Syrian War Leads to the Global Seed Bank's First Withdrawal

The Seed Vault was designed to preserve crops in case of global disasters. Credit: Cultura / GETTY

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a secure agricultural bank on the Norwegian Island of Spitsbergen that opened in 2008. Built on a mountain to avoid sea rise and set in permafrost with an earthquake-resistant structure, it was designed as a doomsday vault. It's the back-up plan for feeding the world in the event of war, disease, drought, or other natural disaster. Svalbard is entrusted with the safekeeping of more than 860,000 seeds from almost all countries. In the event of a global catastrophe, it would provide the source material to breed destroyed crops.

Syria's civil war has prompted the first withdrawal from this Arctic vault. Following damage to seeds in a gene bank in Aleppo, Syria, researchers in the Middle East requested samples of wheat, barley, and grasses suitable for dry areas. Grethe Evjen, an expert at the Norwegian Agriculture Ministry, told Reuters that 130 boxes of seeds would be sent to the International Center for Agriculture Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), whose headquarters moved from Aleppo to Beirut in 2012 because of the war. "Protecting the world's biodiversity in this manner is precisely the purpose of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault," said Brian Lainoff, a spokesman for the Seed Vault.