Afghanistan’s Seed Banks Destroyed

On Sept. 10, scientists in Kabul reported the loss of Afghanistan’s principal agricultural insurance policy: two stores of carefully collected seeds, materials selected to represent the genetic diversity of native crops.

Here, some of the wheat seed brought into the country by a convoy, this spring, is being stored pending redistribution to Afghan farmers. USAID

Afghan farmer sows wheat. Cultivated varieties of wheat best suited for his country’s arid climes were among the banked seeds lost during the recent looting. USAID

It was a looting of the worst kind–a theft of that agrarian country’s stockpiled agricultural heritage. In it were seeds to help that nation’s 22 million people rebuild the capacity to feed themselves.

Ironically, the stores were not plundered for those plant materials; the seeds were dumped in disarray onto the floor of ransacked buildings in two cities. The looters merely ran off with the airtight plastic and glass jars in which the seeds had been kept.

The now unlabeled mix of seeds is virtually worthless, says Geoffrey Hawtin, director general of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute in Rome. “It’s like having a library of books with no titles on them,” he says. “All of the [traits you prize] are there, but you no longer know where to look for them.”

The repositories had been hidden within homes in the northern city of Ghazni and the eastern city of Jalalabad. No one knows when the looting occurred, though there is a suspicion that it was within the past several months.

Commingled seeds of wheat, barley, chickpeas, lentil, melons, pistachios, almonds, and pomegranates were among those that had been collected. Each sample had been labeled and indexed with information about the site where it had been gleaned. The cultivated varieties reflected traditional crops that had been bred over generations not only to flourish under local weather and soil conditions but also to reflect the tastes of local communities.

Similar gene banks in India, Mexico, Pakistan, and Syria are already coordinating to reestablish seed banks in Afghanistan, observes Nasrat Wassimi, Kabul coordinator of the Future Harvest Consortium to Rebuild Agriculture in Afghanistan, an international organization created earlier this year. These foreign seed banks are now at work identifying some hundreds of holdings they have that came from Afghanistan, mostly in the 1960s and 1970s.

It’s standard practice for gene banks to backup their stores by depositing duplicates elsewhere. “The problem,” Hawtin says, “is that backing up samples is not always easy or possible.” It can be costly, and some nations don’t make it easy to export their seeds. Indeed, Hawtin told Science News Online, many, if not most, of the seeds collected in Afghanistan during the Taliban rule–which constituted the majority of those in the just-vandalized stockpiles–were never shared for safeguarding with gene banks outside the country.

So, he says, full restoration of the looted repositories probably won’t be possible.

Agriculture’s lending libraries

Seed banks represent genetic reservoirs of adaptive traits. By knowing the conditions under which the seed’s ancestors had developed, botanists can identify characteristics signaling where else a plant might thrive.

For instance, wheat from regions getting only a few rains a year might point to some form of inherent drought tolerance. Similarly, strains of legumes that offer bounty crops when others succumb to blights might signal natural disease resistance. Those that fruit early may prosper where growing seasons are short. Those whose fruits ripen in cool to cold environments might survive high altitudes. And those with deep roots may anchor erodible hillsides.

As climate changes or communities begin extending a crop’s production into new areas, growers may need to find existing cultivars that match their current environment–or breeders may need to develop news ones by crossing varieties with a mix of desired features.

For each case, calls to the regional library of genes, a seed bank, may be in order.

Unlike a real bank, individuals don’t invest seeds here with the expectation that they’ll multiply during storage–and ultimately be available for withdrawal upon demand. Instead, nations or international agricultural bodies finance the collection of seeds, much as a library would finance the acquisition of new books. Then, if a need for the seeds arises in agriculture, scientists will let them grow into plants that produce the seeds that will ultimately be dispersed to suppliers. Sometimes, a seed bank releases samples to researchers for growing in test plots under a range of conditions. Those performing best on certain target features will then be selected for wide-scale seed production or for crossbreeding.

In general, seeds stored dry in air tight containers should last up a decade at room temperature, Hawtin says–and easily for a few decades if refrigerated. The seeds in the looted Afghan collections had been unrefrigerated, Hawtin says.

Indeed, because seeds don’t necessarily have an unlimited shelf life, Hawtin says that periodically, tests should be made of a sample’s viability. If its germination rate falls below a threshold–perhaps 85 percent–the rest of the sample will be regenerated: Those seeds will then be planted and a new generation of seeds harvested for storage.

How big a problem?

The loss of Afghanistan’s catalogued seeds could limit the pace at which the country restores its food productivity, says Adel El-Beltagy, director general of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), based in Aleppo, Syria.

As a result of recent armed conflict throughout Afghanistan, a large share of the rural population–even if farmers had guarded their seeds–no longer has access to the fields they had tilled or orchards they had managed. “A significant percentage of the population has been displaced and resettled in areas that may not be suitable for producing their traditional crop varieties,” El-Beltagy says. “These farmers will need plant types adapted to their new conditions.” The banked seeds would have been helpful in matching crops to the new farm locations.

However, Hawtin says, impacts of the looting incident won’t be felt immediately–such as during next spring’s planting. The earliest any banked seed would have contributed new traits to crop production is probably 2 to 3 years away.

Hawtin points out that “the quicker the country gets back on its feet, the bigger a setback this [looting incident] will be. And that’s because in order to use [the seeds’] biodiversity, you need the infrastructure that is now being rebuilt.” Currently, the nation is in political flux, as evidenced by Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir’s assassination in early July and the Sept. 5 failed assassination attempt on Pres. Hamid Karzai’s life. If this turbulence signals growing political instability, demand for banked seeds may be delayed.

Just the latest setback

For much of the world, appreciation of the extent to which decades of social and political upheaval ravaged Afghanistan came to light only after Sept. 11. That’s when al-Qaeda-scouring activities made this parched landscape and its war-ravaged refugees the visuals on the daily television news. What most people don’t realize is that the latest conflicts are coinciding with the worst drought that this always-dry country has seen in 40 years.

With farms bombed and their male workers injured, threatened, or conscripted into fighting, Afghanistan’s agriculture has deteriorated to a very precarious condition. Earlier this year, international agricultural aid and research agencies banded to form the Future Harvest Consortium to Rebuild Agriculture in Afghanistan. Future Harvest is an organization that cooperates with 16 research centers belonging to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

In February, two Future Harvest member centers, ICARDA, and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center offered seeds to farmers as immediate relief. Their first shipment of 3,500 metric tons left Pakistan for Kabul on April 1. Another 10,000 tons of seed are expected to ship this fall.

The consortium emphasizes that its goal is to ensure that Afghan farmers receive seeds and tools appropriate for their specific needs–not just what’s cheap and easy to move. Moreover, “what is unique about the consortium is that members are committed to ensuring that science is placed up front in the recovery effort,” says Avtar Kaul, a technical advisor with CARE, a hunger-relief organization. “All too often,” he says, “well-meaning development agencies have intervened only to find out that what they’re doing is technically inappropriate under local circumstances. We need to make sure that recovery efforts are based on a real understanding of Afghan agriculture so that they meet the real needs of affected communities.”

The consortium has been dispatching recovery-help teams into Afghanistan to meet with farmers and villagers for a better picture of what’s needed to foster long-term agricultural sustainability. The first priority they identified was seeds. Not only did the consortium pledge to provide seed for immediate crop planting, but also foundation seed–the material used to produce the seed that will later be distributed.

With the looting incident, banking seed for Afghanistan has become its new priority.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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