Ahmed Amry gives a tour of the brand new gene bank of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Arid Zones (Icarda). Heavy doors provide protection, as well as temperature. A sign displays – 18°C. Now honorary director of the genetic resources division, this geneticist has been working for fifteen years in gene banks or seed banks..
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“Here, in the basement, is the basic collection, the original samples of the different varieties of plants. The seeds can be stored there for a hundred years,” he explains. The ground floor chamber maintains other samples between 0 and 4°C. This “active collection” is open to everyone, researchers or farmers, who can take a seed and sow it free of charge.
Dryland varieties from 129 countries
This gene bank with a capacity of 120,000 samples was inaugurated on Wednesday May 18 in Rabat, the Moroccan capital. It complements another bank of the organization located in Lebanon. Inside the cold rooms, tens of thousands of seed samples of all kinds of cultivated plants are lined up and identified by QR Codes. There are more or less old varieties, which come from the arid zones of 129 countries, in particular from the Fertile Crescent, the cradle of agriculture.
“We conserve plant genetic resources here. We do this to allow future generations to keep the possibility of using this immense genetic material to face future challenges in agriculture, such as diseases or increasing temperatures,” explains Athanasios Tsivelikas, director of the Rabat gene bank.
Morocco, victim of a historic drought
This bank could become an important asset for Morocco, which has just suffered a historic drought. “Climate change is already impacting water availability and production schedules. However, some varieties kept in these seed banks have proven themselves over time in terms of resistance to drought, or even yield,” comments Zakaria Kadiri, agricultural engineer and sociologist.
Icarda, created in 1977, had not planned to create this infrastructure in Morocco or in Lebanon. The organization’s bank was initially located in Aleppo, Syria, next to one of its research centers… until the war broke into the researchers’ daily lives. “In June 2012, I left the place with the other foreigners. Our Syrian colleagues continued to work there, until it became impossible in 2014,” relates the Moroccan researcher Ahmed Amri.
The creation of new varieties
Duplicates of the samples carefully collected over the years had, fortunately, been sent to other gene banks. The majority of these duplicates had also been placed in the world famous seed vault in Svalbard, Norway. “98% of our resources could be saved”, assures Ahmed Amri. The work continued temporarily in Tunisia, before seed banks in Lebanon and then Morocco were created.
In the Marchouch research center, 70 km from Rabat, Icarda researchers precisely cross varieties of wheat, barley or even broad beans. “We are taking the interesting characteristics of two varieties to create a new one that meets the needs of farmers,” explains Abdelaziz Rached, technician at the center.
The challenge is to get the new variety to farmers. “The process is unfortunately quite slow, regrets Abdelaziz Rashid. Farmers continue to experience, for example, the effects of disease as new resistant varieties emerge. It is essential to put in place national strategies so that these are widely disseminated. »