Grains research program caught in crossfire

Haidee VandenbergheCountryman

An Australian-supported grains research program has been caught in the crossfire of Syria's bloody conflict, casting doubt on its future operations.

The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) was a 948 hectare farm boasting laboratories, greenhouses and offices at Tel Hadya, near Aleppo in Syria.

With funding from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research and the Grains Research and Development Corporation, ICARDA aims to boost agricultural productivity sustainably and has already played a big role in bolstering the genetic diversity of Australia's crops.

Australian scientist Ken Street, known as 'the seed hunter' for his efforts in securing thousands of rare and unusual strains of ancient crops that could hold the key to overcoming drought and disease, had been working in Syria for ICARDA as a senior genetic resource scientist.

But he left Aleppo in March after escalating violence between the government and rebel fighters prompted fears for his family's safety.

The United Nations estimates that 200,000 people have fled the violence, with fears that a humanitarian catastrophe is mounting.

Speaking from his Perth home this week, Dr Street said violence in the once peaceful Syrian capital had now spiralled out of control as the two warring sides grappled for power.

Initially, ICARDA moved its administration from its headquarters 27km from the capital to a downtown office because it was believed to be safer.

But there has been street fighting outside those offices and staff have been told to stay away from work.

Dr Street spent 12 years living in Syria and said people he knew had been killed and maimed due to the fighting.

"We don't know what's going to happen in Aleppo," he said.

"ICARDA has a network of offices in North Africa and West Asia, so most of the key scientists have been positioned outside of Syria and some people are working from home.

"The so-called freedom fighters - they've stolen ICARDA cars, they've broken into ICARDA offices and stolen computers.

"It's seriously undermined the general operation of ICARDA."

At the heart of the Tel Hadya facility was a seed bank containing about 135,000 samples, many of which were collected by Dr Street and his team.

It has already proved pivotal to developing new varieties for Australian cropping.

Dr Street said a similar seed bank in Afghanistan had all but been destroyed by the Taliban.

"We don't know if the so-called freedom fighters will just break into the gene bank and set it on fire," he said.

"It represents an enormous wealth of diversity for our major crop plants that are particularly important to Australia. A lot of the important genes we've got for Australian varieties would be genes from the ICARDA gene bank."

A representative sample of the seeds has gone to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Arctic and material was sent to other seed banks when trouble in Syria began to mount.

However, Dr Street said that genetic material would not be readily available to Australian agriculture until it could be grown out and taken through the quarantine process.

He said the Syrian conflict could continue for years, shrouding the centre's base and future work in the country in uncertainty.

Already the seed hunter's colleagues and line manager have relocated their work to Tunisia and Dr Street said there was talk of contingency plans to withdraw from Syria altogether if the violence continued.

"They're looking at repositioning the main office out into perhaps Tunisia or North Africa," he said.

"Those plans are being discussed but we're not sure what will actually eventuate.

"They have a developing contingency plan - ICARDA won't die because of this, it's just disrupted."

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