ICARDA has signed the Agreement establishing the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers, aiming to improve synergies between CGIAR Centers and between Centers and other partners, and attracting more long-term investments by donor organizations. The decision was made during the meeting of ICARDA’s Board of Trustees earlier this month. In a letter to the Consortium Board Chair, Mr Carlos Pérez del Castillo, ICARDA’s Board Chair, Mr Henri Carsalade stated: “ICARDA joins the Consortium with a sense of strong optimism and faith in the very substantial opportunities to be gained from this new arrangement, in terms of delivering our joint mission. ICARDA considers the establishment of the Consortium to be of critical importance, given the scale of the challenges we face in addressing poverty, food security, environmental sustainability, and the impact of climate change, particularly in the world’s dry areas.” The Consortium will come into force once the Agreement is signed by 12 CGIAR Centers. It has since been announced that 13 Centers have signed; the Consortium has been established. ICARDA’s Director General, Dr Mahmoud Solh, explained why establishing the Consortium is a key part of the process of CGIAR reforms. The Consortium will provide leadership to the CGIAR system and coordinate activities among the Centers and other partners within a Strategy and Research Framework and a portfolio of new research mega-programs currently under development. Dr Solh emphasized that membership of the Consortium will not affect ICARDA’s day-to-day operations. “We will continue to pursue ICARDA’s mission and mandate in the dry areas. Our Board of Trustees will continue to oversee our work, in accordance with the Center’s Charter and the agreement with the Government of Syria, our host country.”
The 47th Meeting of ICARDA’s Board of Trustees was held at Tel Hadya, 23-27 April. The Board welcomed two new members: host-country representative Dr Walid Tawil, Director General of the General Commission for Scientific Agricultural Research, and Prof. Carl-Gustaf Thornström of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Dr Mahmoud Solh presented an overview of activities during the six months since the last Board meeting, including progress in the implementation of ICARDA’s strategic plan, focusing particularly on issues related to food security and climate change, partnerships with national research programs and other organizations, and developments in resource mobilization. He also highlighted the unusual rainfall and temperature patterns in the current cropping season, which have contributed to at least two major pest and disease outbreaks (see below). Top of the agenda for the Board meeting was ICARDA’s role in the “new” CGIAR. As part of the change process, much of the research by CGIAR Centers will be structured under a series of Mega-Programs. The Board’s Program Committee (which oversees the Center’s research) discussed how ICARDA’s four research programs will align with the Mega-Program portfolio, and how best the Center could contribute to collaborative CGIAR efforts.
The Board was also alerted to emerging pest and disease epidemics in Syria and other countries in the Near East, North Africa and Central Asia, as a result of the adverse weather conditions this season.
A serious outbreak of stripe (yellow) rust disease is threatening wheat crops in at least six countries – Azerbaijan, Iraq, Morocco, Tajikistan, Turkey and Syria. There are concerns that the epidemic could spread to India and Pakistan, which suffered losses last season. National wheat harvests are expected to fall significantly, with potentially severe impacts on food security. The epidemic is caused by a new strain of wheat stripe rust, and was likely triggered by the combination of a very mild winter and high humidity.
“ICARDA scientists are working with partners in ten countries – Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – to develop prevention and control strategies,” Dr Solh said. “These include the quick introduction of resistant varieties, early and targeted application of fungicide sprays, and continuous monitoring of infected areas.”
Barley crops in northern Syria have been severely damaged by the barley stem gall midge, which is not normally prevalent in the country. The insect has caused problems in North Africa for many years, but in Syria the pest cycle is normally broken by freezing temperatures in winter. Because of mild weather this season, with temperatures remaining above freezing throughout November to January, a full generation of the pest has been able to develop. This is one more warning of how severely climate change could impact global food security.
ICARDA has begun screening for resistance to the stem gall midge at ‘hot spots’ in farmers’ fields; and is rearing the pest in its entomology laboratory in order to screen for resistance under artificial infestation. The Center is also conducting a survey across Syria to collect natural enemies (parasitoids) of the midge, for possible use in environmentally friendly biocontrol methods.
The Global Conference for Agricultural Research and Development (GCARD) was held earlier this month in Montpellier, France. The four-day meeting focused on defining a broad research agenda for the CGIAR over the next decade, based on closer dialog between research centers, national and regional organizations, and donor agencies. With more than 800 delegates – government ministers, farmers, development experts, scientists, donors, representatives of international agencies and others – the breadth of views was almost unmatched.
CGIAR research has generated benefits worth an estimated US$120 billion over the last 20 years alone. But given the extent of poverty in some developing countries, and the increasing challenges (water scarcity, food insecurity, climate change), even more needs to be done. The GCARD helped identify key research and development goals, estimate the funding required to meet these goals, and bring together donors and implementing partners.
The regional priorities identified at the GCARD meeting correspond closely to ICARDA’s research programs. This was no surprise, because ICARDA is known for its close partnerships with national research systems at every stage of the research-development continuum. The “new” CGIAR will build on past successes, working with an even broader range of partners.
Input from the conference is being incorporated into the CGIAR strategy and results framework, which is based on a set of Mega-Programs, each implemented by several Centers working together with a range of other partners. Seven Mega-Programs are envisaged, focusing on various areas: climate change and agriculture, water resources, staple food crops (e.g. wheat, food legumes, rice, maize), integrated agricultural production systems (crops, rangeland, livestock as well as aquatic and forest resources), health and nutrition, and markets. Selected (‘fast-track’) Mega-Programs will be launched this year, funded through a newly established mechanism known as the CGIAR Fund. ICARDA’s research agenda is closely linked with several Mega-Programs.
West Asia is one of the world’s highest per-capita consumers (and importers) of wheat. Yield gaps – the difference between potential yields, achieved on research stations, and actual yields on farmers’ fields – are substantial. A workshop in Damascus earlier this month, organized by Syria’s General Commission for Agricultural Scientific Research (GCSAR), explored ways to bridge this yield gap. The 100-plus participants included scientists from Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, as well as regional and international agencies.
ICARDA was represented by Dr Nasri Haddad, Coordinator, West Asia Regional Program, who highlighted various technology options for increasing wheat yields. For example, ICARDA studies in different countries have shown the benefits of integrated packages: improved varieties, early planting, better soil and crop management. Under rainfed conditions in dry areas, the packages have the potential to increase yields by 1.6 to 2.5 times in the target areas in Morocco, 1.7 to 2 times in Syria, and 1.5 to 3 times in Turkey.
The workshop recommended that yield gaps in West Asia be measured at multiple locations for several seasons; and advocated better research-extension linkages and key policy changes to encourage the adoption of new wheat technologies. Participants also recommended that yield gaps be estimated not only in terms of grain yield, but also in terms of loss of potential income. This would help to convince farmers to adopt the new technologies.
A new 4-year project has been launched, to promote improved irrigation methods for olive cultivation in Morocco and Syria. This is a partnership between multiple institutions: the Common Fund for Commodities (CFC) and the OPEC Fund for International Development as funding agencies; the International Olive Council, the General Commission for Scientific Agricultural Research in Syria, the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique in Morocco, and ICARDA as executing agency for the project. The Instituto de Agricultura Sostenibile in Spain, and the Istituto per i Sistemi Agricoli e Forestali del Mediterraneo in Italy will provide additional technical support. The project was launched at an inception workshop at ICARDA headquarters in April. The objectives are to improve olive yield and quality, reduce production costs, and thus increase farmers’ revenues, by introducing modern irrigation methods that offer much higher water productivity. Researchers will work with small-scale olive producers to test and promote the new technologies. The impacts are expected to be substantial, because of the importance of olive production in both countries. In Morocco, the sector contributes to the livelihoods of two million people. In Syria – one of the world’s largest producers of olive oil – olive trees occupy more than 10% of total cultivated area.
ICARDA is involved in several collaborative research projects to strengthen agricultural development in Iraq. One such project, funded by IFAD, is helping to increase productivity of date palm and wheat using two effective, low-cost technologies: integrated pest management (IPM) and organic fertilization. The project has completed its first year of operations, with excellent results.
The project works with national research and extension agencies and farm communities in two agro-ecologies: rainfed cereal-legume systems in northern Iraq and irrigated date palm based systems in the southern and central regions. Research is conducted at four sites: Ninevah Governorate, Abu-Ghraib in Baghdad Governorate, Diwaniyah in Gadisiyah Governorate, and Erbil in the northern region.
- Laboratory tests and field trials of IPM and other integrated control measures against insects pests (stem borer, lesser date moth, Sunn pest) and diseases (particularly ascochyta blight)
- Trials to test and demonstrate optimal organic fertilization options
- Socioeconomic studies to identify policy and institutional options to stimulate adoption of these technologies
- Capacity development for national research and extension staff as well as farmers.
In its first year, the project has completed review studies of different technology components, baseline studies in the target areas, and field surveys of key diseases and pests. Other studies focused on nitrogen-fixing bacteria, use of organic fertilizers for date palm, and production of compost from plant residues. Several training courses were conducted, in Iraq and at ICARDA’s headquarters in Syria. A farmer field school program was launched in the date palm based system, and will be extended to cereal-legume systems in rainfed areas.
China, as the world’s largest faba bean producer, is an important partner for ICARDA’s faba bean research program. Collaboration focuses on developing improved varieties with cold, drought and bruchid tolerance. A number of ICARDA materials are now being tested in different environments in China, by the Chinese Academy for Agriculture Sciences and the Yunnan Academy for Agriculture Sciences. One major success has been Yundoo 147, a popular, high-yielding variety developed by crossing a Chinese landrace with an improved ICARDA line.
Two ICARDA scientists – Dr Fouad Maalouf, faba bean breeder, and Dr Ashutosh Sarker, Coordinator, South Asia and China Regional Program – participated in a faba bean workshop held in Beijing last month. Field visits during the workshop highlighted the potential of new lines under development, and the challenges still ahead. More than 4000 lines are being tested for cold tolerance in Qinadao province. Temperatures at the experimental site remained below –15˚C for more than 30 days. About 40 highly cold-tolerant lines survived, and will form the basis for a crossing program to develop new cold-tolerant varieties. An ICARDA nursery of low-tannin lines is being tested at another research site in Yunnan province. The lines are performing well, with good pod setting, suggesting they will give good yields in the target environment.
Food legumes are the main source of dietary protein for at least 840 million poor people worldwide. ICARDA’s research is helping to improve grain quality and nutritional value in four legume crops: lentil, chickpea, faba bean and grasspea. The breeding program aims to improve protein content and digestibility, and balance the amino acid profiles in legumes to make the traditional cereal-legume combination even more of a balanced meal. Additional research targets are to increase the content of micro-nutrients such as iron and zinc in lentil, and reduce anti-nutritional factors such as ODAP in grasspea to make it safe for consumption. More than 1600 genotypes were screened. Several have been identified with these traits, and will be used in breeding programs. These include, for example, a wild lentil with extremely high iron content (132.5 mg per kg), and grasspea genotypes with ODAP content as low as 0.073%.
ICARDA breeders also screen several thousand lines each year for physical parameters such as seed size, seed weight and seed coat hardness; cooking parameters such as cooking time and hydration capacity; and milling parameters such as recovery percentage. Wide genetic variability in these parameters creates opportunities for selection and genetic improvement. For example, cooking time in different lentil varieties ranges from 18 to 45 minutes, depending on seed size, seed coat hardness, and chemical composition of the cell wall. Breeding quick-cooking varieties would save time as well as cooking fuel. ICARDA and its partners are working together to identify genotypes with specific traits, for use in breeding programs.