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Desperate scientists seek help to save Sudan’s seed bank

Image: Crop Trust [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

Plant gene facility faces “existential threat” from the spread of civil war, researcher warns

Sudanese scientists need help saving the country’s main seed bank from loss and destruction. Last month, the civil war gripping Sudan since April last year spilled into Wad Medani in Gezira State, where the seed bank is located, sparking alarm in the plant science community.

The central gene bank of the Agricultural Plant Genetic Resources Conservation and Research Centre faces an “unprecedented existential threat”, wrote Sweden-based Sudanese plant scientist Mohammed Elsafy in an open letter dated 24 January.

“As conflicts show no sign of abating, emergency rescue efforts to transfer and duplicate genetic resources from collections to secure seed vaults are in a race against time,” warned the plant-breeding professor, who is based at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Malmo.

“Given Sudan’s position as a centre of origin for many essential crops, the loss of its genetic diversity would harm national agricultural resilience and the global food system,” he added.

Under siege

Sudan’s plant gene bank houses more than 15,000 samples, including seeds, for food and agriculture staples like watermelon, sorghum and pearl millet.

Ground assaults, aerial bombing and violence engulfed the region last month, and staff struggled to reach the collection to ensure its safety. Frequent power cuts have also threatened samples. More recently, staff were relocated to another city for their safety.

On 25 January, Elsafy told Research Professional News that, according to the latest reports, the deep freezers that hold the seeds had been looted, further explaining that, because the seeds are kept in sealed aluminium envelopes, they will remain viable for several months.

“That is why we are focusing on relocating the seeds to a safe place under international safeguard. We have the seeds now, but tomorrow is not guaranteed if forces start bombarding again,” he said.

Call for aid

The war between two Sudanese army factions has already displaced many scientists and crippled the country’s research infrastructure. In September last year, the Sudanese National Academy of Sciences revealed that more than 100 universities and research centres had been damaged in the conflict.

In his letter, Elsafy called on Sudan’s long-term research partners, Swedish aid agency Sida and the Sweden-based Nordic Genetic Resource Center, to assist in moving the seed bank’s collections to a safer location within Sudan.

He also called on the international plant science community to assist with preserving the country’s seed collection and help transport it safely to the international seed vault in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. “This crisis demands immediate global action to protect the agricultural biodiversity richness in Sudan, and prevent irreparable harm to this pivotal institution.”

“While Svalbard prioritises seed deposits from unstable regions, the emergency situation in Sudan undoubtedly requires immediate assistance,” Elsafy wrote.