The last resort for food security

Published in MEED, 26 November 2015

A facility deep inside the Arctic Circle is playing a vital role in ensuring farming in the Middle East has a viable future.

On the side of a mountain on an island in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, deep inside the Arctic Circle, a wedge of concrete sticks out into the cold air. Behind a grey door at its base lies the Global Seed Vault, the world’s most important agricultural collection.

The vault is built 150 metres into the mountain, isolated from the weather and the risk of natural or man-made disasters. Anyone entering has to pass through five locked doors, security cameras and motion detectors. The very definition of food security, the facility has the capacity to store copies of 4 million varieties of crops.

The Global Seed Vault holds more than 830,000 varieties of seeds and other samples from nearly every country in the world. They range from staples such as rice, wheat and sorghum, to eggplant, lettuce and potato. The high-security environment is half a world away from the dry lands of war-torn northern Syria, but these days the two places are inextricably linked.

Until recently the vault was only ever entered by people depositing more precious samples. This year, for the first time, a request was made by a Syrian organisation to remove about 38,000 seeds from the facility, nicknamed the Doomsday Vault.

The withdrawal was made by the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA). Its headquarters in Tel Hadya, on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, was seized by rebels in 2012, and the organisation relocated to Beirut.

ICARDA runs several research programmes based around farming in dry areas and holds a globally important collection of seeds. The mainly wheat and barley seed it withdrew are for growth in arid areas such as the Middle East.

“Because of the situation prevailing in Syria we had to move to places where we can continue our activities,” says Ahmed Amri, head of the genetic resources unit at ICARDA. “We distribute 20,000-25,000 samples annually. We need to replenish from time to time. This is what we could not do in Syria because the situation there does not allow us to work in the field.”

Since it was set up in 1977, ICARDA has sent almost 1 million seed samples of wheat, barley, grasspea, lentils and other crops to farmers, researchers and breeders in more than 120 countries. Each time samples are sent, fresh ones need to be grown to replenish the gene bank, a safety measure to protect against extinction of a species and to provide countries with a last resort. With the Syrian civil war raging, that replenishment was proving impossible.

ICARDA decided to replicate its collection across two sites, near the Moroccan capital of Rabat and in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, but to do so it needed to withdraw seeds from Svalbard. These will be grown out over the next five to 10 years, with fresh samples then sent back to Svalbard.

The organisation is part of a network of 11 agriculture deposits scattered around the world, each one specialising in different crops.This network is in turn supported by the Crop Trust, a body set up in 2004 by the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organisation and Rome-headquartered Biodiversity International. The Crop Trust also helps to fund and run the Svalbard facility, alongside the Norwegian government.

“ICARDA has the most important collection of some wheat, barley and other crops. The whole point of these collections is that farmers, breeders and scientists have access to this diversity and can actually use it,” says Brian Lainoff, a spokesman for the Crop Trust. “The Svalbard global seed vault is the ultimate safety net for this global system.”

But this global back-up system is itself in a vulnerable position. The Svalbard facility is fairly cheap to run, with annual costs of about $100,000, but a secure, long-term funding system for the global network of gene banks is not yet in place.

The Crop Trust is trying to set up a $500m endowment fund to pay for the future running of these gene banks and the Svalbard site, and is looking to wealthy Gulf states to help with funding. To date just $170m has been pledged by 14 countries, including the US, Norway, Germany and the UK. An international pledging conference to raise the rest of the money is due to be held in Washington in April next year, at the same time as the Spring joint meeting of the Washington-based World Bank and IMF.

“We expect and hope government donors will support the endowment fund,” says Lainoff. ”It’s a one-off cost.”

In the build-up to the pledging conference, the lobbying efforts continue apace. In December, a delegation from the Crop Trust is due to visit several Gulf countries to drum up support for the fund.

The attention garnered by ICARDA’s withdrawal of seeds from Svalbard could help to highlight the vulnerable nature of food supply in dry regions, the need for more funding and the fact that all countries ultimately depend on each other and on crop diversity for their food security.

Amri is hopeful that will prove to be the case. “I think our withdrawal of seeds from Svalbard could enhance the capacity of the Crop Trust and the whole system to leverage additional funds,” he says.