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ICARDA decentralization improves seed protection

Mar 14,2017

Thanks to donors like the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development and the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development, ICARDA was able to decentralize its operations outside of Syria and emerge a stronger and more efficient organization.

When the Institutional Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) started decentralizing  its operations, it could do so thanks to support from the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development  and the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development as well as the CGIAR.  Field, laboratory, and office facilities were quickly upgraded and staff and infrastructure moved to regional offices in Central Asia, North Africa, the wider Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa.

A new decentralization strategy is successfully implemented

As decentralization proceeded, an enhanced research infrastructure began to take shape. ICARDA established research platforms in several locations: existing facilities were expanded in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan; a research platform in Morocco was dedicated to rain-fed cereal and legume production; crop-livestock integration was the main focus of a new platform in Ethiopia; and the research in India platform targeted food legumes production systems. Further, Egypt was designated for intensification of diversification under irrigation, and Sudan for research on cereal and legume heat tolerance. This strategy enabled the Center to cover more ago-ecological zones and respond more effectively to regional constraints and research demands and priorities. 
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ICARDA Director General Aly Abousabaa together with ICARDA staff at the International Genebank for the Drylands launch, 29 September, 2016, Terbol Research Station, Lebanon

Through its newly installed research platforms, ICARDA could also focus on specific priorities: optimal irrigation practices in Egypt; improved winter wheat and winter barley varieties in Turkey, Central Asia and Iran; strengthened resistance to wheat rust disease in Turkey; and heat-tolerant wheat and legume varieties in Sudan. All the research outputs generated in these locations are international, regional and national public goods.  

Safeguarding a globally-important seed collection

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Inside the Genebank, Terbol, Lebanon

ICARDA also decentralized its gene-bank, which hosts one of the world’s largest collections of landraces and wild relatives of major winter cereals, food legumes, forage, and rangeland species.

The ICARDA genebank materials provide the building blocks for new resilient crops – our best chance of coping with the adverse impacts of climate change, including drought, extreme temperatures, and new pests and disease.

On October 2015 ICARDA became the first organization in history to withdraw seeds from the Svalbard Seed Vault – a secure seed storage facility located 1330 kilometers south of the North Pole, buried deep beneath thick rock and the Arctic Permafrost, and nicknamed the “doomsday vault”.  The withdrawal, used to reconstitute new ICARDA seed collections in Morocco and Lebanon, marked an important stage in the institution’s decentralization efforts and resulted in the opening of ICARDA’s expanded Crop Genebank in Lebanon in September 2016.

The total holdings of ICARDA genebank is 153,000 accessions including around 20,000 accessions of faba bean, Lathyrus, range and forage species along with crop wild relatives species in Lebanon, and around 26,000 accessions of barley, chickpea, lentil and wheat in Morocco. AFESD funds were used in rehabilitating genebank facilities and in reconstructing the collections in Lebanon and Morocco.

Crucially, decentralization allowed crop breeders to continue their core service of developing climate-resilient crop varieties and distributing elite germplasm to plant breeding programs worldwide.

Breeders shared more than 1400 nurseries with 150 partners in 40 countries. These nurseries are allowing national breeding programs to select best lines for release to farmers.  More than 15 new varieties of barley, lentil, chickpea and wheat were released in 2016. 

Redepositing seeds in Svalbard

Fast forward a year and a half from the Svalbard withdrawal and ICARDA is now in a much more stable position. In February 2017, the Center returned more than 15.000 seed samples – which it had multiplied in Morocco and Lebanon - back into the Svalbard Vault. It’s a clear sign that the decentralization strategy adopted to safeguard these precious resources is operational. 

“We have demonstrated that we can rely on our gene-banks and their safety duplications, despite adverse circumstances,” says Aly Abousabaa, ICARDA’s Director General. Reflecting on the success of the Center’s decentralization, Abousabaa points to the strong and enduring partnerships that ICARDA has maintained over the years: “We really need to thank the Kuwait Fund and AFESD for their continued support. With their help we have emerged stronger, more relevant, and even more committed to a food-secure world.”