March 15, 2016 / 2:29 PM / a year ago

Syrian refugee chickpeas bloom in Lebanon

Farmers plant Syrian lentils in a field supervised by ICARDA, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, in Tirbol village, Bekaa valley, Lebanon March 10, 2016.Mohamed Azakir

BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon (Reuters) - In a humid plastic tent in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, a Syrian scientist handles the leaves of the chickpeas, lentils and wheat that may one day help fill neighboring Syria's post-war kitchen tables.

Fawzi Souied is part of a team trying to safeguard the future of Syrian and global agriculture by recreating a seed collection stored in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo which is at risk of being destroyed by the war entering its sixth year.

Fighting has cut the road to the research center 30 km (about 20 miles) outside Aleppo and, because of frequent power cuts, scientists can no longer guarantee the safety of the deep-frozen 150,000 seeds, which contain part of the genetic history and future of the world's food crops.

"There is treasure in Aleppo," said Soueid, research assistant at Lebanon's branch of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). "There is nothing in the world like it in terms of the varieties, the seeds and the work carried out there."

Keeping copies of wild and domesticated varieties of staple crops like wheat, barley and fava beans is important for global food security. Scientists use their various characteristics to breed new varieties resistant to disease, insects or dry conditions.

Aleppo's dry environment was perfect for research into how to feed growing populations in arid regions.

Wheat varieties developed by ICARDA helped water-poor Syria become self-sufficient in wheat in the mid-nineties, said Hassan Machlab, ICARDA country manager for Lebanon.

The ICARDA team in Lebanon has managed to rescue some unique seeds from Aleppo, borrow some 14,000 seeds so far from partner research organizations around the world, and tap a 'doomsday' underground seed vault in Norway's Svalbard islands near the North Pole for around 8,000 seed types.

This was the first withdrawal made from the Svalbard vault which was designed to protect crop seeds from nuclear events, natural disasters and war.

Plastic boxes on shelves hold seeds from the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Syria at the international gene bank Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) near Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, Norway, in this October 20, 2015 file photo.Anna Filipova/Files

"A while ago we decided we were now in an emergency situation," said Machlab. "In the past few months, because of the intensification of fighting around Aleppo, we haven't been able to reach the center and see how the seeds are."

The Syrian conflict, which has killed at least 250,000 and displaced around 11 million, forced ICARDA to move its headquarters in 2012 from Aleppo to Lebanon's fertile Bekaa valley, seven kilometers from the Syrian border.

Staff were still able to enter the center to maintain the freezers' electricity supply, but late last year Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces, supported by Russian air strikes, stepped up offensives around Aleppo and the seed bank became inaccessible.

Slideshow (7 Images)

VALLEY OF REFUGE

Now host to many Syrian refugees who live among the herb and vegetable fields, the Bekaa valley was once a base for Syrian soldiers during Lebanon's 15-year civil war which ended in 1990.

Fawzi Soueid relocated from Aleppo where he had worked with ICARDA since its early days. Besides replicating Aleppo's seed collection, Soueid hopes to continue ICARDA's research into improving agricultural productivity in dry areas.

Once the green shoots grow their own seeds, these biological replicas will be stored in a new genetic bank ICARDA is building in Lebanon to mimic the seed collection now lying unguarded in Aleppo's conflict zone.

The parent seeds will then be sent back to the Norwegian vault and donor organizations.

To re-grow, store and catalogue 150,000 seeds will take time, said Machlab, but the team hopes work can one day resume inside Syria.

"God willing conditions (in Aleppo) will improve and we can take our seeds and go back to carrying out scientific research which will benefit the whole world," said Soueid.

Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Ruth Pitchford

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