Sunday, September 27, 2015

The International Politics of Wheat -- a first glance

Wheat sheaf, La Grassa Pasta, Anchorage, Alaska.

One of the reasons that wheat can be endlessly interesting is that it is one of the world's three or four major food crops, and is constantly affected by events that seem very far removed. I came across an interesting set of side notes about wheat today that illustrated this well.  An article about the Svalbard international seed bank from the Washington Post re-published just recently in the Alaska Dispatch News mentioned that  for the first time some boxes of seeds were being withdrawn :

"But just seven years after the vault's steel doors first opened, admitting contributions from seed banks around the world into the frozen sanctuary, 130 of the boxes are being recalled.
They belong to the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, which until two years ago stored thousands of seeds in a vault in Aleppo, Syria, according to Reuters. The ICARDA center, like so many other important institutions in the civil war-ravaged nation, was displaced by the conflict, and, in the process, 325 boxes of duplicate seeds were sent to Svalbard for safekeeping. Now resettled in Beirut, the organization wants some of its samples back."
The ADN/Washington Post article links to a 2007 New Yorker article about the Svalbard seed bank that says, "During the United States-led invasion of Iraq, in March, 2003, the looting of Iraq’s national archeological museum received considerable attention, but almost no one noted that the country’s national seed bank was destroyed. The bank, in the town of Abu Ghraib, contained seeds of ancient varieties of wheat, lentils, chickpeas, and other crops that once grew in Mesopotamia. Fortunately, several Iraqi scientists had placed samples of the country’s most important crops in a cardboard box and sent them to an international seed bank in Aleppo, Syria. There they sit, on a shelf in a cold room, waiting for a time when Iraq is stable enough to store them again."
Experimental wheat being grown at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
So, rather than Iraq becoming stable enough to retrieve its samples and re-store them in Abu Ghraib [or elsewhere], Aleppo became so unstable that its scientists fled to Beirut in Lebanon (with its own not-so-distant history of war). Who knew, in 2007, that Syria, eight years later, would be deeply enmeshed in one of the worst of the civil wars in the Middle East? Luckily, some of the Syrian wheat seeds (but who knows about the Iraqi wheat?) were sent to Svalbard. Now the Syrian scientists apparently believe that it is a long time before they will be able to return to Aleppo, so they want to take back some of the Syrian seeds from Svalbard and begin experimenting with them in Lebanon. 
Do the seeds belong to the scientists who sent them to Svalbard? Or to the research facility in Syria? Or someone else? Keeping track of wheat's political life turns out to be at least as complex as trying to figure out the connections in the lives of the millions of microbes that make up the biome surrounding each grain.
Bob Van Veldhuizen, small grains research specialist ant University of Alaska Fairbanks, holds some of his experimental wheat seeds.

All photos by Teri White Carns, 2015.

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