A Syrian seed bank’s fight to survive

2021-10-19

The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, known as ICARDA, is housed in a cluster of small buildings on a dusty property in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, halfway between Beirut and Damascus. Its facilities, surrounded by fields of experimental grain, include a laboratory, nurseries, and a gene bank—a storage facility in which tens of thousands of seeds have been carefully saved and catalogued.

When I first visited, on an autumn afternoon in 2019, staff members in the main building were counting, weighing, and sliding seeds into small packets. The sound was like waves receding on a rocky beach. Ali Shehadeh, a sixty-six-year-old Syrian plant conservationist, was sitting in a nearby office, entering data about the seeds’ country of origin into his computer. “There is a problem with the abbreviation of Kosovo,” he said to himself, peering at the screen. “The system isn’t recognizing the abbreviation.” Eventually, he found the right code: the International Organization for Standardization uses the abbreviation “XK,” because Kosovo is a partially recognized state.

ICARDA houses more than a hundred and forty thousand accessions, or samples of seeds and other genetically significant plant material. Over three decades, Shehadeh had collected most of the original seeds himself, hiking through grasslands and forest. He is an expert in pulses—the family of grain that includes chickpeas and lentils—and together with his colleagues, who focus on legumes, cereals, viruses, and pests, he has used untamed versions of domesticated crops to breed varieties capable of withstanding harsh and changing conditions. The goal of this work was to help the world’s poorest farmers. But, as climate change has accelerated, ICARDA’s seeds have proved useful to plant breeders working on large-scale farms in wealthy countries.

In a recent article, published in Nature, ICARDA’s scientists note, dryly, that gene banks are “also vulnerable to natural and human-caused disasters.” The organization was originally situated in Aleppo. In 2012, the Syrian civil war, and the prolonged drought that exacerbated it, forced ICARDA to undertake a desperate, chaotic move to Lebanon; the organization’s researchers scrambled to save their own lives and preserve decades of work. ICARDA had been keeping backup copies of its seeds in the global “doomsday” seed vault in Svalbard, Norway, since 2008. The Svalbard vault, known for its forbidding modern design, is a kind of seed ark, designed to protect Earth’s biodiversity in case of Armageddon; seeds are not supposed to leave it unless something goes very, very wrong. So far, ICARDA has been the only institution to make a withdrawal from Svalbard; after relocating, the organization had to request its own backups so that it could grow new seeds to replace the ones it had lost.

Stacks of cornflower-blue boxes stood outside Shehadeh’s office, waiting to be shipped to Svalbard; the rebuilding of the gene bank in Lebanon and its backup in Norway is expected to continue until at least 2030. In the meantime, ICARDA’s mission has become more urgent. In the United States and elsewhere, climatic shifts have been pushing farmers to adapt to unpredictable weather, extreme temperatures, and new pests and diseases. The work of breeding grain is as ancient as farming itself, but Shehadeh and his colleagues have been charged with solving a modern problem: finding genes that might help us feed a warming world.

ICARDA employs forty-five scientists, who work in countries that are hot, dry, and drought-prone, including Lebanon, Ethiopia, Morocco, Turkey, Egypt, and Senegal. Together, they collect, catalogue, and experiment with the world’s largest collection of seeds from the Middle East and North Africa. The seeds are multiplied, often through manual pollination, and then sent, free of charge, to plant breeders and researchers around the globe. The seeds are also bred together to create new seed lines for crops that are resistant to drought or particular pests. ICARDA is part of a network of research centers called the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (C.G.I.A.R.), which is funded by a mixture of governments, international organizations, and foundations. “No other organization has done more than CGIAR to ensure that families—especially the poorest—have nutritious food to eat,” Bill Gates wrote, earlier this year.

In 2020, farmers in forty-three countries planted new crops developed by ICARDA’s breeders; the organization is at the center of a vast agricultural web. Before seeds are sent out, therefore, they must be vetted for infectious diseases and pests. Safaa Kumari, ICARDA’s plant virologist, serves as the institution’s equivalent of airport security, searching for unwelcome travellers. She also diagnoses the crop diseases that farmers face in ICARDA’s dryland territory. Many of the viruses that afflict the seeds ICARDA works with are so geographically specific that the relevant antibody tests aren’t available commercially. So Kumari manufactures serums for the tests on site, by injecting viruses into white rabbits and collecting the antibodies that their immune systems produce. A single, minuscule vial of serum takes a year to make.

Shehadeh began working at ICARDA in 1985. He became the manager of its gene bank just after the country’s civil war began; armed groups carjacked several ICARDA staffers, shooting one in the chest (he survived) and kidnapping a guard (whom they later released miles away). They stole vehicles in several nighttime raids. On the morning of July 4th, workers arrived at ICARDA to find its buildings painted with a warning: “GET OUT.” They packed what they could and left, believing that the move would be temporary. Shehadeh had no choice but to leave ICARDA’s refrigerated herbarium—with its folders of pressed, catalogued plant specimens—behind.

The scientists moved to ICARDA’s administrative offices, in Aleppo City. Two weeks later, rebels captured eastern Aleppo Province. ICARDA’s agricultural facility was a prize, not for its seeds but for its cars. Most international staff members left the country with their families—some went to Morocco, others to Tunisia, and the rest to Lebanon. For local staff, it was more complicated. In October, Kumari, who was at a conference in Addis Ababa, received a call from her mother: rebels had demanded that Kumari’s family leave their home, so they had fled in the span of ten minutes, taking next to nothing with them. (They eventually made it to Turkey.) Kumari briefly returned to Aleppo City, spending two nights camped out with her father in the basement of the family’s paint factory. She also collected backups of her antibody serums: she had started to spread them among friends’ freezers as the war had got worse.

Shehadeh was among a group that remained in Aleppo City. For the next few months, whenever the roads were safe, he drove between Aleppo and the field office. He refuelled ICARDA’s generator and collected seed samples to send to plant breeders who couldn’t afford delays in their crops’ breeding cycles. The journey, which used to take twenty minutes, could now take two days. Shehadeh asked local hotels whether he could use their refrigerators to store seeds, but none of their fridges were large or empty enough; eventually, he found a home for the herbarium in an abandoned apartment where a generator kept the air-conditioning running twenty-four hours a day.

During this period, Shehadeh’s youngest son, Amr, who was working for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent—the country’s version of the Red Cross—was kidnapped by ISIS fighters; they kept him blindfolded in the hallway of a children’s hospital for forty-one days before letting him go. In 2014, ICARDA’s veterinarian was kidnapped; he is still missing. Finally, in 2015, ICARDA lost control of its field office completely. By then, eighty per cent of its collection was safely backed up at Svalbard. Shehadeh moved to Lebanon, where his wife and daughter joined him. Today, all he and his colleagues know of their old gene bank is what they hear from local farmers: sometimes, the lights are on.

As Shehadeh was leaving Syria, Mike Pumphrey—a wheat breeder and geneticist who, at that time, was carrying out research at Kansas State University—was receiving increasingly urgent calls from wheat farmers. A pest called the Hessian fly had reëmerged in eastern Washington State, and the severity and regularity of its outbreaks were getting worse. In the past, wheat in Washington State had grown more by the time the flies were ready to attack. Now, warmer springs were allowing the flies to start breeding earlier in the year.

In 2015, Roger Koller, a third-generation farmer, lost a third of his spring wheat to the Hessian fly. “That was economically devastating,” he told me. “When you walk your field and discover the damage, it’s a hopeless feeling.” In 2017, Jason Scrupps, a fourth-generation wheat farmer, lost ninety per cent of his spring wheat crop. The next year, Bruce Petty, a fifth-generation farmer, suffered a similar loss. At first, the wheat had seemed healthy, but, a few weeks in, “it was spindly,” Petty said. “It kind of got to a certain stage of growth and it just stopped. And you could dig around and the roots weren’t right—they were trying to send another shoot out sideways.” He likened the Hessian fly to “a scary ghost story that somebody tells you around a campfire. Something you always heard about, but thought, Oh, that’ll never happen; we don’t have those anymore. Well, we do have ’em!”

“The Hessian-fly-research community is pretty small,” Pumphrey said. “Which is crazy, considering how important it is around many regions of the world.” By Pumphrey’s count, there are only five people in the United States focussed on managing long-term Hessian-fly infestations, which could cause billions of dollars of damage worldwide each year. “I would like to say there’s more internationally, but really, it’s just ICARDA,” he said.

ICARDA’s approach to problems such as Hessian-fly infestations hinges on so-called wild relatives—plant species that bear close resemblances to domesticated crops, but, being rougher around the edges, lack their taste, good looks, and consistency. These undomesticated strains appear at harvest time, when farmers select their tamer, more pampered kin for replanting. But, because the wild relatives have survived with little or no help from people, they are hardy and persistent, and so can serve as lifelines when crops begin to fail.

In 2016, Pumphrey learned that one of his colleagues, Ming-Shun Chen, an entomologist at the U.S.D.A.’s Agricultural Research Service, happened to have a few of ICARDA’s seeds for a wild relative of wheat called Aegilops tauschii on hand. Chen had used them in a previous experiment; an ICARDA entomologist named Mustapha El Bouhssini had sent them to Chen from Syria, before the facility in the Aleppo countryside had been lost. The seeds had travelled in a cardboard box for more than three months before arriving with what Pumphrey called “passport information.” It showed that they had been collected in Gilan Province, in northern Iran, before U.S. sanctions led ICARDA to suspend its activities there.

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Pumphrey and Chen planted the seeds and waited for them to grow, alongside a few varieties of commercial wheat. At the right time, Chen unleashed some Hessian flies. Of the varieties planted, only A. tauschii survived. This is because, Pumphrey explained, it responds to a fly attack in part through “programmed cell death”: receptors recognize the attack and shut down the targeted cells.

The next step was to cross A. tauschii with commercial wheat varieties—intricate, manual work. Wheat tends to self-fertilize, so a stalk of commercial wheat must be grown until its flowers are fully developed; a breeder, armed with a loupe, tweezers, and forceps, then carefully removes its dozens of tiny male parts just before the plant is mature enough to pollinate. The now all-female stalk is then put into an exclusion bag, which keeps all other pollen out, together with a father plant—in this case, A. tauschii. The breeder then gently flicks the father plant, so that it sheds its pollen onto the mother.

The plants produced from such a union will be infertile. So, their embryos must be removed and placed in a tissue culture—a petri dish containing salts, sugars, and hormones—that will trick around five per cent of the embryos into developing. These, too, will be sterile; they lack stable pairs of chromosomes and can’t pollinate themselves. Scientists expose them to a chemical called colchicine, which is derived from the crocus flower; this causes the embryos’ chromosomes to double rather than divide normally. About a third of the plants that grow from these will be fertile hybrids.

Wild-relative hybridization is crucial to the continued success of large-scale agriculture. Many of the crops grown around the world, Pumphrey told me, have just a single gene protecting them from any given pest or pathogen. Along with Sam Prather, a Ph.D. student in his lab, Pumphrey has recently confirmed that a single gene is the main source of resistance to the Hessian fly in almost all of the commercial wheat grown in the Pacific Northwest. Such protection is “likely to break down,” Pumphrey said. “History tells us that Hessian-fly resistance doesn’t last if there’s just one gene protecting a specific variety.” Wild relatives, which have evolved to prioritize defense, often have layers of resistance to multiple threats; A. tauschii, for example, is also resistant to the mites that spread wheat streak mosaic virus, an infection that currently threatens crop yields in the United States. And yet, wild relatives are not invulnerable: many of the species in ICARDA’s collection are endangered or extinct.

“Most people don’t know enough about where their food comes from, or how fragile those systems can be,” Pumphrey told me. In a separate project, he and his collaborators are using seeds from ICARDA and other C.G.I.A.R. seed banks to breed drought- and heat-resistant wheat varieties. He hopes to begin distributing seeds for the A. tauschii hybrid wheat, in partnership with the nonprofit Washington State Crop Improvement Association, in the next three years.

When crops fail in Kansas and Washington, farmers are likely to have insurance, savings, and, possibly, government help. When they fail in poorer countries, it’s a different story. Two-thirds of the world’s poor are subsistence farmers; after a single crop failure, such a farmer may have to sell his livestock, take his daughters out of school, or send his children to find work in a city. “Where you have one crop failing, you probably have many,” Filippo Bassi, the Italian scientist who leads ICARDA’s Durum Wheat Breeding Program, told me. “These effects are happening on the scale of a whole village.” Crop failures in one country can have ripple effects: in 2008, a drought in Australia—then one of the world’s largest wheat exporters—contributed to a doubling of global wheat prices, pushing an estimated hundred million people into poverty.

On a warm, windy afternoon in Lebanon, Bassi took me to see experimental wheat varieties growing in small, separate rectangles in ICARDA’s fields. The wheat rustled loudly in the breeze; Bassi knelt to show me the black-blistered stem of one of the plants, which was infected with a rust disease. (The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that a third of the world’s wheat is vulnerable to rusts.) Standing in the field, I could easily imagine the rust’s spores spreading on the wind—and yet, as Bassi indicated, varieties of wheat infected with rust were growing beside wheat that was disease free. We walked to the far edge of the field, past varieties of wheat with short spikes, long spikes, gold spikes, black spikes. From a distance, the field’s rectangles blended into a single expanse, wind rippling across its surface.

Bassi is trying to perfect a strain of wheat that can withstand temperatures of a hundred degrees Fahrenheit. (Typically, wheat suffers heat stress once temperatures reach seventy-seven degrees.) In 2017, when he introduced a version of it to farmers living on the banks of the Senegal River, he encountered an unanticipated problem: the local birds, delighted with his invention, ate the entire crop. Then he noticed that a single patch of wheat had survived. The spikes on its kernel were particularly short, and the birds couldn’t grasp the seeds with their beaks. Bassi crossed that wheat with varieties which had other good qualities; five years and many variations later, the new wheat was almost ready to be sent out.

Later that afternoon, I met Kumari, the ICARDA plant virologist, in her laboratory. Her assistant brought us a tray of coffee, dates, and almond-rosewater biscuits. Kumari has discovered varieties of broad, or, faba, beans—a staple crop in many countries—that are resistant to the fast-spreading faba bean necrotic yellows virus, which is being carried by intrepid aphids from Syria to Ethiopia. Kumari had cultivated the resistant seeds in the course of ten years, during her time in Aleppo; she managed to take some of them to Lebanon with her. (In 2020, partly for this work, she was named one of the BBC’s “100 Women of 2020.”) Various faba-bean varieties crossed with the resistant seeds are now being tested in Egypt and Tunisia.

As late afternoon light shone through the laboratory’s windows, Kumari recounted her journey from Aleppo to Tunis, and then to Lebanon, for me. She spoke forcefully, her voice rising until she was almost shouting. “By the way, I have the bag,” she said, of the small suitcase that she had with her at the conference when her family fled their home. “I still have my suitcase with me, because I feel that when I look at it I remember my story.” Lebanon, too, is now in the midst of an economic and political catastrophe; since October, 2019, its currency has lost ninety per cent of its value, and the cost of food has risen more than fivefold. The World Bank estimates that Lebanon’s economic crisis may be one of the three worst worldwide in the last hundred and seventy years; following the 2020 Beirut explosion, the country’s government resigned, and it took more than a year to form a new one. Hospitals are now battling both COVID and food poisoning. (Extended power outages mean limited refrigeration.) Meanwhile, across the border, in Syria, ISIS has repeatedly been burning fields to the ground. In recent months, Syrians have queued for up to six hours for bread.

It was early fall in the Bekaa Valley, and glowing orange persimmons ripened on dusty trees. Sitting in his office, Shehadeh recalled the shock of losing the Aleppo seed bank. “It was just destroyed,” he said. “I spent more than twenty-seven years of my life working in Syrian agriculture.” ICARDA is important to many countries, Shehadeh said, but he was also conscious of how much it mattered to Syria and Syrians. Suddenly, all that was gone.

While we spoke, a DHL van pulled into the driveway outside, and a small crowd of staffers gathered around it. We walked out into the sun, and Shehadeh lit a cigarette. We watched as the blue boxes bound for Svalbard were loaded inside. More seeds for the doomsday vault; more backups being reëstablished. The doors thumped shut. “Yalla, bye!” Shehadeh yelled, Arabic slang for “see ya!” As the van disappeared around the corner, I asked Shehadeh how he felt. “Released,” he said. With the rest of the staff, we walked back inside.

newyorker.com, 19 October 2021
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