© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Ears of wheat in a field near the village of Guvtnev, Ukraine, July 14, 2016. Photo: Valentin Ogirenko/Reuters
by Maytaal Angel
LONDON (Reuters) – In underground vaults near the battlefields of Ukraine, the genetic code of some 2,000 crops is in permanent danger of being destroyed.
The danger was highlighted earlier this month when a research facility near Ukraine’s National Seed Bank was damaged, according to the Crop Trust, a non-profit organization set up by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Both the facility and the Ukraine Seed Bank are located in Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine, which has been heavily bombed by Russian forces.
Reuters was unable to determine the cause of the damage, and the Crop Trust only said the research facility had been bombed, but declined to provide further details, citing safety zones.
It was a difficult escape. Only 4% of the seeds were secured in the Ukraine store, the tenth of its kind in the world.
“Sperm banks are a kind of life insurance policy for humanity. They provide the raw materials for breeding new crop varieties that are resistant to drought, new pests, new diseases and higher temperatures,” Krupp Trust CEO Stefan Schmitz told Reuters.
“It would be a tragic loss if the Ukrainian seed bank was destroyed.”
The director of the seed bank could not be reached, the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences declined to comment, and the Russian Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the damage.
Researchers rely on diverse genetic material stored in seed banks to breed plants that can withstand climate change or disease.
It is becoming increasingly important to ensure that enough food is produced each season to feed 7.9 billion people as weather around the world becomes more extreme.
At the same time, the war between Russia and Ukraine, the world’s third and fourth largest grain exporter, has fueled food price inflation and the threat of food shortages, with protests erupting in developing countries that usually benefit from Ukrainian grain.
Syria saved by backup in the Arctic
The war in Syria has shown us the importance of securing seeds using the Svalbard Global Seed Storage in Norway, the largest and most important seed backup or duplication facility in the world.
In 2015, the Svalbard vault was able to send alternative samples of wheat, barley, and herbs suitable for arid regions to researchers in Lebanon after destroying a seed bank near the Syrian city of Aleppo.
Altogether, Svalbard holds more than a million seed samples in a vault built into the mountainside of the Arctic.
This includes 4% of Ukraine’s 150,000 seeds, which account for more than 1,800 crops.
The German-based Crop Trust, the only international organization whose sole goal is to protect crop diversity, has provided Ukraine with funds to copy the seeds, but security and logistical problems with war and natural cycles make it difficult, and this should speed up the process.
Schmitz estimated that, at best, about 10% of Ukraine’s seeds could be secured within a year, as they would have to be sown, grown and harvested in time before the duplicates were extracted and sent to Svalbard.
An emergency measure would be to abandon the duplication and simply send the group to Svalbard, but Schmitz said this might not be possible in wartime.
Syrian seeds came from the Fertile Crescent, the region where sedentary agriculture is believed to have originated, and Ukraine also occupies a central position in agriculture.
“Agriculture in Ukraine has prehistoric roots,” said Gret Helen Evin, senior adviser to the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food, adding that many of the country’s seeds are unique.
Evjen said the ministry is ready to help Ukraine multiply and store all its seeds on Spitsbergen, but has not yet received a request from Ukrainian authorities.