How ancient seeds from the Fertile Crescent could help save us from climate change

How ancient seeds from the Fertile Crescent could help save us from climate change


ICARDA laboratory employee Bilal Anati cuts a lentil plant to test it for various diseases at ICARDA’s research station in Terbel village in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, on December 21, 2022.

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ICARDA laboratory employee Bilal Anati cuts a lentil plant to test it for various diseases at ICARDA’s research station in Terbel village in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, on December 21, 2022.

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TURBOUL, Lebanon — Inside the 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 less than 4 degrees Fahrenheit. After threshing and cleaning, the seeds are placed inside small air-tight containers and stored in rows of heavy, sliding metal shelves.

Some of them may hold the keys to helping the planet’s food supply adapt to climate change.


Barley grain stored at ICARDA’s research station.

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A gene bank can contain up to 120,000 plant species. Many seeds come from crops as old as agriculture itself. It was cultivated by farmers in the Fertile Crescent region, where cultivation began around 11,000 years ago. Other seeds have been deposited by researchers who, for the past four decades, have wandered through the forests and mountains of the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa, in search of wild relatives of wheat, legumes, and other crops important to the human diet.

The research center, which was formed in the 1970s, has mostly helped farmers in poor countries in hot and dry climates. But now it’s also sending seeds to scientists in Europe, Canada and the United States, helping make breakthroughs in improving the resilience of some crops to the effects of climate change.

“What we collect is a sample of the diversity found in nature,” says Mariana Yazbek, who runs the genebank. Yazbek describes the center as an “insurance policy” for humanity – it provides seeds in the event of nuclear war or other catastrophic event that should wipe out plant species.


Mariana Yazbeck, director of the Seed Bank, holds a sealed foil packet containing seed samples as she stands between two rows of heavy, sliding metal shelves in the large freezer room where the seeds are stored at ICARDA’s research station.

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Mariana Yazbeck, director of the Seed Bank, holds a sealed foil packet containing seed samples as she stands between two rows of heavy, sliding metal shelves in the large freezer room where the seeds are stored at ICARDA’s research station.

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Chickpeas are tested for various diseases at ICARDA’s research station, December 21, 2022.

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The center replicates the seeds it collects by planting and harvesting it in the surrounding fields 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.

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 are heat and drought tolerant.

“These wild relatives of crops have evolved on Earth for millions of years, experiencing many different climates,” says Yazbeck. “The traits that help them adapt and survive in these conditions are embedded in their DNA. We have this diversity and it can be a tool to help us face the future.”

The original home of the Seed Bank was in Syria

The wealth of germplasm in ICARDA’s seed bank might have been lost had it not been for the dramatic rescue efforts by its staff a decade ago.


Hassan Meshlab, ICARDA Country Director in Lebanon, stands in the middle of a field with newly planted grains at ICARDA’s research station, December 21, 2022.

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Hassan Meshlab, ICARDA Country Director in Lebanon, stands in the middle of a field with newly planted grains at ICARDA’s research station, December 21, 2022.

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The seed bank was originally located in Syria, in a center near Aleppo. But then the civil war began in 2011, and parts of the country were controlled by rebels opposed to the Syrian government and Islamist extremists. At least one ICARDA researcher has been kidnapped. others were shot. Armed men stole the organization’s flock of more than 300 sheep being raised for research.

Hassan Meshlab, ICARDA’s country director in Lebanon, recalls that staff were able to locate 125 of the animals by searching livestock markets and transporting them to Lebanon, where they are nibbling on hay peacefully in their stalls these days.


Refaat Ezzo, a barley breeder at ICARDA Research Center in Lebanon, rescued his entire collection of thousands of plant specimens from Syria while warplanes flew overhead.

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Rafat Ezzo, an ICARDA researcher who specializes in barley strains, rescued his entire collection of thousands of plant samples while warplanes flew overhead. He rented a bus and loaded hundreds of boxes of different types of barley seeds. The journey to Lebanon involved crossing many front lines. “It wasn’t simple,” Azou recalls. But he thinks it’s worth the risk. “The seeds we saved are now fighting climate change.”

The seeds help farmers in Europe and the United States

After leaving Syria, ICARDA established a gene bank in Morocco as well as in Lebanon. The organization now operates agricultural enterprise centers in more than a dozen other countries around the world.


Iman Darwish, left, ICARDA lab assistant, works with Bilal Anati at the research station, December 21, 2022.

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Iman Darwish, left, ICARDA lab assistant, works with Bilal Anati at the research station, December 21, 2022.

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Lentil plants are collected to be tested for various diseases at ICARDA’s research station, December 21, 2022.

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Surrounded by experimental grain fields in the Bekaa Valley, ICARDA is located in Lebanon in a group of low buildings with orange tiled roofs. Work continues there 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 power outages which have become a daily reality in the country.

Despite these challenges, ICARDA’s center in Lebanon remains an important center.

Fouad Maalouf, a legume breeder, collaborates with scientists in more than 30 European countries including France, the United Kingdom and Italy. He takes seeds collected by ICARDA researchers from the wild and from local farmers, tests them for diseases and crosses them into experimental crops grown around the centre. Then he shares the seeds from these plants with scientists in these countries who use their genes to develop new crops of chickpeas, lentils and other types of legumes.


Legumes breeder Fouad Maalouf stands in his office at ICARDA’s research station, December 21, 2022. He works with scientists in more than 30 European countries including France, the UK and Italy.

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Legumes breeder Fouad Maalouf stands in his office at ICARDA’s research station, December 21, 2022. He works with scientists in more than 30 European countries including France, the UK and Italy.

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Mariana Yazbek carries bagged fava beans into the large freezer room where the seeds are stored at ICARDA’s research station, December 21, 2022.

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Maalouf says scientists are particularly interested in legumes as a crop now because these plants capture a lot of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It also releases nitrogen into the soil, which means farmers have to use less chemical fertilizers. He says that legumes take very little water to grow. “So you save the environment, and secondly, you save water.”

ICARDA’s work is also helping farmers in the United States, and Dale Thavaragah, a professor at Clemson University, has worked with ICARDA researchers for more than a decade, exploring ways to improve the nutritional quality of lentils. One of her discoveries, using lentil seeds native to the Mediterranean sent by the organization, could help tackle obesity. Thavaraja extracted genetic material from then-bred crops that contain low-digestible carbohydrates, also known as prebiotic carbohydrates. These compounds help regulate a person’s weight by modulating gut health.


Freshly planted beans in a field at ICARDA’s research station in the village of Terbol, Lebanon, December 21, 2022.

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Freshly planted beans in a field at ICARDA’s research station in the village of Terbol, Lebanon, December 21, 2022.

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Legume seeds also have a specific trait that produces sugar alcohols that act as humectants, a substance that attracts and absorbs moisture and “protects the plant from freezing or keeps the plant from drying out,” says Thavaraja. This is important because climate change is making growing seasons more difficult to predict, with sharper swings in the weather. Thavaraja says that, using ICARDA seeds, she has developed a legume that can — for the first time — be grown in South Carolina in 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 preserved from the war in Syria allowed scientists in the United States to develop new wheat varieties resistant to Hessian fly, a pest that causes tens of millions of dollars in damage. American crops each year.

Back at the seed bank in Lebanon, Mariana Yazbek looks at the tens of thousands of species that have been collected. The main challenge, she says, is identifying which seeds are collected from nature and local crops to store. Then it takes years of research to determine their unique properties. She says the thousands of seeds in the genebank are still untested.

With such a large selection in ICARDA’s seed vault, Yazbek says, this is only the beginning of the help ancient grains and legumes can provide to farmers in a changing climate.

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