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Looters have destroyed Afghanistan's largest seed collection, putting the country's crop diversity at risk, scientists reported today (10 September).

A consortium of international crop genebanks led by Future Harvest — a global network of food and environmental research centres — is now working to restore the war-torn country's seed collections. These seed stores are vital to preserve traditional varieties, and to provide the 'raw materials' for developing new crop varieties with improved yields as well as disease and pest resistance.

The seed collections, which had been stockpiled during the Taliban era, were being stored in plastic jars hidden in houses in the northern city of Ghazni and the eastern city of Jalalabad.

"Ironically, the looters took only the plastic containers and left the seed behind," says Nassrat Wassimi, Kabul coordinator of the Future Harvest Consortium to Rebuild Agriculture in Afghanistan.

The scientists do not know exactly when the looting occurred, but it is clear that in the process hundreds of samples of seeds were destroyed, including wheat, barley, chickpea, lentil, melon, pistachio, almond and pomegranate. Many were of traditional farmers' varieties, bred over generations to prosper under local conditions and tailored to the tastes of Afghan consumers.

In an attempt to rebuild these collections, Future Harvest is working with seedbanks in India, Mexico, Pakistan and Syria to repatriate hundreds of crop samples collected in Afghanistan during the 1960s and 1970s.

But rebuilding agriculture in Afghanistan will not be straightforward, according to Adel El-Beltagy, director general of the Syria-based International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), which is coordinating the Consortium. "A significant percentage of the population has been displaced [by the war] and resettled in areas that may not be suitable for producing their traditional crop varieties," he says. "These farmers will need plant types adapted to their new conditions."

The effort is part of a larger, US$12-million programme to rebuild agriculture in Afghanistan. This larger programme, funded mainly by the United States and coordinated by ICARDA, has so far focused on supplying farmers with large quantities of modern wheat varieties, in an attempt to kick-start the country's food production.

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Future Harvest

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