Scientists make their first ever withdrawal from the Arctic 'doomsday' vault

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For the first time, Syrian scientists have requested a withdrawal of seeds from the Arctic vault that preserves copies of the world's plant varieties, with the ongoing civil war having damaged an important collection of seeds in the city of Aleppo.


The International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), was forced to move to Beirut from Aleppo in 2012 because of the conflict in Syria. Though the center continues to preserve some seeds, it's no longer able to grow seeds and function as a regional hub to send them out to the rest of the Middle East. ICARDA scientists are asking for 130 boxes from the global vault, or about 116,000 seed samples.

It's the first withdrawal from what's been dubbed the "doomsday" vault, in which more than 860,000 samples of seeds from across the world for crops that could produce food—like bread, rice, and beans—are stored underground on the icy Norwegian island of Svalbard, 800 miles from the North Pole.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was set up in 2008 to hold copies of seeds that could feed people in the event of large scale disasters like nuclear war or disease.

"Protecting the world's biodiversity in this manner is precisely the purpose of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault," Brian Lainoff, spokesman for the Crop Trust, told the Sydney Morning Herald.

The seeds from Syria could be crucial for other regions in the world, as many strains of crops from the Middle East are drought-resistant. With drought conditions hitting parts of the planet as far flung as California, Brazil, and North Korea, these seeds could become increasingly valuable to ensure our future food supply globally.

The vault's creator, Professor Cary Fowler, emphasizes that preserving as many varieties of seeds as possible is in humanity's best interest.


"You might say to yourself, 'well gosh why do we need so many or why don't we just get the best one?'" Professor Fowler told the ABC. "There is no such thing as the best because everything in the world is changing. Sometimes you wonder, why are we saving something? But it might have just one particular trait and that trait might, economically, be so valuable that it would pay the cost of your entire gene bank."