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Story Publication logo October 19, 2016

How Syria's War Threatened the Middle East's Food Future


A technician records data on seeds germinated in a lab at ICARDA's facility in Lebanon. Image by Jacob Russell. Lebanon, 2016.

A research center is rebuilding their seed collection in Lebanon after fleeing Aleppo in Syria...

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TERBOL, Lebanon—Just across the mountains from this quiet valley of green fields, cypress trees, low-slung apartment buildings, and minarets towering over domed mosques, a war is going on. Since 2011, Syrian government forces have mercilessly attacked civilians, rebel forces, and the Islamic State with barrel bombs dropped from helicopters onto urban neighborhoods, artillery shells fired on schools and hospitals, and chemical weapons. An estimated 400,000 have died, and at least 11.4 million have fled their homes.

Some of Syria's refugees are here in the Bekaa Valley, five miles from the border. They live in tents covered with white and blue plastic sheeting that rattles in the wind. There are no official refugee camps in Lebanon, so most survive in squalid conditions in tent cities with few or no facilities. Many fled the conflict early on, staying close in the hope that they would be returning soon to Syria.

Among these refugees—though living in considerably better conditions—are scientists with the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, a Syrian organization whose work centers on improving the livelihoods of those in the arid lands in Western Asia and North Africa by boosting agricultural productivity while conserving natural resources. They occupy a two-story stone building, outside which a harvester shares the parking lot with Volvos and Toyotas, down a dusty road from a tiny village and close by one of the many makeshift refugee camps. Their research cuts across a number of areas, including food security, poverty, water scarcity, and biodiversity.

Much of ICARDA's work concerns developing crops that can survive the effects of climate change. According to Brian Lainoff of the Crop Trust, a nonprofit that works to ensure food security, an increase of 1 degree Celsius can decrease agricultural yield by 10 percent. Among ICARDA's seed collection of 15,000 samples is "the most important collection of wheat and barley in the world," Lainoff said. "These varieties provide traits that might have resilience to higher temperatures." Today, varieties of barley, wheat, and other staples of the Middle Eastern diet are grown, as part of ICARDA research projects, in the fields of its Bekaa Valley outpost. The plots, irrigated to a rich green, contrast with the parched golden hills above them.

But the war across the mountains nearly ended ICARDA. Four years ago, armed groups including the Islamic State began night raids on its research facility in the Syrian village of Tal Hadya, less than 25 miles from Aleppo. Equipment, including about 100 pickup trucks, was stolen—Hassan Machlab, ICARDA's Lebanon country manager, says he has seen ICARDA trucks in news footage of Islamic State fighters—and the seed collection was under threat. As the battles drew closer, employees initiated a frenzied operation to remove computers, vital records, biotechnology lab equipment, and animals from the center, even as electricity blackouts hindered their work. "It was like a doomsday," said ICARDA associate scientist Ali Shehadeh.

A drought in Syria has been pegged as a major factor in the outbreak of war, as farmers who lost their crops moved into crowded cities and could not find work, adding to simmering discontent about the government that boiled over in the Arab Spring of 2011. Some research indicates that North Africa and the Middle East will lose between 15 and 50 percent of their freshwater resources in the next 100 years.

In August, as U.S. and Russian diplomats attempted to broker a cease-fire to stop the carnage on the other side of the Bekaa Valley, ICARDA Director General Mahmoud Solh sat in his new office in an upmarket district of Beirut and spoke of his organization's work. "You have to talk about the whole aspects of natural resources—in terms of water, in terms of soil fertility, in terms of land itself and the other components—in the whole genetic improvement of the crop to be drought tolerant, to be heat tolerant," he said. "There is no silver bullet that can cope with the challenges of drought and heat. We [in the Middle East] are in the worst situation when it comes to climate change. It is so drastic."

Without ICARDA's vaunted seed collection, said Solh, "it would be very difficult to adapt crop production to climate change. You may have changes in climate, heat, and drought—and crops may not survive that if you don't do breeding to cope." When the Syrian war came to Tal Hadaya and threatened a major research institution addressing food security in a climate-change-affected future, one of humanity's follies threatened humanity's ability to grapple with another.

ICARDA began as the Arid Land Agriculture Development Program of the Ford Foundation and was established in Lebanon in 1977 as an independent entity. Its mandate was to improve food security in nontropical dry areas, with an initial focus on Western Asia and North Africa. It was just about to acquire land for offices, labs, and fields in which to grow the product of its research when Lebanon's civil war broke out and the institute's director was kidnapped. The president of Syria at the time, Hafez al-Assad (father of current President Bashar al-Assad) offered 1,000 hectares outside Aleppo. Amid threats by the U.S. of food embargoes in retaliation for the Arab oil boycott of the 1970s, several Middle Eastern countries—including Syria—embarked on a policy of becoming self-sufficient in major food crops, and presumably Assad viewed ICARDA's research as a means to that end. Some operations remained in Lebanon—the growing conditions wheat requires to produce seeds prevail in the Bekaa Valley—but the bulk of ICARDA's work moved to Syria, a safer option at the time.

Soon after ICARDA set up its headquarters in Aleppo, it began operating research programs in countries across the Middle East and later, South and Central Asia as well as sub-Saharan Africa and East Africa, becoming over 25 years part of a global network of similar research institutes, such as the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in India. ICARDA's role in the network is conservation of agricultural biodiversity, particularly of wheat, barley, and legumes. The organization preserves the seeds of the crops it develops, and researchers travel the region collecting seeds for the development of new strains; many of these date back thousands of years. Some with desirable traits have gone extinct. Around 65 percent of ICARDA's collection doesn't exist anywhere else.

With current varieties of grain cultivated from Northern Europe to Southern India expected to see dramatic declines in yield under climate change, the collection is a major resource for scientists all over the world working to develop more resilient crops. ICARDA distributes samples to these scientists; the strains they breed are duplicated, and agricultural programs then distribute the product to local farmers. As ICARDA's active collection was depleted through distribution, samples would be replaced by planting seeds in the organization's own fields. Up to 25,000 accessions a year were distributed to collaborators before the war.

Using varieties it developed, ICARDA worked with Syria's agricultural research programs to improve the national wheat crop. Meanwhile the government introduced policies to expand agricultural output, including fuel subsidies that enabled farmers to drill and power wells. While successful in meeting immediate goals—Syria became the only Arab country self-sufficient in the grain, and the economy boomed—these policies had devastating effects on the country's water resources. Agriculture accounted for 87 percent of the water withdrawn from the country's aquifers, rivers, and lakes. ICARDA scientists would show in a 2014 research paper in the Journal of Hydrology that such overextraction in dry areas had become akin to mining a "limited resource, with its inevitable depletion and its economic, social, and environmental consequences."

With groundwater thus depleted, in 2006 a devastating drought struck Syria. It lasted three years. Researchers found that such an occurrence was three times more likely under climate change than without it. ICARDA scrambled to develop new varieties of drought-resilient wheat that would diminish agricultural demand for water given the increasing scarcity in the region, but it was too late: The United Nations warned in 2010 that up to 60 percent of Syria had been hit by drought, affecting the livelihoods of more than 1 million people and driving many from the land. When demonstrations turned into revolution in Tunisia and Egypt the following year, Syrians were primed for civil unrest. "Lots of what you see in the region is not just because of the political issues," said Solh. "Food security and security itself are related."

Soon after Syrian government forces fired on peaceful demonstrators in 2011, instigating the war, Solh realized he needed to figure out what to do in case the violence came to Tal Hadya. ICARDA came up with a plan that would ensure its research continued outside Syria. "We were thinking about decentralization as a strategy, but when the war broke out, we had to act and implement it. I don't think we were very much prepared for it, but we had to start," said Machlab.

Researchers had developed two collections of seeds, one kept in cold storage at minus 20 degrees Celsius for long-term use and an active collection from which samples were distributed. After the fighting started Shehadeh continued to send seeds from the library in Tal Hadya. Even after Tal Hadya became unsafe and Shehadeh was living out of his office in a relatively secure, government-controlled part of Aleppo, surrounded by papers and dried plant specimens, he would drive out to the old facility every month or two, refueling the generator powering the freezer where the seeds were kept and retrieving samples requested by other organizations. Every trip required a negotiation. "There are fighters flying over the sky, and at any time you can be targeted—on your way or the way back," he said. Often he would be turned back at a roadblock. Occasionally he managed to pass a message through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to rebels controlling the road and was allowed to enter. "Sometimes we did not convince them that the material coming out was for research; other times they were very polite and let us get the seeds out."

"ICARDA had to be able to send samples to collections and to breeders and scientists," said Lainoff. But without continual access to Tal Hadya the scientists couldn't plant the seeds necessary to replace samples they were sending out—they needed a way to regenerate the active collection. "If you are not in a position to do that, whether it is war or whatnot, then it makes your job very hard," said Lainoff. "Delays in breeding cycles of these crops can mean years of delays in getting it to farmers' fields, which delays the time it takes us to react to changing climatic conditions, pests, and diseases."

ICARDA needed a copy of each of its strains to replant. It found many of them among deposits it had made at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the "doomsday" seed bank built into the side of a mountain on an island in Norway, 800 miles from the North Pole. The Syrians' would be the first withdrawal from the vault, which was conceived by Cary Fowler, former executive director of the Crop Trust, in collaboration with the Norwegian government, as a place to house all the seeds necessary to save humanity in case of an apocalyptic disaster. It opened in 2008 and was managed by the Crop Trust (then known as the Global Crop Diversity Trust). Svalbard "acts as a safety-deposit box or a second hard drive," explained Lainoff. Curators at ICARDA had sent duplicates of its collection to Svalbard a few times a year since it first opened, but when the war started they realized ICARDA needed Svalbard as least as much as Svalbard needed ICARDA. The Syrians soon duplicated 80 percent of their collection via their deposits in Norway. The rest was retrieved from among the duplicates ICARDA had sent to research institutions around the world over the years as a sort of insurance policy. By the end of 2015, copies of 98 percent of the seed collection were outside Syria.

With the war closing in on Tal Hadya, Shehadeh's research assistant, Joud Kayali, spent weeks under flickering lights packing up valuable documents and scanning research notes—hundreds of thousands of pages—to ensure that no data would be lost. International and senior staff had already been evacuated. Once work at Tal Hadya became impossible, ICARDA scientists continued what research they could in satellite offices in a government-controlled part of Aleppo until Solh made the decision to relocate operations in Lebanon.

Perhaps the most difficult research materials to move were on four legs. Sheep bred to produce 30 percent more milk were relocated to nearby farms in the early days of the war for safekeeping. But they were later stolen, and researchers were forced to search for the animals, which had been tagged, in local markets. They managed to buy back 125 of the 300 sheep that were lost, which were then transported to Terbol.

In August, Shehadeh came to Terbol to help prepare and process the seeds for the cold-storage bank and the active collection. Walking the fields where ICARDA seeds will soon be planted, the banging and drilling of construction could be heard as the finishing touches were being put on a building to house the collection. Nearby, research staff under fluorescent lights in a small lab tended tiny green seedlings of wheat and barley. Shehadeh recalled efforts to move the cold-storage seed bank from Tal Hadya. He talked to managers at the Sheraton Aleppo Hotel about borrowing one of the freezers in its kitchen, but it was too small. One of the rebel groups offered to take care of the storage unit in return for funding; when the offer was declined, the rebels cut off researchers' access. The decision was made to enlist local farmers who once worked in ICARDA's fields to try to maintain a supply of fuel for the generator; Shehadeh keeps in almost daily contact with them. But, he said, "it is very risky now; military action is going on there daily."

While the new building is almost complete, reconstituting the collection in Lebanon will take a lot longer. "Now we are harvesting and multiplying all the seeds to build our collection here. It is a process; our first phase will take until 2022," said Mariana Yazbek, associate scientist in genetic resources and curator of ICARDA's seed collection in Lebanon.

In a nearby compound ICARDA has borrowed from the American University of Beirut, bags of wheat seeds were being processed by hand. A group of workers sat at a table in the shade measuring the seeds into packets. They were then packed tightly in a makeshift cold-storage room. They had had a long journey, fleeing war in Syria to the icy depths of the Svalbard seed vault and returning to Lebanon. Copies would be sent back to Svalbard, perhaps as early as next year. "We plant them, we multiply them to have our own sample again, and then we will do the same process—sending a safety duplicate [to researchers] or returning a copy to Svalbard," explained Yazbek.

Shehadeh has not given up on his seed bank in Syria. "We will go back to ICARDA, rehabilitate our gene bank and our fields, and we will reconstruct our activities again when the situation is calm," he said. But with a cease-fire recently failed after Russia apparently bombed a humanitarian convoy, talks between Russia and the U.S. subsequently broken off, and no talks under way between rebel groups and the government, it seems that won't be for a long time yet.

Either way, ICARDA is well positioned to survive. "We lived in a war for 16 years" in Lebanon, said Machlab. "Life goes on. We managed to study and graduate and work. So we carry on."


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