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Seeds developed over thousands of years may help farmers adapt to climate change

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Researchers have spent years in Lebanon, in Syria collecting seeds from crops and wild plants from the Middle East and other parts of the world to preserve in a seed vault. Some of these plants were developed thousands of years ago during the early days of agriculture, and now they're helping farmers all over the world grow food in a changing climate. NPR's Ruth Sherlock traveled to Lebanon's agricultural region to see how it all works.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: I meet Mariana Yazbek at a low building with orange roof tiles, surrounded by fields of grains in Lebanon's remote Bekaa Valley.

MARIANA YAZBEK: Let me show you the gene bank. Not everyone gets to go into the gene bank.

SHERLOCK: Ooh. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes.

SHERLOCK: She shows me how her team protects the samples they keep in the seed bank.

YAZBEK: They are stored at specific conditions of temperature and relative humidity, and we conserve them here...

SHERLOCK: Oh, wow.

YAZBEK: ...Like this. You have the seeds here.

SHERLOCK: The cold store is like a large walk-in fridge. It's minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit. And inside there are rows and rows of heavy sliding metal racks filled with seeds in sealed foil bags.

What variety of seeds is this?

YAZBEK: This is a legume. It's fava bean.

SHERLOCK: This gene bank stores up to 120,000 varieties of legumes, barley, wheat and other seeds that have been gathered from the mountains and plains of Lebanon, Syria, Iran and even further afield, in West Asia, North Africa and other parts of the world.

Do you have a sense of how many years of work is in this?

YAZBEK: Oh. So literally, it's, like, a little bit more than 40 years of collecting seeds, but it definitely goes back to thousands of years if we're talking about local varieties because we're conserving here varieties that have been developed and maintained by farmers, which is since the beginning of agriculture 10- to 12,000 years ago.

SHERLOCK: This region is part of the Fertile Crescent where agriculture began. Some wild species have survived here millions of years, which means their seeds are tough and nutrient rich and worth saving for the genes that can be pulled from them. This gene bank belongs to the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, or ICARDA. The organization funded by governments and international groups began in Lebanon and now works in over a dozen countries. But Lebanon remains an important hub.

YAZBEK: It's one of the biggest gene banks in the world, with a very unique collection.

SHERLOCK: Yazbek's team's focus is conserving seeds for wild varieties of crops and plants, many of which are essential to the human diet. She calls it an insurance policy for humanity. These centers save seeds in case of disasters like nuclear war or other catastrophic events that wipe out the wild species of the plants. But keeping these seeds safe has not always been easy. In the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s, the organization opened offices in Syria, and then in 2012, after the start of Syria's civil war, they had to move back across the border to Lebanon. Some scientists took huge personal risks to salvage decades of work.

RAAFAT AZZO: Usually in the war, you have to be very careful in moving here and there.

SHERLOCK: Raafat Azzo is a barley breeder with ICARDA. In the chaos of the Syrian conflict, some of ICARDA's equipment was stolen, and researchers were kidnapped and even shot at. Still, Azzo tells me how he refused to leave Syria without his varieties of barley.

AZZO: We shifted hundreds of boxes.

SHERLOCK: Hundreds?

AZZO: Yeah, hundreds - not 100 - hundreds of boxes to Lebanon.

SHERLOCK: And you did it crossing front lines. It wasn't a simple journey, I imagine.

AZZO: Yes. Yes. It wasn't that simple. Yeah, yeah.

SHERLOCK: ICARDA's work has already helped countries with similarly hot, dry climates. They developed a variety of chickpea that allowed farmers to plant year-round in Asia. Other seeds have helped in hot climates in Africa. Now though, ICARDA's work is also of interest to wealthier nations that are feeling the effects of climate change.

FOUAD MAALOUF: So we have now with our collaboration with France and Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Switzerland, U.K., Italy.

SHERLOCK: Fouad Maalouf, a legume breeder, tells me he's working with more than 30 countries in Europe now. As temperatures rise, these countries have come to a cadre for seeds that can adapt and even counter global warming, like lentils and fava beans.

MAALOUF: These crops also play an important role in having more sustainable climate change because it control carbon dioxide emissions.

SHERLOCK: It captures?

MAALOUF: It captures, yes.

SHERLOCK: Maalouf says these crops capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release nitrogen into the soil. That means the farmers have to use less chemical fertilizer. And he says legumes take very little water to grow.

MAALOUF: So you are saving the environment. And second way, you save water.

SHERLOCK: The impact of ICARDA's work is even reaching the United States.

DIL THAVARAJAH: I am Dil Thavarajah, and I am a professor here at the Clemson University, South Carolina.

SHERLOCK: Dil Thavarajah has worked with ICARDA for over a decade, exploring ways to improve the nutritional content of legumes, lentils, peas, chickpeas. One discovery could even help tackle obesity. She says the genes from these seeds are helping U.S. agriculture adapt to climate change.

THAVARAJAH: So when you grow in a stressful environment like high temperature or low rainfall or in a winter conditions, these raffinose oligosaccharides and the sugar alcohols act as a humectant, and they save the plant from freezing or save the plant from drying out.

SHERLOCK: The work has allowed new crops to be introduced around the U.S. that are more suited to extreme weather.

THAVARAJAH: So now Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, all these places - they are introducing legumes into their crop rotation.

SHERLOCK: One seed saved by ICARDA has been used to grow wheat in the U.S. that is resistant to the Hessian fly, a pest that's spreading in warmer temperatures. With millions of years of evolution captured in the DNA of the seeds stored in the vaults in Lebanon, these discoveries that help us adapt to climate change may just be the beginning.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAJARO'S "MAPLE SYRUP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.