Doomsday vault might save the MENA region from famine

Friday 11/12/2015
A view of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.

London - The Death of Grass, a 1956 novel by John Christo­pher, tells the story of rice virus that blights staple crops of East Asia, mutating until it ravages the rest of the world’s 10,000 species of grass, including wheat, barley and rye. Massive social unrest and fam­ine ensue.

One character, a British farmer named David, explains to his urban comrades: “I feel it would be more right for the virus to win… We’ve treated the land as a piggy bank, to be raided.”

Mahmoud Solh, a genetic scien­tist and director-general of the In­ternational Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICAR­DA), may appreciate David’s senti­ment. In September his institution became the first to make a with­drawal from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.

Described as the “Arctic dooms­day vault”, the former coal mine looks like the ideal refuge in an eco-apocalypse: a giant concrete wedge anchored 130 metres in rock and ice, on the face of a mountain pla­teau, its roof and façade adorned with mirrors and prisms that catch and reflect light.

The vault is in permafrost at a constant -20 Celsius and houses tens of thousands of seed varie­ties for more than 4,000 different plant species. These are duplicates of essential crop samples stored in smaller gene banks around the world, such as ICARDA, and act as a safety stock in the event that a local seed collection is lost.

ICARDA withdrawals — varie­ties of fava bean, chickpea, lentil, wheat, barley, pea — are being sown in Lebanon and Morocco to provide farmers in war-torn countries, in­cluding Syria and Yemen, with new seeds.

“The importance of gene banks is the fact that they conserve genetic diversity ex situ,” said Solh.

Genetic diversity is under threat since many plant varieties indig­enous to the Middle East, some of which were inherited thousands of years ago, are extinct after being replaced with modern, genetically modified versions. Since the threat of climate change is most serious in arid climates such as the Mid­dle East, then “crops in the region should have the traits that make them most adapted to climate change implications”, Solh said.

Such desirable agronomic traits, include early maturity, high-yield potential, tolerance of abiotic stresses (drought, heat, cold, salin­ity) and resistance to biotic stresses (disease, insect pests and parasitic weeds). Crops with specific nutri­tional properties are developed to help address malnutrition.

“ICARDA duplicated 80% of the collections that we had at our head­quarters in Aleppo. Originally, the storage in Svalbard was intended as a ‘doomsday stockpile’ but the seeds are available to those who made the deposit, when required,” Solh said.

Because of the violence in Syria, in July 2012 ICARDA relocated to Beirut, intending to continue its work providing genetic resources to farmers and researchers. “We de­cided to re-establish our active col­lection, which we will multiply in the coming season and, hopefully, return a deposit to Svalbard before the end of 2016,” Solh said.

Farming in the Fertile Crescent faces multiple threats stemming from the region’s extreme wa­ter scarcity and natural resource degradation, with the politics of cross-border water sharing (around the Tigris-Euphrates, Jordan and Nile basins) and the depletion of groundwater aquifers being two particularly significant concerns. A lack of investment in science and technology to modernise agricul­ture and unsustainable practices such as overgrazing and over-cul­tivation contribute to the spread of infertile land.

ICARDA promotes sustainable farming practices and natural re­source management, working with smallholder farms and govern­ments to devise effective agricul­tural policies. One key aspect is the diversification towards high-value crops such as horticultural, herbal and medicinal plants. The goal is integrated rural development: not just help farmers grow crops but also to raise incomes and increase access to health care, education and other aspects of improved live­lihoods, including food.

“Before the food crisis in 2008, many countries in the Middle East did not prioritise agriculture and had inadequate agriculture and water policies,” Solh said. “This cannot continue considering the serious problem of food insecurity and water scarcity, which is exas­perated by the excessive pumping of shallow water aquifers. Climate change will cause more and longer periods of drought, higher tem­peratures, desertification, diseases, pests.”

In countries such as Egypt and Syria (once breadbaskets), a vast proportion of the rural population relies on farming for its living. Ad­verse conditions such as prolonged droughts have forced millions to leave their farms and migrate to cities in the past 20 years, fuelling increased levels of poverty and un­employment.

The grain harvest in Iraq has fallen by 25% in the past ten years. When food prices tripled in the space of a few months in 2008, causing many countries to an­nounce export restrictions, riots erupted in Mesopotamia as food became unaffordable.

“Except for Turkey [and Syria before the war] all the countries of the MENA region are food deficit countries,” said Solh. “The Arab countries are the world’s largest food importers. In 2010, the Arab countries imported 65.8 million tonnes of grain compared to 58.8 million for Asia and 18 million for Sub-Saharan Africa.” In extremely dry countries such as Saudi Arabia food imports can account for close to 90% of overall consumption.

The Middle East’s reliance on food imports leaves it suscepti­ble to price shocks and shortages fuelled unrest preceding the 2011 revolutions.

Since then, some governments have prioritised the agricultural sector but more needs to be done, Solh said.

“Unfortunately there is little in­tegration between agricultural and water management policies,” he said.

Competition for water is likely to increase, as will the importance of the international food trade to MENA food security but the future stability of the region can only be helped by the ability of resource-poor farming households to weath­er the effects of climate change and break the cycle of poverty.