Syrian refugee chickpeas bloom in Lebanon

Tue Mar 15, 2016 11:27am EDT
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By Lisa Barrington

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.   Continued...

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. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir