More than 80 percent of the globally unique collection of crop genetic resources residing with the Genebank of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) at Aleppo in Syria is now safely duplicated at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. With the seventh shipment of seeds arriving in the Arctic facility in March 2014, the Svalbard seed vault has received a total of 116,484 plant genetic materials so far. The latest two shipments were sent by ICARDA’s resident Genebank Team in October 2013 and February 2014 even as the difficulties continue to stir in Syria.

Safeguarding these genetic materials is a critical mission for ICARDA, says its Director General, Dr. Mahmoud Solh. “We are entrusted with the genetic wealth from some 128 countries – a resource we cannot afford to lose as it ensures long-term public welfare.” The Genebank at Aleppo has been home to a globally important collection of landraces and wild relatives of cereals and legumes – many of them rare – collected through hundreds of collection missions over the past four decades. Dr Solh confirmed, “Almost all the germaplasm collections are now saved outside Syria.”

The ICARDA Genebank stores perhaps the world’s biggest collection of barley, faba bean and lentil crops in the world, along with ancient varieties of durum and bread wheat. It holds some 150,000 accessions, 65 percent of which are unique landraces and wild relatives of cereals, legumes and forages collected from regions in the world where earliest known crop domestication practices were recorded in civilization, such as the ‘Fertile Crescent’ in Western Asia, the Abyssinian highlands in Ethiopia and the Nile Valley, and the Central Asia and Caucasus region where a number of crops are known to have originated. Crops in these regions have developed naturally robust desirable genes from thousands of years of survival, adaptation and evolution

Today, 98 percent of ICARDA’s accessions are also safely duplicated in other reliable genebanks outside Syria and the remaining 2 percent stored in the center’s relocation sites in Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia.

ICARDA’s Genebank in Aleppo continues to operate albeit limited activities, delivering on core tasks such as maintaining the collections and distributing accessions to researchers and its extension partners around the world.