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Safeguarding a global seed heritage from Syria to Svalbard


Crop diversity underpins food security and adaptation to climate change. Concerted conservation efforts are needed to maintain and make this diversity available to plant scientists, breeders and farmers. Here we present the story of the rescue and reconstitution of the unique seed collection held in the international genebank of International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Syria. Being among the first depositors to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, ICARDA managed to safety duplicate more than 80% of its collection before the last staff had to leave the genebank in 2014 because of the war. Based on the safety duplicates, ICARDA since 2015 have rebuilt their collections and resumed distribution of seeds to users internationally from their new premises in Morocco and Lebanon. We describe the multifaceted and layered structure of the global system for the conservation and use of crop diversity that enabled this successful outcome. Genebanks do not work alone but in an increasingly strengthened and experienced multilateral system of governance, science, financial support and collaboration. This system underpins efforts to build sustainable and socially equitable agri-food systems.

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Fig. 1: Diagram of accession ‘flow’ from Syria–Svalbard–Morocco/Lebanon–Svalbard.
Fig. 2: The Seed Vault collections.


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We thank M. Major and L. Marshall for preparing the artwork. Work for this Perspective performed by O.T.W. was supported by the Research Council of Norway (grant no. RCN-274519), in the research project Suitable Seeds for Food Security in Fragile States, led by the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, Norway. We also thank project colleagues R. Andersen, K. Rosendal, P. W. Skedsmo, K. Adhikari and A. Ramana for their comments on the manuscript.

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O.T.W. and C.L. conceived and wrote the manuscript. M.Y., A.A. and Å.A. contributed to the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Ola T. Westengen.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Plants thanks John Dickie and Peter Raven for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Westengen, O.T., Lusty, C., Yazbek, M. et al. Safeguarding a global seed heritage from Syria to Svalbard. Nat. Plants 6, 1311–1317 (2020).

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