Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 6 December 2020

Turkey and Britain sowing the seeds of a thorny issue

Turkish government seizes seed collection from UK research group

Agriculture students learning about Turkish farming practices in the 1960s. Getty Images 
Agriculture students learning about Turkish farming practices in the 1960s. Getty Images 

The UK has demanded Turkey give back a collection of ancient seeds seized from a British research institute in Ankara.

Thousands of scientifically important specimens were taken from the British Institute at Ankara on September 3 after authorities claimed they belonged to Turkey.

Researchers were reportedly given less than a day’s notice that they would be seized despite raising objections that their abrupt removal could damage them.

The collection, which is the legacy of late British archaeobotanist Gordan Hillman, comprises the seeds of ancient and modern crops.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office told The National that the UK wanted the seeds returned.

A spokeswoman said: “We have raised our concerns about this issue with the relevant authorities in the Turkish Government.”

According to a letter published by website AL-Monitor, British Institute chairman Stephen Mitchell said researchers pleaded for extra time to “minimise the risk of damage or loss to the material”.

However, the request was refused.

Mr Mitchell said the Ministry of Culture and Tourism notified the institute that the collection belonged to Turkey and it “would be removed the same day”.

He added that staff from the office of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan were directly involved in the removal of more than 100 boxes of archaeobotanical specimens and four cupboards of modern seeds.

According to reports, a decree issued last year gave the government the authority to seize local plants and build up a collection of agricultural products.

Echoing her husband’s nationalist agenda, Turkish first lady Emine Erdogan has previously said “agriculture is key to our national sovereignty”.

“Our farmers opened their treasure chests,” she said.

“In order to ensure that the heritage of this soil is transferred to future generations they entrusted their seeds to the state’s care.”

However, some researchers are puzzled as to exactly what Turkey would do with the British Institute’s seeds.

Dorian Fuller, from University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, told AL-Monitor the seeds “are essentially charcoal, dead and inert”, are only used for research purposes and can’t be grown.

Updated: October 9, 2020 07:41 PM

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