Svalbard Global Seed Vault makes first withdrawal in wake of war in Syria

The so-called doomsday seed vault, storing crop seeds to protect against a global crisis, has opened its doors for the first time to replace seeds lost as a result of the Syrian civil war.

30th September 2015

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (Daniel Sannum Lauten/AFP/Getty Images)

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (Daniel Sannum Lauten/AFP/Getty Images)

Requesting a bank withdrawal isn’t often all that interesting. But in this case, the bank is a doomsday seed bank designed to protect vital crops like rice through an apocalypse, and the withdrawal request is the first of its kind.

The Global Seed Vault, built deep inside a mountain on the remote Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, holds more than 860,000 frozen seed samples and is designed to withstand the end of humanity as we know it.

Now, scientists at the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Syria have applied to withdraw some of those seeds to replace samples damaged in the ongoing civil war. The request is unprecedented in the seven-year history of the vault.

“Protecting the world’s biodiversity in this manner is precisely the purpose of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault,” said Brian Lainoff, spokesman from the Crop Trust running the vault, in an interview with Reuters. He added, “if something were to happen to one of those collections around the world, they can always come back to the seed vault and retrieve what might have been lost.”

ICARDA has deposited 325 boxes of seed samples in the Arctic bank for safe-keeping in recent years. But as the war continues, the Aleppo-based centre is unable to provide seeds to local farmers and scientists for research. It’s for this reason that the centre has requested the withdrawal of 116,000 of its original samples.

Once the paperwork has been filed, the seeds will be making their way from Norway in nearly 130 boxes to a safe location nearer Syria. Lainoff sees the exchange as an encouraging illustration of the international effort to protect biodiversity.

“There are seeds in the vault that have originated from nearly if not every single country," he said. “It really is kind of the only example of true international cooperation.”

You can read more about seed banks and how they could help us beat mass extinction in the October 2015 issue of BBC Focus magazine.

by Catherine E. Offord

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