Lebanese research preserves heat-adapted seeds to feed a warming world
- In Lebanon, the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) is preserving crops’ genetic diversity and helping breed climate-resilient varieties of seeds.
- Varieties selected for their adaptation to local conditions, resilience to drought and heat can thrive without the use of expensive hybrid seeds and agrochemicals promoted by agribusinesses — boosting farmers’ finances and food security — and can improve production on sustainable farms based on the principles of agroecology.
- “Big companies like Monsanto are after profit, they are trying to find ways to make the farmers dependent on buying seeds from them. For us it’s not about profit, it’s about improving livelihoods and promoting agricultural practices that don’t harm the environment,” an ICARDA researcher tells Mongabay.
TERBOL, Lebanon — Sitting cross-legged in the summer sun, Fatima collects seedpods from fava beans in Terbol, a quiet village surrounded by cypress trees and vineyards in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. “It’s my first day here,” she says as she smiles shyly, glancing over the hills she had to cross with her family to flee war in Syria almost a decade earlier.
The Syrian border is just a few miles away, behind the hills that surround a group of Syrian women wearing bright-colored dresses and carefully handling fava bean plants. Their painstaking labor saving seeds is a crucial part of efforts by the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) to preserve genetic diversity and breed climate-resilient varieties of staple crops to improve livelihoods and strengthen food security.
Like Fatima, the research center used to be based in the Syrian countryside. But when war made it increasingly difficult to operate in the Aleppo region, where ICARDA had been located since 1977, the organization had to be moved to Lebanon and Morocco. The Beqaa Valley, with climatic zones varying from Mediterranean to semiarid, proved to be the ideal place to continue the work breeding and testing crops for tolerance to drought and heat stress, and resistance to diseases and pests.
The young women sitting in circles picking fava bean pods don’t know where the seeds they hold in their hands will end up: in a cold storage room, or a field warmed by the sun? Some of the seeds collected by these migrant workers, mostly Syrian women, have ended up as far as the Arctic, in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which stores seeds from all over the world to provide a backup in case there is a disaster.
In 2015, ICARDA was in the news for being the first depositor of seeds to make a withdrawal from the vault burrowed into a mountain on Spitsbergen Island, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. Before the war, ICARDA’s gene bank in Aleppo held one of the world’s largest collections of crop diversity from the Fertile Crescent, the birthplace of staples like wheat, barley, lentils and chickpeas.
But scientists at ICARDA had been sending backup samples to Svalbard since it opened in 2008. Even after the Syrian war had started and international staff fled to regional offices in Lebanon and Morocco, Syrian employees continued to send seed samples to the Arctic vault, and managed to back up more than 80% of ICARDA’s collection of 142,000 accessions — groups of plant genetic material — an effort that earned them the prestigious Gregor Mendel Innovation prize in 2015. From its new premises in Lebanon and Morocco, ICARDA took the backup samples from the vault to rebuild the lost collection. Since then, scientists have been recreating the gene bank and gradually restoring the seeds to the Arctic vault.
Now more decentralized, with seed banks in Lebanon and Morocco in addition to offices across the region, ICARDA’s work in non-tropical dry areas focuses on preserving agrobiodiversity and growing crops in arid conditions of vital importance for global food security in a sustainable way. Dry areas are experiencing worsening heat, drought and aridity, yet still grow about 44% of the world’s food and are home to nearly half of its livestock.
“This region will be one of the most affected by climate change,” says Hassan Machlab, ICARDA’s Lebanon manager. “Drought has always been a concern in dry areas. But with climate change, we are worried about not just drought but also floods. We need to adapt to drought, salinity and heat, but also to cold and frost.”
Breeding climate-resilient crops to help feed a warming world
Standing over the brightly dressed women picking fava beans, scientists in white overcoats take notes. “What I like the most is working in the field collecting seeds,” says Mohammad Kak, a research technician at ICARDA’s gene bank, as he inspects white bags filled with seeds, which are then hung from poles to dry.
“Fava bean is my favorite crop,” he tells Mongabay. Breeding efforts are underway to develop a variety with greater tolerance to heat and resistance to a parasitic weed. Kak explains that in addition to being an important food crop, it also contributes to feeding livestock and increases the productivity of cereal crops grown in rotation.
“First we conserve biodiversity, we store crop varieties in our gene bank,” Machlab says. “But we don’t just want the seeds to be stored, we also use them for crop improvement. With our breeding programs we are trying to make new crops with higher yields and better resistance to heat, drought and diseases.”
For Machlab, it’s not just important to conserve biodiversity, but also to make sure that diversity is used. “There’s a huge collection of genetic material stored inside seeds, inside the gene bank, that we can use to improve crops,” he says, adding that through breeding programs over the past four decades, ICARDA has released more than 30 improved varieties of wheat, barley, chickpea, lentil, fava beans and forage legumes.
It usually takes eight to nine years to release a new variety, but Machlab says new techniques can speed up the process. “We can now reach a new variety in four or five years. We are concentrating on speed breeding,” he adds. But it’s a race against time, as climate change brings more intense heat waves, droughts and floods, threatening crops worldwide and exposing the weakness of global food systems that are not ready to face the rapid onset of climate change.
ICARDA provides researchers and breeders around the world with thousands of samples each year, giving them access to genetic traits that could help crops better withstand extreme and unpredictable conditions. The samples are not just important in the Middle East, since intense heat and severe drought are becoming increasingly common in other parts of the world.
“We share information with other research centers, compare data and learn from each other,” says Huda Abu Younes, who manages ICARDA’s international nurseries, responsible for sending samples to researchers and breeders around the world. “The most important thing is cooperation, sharing data about growing different varieties in different places,” she tells Mongabay.
After years of developing and testing improved varieties, the seeds are finally released to national institutions in charge of multiplying the seeds and distributing them to local farmers. “We also involve the farmers by doing field days when the crops are mature,” Machlab says. “We invite them to come see our new varieties and hear their opinion.”
Nagib Saadeh, who grows wheat, potatoes and onions on his farm near Terbol, planted barley on 4 hectares (10 acres) of his land for the first time last December, using improved seeds distributed by ICARDA’s partner, the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute (LARI). “The seeds are very good quality,” he says. “It was my first time planting barley, but I got a good yield — about 5 tons of rainfed barley per hectare and 7.5 tons of irrigated barley.”
But the distribution program has been affected by Lebanon’s economic and financial collapse in 2019, which crippled local institutions. “We used to distribute up to 8,000 tons of seeds a year, but now because of the crisis, we are only able to distribute 8 tons as part of a small initiative with ICARDA to disseminate local varieties and support farmers in the region,” says Rola El Amil a researcher and plant breeder at the government’s agricultural research institute.
Increasing diversity and improving food security
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that three-quarters of the world’s crop biodiversity is no longer planted in farmers’ fields.
With the industrialization of agriculture, food producers started using the same genetically uniform varieties of crops, privileging higher yields and large-scale production over diversity, and abandoning “landraces,” crops that have been continuously cultivated by successive generations of farmers. But as crops became more homogeneous and standardized, they also became more vulnerable to disease, pests and climate change.
“Diversity is extremely important to ensure stability and boost resilience,” says Rami Zurayk, a professor of ecosystem management and director of the Food Security Program at the American University of Beirut. The loss of diversity in farmers’ fields also meant a loss of resilience in food systems against unpredictable conditions, as crops have been reduced to a narrow genetic range, becoming vulnerable to climate breakdown.
A 1983 study conducted by the Rural Advancement Foundation International found that about 93% of seed varieties had gone extinct since the beginning of the 20th century. “The genetic erosion of crops is a fact,” says Ahmed Amri, the head of ICARDA’s genetic resources, who is now based in Morocco.
Amri specialized in breeding wheat and barley in dry areas, looking for local varieties in marginal areas and harsh and isolated environments. He spent several decades hunting for genetic traits in wild varieties of staple crops that would make them more resistant to pests and able to endure more unpredictability.
“Wild relatives have evolved in very harsh environments, and can be helpful to develop new varieties adapted to more difficult conditions,” he explains. By using the wild ancestors of seeds most farmers plant today, scientists at ICARDA are tapping into the rich traits of varieties that have grown in the wild and are better adapted to withstand extreme weather.
“Whichever challenge is posed to a given crop, whether it’s a new disease, an insect or more heat, most often we can find what we need in the gene bank. We have the capacity to find suitable genes to develop new varieties,” Amri says.
While the high-tech development of new varieties is also used by corporations that control more than half of the world’s seeds to create hybrid seeds that can’t be saved by farmers and need to be bought each season, Machlab says that ICARDA’s goal is to improve the livelihoods of farmers and food security.
“Big companies like Monsanto are after profit, they are trying to find ways to make the farmers dependent on buying seeds from them. For us it’s not about profit, it’s about improving livelihoods and promoting agricultural practices that don’t harm the environment,” he tells Mongabay.
The seeds selected for their natural resilience to drought and heat are adapted to local environments and can thrive without the heavy use of agrochemicals promoted by agribusinesses. “Most of the landraces are found under traditional farming systems known to use fewer chemical inputs,” Amri says, and can therefore grow well on sustainable farms based on the principles of agroecology.
The genetic resources preserved by ICARDA can also be used to regenerate farming systems. As an example, Amri cites the reintroduction of landraces in Afghanistan. “Local varieties could no longer be found in farmers’ fields because of the war, so we supplied them with seeds from our bank so they could use them again,” he says. “It’s important to promote on-farm conservation of local varieties, and to empower communities to continue using landraces.”
Funding, however, has become an issue in Lebanon, where the economic crisis, crumbling infrastructure and extreme currency depreciation have meant soaring costs. With the collapse of the electricity network, ICARDA’s station has to run on very expensive diesel generators — fundamental to keep the seed bank at -20° Celsius (4° Fahrenheit) — but staff members don’t know how long they will be able to keep the generators running.
For Elias Saker, a landowner who plants ICARDA’s improved wheat seeds in his fields near Terbol, the problem is the failure to support farmers and the lack of investment in agriculture. “Instead, the government invested in banking and services, and look where it got us,” he says bitterly, as he mentions the prohibitive costs farmers have faced since the Lebanese pound lost more than 90% of its value against the U.S. dollar in a country heavily dependent on imports. With rising prices of fuel, most farmers are struggling to survive in a dollarized economy.
“We have to improve the livelihoods of the custodians of biodiversity through policies, access to markets and alternative sources of income that will allow local communities to conserve agricultural biodiversity,” Amri says. But it’s also about setting priorities.
“Countries are spending more on wars and making weapons, when we should be uniting to end hunger,” Machlab says. “The amount we [ICARDA] need for funding is ridiculous if we compare it to how much it costs to make a rocket or a warplane. If you put it into perspective, we’re not asking for a lot of money.”