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Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Plants and war

By Helen Roberts

For centuries plants have been closely entangled in the complexities of wars and hostilities. Shortages of food during periods of conflict are one of the most pronounced impacts on humans. Conflict can impede our ability to grow and harvest crops as well as distribute food. Restricting the movement of food is a tactic that is used to control territories and ultimately bring down enemies. 

In the 1990s, in sub-Saharan Africa, many countries suffered famine as a result of conflict and this was primarily due to the different sides using food and hunger as political tools. As well as immediate famine in those areas of active war, there were indirect impacts as people were displaced by war and could not return home to plant their crops. Even more recent examples include the siege warfare occurring in many parts of Syria where the act of starvation is used to make opposing sides submit. The devastation and suffering as a result of food shortages to humans is untold during conflict, but the ultimate survival of certain plants can be threatened too.  

Saving seeds in Svalbard

Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway.
Photo credit: Amber Case [via Flickr CC licence]
Seed banks - facilities that specialise in collecting and storing seeds that society has deemed worthy of cultivation - are critical in preserving and potentially restoring the plants lost as a result of war. In 2015, researchers made the first ever withdrawal of 38,000 seed samples from such a bank in order to rebuild a seed collection to replace one lost to the conflict in Syria. 

In 2012, when war reached Aleppo, Syria, researchers from the International Center for Agriculture Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) shipped seeds representing 87% of their collection to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway (a subsequent blog will follow on this unique seed bank facility). The remaining seed was shipped out to other international seed banks. The ICARDA facility in Aleppo hosted seed from 150,000 specimens of significant agricultural importance from the Fertile Crescent - the birthplace of agriculture. Many of the plant varieties do not exist in the wild any more, including unique landraces and wild relatives of cereals, legumes and forages and are only represented in seed banks. 

Having fled Aleppo, ICARDA researchers, now in Terbol, Lebanon, have withdrawn some of this seed from Svalbard in order to recreate the collection lost in the war torn city of Aleppo. Seed was also sent to another ICARDA facility in Morocco. The seeds will be planted and allowed to germinate, grown up and seed collected and sent back to Svalbard to continue the loop of important seed conversation and diversity. At the facilities in Lebanon and Morocco, agricultural research will continue on the seed samples with germplasm being distributed worldwide to plant breeders. 

Russian scientists protect seeds with their lives

It is not the first time that scientists have battled for seed survival. Russian scientists during the Second World War were so desperate in their unerring determination to protect an internationally important seed bank from devastation that lives were lost. The man in charge of the collection was Nikolai Vavilov, a Soviet botanist and geneticist most famous for his work on the evolution of domesticated plants. As a child, he had witnessed first hand the horror of food shortages and this spurred him on to a follow a career in the plant sciences concentrating on plant breeding in order to help combat famine in Russia. He has long been considered the founder of modern seed banks. 

Unfortunately, Stalin who foolishly sought short-term solutions to Russia’s problem of famine, did not support his work. Vavilov fell from favour and whilst on a plant collecting expedition in the Carpathian Mountains was taken and incarcerated, slowly dying in prison of starvation in 1943. Vavilov’s vast seed bank survived the 872-day Siege of Leningrad. Dedicated scientists bent on protecting this valuable collection, barricaded themselves into the seed bank building and guarded it against looting. Sadly, they succumbed to either starvation or disease. This was an ironic tragedy considering they refused to eat any of the seed they were so intent on protecting. 

Plant-based resources in short supply

Not only does conflict cause basic food shortages and threaten plant species survival but it can affect the availability of important plant-based resources. Commodities such as rubber, coal, paper, timber, drugs, cotton and hemp, all derived from plants, have played a key part in conflicts. Of course, control of these critical resources has also propelled countries into war, including tea, spices, salt, grain, flour, bread, sugar and rice. 

One of the many 'Dig for Victory' posters
of the Second World War.
War also pushes the agricultural and manufacturing boundaries in the production of food and plant materials. One major commodity during the Second World War of vital importance was rubber. Natural rubber supplies from the plantations of Southeast Asia were severed at the start of the war and American forces were faced with the loss of a hugely important resource even though rubber had been stockpiled in the years preceding the war. With the fall of Singapore and the Dutch East Indies in 1942, rubber exports came to a complete standstill. The Americans invested heavily into developing synthetic rubber, but one of the twentieth century’s greatest ethnobotanists, Professor Richard Evans Schultes, was sent into the remote Amazon basin to hunt for wild rubber. For Schultes, this resulted in 12 years of exploratory research deep within the rainforest. 

People in Britain were growing their own to combat food shortages during the Second World War - spurred by iconic posters emblazoned with the words ‘Dig for Victory’. A staggering 1.4 million people dug up their gardens and lawns to grow vegetables and fruit in Britain. It was similarly successful in the US - by May 1943, 100 acres of land in the Portland area of Oregon was being cultivated by just children!

Plants used to commemorate lives lost

During and after conflict, many plants can hold particular meanings for people. The flowers of certain plants are commonly seen as peaceful elements imbuing a sense of calm and many plants are closely associated with the recognition and commemoration of those who have fallen in wars. The red poppy is one of the most emotive and unforgettable flowers because of war. A symbol of remembrance and hope, and worn by millions of people to remember those who have fallen in battle. The idea of using the poppies stemmed from one of the world’s truly poignant poems, ‘In Flanders Fields’ and is now inextricably entwined with the memory or war. It represents a powerful symbol of our relationship with a plant during and after conflict.

Helen Roberts is a trained landscape architect with a background in plant sciences. She is a probationary member of the Garden Media Guild and a regular contributor to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden blog.


Sources:


  1. Seed bank aims to protect world's agricultural inheritance from Syria war. (2016). The Guardian. <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/24/seed-bank-aims-to-protect-worlds-agricultural-inheritance-from-syria-war>
  2. ICARDA’s update on its seed retrival from Svalbard <http://www.icarda.org/update/icarda’s-seed-retrieval-mission-svalbard-seed-vault#sthash.5nrDjLb8.dpbs>
  3. Richard D. Bardgett. (2016). Earth Matters: How Soil Underlies Civilization.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  4. Wade Davis. (1996). One River: Science, Adventure and Hallucinogenics in the Amazon Basin. London: Simon & Schuster Ltd. 
  5. Kathy Willis & Carolyn Fry. (2014). Plants: From Roots to Riches. London: John Murray. 

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