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Returning war-torn farmland to productivity

  • 22 January 2005
  • From New Scientist Print Edition. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
  • Fred Pearce
The killing fields

The killing fields

I WAS a bit disappointed. It was just a battered old brown cardboard box sealed with tape, pulled from a high shelf in a refrigerated seed bank in Syria. But this, I was assured, was the famed “black box” – the genetic holy grail, the ark of the lost seeds, the future agricultural prosperity of Iraq.

The box was put together in 1996 in the Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib. Known mainly for its notorious prison, Abu Ghraib was once the home of Iraq’s main seed bank and plant breeding programme. It was here that plant scientists, fearing for the future of their collection, packed up more than 1000 vital seed varieties – everything from ancient wheats to chickpeas, lentils and fruits – and shipped them off to Aleppo for safe-keeping.

It was lucky the scientists acted as they did. In the chaos that followed the US-led invasion in 2003, the seed bank was destroyed and its equipment looted. “The black box is a genetic time capsule containing Iraq’s agricultural heritage,” says William Erskine, director of research at the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Aleppo, where the box has been lodged. When the time is right, its contents will form the basis for plant breeding to restore Iraqi agriculture and end the country’s reliance on food aid. The box also has a global importance, as among the seeds are varieties of crops with inbuilt resistance to extreme heat, drought and salinity. These could be invaluable for plant breeding programmes worldwide in the coming century, says Adel El-Beltagy, director-general of ICARDA.

As dramatic as it is, the story of Iraq’s black box is far from unique. Wherever war breaks out, farmers are forced off their land, scientists risk death or exile and their seed banks are destroyed. On top of this immediate damage, wars also threaten the world’s genetic heritage and hence its capacity to feed itself in the future. Some of the most devastating recent conflicts have been fought in areas where important crops originated, and where most of the genetic diversity essential for future breeding programmes still resides. The “fertile crescent” stretching from southern Israel to Iraq is the genetic heartland of wheat and barley. Cambodia is home of rice, the world’s most widely consumed grain. In these places, the phrase “killing fields” has a double meaning.

But the curators of seed banks and scientists at plant breeding stations are fighting back using a strategy they call “smart aid”. In Iraq, that will mean reinstating varieties like those I saw at ICARDA. Elsewhere, smart aid means searching out ancient and potentially useful varieties in strife-torn landscapes. In some places, such Cambodia, many varieties have been lost forever. But the smart-aiders also have some success stories to tell.

The wrong sort of aid

It wasn’t always like this. “In past emergencies, aid agencies typically relied on massive seed shipments from abroad, often of insufficiently tested, maladapted varieties,” says plant breeder Mark Winslow. He and Surendra Varma of ICARDA are co-authors of Healing Wounds, a new study reviewing the work on smart aid being carried out at several institutes that come under the umbrella of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

One of their most important targets is Afghanistan, the genetic heartland of a number of globally important crops, including vegetables such as carrots and radishes, nuts such as almonds and walnuts, and numerous fruits, including grapes, melons, figs, cherries, plums, apricots, peaches and pears. Decades of rule by warlords, the Russian military and the Taliban have left most of Afghanistan a scientific black hole. And social disruption and fitful central planning have combined to uproot and destroy much traditional knowledge about seeds.

In the early 1970s, the country had 22 agricultural research stations. All have since been bombed, looted, abandoned or confiscated by warlords. The national seed collection in Kabul was destroyed by mujahedeen fighters in 1992. Researchers led by Nasrat Wassimi, who today runs ICARDA’s Kabul office, then returned to the field and put together a collection of key samples and, during the dark days of the Taliban, quietly hid them in the basements of houses in the northern towns of Ghazni and Jalalabad, before fleeing the country. Despite their efforts, they found when they returned in 2002 that looters had destroyed even these salvaged remnants of the collection. Why such an apparently coordinated action was undertaken across the country, and by whom, has never been explained. It was not for the seeds, which were simply scattered on the floor. Only the plastic containers were taken.

Though much of the collection was irreplaceable, some varieties for which seeds were also held abroad have been shipped back for propagation in Afghanistan. One hope is that researchers can use these seeds to develop improved varieties of fruit trees and revive the country’s horticulture. In pre-Taliban days, fruits and nuts were a major crop, accounting for up to half of Afghanistan’s exports, but many orchards have since been chopped down for firewood or have died for want of irrigation.

The biggest export hope is almonds. Afghanistan used to be the world centre for almonds, with more than 60 native varieties. Fortunately, samples of all of them have been stored in seed banks round the world, and now the smart-aiders want almonds, along with saffron, cumin and other crops, to replace opium poppies in a rural economy that is becoming increasingly dependent on the global drugs trade. This could be hard, researchers privately admit. The poppy is well adapted to Afghan fields, and a hectare of poppies earns farmers eight times as much as a hectare of wheat. It is especially attractive to returning refugee farmers who need to raise capital quickly to buy livestock. But if, as the US government is suggesting, a scorched-earth policy is implemented this year to rid the country of poppies, then the farmers will be in desperate need of a new cash crop.

In the Palestinian territories, decades of conflict have left a legacy of a different kind. The hills of the West Bank look like a parched wilderness, populated mainly by goats and overlooked by Israeli settlements. But closer inspection reveals that they are the home to an estimated 2500 plant species, many of them closely related to some of the world’s key food crops. They include several of the wild grasses of the genus Triticum that early farmers turned into wheat more than 10,000 years ago.

Following nearly 40 years of occupation by Israeli forces, modern developments in farming, such as irrigation and commercialised seed production, have been stalled. Plant breeders are anxious to help Palestinian farmers modernise, but they also realise that the occupation has turned the hills into a time capsule where grasses that have disappeared elsewhere may still be found. Collectors are right now combing the hills looking for grasses with unique attributes, such as genes for drought-tolerance. “The hills are a treasure trove, but we have to find the grasses before everything is lost,” says Jan Valkoun, head of ICARDA’s genetic resources unit. In Iraq, too, plant collectors are keen to explore long-neglected areas. “Nobody has been to northern Iraq for about 25 years. It’s a real priority for us,” Valkoun says. ICARDA’s researchers plan to go to northern Iraq this year to search for the many varieties of wild wheat believed to have survived in remote valleys.

If recent history is anything to go by, the pickings from such areas could be rich. Oat farmers round the world are still benefiting from genes found in a disease-resistant wild oat discovered in the West Bank in the 1960s. More recently, Salvatore Ceccarelli of ICARDA produced an exceptionally drought-tolerant barley by crossing a traditional variety with a drought-tolerant ancestor found in the West Bank. The new variety produced half a tonne of grain on a farmer’s field in Syria during one of the driest years on record in the region. “To poor farmers in this zone, harvesting 500 kilos meant not being forced to sell off the family’s livestock or leaving farming altogether,” Ceccarelli says. And in a world suffering ever more intense droughts, the benefits of such a breakthrough could extend far and wide.

Ironically, the development of high-yielding “green revolution” varieties of staple crops has only increased the importance of ancient varieties, the plant breeders say. The new varieties continually need new genes to maintain their vigour, fight off evolving pests and respond to changing climate. Those genes may be stored in seed banks, growing in forgotten fields or scattered among the fast-disappearing wild grasses from which farmers’ varieties were themselves first bred.

From East Timor to Eritrea, Angola and Sierra Leone, smart-aiders have helped put agricultural systems back on their feet after conflicts. “Restoring agriculture is usually the first step in creating economic growth and laying the foundations for durable peace,” says the CGIAR chairman Ian Johnson.

One notable success story came four years ago, when scientists from Nigeria probably saved hundreds of thousands of people from starvation in central Africa. Cassava is the staple food of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Africa’s third-largest country. Its roots are packed with carbohydrates and its leaves are a protein-rich green vegetable. It is an ideal crop for people who are refugees in their own land. “It will grow virtually in the bush, needs little tending and can be harvested at any time,” says cassava breeder Alfred Dixon from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan, Nigeria.

But when a new strain of the mosaic virus arrived in the DRC from Uganda, hundreds of thousands of people were threatened with starvation. The virus was brought in by foreign troops and spread by marauding soldiers and dispossessed refugees. With no functioning plant science in the country to fight back, cassava yields crashed. Widespread starvation loomed till Dixon developed a resistant strain at his lab in Nigeria and loaded IITA’s small plane with thousands of seedlings for emergency distribution.

Another hero of an African conflict is the “bean boffin” of Rwanda, Alexis Rumaziminsi of the Rwandan Institute of Agronomic Science in Butare. Ten years ago he defended his bean research plots planted out in the Rwerere hills while genocide broke out around him. The common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) is a staple crop in the highlands of central Africa, where there are some 1300 local varieties, each suited to particular local conditions. By staying at his post, Rumaziminsi prevented a major setback to Rwanda’s ability to feed itself.

Sadly, the killing fields do not always have an Indiana Jones figure to pluck seeds from danger. The textbook disaster was Cambodia in the 1970s. While scientists know of some 2500 Cambodian rice varieties still in existence, there were once almost certainly many thousands more. Until about 40 years ago, a typical small farmer would grow a dozen or more varieties, for different culinary needs and to ensure a harvest whatever the weather. Then in the 1970s the Khmer Rouge came to power. The regime emptied the cities in the name of rural development, but then caused chaos in the countryside with forced migrations and the collectivisation of farms. Pol Pot and his generals banned traditional deep-water rice varieties, which they considered primitive, and replaced them with Chinese varieties. The new varieties generally failed to flourish, and rice production fell by 84 per cent.

Lost forever

After the ousting of the Khmer Rouge, refugees returning from Vietnam brought back some of the old varieties. And scientists from Australia and the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) repatriated a handful of varieties that had been collected from Cambodia months before the Khmer Rouge took over. But hundreds of varieties disappeared, some of which almost certainly contained unique genetic traits that could have boosted future production of the world’s most widely-eaten grain. A study by IRRIfound that in one district the 15 most prominent and adapted deep-water rice varieties were all lost. To make matters worse, traditional knowledge about what to plant where also disappeared on a catastrophic scale.

As well as helping agriculture recover from the ravages of war, smart-aiders are working out ways to make it less vulnerable in the first place. One important factor, they say, is supporting informal systems of seed exchange. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 saw the collapse of the potato harvest, which relied on commercial production and distribution of seeds. But the informal market in bean seeds was barely disturbed. In general, commercial or government-run seed distribution systems are vulnerable to disruption by war, but local seed markets can survive brief conflicts and recover much more quickly afterwards.

Unfortunately, the world seems to be moving in the opposite direction. Farmers everywhere are abandoning their cornucopia of traditional varieties in favour of a shrinking number of modern ones. And the expansion of patent laws agreed through the World Trade Organization has meant that seed distribution is becoming increasingly commercialised.

The latest example of this trend comes from Iraq, where in 2004 the US administrator Paul Bremer introduced US-style rules that outlawed farmers exchanging patented seeds. The contents of the black box in Aleppo are public property, so they won’t be affected. But, to the distress of the gene bank’s curators, seeds developed using the box’s precious genetic material one day may be.

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