As Syria Is Torn By War, Farming Group Rescues The Seeds Of Threatened Plant Species
Taylor works with William Woys Weaver, who owns the Roughwood Seed Collection of about 4,000 different varieties of plants. This year, they are growing about 400 kinds of fruits and vegetables. They are already selling seed to two seed companies and hope next year to expand.
Taylor and Weaver sit on the board of the Experimental Farm Network, which got the Syrian seeds from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA has been sending scientists on seed-collecting missions around the world for more than 100 years, and now its Agricultural Research Service makes seeds available to researchers through a searchable database.
The seeds are a source of genetic diversity critical as farmers look for plants to withstand climate change and develop new varieties better adapted for drought, temperature extremes, salinity and disease.
Taylor and Weaver’s lettuce seed, known in the USDA as lettuce 181947, was donated in 1949 by Clarence Eyer of the Near East Foundation, which was then providing agricultural aid in Syria, according to the USDA database and the foundation’s records.
Government scientists keep this and other seed refrigerated in long-term storageat minus-18C in a high-security vault. But seeds are living things that can only survive if they grow. Scientists periodically “grow them out”, planting older seeds to produce fresh seeds, and this lettuce was last grown out in 2010 in a field outside the vault, according to USDA lettuce curator Barbara Hellier.
Of course, the best case for a plant’s survival is for people to grow it widely.
“The value of genetic resources is in their use, not just having them sit in genebanks,” said Karen Williams, the plant exploration coordinator for the USDA’s Plant Exchange System.
So Taylor and Weaver are trying to bring their seeds into broader use.
In Weaver’s sprawling house, the cupboards, closets, drawers, desks and tabletops are crammed with thousands of small jars, each containing little coin envelopes of seeds labeled with the year they were harvested. The fridge is full of egg cartons – each hollow containing a potato waiting for planting. The two freezers are stuffed with kernels of rare American corn.
The first step in seed saving is choosing which seeds to save. Weaver scrutinizes the plants while they’re still growing.
“The old-time seed companies always had people who were artists – seed artists – they knew instinctively when a plant was off,” said Weaver. He, too, knows what to select for – a pepper with black leaves instead of green, a tomato that does not look “doubled”, as though conjoined to a twin. Weaver uses rare beans he culls to make winter soups.
Taylor and Weaver hand-winnow the seed. That means using fingers to extract seeds from thousands of fruits and vegetables in various states of maturity and decomposition.
Gooey piles of tomato seeds, green, yellow and orange, sit on a table to be separated from their protective gel. Peas must be shelled; chard seeds, blown clean.
“These blisters on my fingers are from the sorghum,” said Taylor. “So I started stripping it through bamboo.”
“I have stiff fingers. I have carpal tunnel from opening bean pods,” said Weaver.
While most of the seeds were mature by late summer last year, Taylor and Weaver were still extracting seed in February.
Taylor posts texts and pictures regularly on social media, and he sees this as part of his education mission. “Remember these Syrian Peas that I planted in late April?” he wrote with a picture of chalky green peas in pods. “They multiplied!”
“Plants connect us to our past and different people’s ancestral past,” he said. “When we sit down to eat, everything on the plate for most of us has been cultivated for hundreds and thousands of years by somebody somewhere.”
Taylor and Weaver don’t know whether their plants are still grown in Syria, but the seeds may have been saved there in other collections. In Iraq, the national gene bank was looted in 2003, after the US invasion; in Syria, as the war started, the government took measures to ensure its gene bank would not be lost.
Syrian authorities sent a backup of the collection to the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, known as Icarda, an international gene bank long headquartered in the Syrian city of Aleppo.
“It would have been a calamity,” if Icarda had lost its own seeds to the war, said Shiv Agrawal, Icarda’s legume coordinator. So Icarda moved most of its seeds to safety outside Syria, including to the “doomsday vault” in Svalbard Seed Vault in Norway, in the Arctic circle.
In September, the group made the first-ever withdrawal from Svalbard, to shore up new programs in Morocco and Lebanon for growing plants out to produce seed. The scientists requested 128 boxes out of 325 they had deposited in Norway, containing a total of 116,474 samples, said Ahmed Amri, the head of genetic resources for Icarda.
If the seed banks are preserving the genetic resources, Taylor and Weaver are just as interested in preserving the stories: where a plant comes from, and how it’s farmed, cooked and valued.
Weaver has written 16 books, often showing how vegetables and fruits crisscross continents and shape societies. Taylor works with children in several community gardens in Philadelphia, tours with his band, exchanging seeds and stories on his route, and is developing a curriculum to teach kids about seeds.
“I spend my time in the soil planting these seeds that carry this history,” said Taylor. “It’s not theoretical. I’m participating in the history.”