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Seeds in threatened soil

US hostility towards Syria is undermining the stability of an important seed bank for dry areas.

Thirty kilometres from Aleppo in Syria, not far from the birthplace of agriculture, is the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). It includes an international gene bank that holds seeds in trust on behalf of the world's dry countries.

Organized through the World Bank and funded by international donors, ICARDA's gene bank holds samples of 131,000 individual seeds for plants that form part of the diets of one billion people who live in Central and West Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. The seeds include different varieties of barley, beans, chickpeas and lentils, catalogued and stored in sealed plastic bottles inside giant refrigerated vaults.

ICARDA often finds itself having to rebuild agriculture at the end of military and civil conflicts. The centre is in effect a lender of last resort for farmers and scientists who have nowhere else to go when their seeds run out.

When Taliban fighters looted Afghanistan's national seed store in 2002, they took the empty plastic bottles, leaving the seeds behind. Even so, the country's scientists needed ICARDA's help to rebuild the store. And shortly before the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Iraqi scientists sent a ‘black box’ across the border to ICARDA containing copies of the country's seed stocks. The action was timely, as Iraq's seed bank, in the Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib, was looted and destroyed during the insurgency. ICARDA plans to use the contents of the box to help regenerate Iraqi farming.

But now the centre's host country is itself feeling the heat of US rhetoric. The US government has always been a generous financial supporter of the centre's activities. But in the words of the State Department, Syria is autocratic, is a state sponsor of terrorism, and is believed to be developing weapons of mass destruction. Continuing US sanctions and some discussion in the United States about possible ‘regime change’ are causing nervousness.

One response would be to pack the seeds into storage boxes and airlift them out of Syria, but the threat of US military action currently seems too remote to warrant such drastic action.

Much better, for ICARDA and for the 14 other ‘Future Harvest Centres’, would be for more support to be given to the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an international fund to build more gene banks around the world and to improve the conditions of existing ones. The trust was set up jointly by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. It says it needs an endowment of $260 million to safeguard seeds used in world agriculture and to improve the condition of the gene banks where they are stored.

The world's gene banks are in a parlous state, as a new report (“Safeguarding the future of US agriculture”) published jointly by the US Department of Agriculture and the University of California makes clear. Of the 1,460 gene banks around the world, only 35 meet international standards for long-term storage. These include the gene banks of ICARDA and of the other Future Harvest Centres. The FAO, moreover, says that nearly-one fifth of the 5.4 million seeds stored in gene banks are degenerating.

The US report also urges the Bush administration to support the Global Crop Diversity Trust, and not without good reason. Pests and plant diseases are causing losses to US agriculture of up to $33 billion each year, and there is a strong fear that new threats could cause even more damage. US agricultural researchers are currently scouring the world's gene banks for seed varieties that can resist these diseases. Chief among such diseases are a fungus that is currently invading US soybean fields, and potato blight of the kind that caused the Irish potato famine, which is destroying potatoes worth some $400 million each year.

The US government is currently spending more than $1 billion per week on military operations in Iraq. By comparison, a $260-million endowment is a small price to pay to conserve the world's agricultural heritage and to secure the future food supply of the United States and the rest of the world.

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Seeds in threatened soil. Nature 435, 537–538 (2005).

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