Gene banks and exiled Syrian seeds – how one scientist plans to save humanity

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TERBOL, Lebanon – An Aleppo-based research project known as the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) counts itself among the victims of the seven-year-long Syrian Civil War. Its precious cargo, a vast collection of crop seeds, is among the exiled refugees who have fled the conflict.

Ali Shehadeh is a Syrian scientist whose job at a seed bank in Terbol, Lebanon, is essentially to save humankind from a potential mass extinction event caused by global warming or war by storing the genetic material needed to reproduce vital crops such as wheat, barley and rice.

He is among the few who are prescient enough to prepare centuries in advance for the point where it becomes impossible to grow everyday produce.

A seed bank can be looked at in one of two ways. It is naturally pessimistic: storing immense accessions of seeds to prepare for an inevitable manmade catastrophe. But the idea that it is possible to repopulate arid wasteland with the crops humans need to survive? That is optimism.

“It is very important for any gene bank to keep resources for humankind, for future generations, because we are keeping very valuable resources, it is world heritage,” Shehadeh explains.

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Vast swathes of agricultural land have been gobbled up by the ongoing tug-of-war between government forces, rebel alliances and the so-called Islamic State [formerly known as ISIS, ISIL] in Shehadeh’s homeland.

His employer, ICARDA, aims to reverse the damage caused by the internal strife and restore Syria’s fertility. It does, or once did, have a far higher proportion of arable land than neighbouring Jordan and Iraq.

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