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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Afghan Seed Bank

Air Date: Week of

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Efforts to rebuild Afghanistan’s farming sector received a major blow when a hidden bank of Afghani seeds was looted. Science News senior editor Janet Raloff explains what happened to host Steve Curwood.



CURWOOD: Welcome to Living On Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

A team of United Nations scientists has just arrived in Afghanistan to evaluate the environmental damage to that nation from 30 years of war. They’ll assess urban pollution, natural resources, and Afghanistan’s biodiversity. Decades of war and years of drought have also devastated the country’s agricultural sector. And Afghani farmers recently lost a major resource when a seed bank was destroyed, reportedly by looters.

Janet Raloff is senior editor at Science News. She tells the story of the seed bank in the current online edition of the magazine. What was lost, she says, was Afghanistan’s agricultural insurance policy.

RALOFF: We’re talking about lots of varieties of seeds such as wheat, chickpeas, lentils, various kinds of fruits and nuts. They were all labeled and placed in air-tight containers. Each of these seeds, or varieties of seeds, had been selected to represent the genetic biodiversity of native crops, ones that were well-suited to grow in Afghanistan’s very dry environment.

CURWOOD: What happened to it?

RALOFF: They had been stored in air-tight bottles hidden in the bottom of houses in Jalalabad and Ghazni. And at some point in recent months, vandals got in, saw the containers, decided they looked attractive, and they emptied the seeds onto the floor and ran off with the containers. So now, all you’re left with is a jumble of seeds on the floor of these buildings, and nobody is quite sure how long they’ve been there; at least weeks, maybe months.

CURWOOD: What’s the importance of the seed bank?

RALOFF: Well, each of these seeds is like a book. And from the outside you can’t tell what’s in that book, or, in other words, the genes that are in that seed. What you need are the information that’s been logged, the data that have been stored on where the seeds have been collected, and the environment of the seeds’ native range.

So, if you knew that those seeds came from a dry area, you would expect that the seeds are probably drought tolerant. If they came from a mountainous region, they’d probably survive a short growing season and cold temperatures.

CURWOOD: Well, where does Afghani agriculture go from here? If the country no longer has an insurance policy of indigenous seeds, what can be done to try to rebuild the seed bank of crops that do work well there?

RALOFF: Well, luckily, there had been an earlier seed bank which was destroyed in Afghanistan in 1992. But when the seeds were collected for that earlier bank, duplicates were sent to other seed banks around the world, and those seed banks are now being asked to go through their collection, find those Afghani seeds, and send a share of them back to help create a new seed bank in Afghanistan.

CURWOOD: What was lost in this recent ransacking of the seed bank that’s just plain irreplaceable?

RALOFF: The simple answer is, nobody knows. They never were able to do the research to map the traits that were carried in the seeds that were lost. That’s ordinarily done. But the resources weren’t there, and the Taliban wasn’t really welcoming of foreign researchers coming in to do this kind of thing. That’s one of the reasons the seed bank had been hidden.

But you could suspect that you are losing a certain amount of the agricultural heritage of that country that, because so little is growing right now, that much of what had been suited for that environment was among the things that were lost. And it will make it a lot harder to rebuild agriculture in Afghanistan today. It’s not impossible, but it’s going to be a really tough road to hoe.

CURWOOD: What’s the overall state of the infrastructure of Afghanistan’s agricultural community?

RALOFF: It’s a disaster. At one point, 70 to 80 percent of the adults in Afghanistan were employed in farming. Right now, half of all people in Afghanistan are unemployed. Many of the farmers have been moved. They’ve been resettled in regions far from where they had initially worked. It may be conditions for which they’re really unaccustomed to farming. It turns out, because of the drought, which has been especially bad, that it’s very hard to grow anything at this point. So fields are just barely turning out crops at all.

Trees have died. People who had orchards, the orchards are gone. People who had livestock, which were important for feeding them and for fertilizing soils, they have had to sell them or eat the livestock. Basically, they’re in very primitive agricultural conditions based on the confluence of events, both the drought and the war.

CURWOOD: Janet Raloff is senior editor of Science News. Her recent article on the Afghani seed bank destruction is available on the Science News website.

Thanks Janet.

RALOFF: Pleasure, Steve.



Janet Raloff’s article in Science News

Future Harvest


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