Moroccan vault protects seeds from climate change

Sunday 20/11/2016
Inaam El Meziani, assistant researcher at ICARDA, inspects seeds to ensure they are free from
diseases in the Rabat seed bank, Morocco, October 21st, 2016. (AP)

Rabat - Should a doomsday agricul­tural crisis hit the world’s driest environments, sci­entists and farmers will turn to an up-and-coming research-centred bank in Morocco to restock their harvest.
Tucked away in the university hub of Irfane in Rabat, the Interna­tional Centre for Agricultural Re­search in the Dry Areas (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,” said 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 hotter and drier. The effect on African agriculture is among the topics being discussed at UN climate talks in Morocco.
The site in Rabat has become ICARDA’s primary centre 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,” said 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% of the Aleppo centre’s seeds were transferred to ICARDA’s centre in Lebanon. Duplicates were 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 centre 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 ceasefire, it’s stable and unstable at times,” Shehadeh said from Aleppo in a Skype inter­view facilitated by Amri.
The Rabat centre has tens of thousands of seeds — spanning from wheat and barley to lentils and chickpeas — inside a vault in near-freezing temperatures. The seed bank preserves these essential staples and develops them to be­come more resistant to disease and a warming climate.
Morocco faced an unprecedented drought in 2015 that scientists and the government linked to climate change, with drier and warmer win­ters in Morocco and neighbouring countries.
Domestic grain production dropped, forcing the government to drop tariffs on imports to avoid shortages and stem rising prices. In October, the government decided to temporarily remove import du­ties for lentils to lower the price ahead of the winter season — a time when lentils are widely consumed in Morocco.
Scientists at the Rabat centre work closely with farmers in Mar­chouch, a nearby rural town. The scientists provide seed samples to farmers who allocate about 2% of their farmland to test the seeds and provide feedback to scientists.
“We are looking for science-based solutions for farmers’ prob­lems,” said Shiv Kumar Agrawal, a lentil breeder with ICARDA. The problems include contending with droughts, invasive insects and in­creasing production.
Farmers report 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, said the feed­back loop has helped him and fel­low farmers to improve their own methods as climate change contin­ues to affect harvests.
“We hope that this year’s harvest will be better, God willing,” Slimani said.
Bruce Campbell of the Consor­tium of International Agricultural Research Centres said the climate conference in Marrakech offers a unique opportunity to address the effects of climate change on African agriculture.
“Considering all African coun­tries have included agriculture in their climate adaptation strate­gies, (the conference) will be the ideal setting to discuss how the most promising solutions can be deployed and indeed, funded,” he said.
The Associated Press