Humanity has had to cash in on its insurance policy earlier than expected. Deep in the side of a mountain in the Arctic archipelago is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Known as the “Doomsday Vault,” this seed bank — operated by the Norwegian government and containing a seed of just about every known crop in the world — is meant to be humanity’s backup in the event of a catastrophe that devastates crops. But it was not a natural disaster that has caused scientists to have to dip in and make the first significant withdrawal from the vault. Rather, it was the most preventable of man-made disasters — war.

The bloody conflict in Syria has left scientists at an important gene bank in Aleppo — where new strains of drought- and heat-resistant wheat have been developed over time — unable to continue their work in recent years. Now, with no sign of conditions in Syria improving, scientists have begun recovering their critical inventory of seeds, sourced from around the Fertile Crescent and beyond, that have been in safekeeping beneath the Arctic ice. CONTINUE