How we saved climate-smart seeds from the conflict in Syria

by Mahmoud Solh | International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA)
Wednesday, 12 October 2016 12:42 GMT

Farmers plant Syrian lentils in a field supervised by ICARDA, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, in Tirbol village, Bekaa valley, Lebanon, March 10, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

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Investing in smart agricultural development will bring stability to conflict countries and help stem the flow of migration

Historically, much of the world’s social unrest has hinged on issues of hunger and poverty. Sustainable agricultural development is the catalyst that offers solutions to populations in dry areas. In the long term, an investment in smart agricultural development will bring stability to conflict countries and help stem the flow of migration to other countries, as rural communities become more content and thrive in their own lands.

Since war broke out in Syria, 11 million people have fled their homes. In 2012, the turmoil reached the doorstep of ICARDA Agricultural Research Station in Tel Hadya near Aleppo in Syria. Almost 40 years of research on crops, livestock, soil and water, that was supporting sustainable agriculture development projects in over 40 countries, had come into the direct line of fire. Our unique GeneBank of ancient and crop wild relative genetic material was in danger of being lost forever if it was not duplicated safely outside Syria.

Our collection is a powerful tool in the fight against climate change that we could not afford to lose. These wild crops have robust properties – including heat, cold and drought tolerance, resistance to crop disease and pests – that can be bred into existing food plant varieties to make them more resilient and higher yielding.

Our work has been helping nations, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, to deal with extremes in water stress, land degradation and food insecurity – and reverse their dependence on food imports. For example, improved wheat technologies disseminated to pilot farmers, as part of our Arab Food Security Project, have raised average wheat yield by 28 percent for farmers across ten Arab countries, a gain seen over multiple growing seasons.

To ensure that our science program could progress with minimal disruption, we put into action a rapid decentralization of research activities out of Tel Hadya headquarters to several locations across the region. The evacuation phase was done over several weeks, and deepened over the following four years. Today we have a decentralized architecture – a center without walls – with new research stations in Morocco, Ethiopia, India, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

Rebuilding the ICARDA drylands plant genetic resources GeneBank was an especially complex challenge. All the genetic resources in our GeneBank in Tel Hadya were safely duplicated in the Svalbard Seed Vault in Norway (80 percent) and in other countries including Lebanon and Morocco. This was the first ever withdrawal of seeds from the Vault. The base collection remains in Aleppo, but as access is difficult, we needed to reconstruct the active and base collections in new genebank facilities, to make it rapidly available to crop breeders worldwide.

Just this month, we had the immense pleasure of officially inaugurating our new GeneBank in Lebanon at our facility in Terbol. Along with another new GeneBank facility at ICARDA’s research station in Morocco, we offer the world’s largest genetic resource pool of landraces and wild relatives of barley, wheat, lentil, kabuli chickpea, faba bean, peas and grasspea collected from the Fertile Crescent. We can now resume distributing plant genetic material to breeding programs worldwide that are working on solutions for food security in the face of climate change.

Today, ICARDA continues to offer services to all drylands countries. These take the form of improved technologies and policy options that drylands countries can use to focus agriculture on combating climate change, and to improve food and nutrition security.

The acute water stress in the Middle East and North Africa is an impending crisis in the making that will have far-reaching implications for food supply and for political stability in many countries. Water tables are falling as population grows across the Arab region. Agriculture consumes 85 percent of fresh water resources.

The raised-bed farming innovation pioneered in Egypt will help grow more food with less water. The locally manufactured raised-bed machine is a technology developed and tested by ICARDA with Egyptian partners. Using it, farmers can reduce water for irrigation by 25 percent, decreasing farming cost by 25 percent while increasing crop yields by 15 to 25 percent.

Heat-tolerant wheat, innovated by decades of crop improvement research in hot climate countries like Sudan, is changing the agrarian landscape of sub-Saharan Africa – countries where wheat was never considered as a viable commodity because their climate was too hot to grow wheat.

Seeing the potential, Nigerian and Sudanese governments have shifted their food security policies and allocated expanded areas for wheat growing as a strategy to reduce their dependence on expensive wheat imports, while more and more farmers thrive with access to technologies for a new commodity crop.

It is no coincidence that nations falling victim to conflict and extremism have the highest incidences of poverty, unemployment and vulnerability to climate change. But building a healthy environment, which will in turn feed people, create jobs and catalyze the economy, will bring stability and peace in conflict zones over the long term. 

Dr. Mahmoud Solh is the Director General of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). He is speaking on food security in crisis at the Borlaug Dialogue in Iowa this week.