NPR | By Ruth Sherlock,
PublishedJanuary 25, 2023 at 5:01 AM EST
TERBOL, Lebanon — Inside a large freezer room at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, tens of thousands of seeds are stored at a constant temperature of minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit. After being threshed and cleaned, the seeds are placed inside small, sealed foil packets and stored on rows of heavy, sliding metal shelves.
Some of them may hold keys to helping the planet's food supply adapt to climate change.
The gene bank can hold as many as 120,000 varieties of plants. Many of the seeds come from crops as old as agriculture itself. They're sown by farmers in the Fertile Crescent region, where cultivation began some 11,000 years ago. Other seeds were deposited by researchers who've hiked in the past four decades through forests and mountains in the Middle East, Asia and North Africa, searching for wild relatives of wheat, legumes and other crops that are important to the human diet.
The research center, formed in the 1970s, once mostly helped farmers in poorer countries in hot, dry climates. But now it also sends seeds to scientists in Europe, Canada and the United States, helping lead to breakthroughs in improving certain crops' resilience to the effects of climate change.
"What we are collecting is a sample of the diversity that we have in nature," saysMariana Yazbek, who manages the gene bank. Yazbek calls the center an "insurance policy" for humanity — it saves seeds in case nuclear war or other catastrophic events should wipe out plant species.
The center replicates the seeds it collects by planting and harvesting them in the fields that surround it in the Bekaa valley. ICARDA then sends a copy to the Global Seed Vault, also known as the "doomsday vault," in Svalbard, Norway, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean.
And the seeds that ICARDA — which is funded by governments and international organizations — sends to scientists around the world are used to develop new varieties of crops such as wheat that can tolerate heat and drought.
"These wild relatives of crops have been evolving on Earth for millions of years, and they witnessed so many different climates," says Yazbek. "The traits that help them adapt and survive in these conditions is stored in their DNA. We have this diversity and it can be a tool to help us face the future."
The seed bank's original home was in Syria
The wealth of genetic material in ICARDA's seed bank might have been lost if not for a dramatic rescue effort a decade ago by its employees.
The seed bank was originally housed in Syria, at a center close to Aleppo. But then civil war began in 2011, and rebels opposing the Syrian government and Islamic extremists took over parts of the country. At least one ICARDA researcher was kidnapped; others were shot at. Armed men stole the organization's flock of over 300 sheep being bred for research.
Hassan Machlab, an ICARDA country manager in Lebanon, recalls that employees were able to locate 125 of the animals by searching livestock markets and bring them across to Lebanon, where they peacefully munch hay in their stalls these days.
Raffat Azzo, a researcher with ICARDA who specializes in barley breeds, managed to save his entire collection of thousands of plant specimens as warplanes flew overhead. He hired a bus, onto which he loaded hundreds of boxes of different barley seed varieties. The journey to Lebanon involved crossing multiple front lines. "It wasn't simple," Azzo recalls. But he believes it was worth the risk. "The seeds we saved are now fighting climate change."
The seeds are helping farmers in Europe and the U.S.
After leaving Syria, ICARDA established a gene bank in Morocco as well as in Lebanon. The organization now runs centers for agricultural projects in more than a dozen other countries around the world.
In Lebanon, ICARDA is housed in a collection of low buildings with orange tiled roofs, surrounded by fields of experimental grains in the Bekaa valley. The work there continues despite the country's descent into what the World Bank calls one of the worst economic crises of modern times. The center has multiple diesel generators to keep the seed bank running during the power outages that have become a daily reality in the country.
Despite these challenges, ICARDA's Lebanon center remains an important hub.
Fouad Maalouf, a legume breeder, collaborates with scientists in more than 30 European countries including France, the U.K. and Italy. He takes the seeds ICARDA researchers collect from the wild and from local farmers and tests them for disease and crossbreeds them in experimental crops planted around the center. He then shares seeds from these plants with scientists in these countries that use their genes to develop new crops of chickpeas, lentils and other varieties of legume.
Maalouf says the scientists are particularly interested in legumes as a crop now because these plants capture a lot of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They also release nitrogen into the soil, meaning the farmers have to use less chemical fertilizer. And legumes take very little water to grow, he says. "So you are saving the environment, and second, you save water."
ICARDA's work is also helping farmers in the U.S.Dil Thavarajah, a professor at Clemson University, has worked with ICARDA researchers for over a decade, exploring ways to improve the nutritional qualityof lentils. One of her discoveries, using lentil seeds native to the Mediterranean sent by the organization, could even help tackle obesity. Thavarajah extracted genetic material from which her team then bred crops that contain low digestible carbohydrates, also known as prebiotic carbohydrates; these compounds help regulate a person's weight via modulating gut health.
The legume seeds also contain a particular trait that produces sugar alcohols that act as humectants, a substance that attracts and absorbs moisture and "saves the plant from freezing or saves the plant from drying out," says Thavarajah. This is important because climate change is making growing seasons more unpredictable, with more extreme swings in weather. Thavarajah says using ICARDA'S seeds she developed legumes that — for the first time — can grow in South Carolina in the winter. She says this new winter crop is now being introduced in states across the American south.
In another case, a wheat seed collected in Iran and then stored and saved from the war in Syria, has allowed scientists in the U.S. to develop new wheat varieties resistant to the Hessian fly, a pest that causes tens of millions of dollars in damage to American crops every year.
Back at the seed bank in Lebanon, Mariana Yazbek looks over the tens of thousands of collected species. A major challenge, she says, is deciding which of the seeds collected from nature and local crops to store. Then it takes years of research to identify their unique properties. She says thousands of the seeds in the gene bank remain untested.
With such a large collection in ICARDA's seed vault, Yazbek says, this is only the beginning of the help ancient grains and legumes can give farmers in a changing climate.
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How has the climate changed in the Fertile Crescent since the ancient era? The average temperature is cooler. The average rainfall has increased. The lengths of droughts have increased.Is The Seed Vault for real? ›
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (Norwegian: Svalbard globale frøhvelv) is a secure backup facility for the world's crop diversity on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago. The Seed Vault provides long-term storage of duplicates of seeds conserved in genebanks around the world.What is the Fertile Crescent and why is it an important region in global history? ›
The Fertile Crescent is the boomerang-shaped region of the Middle East that was home to some of the earliest human civilizations. Also known as the “Cradle of Civilization,” this area was the birthplace of a number of technological innovations, including writing, the wheel, agriculture, and the use of irrigation.What were the Fertile Crescent solutions to environmental challenges? ›
Answer and Explanation: Three solutions to the environmental challenges of Mesopotamia included irrigation, the use of dams and aqueducts to control water flow, and using plows to break the soil to make it more suitable for agriculture.Does the U.S. government have a Seed Vault? ›
In the U.S., gene banks have backup collections stored at the National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colo., where some seeds can last up to 75 years.What is the doomsday seed? ›
The contents of this doomsday vault are effectively backup storage for a global network of more than 1,700 smaller vaults called gene banks. Countries deposit copies of the seeds they hold in their own banks, and the Svalbard facility keeps them safe.How long can the seeds stay alive in the Seed Vault? ›
The seeds are sealed in specially-designed four-ply foil packages that are placed in sealed boxes and stored on shelves inside the Seed Vault. The low temperature and moisture level ensures low metabolic activity, keeping the seeds viable for decades, centuries, or in some cases thousands of years.Why is the Fertile Crescent important today? ›
Fed by the waterways of the Euphrates, Tigris, and Nile rivers, the Fertile Crescent has been home to a variety of cultures, rich agriculture, and trade over thousands of years. Named for its rich soils, the Fertile Crescent, often called the “cradle of civilization,” is found in the Middle East.Is the Fertile Crescent important? ›
Today, the term “Fertile Crescent” has been scrutinized both as a concept and as the main origin point for human civilization. However, the region remains archaeologically significant and continues to yield discoveries that fundamentally shape our understanding of ancient life.What was the climate in the Fertile Crescent? ›
The climate was semi-arid but the humidity, and proximity of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (and, further south, the Nile), encouraged the cultivation of crops. Rural communities developed along with technological advances in agriculture and, once these were established, domestication of animals followed.
The Fertile Crescent is believed to be the very first region where settled farming emerged as people started the process of clearance and modification of natural vegetation to grow newly domesticated plants as crops. Early human civilizations such as Sumer in Mesopotamia flourished as a result.Why did crops grow well in the Fertile Crescent? ›
The yield advantage of Fertile Crescent crop progenitors over other wild species is usually attributed directly to the fact that these crop progenitors have larger seeds (e.g. Blumler 1998).What was lacking in the Fertile Crescent? ›
Many farmers did not plant at all. Even irrigated crops suffered from a lack of water, since the drought limited the amount of well and river water available for irrigation. The winter's drought was followed by a hot, dry spring that further damaged crops.What is the purpose of seed vaults and why are they important to our planet? ›
The Seed Vault safeguards duplicates of 1,214,827 seed samples from almost every country in the world, with room for millions more. It's purpose is to backup genebank collections to secure the foundation of our future food supply. Can't travel to the Arctic to see the Seed Vault? No worries.Where are all the seeds in the world kept? ›
Video - Svalbard Global Seed Vault
Way up north, in the permafrost, 1300 kilometers beyond the Arctic Circle, is the world's largest secure seed storage.
They will help replenish needed seeds if they are lost from crops due to natural or man-made disasters, such as pollution. They will offer enough genetic variety to be able to develop other varieties, for example to create pest-resistant, drought-tolerant crops or to feed a growing world population.What seeds for apocalypse? ›
- Beans - Easy to grow and preserve. ...
- Spinach - Cold hardy and prolific. ...
- Carrots - Another hardy crop that requires very little space. ...
- Squash - Both squash and pumpkin are prolific producers. ...
- Allium varieties - This includes Onions, shallots, Leeks and garlic. ...
- Beets - Easy to grow and multi-functional.
Rice is one of the most important food sources around the world. For this reason, people use a lot of land to grow rice. The environment changes when a rice paddy is created. Terrestrial (dry land) environments are changed into aquatic (water) environments.What is the rare biggest seed in the world? ›
Lodoicea maldivica, also known as the double coconut, or coco-de-mer, is renowned for producing the largest and heaviest seeds in the world.Can dead seeds be revived? ›
Yes! Even seeds that are thousands of years old can germinate. But proper pre-treatment is essential, and the older the seed, the less energy it has left in storage. Seeds from annual plants aren't often designed to last many years, part of what makes the germination process so tricky.
Radiocarbon dating has confirmed an age of 31,800 ±300 years for the seeds. In 2007, more than 600,000 frozen mature and immature S. stenophylla seeds were found buried in 70 squirrel hibernation burrows 38 metres (125 ft) below the permafrost near the banks of the Kolyma River.What is the oldest Seed Vault? ›
The Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry was established in 1894 in St. Petersburg, Russia, and is the oldest seed bank in the world.How the climate has changed over a period of time? ›
Highlights. Earth's temperature has risen by an average of 0.14° Fahrenheit (0.08° Celsius) per decade since 1880, or about 2° F in total. The rate of warming since 1981 is more than twice as fast: 0.32° F (0.18° C) per decade.How did climate change affect Mesopotamia? ›
When the severe drought and cooling hit the region, there was no longer enough rainwater to sustain the agriculture in the north, Weiss says. And irrigation was not possible due to the topography, so these populations were left with two subsistence alternatives: pastoral nomadism or migration.What was the climate in ancient Sumer? ›
The physical environment there has remained relatively the same since about 8000 B.C.E. The landscape is flat and marshy. The ground is primarily made up of sand and silt, with no rock. The climate is very dry, with only about 16.9 centimeters of rain falling per year.What is the history of the Fertile Crescent? ›
The “Fertile Crescent,” a term coined by University of Chicago Egyptologist James Henry Breasted, refers to a crescent-shaped region in Western Asia. Formed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and the Mediterranean Sea, this region gave rise to some of the world's earliest civilizations.What is being done to prevent climate change? ›
Reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 50-52% below 2005 levels in 2030. Reaching 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035. Achieving a net-zero emissions economy by 2050. Delivering 40% of the benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities.What kinds of things can humans do to slow or reverse climate change? ›
- Save energy at home. ...
- Walk, bike, or take public transport. ...
- Eat more vegetables. ...
- Consider your travel. ...
- Throw away less food. ...
- Reduce, reuse, repair & recycle. ...
- Change your home's source of energy. ...
- Switch to an electric vehicle.
On longer time scales, hominins experienced large-scale shifts in temperature and precipitation that, in turn, caused vast changes in vegetation – shifts from grasslands and shrub lands to woodlands and forests, and also from cold to warm climates.What civilization was lost to climate change? ›
Climate change / Natural disaster
It is believed that both the ancient Asian civilisations of the Akkadian Empire and the Indus Valley Civilisation declined due to drought brought about by extreme environmental changes.
The Ancestral Pueblo is one of the most well-known civilizations destroyed by climate change. Ancestral Puebloans lived in the Colorado Plateau region from about 300 BCE. Most tribes settled around Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, and the Rio Grande.What role did climate have on ancient civilizations? ›
A stable climate ensured that crops would grow year after year, and a reliable source of food freed people to settle down and develop culture. Since then, many civilizations have blossomed into greatness and subsequently disappeared into rubble.How would you describe the climate of ancient Mesopotamia? ›
Mesopotamia refers to the land between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, both of which flow down from the Taurus Mountains. The climate of the region is semi-arid with a vast desert in the north which gives way to a 5,800 sq mile region of marshes, lagoons, mud flats, and reed banks in the south.What is ancient Sumer called today? ›
Sumer, site of the earliest known civilization, located in the southernmost part of Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in the area that later became Babylonia and is now southern Iraq, from around Baghdad to the Persian Gulf.What is Fertile Crescent important facts? ›
Fed by the waterways of the Euphrates, Tigris, and Nile rivers, the Fertile Crescent has been home to a variety of cultures, rich agriculture, and trade over thousands of years. Named for its rich soils, the Fertile Crescent, often called the “cradle of civilization,” is found in the Middle East.When was the Fertile Crescent important? ›
Fertile Crescent, the region where the first settled agricultural communities of the Middle East and Mediterranean basin are thought to have originated by the early 9th millennium bce.Why is the Fertile Crescent important quizlet? ›
The Fertile Crescent is a crescent-shaped area in Southwest Asia. It is called that to reflect its shape and the fact that according to archeological findings, it was especially fertile and conducive to farming in the ancient world.