RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
On a remote Arctic island off Norway, there's an underground vault filled with seeds. It's sometimes called the Doomsday Vault. Scientists have filled that vault with seeds which could be used to grow vital crops. Now for the first time, they're about to bring some seeds out. NPR's Dan Charles explains why.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: The people who want to make this withdrawal are scientists at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, or ICARDA. They work in North Africa and Central Asia. And ICARDA has an important collection of seeds, more than 100,000 different samples of crops that farmers have planted in these regions for thousands of years.
LUIGI GUARINO: Wheat, barley, chickpea, lentils.
CHARLES: That Luigi Guarino, a scientist with the Global Crop Diversity Trust. He says many of ICARDA's seeds were collected decades ago, but you'd have a really hard time finding all those varieties if you went looking for them now.
GUARINO: It's material that in many cases is no longer grown in the field.
CHARLES: Plant breeders treasure these seeds. Hidden in this collection, they may find plants that can survive new diseases or thrive in a changing climate. These seeds may be the building blocks for new varieties that farmers may need in the future. So for decades, ICARDA stored its seeds in a refrigerated room at its headquarters. It did share most of these seeds with other researchers in other countries. And a few years ago, it sent a backup copy of the whole collection to the Doomsday Vault, just in time, too, because ICARDA is based in Aleppo, Syria. Since the war started there, most of ICARDA's scientists have left the country. Guarino says the seed collection's still there, but it's really hard to use it.
GUARINO: On occasion, staff from Aleppo do go there to retrieve seeds to fulfill requests, but that's just becoming just too difficult now.
CHARLES: So ICARDA has decided to rebuild its collection in Morocco. And it's asking to retrieve part of its seed collection, the backup collection, from the vault, officially called the Global Seed Vault. It's carved into the side of a frozen mountain in the Norwegian-controlled archipelago called Svalbard. The keepers of the vault will haul out 130 boxes, tens of thousands of small aluminum packets filled with seeds. Scientists in Morocco and Lebanon will grow new plants from those seeds, harvesting duplicate copies. And some will go back to the fault in Svalbard just in case there's another emergency. Dan Charles, NPR News.
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