Ali Shehadeh, a seed hunter, opened the folders with the greatest of care. Inside each was a carefully dried and pressed seed pod: a sweet clover from Egypt, a wild wheat found only in northern Syria, an ancient variety of bread wheat. He had thousands of these folders stacked neatly in a windowless office, a precious herbarium, containing seeds foraged from across the hot, arid and increasingly inhospitable region known as the Fertile Crescent, the birthplace of farming.
Shehadeh is a plant conservationist from Syria. He hunts for the genes contained in the seeds we plant today and what he calls their “wild relatives” from long ago. His goal is to safeguard those seeds that may be hardy enough to feed us in the future, when many more parts of the world could become as hot, arid and inhospitable as it is here. But searching for seeds that can endure the perils of a hotter planet has not been easy. It has thrown Shehadeh and his organisation, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, or ICARDA, squarely at a messy intersection of food, weather and war.
ICARDA, though it received no state funding, was once known as a darling of the Syrian government. Based in Aleppo, its research had helped to make Syria enviably self-sufficient in wheat production. But a drive to produce thirsty crops also drained Syria’s underground water over the years, and it was followed by a crippling drought that helped to fuel the protests that erupted into armed revolt against the government in 2011.
ICARDA, in turn, became a casualty of the war. By 2014, the fighting drew closer to its headquarters in Aleppo and its sprawling field station in nearby Tal Hadya. ICARDA’s trucks were stolen. Generators vanished. Most of the fat-tailed Awassi sheep, bred to produce more milk and require less water, were looted and eaten. Shehadeh and the other scientists eventually sent out what they could — including a few of the sheep — and fled, joining half the country’s population in exile.
And ICARDA’s most vital project — a seed bank containing 155,000 varieties of the region’s main crops, a sort of agricultural archive of the Fertile Crescent — faced extinction.
But the researchers at ICARDA had a backup copy. Beginning in 2008, long before the war, ICARDA had begun to send seed samples — “accessions” as they are called — to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the “doomsday vault”, burrowed into the side of a mountain on a Norwegian island above the Arctic Circle. It was standard procedure, in case anything happened.
War happened. In 2015, as Aleppo disintegrated, ICARDA’s scientists borrowed some of the seeds they had stored in Svalbard and began building anew. This time, they spread out, setting up one seed bank in Morocco and another just across Syria’s border with Lebanon in this vast valley of cypress and grapes known as the Bekaa.
“We are doing our best to recreate everything we had in Aleppo,” Shehadeh said.
The Aleppo headquarters still contains the largest collection of seeds from across the region — 141,000 varieties of wheat, barley, lentils, fava and the like — though neither Shehadeh nor his colleagues know what shape it’s in. They haven’t been able to return.
Seed banks have always served as important repositories of biodiversity. But they’re even more crucial, said Tim Benton, a food security expert at the University of Leeds, at a time when the world needs crops that can adapt to the rapid onset of climate change.
“We have to grow considerably different things in considerably different ways,” Benton said. “Certainly for our prime crops, like wheat, the wild relatives are thought to be really important because of the genes that can be crossed back into the wheat lines we have in order to build resilience and adaptation to climate change.”
Especially important, Benton said, because they could easily vanish without protection.
How much Syria’s agricultural crisis was to blame for the outbreak of war is debatable. There is little debate, though, about the impact of global warming on the region, which seems certain to make agriculture here extremely precarious.
Temperatures have climbed by at least 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade across the Middle East from 1961-1990, and risen by close to 0.4 degrees Celsius in the period since then, according to Andrew Noble, who until recently was ICARDA’s deputy director of research.
This summer, in already hot, dry countries like Iraq, temperatures shot up well past 50 degrees Celsius, about 120 degrees Fahrenheit, on some days. Droughts are more intense and more frequent. Where farmers rely entirely on the rains, as they do in most parts of the Middle East, the future of agriculture, Noble said bluntly, “is pretty bleak.”
This, Shehadeh says, is why he is obsessed with the wild relatives of the seeds that most farmers plant today. He eschews genetically modified seeds. He wants instead to tap the riches of those wild ancestors, which are often hardy and better adapted to harsh climates. “They’re the good stock,” he said.
He hunts for the genetic traits that he says will be most useful in the future: resistance to pests or blistering winds, or the ability to endure in intensely hot summers. He tries to select for those traits and breeds them into the next generation of seeds - in the very soil and air where they have always been grown.
Wheat is a staple of the Middle Eastern diet, and the Middle East is what Laura Wellesley, a researcher at the London think tank Chatham House, calls the “greatest wheat importing region in the world.” Syria was once the exception, but war has made wheat a potent weapon, and it, too, now imports wheat to feed its citizens who remain.
As summer draws to a close, Shehadeh’s greenhouses are nearly empty. In one, there are wild barley seeds, normally found in highland pastures, held together in small canvas pouches. In another, there are small pots of clover.
The seeds will soon be taken indoors, dried, bagged, and labeled. Some are for the collection here, contained in a series of walk-in cold storage rooms. Some are for farmers to try out in the fields. One full set of seeds is for Svalbard: ICARDA is gradually putting back into the seed bank what it withdrew. In early September, Shehadeh carried 31 boxes of seeds in the latest shipment to Norway.
ICARDA’s entire collection houses seeds that have sustained the people of the Middle East for centuries, including some 14,700 varieties of bread wheat, 32,000 varieties of barley, and nearly 16,000 varieties of chickpea, the key component of falafel. The Lebanon seed bank houses about 39,000 accessions, and Morocco, another 32,000. Most of it is backed up in Svalbard.
In Sudan, ICARDA has introduced a wheat variety it hopes will be more resistant to drought and heat. It is breeding a fava bean variety that can withstand a parasitic weed and lentils that can mature in a short growing season.
That’s useful not just for the Middle East, Noble said. The hot, dry summers that are common to the Middle East may well become familiar to many other parts of the world. “The climates of the future will be similar to the climates we are experiencing,” he said.