Moroc­can vault pro­tects seeds from cli­mate change and war

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

Should a dooms­day agri­cul­tural cri­sis hit the world’s dri­est en­vi­ron­ments, sci­en­tists and farm­ers will turn to an upand-com­ing re­search cen­ter and seed bank in Morocco to re­stock their har­vests. Tucked away in the univer­sity hub of Ir­fane in Ra­bat, the In­ter­na­tional Cen­ter for Agri­cul­tural Re­search in the Dry Ar­eas, or ICARDA, hosts the largest col­lec­tion of seeds in North Africa. “If for any rea­son, a par­tic­u­lar com­mu­nity lost all their re­sources, we are ca­pa­ble of pro­vid­ing them with the seeds for restora­tion and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion,” says Ahmed Amri, head of ICARDA’s Ge­netic Re­sources Unit.

The cru­cial role of seed banks in pro­tect­ing bio­di­ver­sity is re­ceiv­ing in­creas­ing at­ten­tion be­cause of cli­mate change, which threat­ens to wipe out crops as dry ar­eas of the world get even hot­ter and drier. The im­pact on African agri­cul­ture is among the top­ics be­ing dis­cussed at UN cli­mate talks tak­ing place through next week in Morocco. The site in Ra­bat has be­come ICARDA’s pri­mary cen­ter of stor­age and re­search af­ter its pre­vi­ous hub in Aleppo, Syria, was seized by an Is­lamist rebel group in Septem­ber 2015.

“We couldn’t con­tinue do­ing this work be­cause of the sit­u­a­tion in Syria, so we de­cided to make ar­range­ments to move else­where to con­tinue our work,” says Amri, who used to work in Aleppo, but is now lead­ing ge­netic re­search ef­forts in Ra­bat. While many of the re­search ac­tiv­i­ties moved to Ra­bat, 98 per­cent of the Aleppo cen­ter’s seeds were safely trans­ferred to ICARDA’s cen­ter in neigh­bor­ing Le­banon. Du­pli­cates were also sent to a “dooms­day” seed vault in Sval­bard in the Nor­we­gian Arc­tic, which serves as a backup for other seed banks world­wide.

Rebels from the ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive Ahrar Al-Sham group have oc­cu­pied the Aleppo cen­ter since Septem­ber 2015, cut­ting off ac­cess to its 75 em­ploy­ees. Amri has daily con­tact with the five staff mem­bers who re­main in Aleppo, in­clud­ing as­so­ciate sci­en­tist Ali She­hadeh. “With the cease-fire, it’s sta­ble and un­sta­ble at times,” She­hadeh told The Associated Press from Aleppo in a Skype in­ter­view fa­cil­i­tated by Amri. The Ra­bat cen­ter holds tens of thou­sands of seeds span­ning from wheat and bar­ley to lentils and chick­peas in­side a vault in near-freez­ing tem­per­a­tures. The seed bank not only pre­serves these es­sen­tial sta­ples but de­vel­ops them to be­come more re­sis­tant to disease and a warm­ing cli­mate.

Last year, Morocco faced an un­prece­dented drought that sci­en­tists and the gov­ern­ment and have linked to cli­mate change, with drier and warmer win­ters in Morocco and neigh­bor­ing coun­tries. Do­mes­tic grain pro­duc­tion dropped, forc­ing the gov­ern­ment to drop tar­iffs on im­ports to avoid short­ages and stem ris­ing prices. Last month, the gov­ern­ment de­cided to tem­po­rar­ily re­move im­port du­ties for lentils to lower the price just in time for the win­ter sea­son - a time when lentils are widely con­sumed in Morocco. Sci­en­tists at the Ra­bat cen­ter work closely with farm­ers in Mar­chouch, a nearby ru­ral town. The sci­en­tists pro­vide seed sam­ples to farm­ers who al­lo­cate about 2 per­cent of their own farm land to test the seeds and pro­vide feed­back to sci­en­tists.

“We are look­ing for sci­ence-based so­lu­tions for farm­ers’ prob­lems,” says Shiv Ku­mar Agrawal, a lentil breeder with ICARDA. These prob­lems in­clude con­tend­ing with droughts, in­va­sive in­sects and in­creas­ing pro­duc­tion. Farm­ers re­port back to sci­en­tists on the re­sults of the har­vest yielded from the seed sam­ples, af­ter which fur­ther tests are con­ducted to im­prove the seeds’ dura­bil­ity and pro­duc­tion yield. Farmer Ab­del­lah Sli­mani, 48, pres­i­dent of a farm­ers’ cooperative in Mar­chouch, be­lieves the feed­back loop has helped him and fel­low farm­ers to im­prove their own meth­ods as cli­mate change con­tin­ues to im­pact har­vests.

“We hope that this year’s har­vest will be bet­ter, God will­ing,” Sli­mani says. Bruce Camp­bell of the Con­sor­tium of In­ter­na­tional Agri­cul­tural Re­search Cen­ters says the cli­mate con­fer­ence in Mar­rakech of­fers a unique op­por­tu­nity to ad­dress the im­pact of cli­mate change on African agri­cul­ture. “Con­sid­er­ing all African coun­tries have in­cluded agri­cul­ture in their cli­mate adap­tion strate­gies, (the con­fer­ence) will be the ideal set­ting to dis­cuss how the most promis­ing so­lu­tions can be de­ployed and in­deed, funded,” he says. — AP

A man shops for veg­eta­bles at a Ber­ber weekly mar­ket in Asni, a small town in the High At­las re­gion, near Mar­rakech, Morocco. — AP

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