This post was written by Dr. Mahmoud Solh, Director General, ICARDA.

2016 will be a year to remember, but what do we want to remember it for?

This year, the entrenched Syrian crisis continues to exert a drastic humanitarian toll. The war has so far claimed 400,000 lives, wounded another 1.4 million people, and displaced millions within and outside the country with much human suffering. Political unrest is also fueled in other dryland regions around the world, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa where farming and food security are increasingly threatened by desertification, water scarcity, climate variability, and food insecurity.

The United Nations declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses. An international campaign is taking place with the UN, the Global Pulse Confederation, and over twenty partners that has contributed to a growing awareness of sustainable agriculture and food security benefits from growing and eating beans, peas, lentils, and chickpeas. The campaign has also brought to light the very modest global research investment for pulses compared to other major food crops despite the tremendous nutritional and health benefits of pulse consumption for food insecure people and those suffering from non-communicable diseases.

2016 is also the year that nations of the world are signing a historic climate change treaty that commits 196 nations to slowing greenhouse gas emissions and building resilience to unstoppable climatic changes. Pulse crops are tremendously diverse and have significant environmental benefits, in particular with their low water and carbon footprints. These are major advantages for farmers, especially in dryland areas, who need to become resilient to impending changes like higher temperatures and extreme weather events.

The solution

In order for farmers to take advantage of what pulse crops have to offer, the big challenge is making sure they have access to the right seeds for their growing conditions. This means safeguarding the irreplaceable genetic resources that are the building blocks for sustainable agriculture and food security in the face of changing climates. Over more than five decades, through hundreds of field collection missions in the Fertile Crescent and beyond, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) has painstakingly assembled a germplasm ‘treasure trove’ for cultivated and wild plants, including legume and rhizobium species, many of which are now extinct. Since two-thirds of the ICARDA collection originate from dry areas, it is an invaluable repository of desirable plant genes for tolerance to harsh conditions including drought, heat, cold, and high salinity as well as pest, weed, and disease resistance.

Despite the difficulties that the region faces, each year ICARDA distributes 25,000 germplasm samples to breeders, scientists, and farmers throughout the world, particularly to national programs in developing countries, who use this genetic material to produce improved pulse varieties that can survive in more variable growing conditions. For example, the chickpea Gokce variety withstood the severe drought in Turkey in 2007 when most other crops failed. It has since been adopted in 85% of Turkish chickpea production areas, yielding 300 kg/ha more than other varieties.

Since 2000, collaboration between ICARDA and its Ethiopian national partners has enabled tripling of lentil production, doubling of chickpea production, and a 40% increase in faba bean production. Improved pulse varieties and associated management practices are leading to over 20% gains in yield and farm income. Today, Ethiopia currently produces over 400,000 metric tons of chickpea annually and is one of the top ten largest chickpea exporters in the world. In Nepal, improved lentil varieties developed by ICARDA produce an additional 36,000 tons each year, generating nearly USD 29 million in value and are benefitting over 800,000 farm families. In India, improved lentil technologies, with a yield increase of 30-40% over local varieties, have been adopted by 22,000 farmers. New lentil varieties adopted by farmers in South Asia fit perfectly in rice-based production systems to break the rice monoculture by replacing the fallow in rice-fallow rotations, providing extra income to farmers, improving household nutritional security, and contributing to animal and soil health. Lentil and other pulse crops have the potential to replace fallows in more than 11 million hectares in India and more than one million hectares in Bangladesh.

To achieve prosperity, better nutrition, and well-being, rural dryland communities need technological packages that fit with the complex dynamics at the farm, community, national, and regional level. Since the 1970s, ICARDA has worked with 60 national programs to generate hundreds of improved, high-yielding, resilient crop varieties and to strengthen village-based seed enterprises. These collaborations have helped hundreds of thousands of resource-poor families across the Middle East, North and East Africa, and Central and South Asia to gain improved nutrition and income. The genetic resources of cultivated and wild plants in the ICARDA GeneBank have improved the health of women and children, particularly through the bio-fortification of lentil with high iron and zinc content to counteract micronutrient deficiencies that cause anemia and impair physical and mental growth. With the national program in Bangladesh, ICARDA enriched lentil varieties with iron and zinc and these are now grown by nearly 1 million farmers on 86% of lentil production areas, delivering more than 33,000 tons of extra seed and 70,000 tons of straw worth USD 30 million annually.

Getting improved pulse varieties onto farmers’ fields also means cultivating scientific capacity. At ICARDA, we have found that transformative research-for-development emerges directly from hand-in-hand partnerships with national programs that are anchored in co-authorship. Close engagement in designing and implementing research helps to enrich national scientific capacity and ensures that research is informed by nuanced understandings of national and regional contexts and needs. In turn, this results in much more successful adoption of improved seeds and national leadership in seed multiplication programs. These partnerships have nurtured a generation of men and women scientists from the Middle East and North Africa and cultivated strong national institutions performing high quality, innovative science.

Resilience to crisis

When the Syrian crisis erupted, ICARDA was able to call on these strong partnerships and the trust it built with national programs in an hour of need. ICARDA scientists were evacuated from their headquarters in Aleppo and given access to laboratories and research stations in Morocco, Ethiopia, India, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan, where they continue their important work through the CGIAR global research programs (CRPs) and more than 120 research projects for sustainable agricultural developmentThe entire germplasm collection, which ICARDA holds in trust for the international community, was secured through duplications and safe storage in Morocco and Lebanon as well as the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway, which holds 80% of ICARDA’s genetic resources.

ICARDA has managed to survive major regional turmoil and kept a light shining during a dark time in its history through the support of national programs, the CGIAR donors, and other donors. Safe duplication and storage of the seeds entrusted to ICARDA represents a source of tremendous hope for rebuilding the agricultural sector and agricultural research institutions in in Syria and in post-conflict countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq where institutions were weakened and genetic resources collections during wars.

In a globally interconnected world, no nation is immune to the disruptive effects of climate change, food insecurity, and political conflicts. In volatile and high risk regions, it is especially important to build strong partnerships for long-term, high-trust scientific collaborations that are resilient to not only climate change, but also violent conflicts. International commitment to effective regional agricultural research for development represents a critical and cost-effective investment in a resilient global food system. Let’s remember 2016 as the year the world decided to capitalize on decades of scientific knowledge and millennia of agricultural biodiversity by investing in the immense potential of pulse crops.