Summer 2008 Vol. VI, No. 4
Better Barley, wonder wheat and champion chickpeas
How agricultural sustainability and genetic engineering
are taking on climate change, women,s empowerment, and global food security
It took a trip to Syria to learn that the most common varieties of foods
we eat-wheat, barley, chickpeas-are constantly being replaced by new varieties
that can fight disease, improve production, and respond to the challenges
of climate change. The consumer doesn't generally know the difference.-Ed.
Improving the most common varieties of the foods we eat is at the heart
of the research taking place at ICARDA, the International Center for Agricultural
Research in the Dry Areas, located outside of Aleppo, Syria, and headed
by Director General Mahmoud El Solh (BS '69, MS '72 from AUB, PhD '78
from UC Davis). ICARDA is one of 15 international agricultural research
centers spread all over the world under the Consultative Group for International
Agricultural Research (CGIAR) whose mission is to contribute globally
to enhance food security, alleviate poverty and protect the environment.
ICARDA is dedicated to improving food production in ways that are environmentally
sustainable, with a special research mandate to improve barley, lentil,
and fava beans globally, and durum and bread wheats, chickpea, pasture,
and forage legumes in the Central and West Asia and North Africa (CWANA)
region as a platform to address global challenges facing dry areas. They've
developed a chickpea variety that thrives in a bitter winter and barley
that survives drought. They're researching crops that can be irrigated
with salty water and identifying disease resistant strains of wheat that
will slow the spread of Ug99, a deadly blight that is spreading around
the world and that, if unchecked, could decimate global wheat production.
(Google "Ug99" for some terrifying articles.)
ICARDA is no small operation. The center is located on an expansive 1,000
hectare farm off the highway heading into Aleppo. Five hundred staff of
45 nationalities, including breeders, biotechnologists, agronomists, geneticists,
and agricultural economists drive a research platform that is responding
to the far reaching consequences of climate change and a few staggering
numbers: of the 1 billion people living in dry areas around the world,
700 million live in severe poverty. This is projected to double in the
next 30 years. Forty-one percent depend on agriculture for their livelihood.
But their nutritional status is poor, agricultural systems aren't producing
enough food to go around, and natural resources are being destroyed in
The winter chickpea: ensuring hummus for all
A bowl of creamy hummus and olive oil seems common enough to most of us.
But the chickpea, which is grown in 33 countries worldwide, is a valuable
source of high-quality protein for millions. It's also a valuable source
of feed for livestock. But it's hard to grow. Sown in the spring, crops
can suffer in the heat and drought, and fail. Sown in the winter, crops
can be totally lost because of a fungal disease called ascochyta. One
of ICARDA's success stories is the introduction of a winter chickpea:
after10 years of studying 20,000 accessions and conducting chickpea trials
in three ecologically diverse locations, ICARDA and its partners developed
a cold and blight resistant winter chickpea with a 62 to100 percent higher
Ug99: a tsunami on wheat production worldwide
In many cases new plants-which can take 20 years to develop and release-improve
production and a farmer's livelihood, like the winter chickpea; but some
new varieties are being developed because of an urgent need. A wheat stem
rust called Ug99, currently being airborne around the world, is the black
plague of wheat diseases. "Ug99 could act like a tsunami on wheat production
worldwide," says Ken Street, the legume curator for the ICARDA collection.
And there's a precedent: in the 1950s, 40 percent of the spring wheat
crop was lost in North America due to the disease.
Since 1999, when Ug99 was discovered in Uganda, it has been windborne
to Kenya, Ethiopia, and Yeman; in June 2007 the winds of Cyclone Gonu
unexpectedly took Ug99 to Iran, a major wheat producer, years earlier
than expected. "We all know that Ug99 is capable of causing enormous losses
wheat production and food security in the Horn of Africa,
the Nile Valley countries, West Asia, North Africa, and even worldwide
unless it is controlled through deployment of wheat varieties with durable
rust resistance. This effort is beyond the capacity of any one country
or any one institution. This needs a global effort," says ICARDA Director
General Solh. As the disease is carried on prevailing winds, Pakistan-the
gateway to the Asian breadbasket-and India are likely to be hit next.
Also at risk is Afghanistan, a country in transition that could do without
any additional problems. Pesticides are only nominally effective; the
best solution is to plant disease resistant crops. Richard Brettell, director
of ICARDA's Biodiversity and Integrated Gene Management Program, says
that the center has identified resistant wheat varieties, and these are
currently under evaluation in national agricultural systems around the
Breeding for biodiversity
The Ug99 crisis calls into play the critical role of seed banks for making
diverse genetic resources available for breeders. Modern crops are genetically
uniform. What drives evolution is diversity. Explains Street, "Our job
at the center is to develop new crop varieties and protect the region's
native plants. And that's very important work because we're continually
trying to play the role of evolution. The United States Department of
Agriculture (USDA) calculates that a new variety only lasts for about
five years. Then climate change and pests kick in." Pests like Ug99. By
building a diverse collection of specimens from throughout the region,
ICARDA and other plant breeders can access landraces (the local strains
that have been selected by farmers over centuries) and introduce new disease
and pest resistant plants. "A lot of people just eat their morning toast
and cereal and are completely oblivious to the fact that to keep food
on the table it's a huge effort on the part of organizations that breed
varieties," adds Street. Twentieth century wheat, corn, and barley hybrids
have successfully been developed for high productivity, but they often
don't last. A seed bank such as ICARDA's ensures future biodiversity and
the ability to drive evolution and develop stronger plants.
Coping with agricultural disaster in Iraq and Afghanistan
Years of conflict practically destroyed Afghanistan's agricultural capabilities,
and over the last twenty years, many Afghanis have suffered from malnutrition,
become dependent on food aid, and been forced to leave farms and homes.
ICARDA has recently introduced Village Based Seed Enterprises (VBSEs)
that enable cooperatives of local farmers to produce high quality, low
cost, and market-relevant seed. One of the most innovative aspects of
this program is an ingenious, inexpensive seed propagating machine designed
by ICARDA engineers that can be built with basic parts available in almost
any developing country. In Afghanistan, 21 VBSEs were established in five
provinces between 2004 and 2005, contributing to net income increasing
from $850,000 to $2.3 million in just two years-in a country that could
barely feed itself a few years earlier. VBSEs are spreading throughout
the CWANA region as well.
Unlike some other agricultural industries in Afghanistan, growing poppies
continues to be a lucrative, if illegal business. A few alternatives being
introduced by ICARDA are providing the rural poor with new opportunities
to diversify crops and at the same time empowering women in the workplace.
Funded by the UK's Department for International Development (DfID), one
ICARDA RALF (Research in Alternative Livelihoods Fund) project has successfully
involved Afghani women in the growing and harvesting of mint, and the
development of mint derived products such as dried mint, mint oil, and
mint water. Protected agriculture-work that takes place in the protected
environment of a greenhouse-provides a safe place of work for women from
conservative communities. "Male farmers will allow women to work
in greenhouses because it's a closed environment. They don't allow them
to work in the fields. This social dimension to our work is very important,"
These derivative products achieve lucrative profits for their producers.
Dried mint fetches a 250 percent profit in the urban markets. And since
the price of mint can be ten times more expensive in the winter, investing
in greenhouses is an attractive option. The RALF project has helped establish
greenhouses in three provinces, provided cuttings of high yielding mint
varieties, and has so far trained more than 5,000 women on how to produce
mint products. ICARDA has also been successful in introducing farmers
to saffron cultivation as another alternative to poppy growing.
Solh notes that 2008 was the driest year on record in Syria since 1978,
with just 210 millimeters of rain. "The major challenge for us at
ICARDA is to cope with the effects of climate change," says Solh.
"All the work in drought tolerance, seed tolerance, salinity tolerance
and at the gene bank is to provide a source of genes to protect biodiversity
as crops are increasingly exposed to climate change."?
Ug99, a deadly blight that is spreading around the
world, could decimate global wheat production. Google "Ug99"
for some terrifying articles.
Agricultural systems in ruins
Seed banks are regional resources that are also easy targets in conflict.
Significant collections at seed banks in both Iraq and Afghanistan have
been destroyed. In 2002, Taliban fighters in Afghanistan destroyed the
national seed bank when they stole the plastic seed containers and dumped
the entire germplasm collection on the floor. The national seed bank in
Iraq, located in the city of Abu Ghraib, was completely destroyed following
the looting at the end of the 2003 war. It was a rich resource for natural
seed varieties that Iraqi farmers have been cultivating more than 10,000
years. Just one black cardboard box of seeds from Abu Ghraib was shipped
to ICARDA. Since both banks were destroyed, documenting the region's biodiversity
is more important than ever.
ICARDA, established in 1977, is one of 15 centers worldwide that is supported
by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
Major funding comes from CGIAR, the United States, the United Kingdom,
the World Bank, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the
Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development. The CGIAR is co-sponsored
by the World Bank, FAO, IFAD and UNDP with its Secretariat in the World
Bank in Washington DC. www.icarda.org