As Syria Is Torn By War, Farming Group Rescues The Seeds Of Threatened Plant Species
In a country torn by war saving ones heritage seeds becomes a main priority. Back in April of this year scientists were able to smuggle and save 80% of the seeds saved in its vaults. Now young farmers are trying to do the same in order to protect it's diversity.
Owen Taylor gently blows on tiny lettuce seeds from the Syrian region of Homs, sending fluff flying through their air and into a dust on his skin, as though he’d just emerged from a pillow fight.
“I lose my breath pretty quickly, and I’m getting little bits of lettuce in my throat,” said Taylor. “It’s scratchy.”
But the tiny seeds are still far from clean. So he drops them into a contraption that looks like a pinball machine powered by a vacuum cleaner, and they blow through level after level until they are stripped. Next spring, he will replant them, to harvest not lettuce – but more seeds.
Taylor is part of the Experimental Farm Network, a New Jersey-based group that connects farmers and gardeners to exchange rare and threatened varieties of plants, including those from a Syria upended by war. The network is concerned with plummeting biodiversity, and encourages collaborators to develop new types of fruits and vegetables in a kind of democratization of rare genetic material.
Taylor’s project is to produce rare seeds, including a half-dozen Syrian varieties, in enough quantity to sell to the general public through seed companies.
“Then the seeds become that much less endangered,” he said. “The more people have access to these seeds, the more likely they’ll make it into the future.”
This year, he became especially interested in Syrian seeds. Most of us don’t think about agriculture as one of the losses of war. We think of the loss of human life, the rubbled cities and the looted archaeological sites.
But agriculture, too, is an ancient heritage that can be vulnerable. In Syria, some farmers cannot access the seeds they need, fertilizer or irrigation, according to several Syrian agricultural experts and a July report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
They lack farming equipment, or gasoline and replacement parts. Laborers have fled, leaving fields fallow. Fighting has overtaken some villages, leaving it unsafe to work outdoors. Roads are blocked so produce cannot travel to market.
It’s difficult to assess the precise toll for heritage breeds of fruits and vegetables often favored by small subsistence farmers.
But Taylor saw images of refugees fleeing their homes and immediately thought about the value of the gardens and fields some must have left behind and might someday wish to replant – should they find enough seeds.
“I think about their grandparents growing these heirlooms,” Taylor said, “their hands, their sweat, their daydreams, their dinner plates.”