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Syria's Arctic seed vault relocated to Morocco, Lebanon

"We can now see that the Vault as the ultimate fail safe works the way it was intended to do," said Marie Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust.

By Brooks Hays
The International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas works to preserve the genetic diversity of crop varieties throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Photo by UPI/Ismael Mohamad | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/91a3c6df4e36b387e0e2d0e9138a1cd6/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
The International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas works to preserve the genetic diversity of crop varieties throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Photo by UPI/Ismael Mohamad | License Photo

RABAT, Morocco, Oct. 19 (UPI) -- Nearly 40,000 seeds originally from Syria have been safely transferred from a so-called seed vault, located on Norway's Svalbard archipelago, inside the Arctic Circle, to Morocco and Lebanon.

The Global Seed Vault, sometimes called the "doomsday vault," holds the seeds of some 860,000 crop and plant varieties. The International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas -- which was headquartered in Aleppo, Syria, until 2012 -- works to safeguard and help replenish the genetic stock of agricultural staples throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Their operations are key to creation of new crop varieties.

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Operations in Syria have helped to protect ancient crop lineages, plant varieties with gene stock thousands of years old. But war has threatened their work.

Now, that work will continue outside of the country, after ICARDA officials decided to remove some reserve samples from the Svalbard vault and transfer them to more stable research operations in the Middle East and North Africa.

Seeds for forages, fava beans, lathyrus, and the wild relatives of ancient cereals and pulses were safely delivered to Lebanon this week. And Seeds of cultivated wheat, barley, lentil and chickpea varieties were successfully transported to Morocco.

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The samples include important crop varieties from the Fertile Crescent, where some of the first domesticated crop strains were born.

"These ancient varieties have developed naturally robust genes from thousands of years of survival, adaptation and evolution -- a valuable resource for building climate resilience in crops," ICARDA officials said in a press release.

Researchers in Morocco and Lebanon will plant the valuable varieties in an effort to replenish the seed stocks, as well as experiment with hybridization -- an effort to create new varieties capable of adapting to a warmer, drier climate.

The journey from Syria to the arctic and back to Morocco and Lebanon was partially funded by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, a partner with ICARDA.

"We can now see that the Vault as the ultimate fail safe works the way it was intended to do," said Marie Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust. "Now ICARDA can continue working with other partners to develop the crops that will feed people in the Middle East and in other regions around the world for the future."

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