large seed banks like Svalbad get lots of funding and attention, smaller ones that preserve regionally critical seeds are often overlooked. Manmade conflict doesn’t just hurt humans now—it can ruin food availability in the future. But with a bit of help, the seeds we rely on can survive long after we’re gone.