by GRAIN | 25 Feb 1991


As "Seedling" goes to print, armed conflict is once again besieging the Middle East, this time of untold dimensions. Open hostilities in the Gulf region could degenerate into a large scale tragedy involving chemical and biological warfare, as well as nuclear arms. While we all hold firm to the hope for a negotiated solution to the political problems of the region, GRAIN thought it valuable to acknowledge the important contribution that genetic diversity from the Middle East makes to world agriculture and review the region's highly vulnerable conservation efforts. It is an area particularly rich in landraces and wild species of immense value for crop improvement and food production worldwide.


The Gulf crisis could potentially destabilise much of the Middle East, cradle of Western agricultural civilisation and centre of diversity for many of the world's important crops. The Near East zone is one the richest in genetic variation identified by the Russian geneticist N.I. Vavilov in the 1920s. It is also tightly stradled by two other very important centres of diversity: the Mediterranean and Abyssinian zones. Together, these pools of incredible genetic wealth hold the largely untapped resources to meet the needs of farmers all over the world to adapt to constant social and ecological pressures. But international warfare now threatens the region with incalculable losses of these resources, already being undermined by erosion and inadequate conservation systems.

A hothouse of genetic diversity

Archaeological remains evidence that wheat was domesticated over 8000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, spanning from Turkey southward toward Egypt and eastward through Afghanistan. It may have been the very first cereal people started sowing and harvesting to make porridge, bread and beverages. Einkorn wheat was probably first cultivated in Southeast Turkey, while emmer wheat is said to have been domesticated in the Jordan Valley. West and Southwest Asia is also the most important reservoir of diversity in durum wheat. Bread wheat, which has a different genetic structure from the others, probably emerged later on from spontaneous hybridisation between wild and cultivated species in the region. Through centuries of natural and farmer selection, a very broad wheat gene pool has been created and handed down over generations.

In ancient times, barley - which is thought to have originated separately in the Fertile Crescent, Ethiopia and Asia - was certainly the most important cereal for what was then known as Mesopotamia. Ten thousand year old remains of wild barley have been dug up in Iran and Syria. The Sumerians of Babylonia used it to make beer, practising one of the first recorded techniques of biotechnology. Barley is really one of the most dependable cereal crops in harsh environments, as it can withstand drought in arid zones and cold in mountainous regions, both so typical of the Middle East. Logically, it has been a central part of the Arab culture, used for food, brewing, fodder, money and religious ceremonies.

If we look around, today's cultivated oats and rye of Central Europe and elsewhere are descendants of local wild and weedy species that emerged and evolved with the help of farmers throughout the Middle East region. Rye was originally a weed tolerated in wheat fields, before it was domesticated and grown in its own right. Pulses widely eaten from Portugal to Sri Lanka, such as chickpea or lentil, and various types of beans and peas have also been developed for millennia in today's most heavily armed war territory. As well, innumerous fruits, nuts, spices, fibres and oils seeds arose and diversified in the region. Apricots, pistachios, figs, grapes and almonds carry the stamp of their Middle Eastern genetic cradle.

Erosion at the source

In recent years, though, certain parts of the region have been hard hit by genetic erosion. This is particularly well documented in Turkey, Cyprus, Egypt, Iraq and Syria. Erosion in the Middle East is essentially due to the introduction of genetically uniform, high yielding varieties (HYVs) and modern irrigation schemes to extend agricultural production. Semi-dwarf Mexican wheats developed at the International Centre for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT) began entering the region in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Almost overnight, they replaced thousands of different strains of local landraces which harboured potentially valuable genes for future demands. Turkey and Cyprus have essentially sold-out to the high-yielding seeds. Iraq and Syria also went for the "Mexipak" kill, planting anywhere between half and all of their bread wheat fields to the lone CIMMYT superstar. These varieties have not done so well in Egypt or the Iranian highlands, but the governments keep on coercing with biased subsidies and seed-tied credit programmes.

But bread wheat is only of relative importance to the countries of the current bellicose theatre. Durum wheat is the most important food crop of West Asia. Like barley, it is a hardy and popular cereal, and both have been neglected by international yield-raising schemes. Most durum wheat grown in the arid zones of Yemen or Syria and the cool elevated hills of Iran and Iraq are well-adapted landraces that can provide stable harvests of grain and straw despite scant rainfall or cold nights. With the exception of Turkey, replacement of farmers ' indigenous durum wheat varieties with novel types has been fairly minimal to date.

The picture is pretty much the same for barley, a champion grain in very harsh environments. A full 80% of all barley cultivated in the Middle East are indigenous landraces. Many of them draw from local populations that hybridise naturally with Hordeum spontaneum, barley's wild progenitor. H. spontaneum, which originated from the region and still abounds there, is notoriously rich in genetic resistance to major barley diseases such as powdery mildew, rust and scald. This genetic cocktail is of great use to the farmers, while the breeders simply haven 't got their act together yet.

As for pulses, the complementary food group, breeding has also lagged behind the HYV trend. Farmers in the region still grow an important variety of local chickpeas, lentils, beans and peas. But where the Green Revolution has been slow, dams have been quite effective. When the Egyptians built the Aswan Dam, many unaccounted crop resources of the Nile Valley were simply drowned out of existence. Today, genetic resources specialists are heavily concerned about the river basin development scheme to be unleashed in Southeast Anatolia in Turkey. Over the next three decades, 16 dams will rise across the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to create 20,000 square kilometres of irrigated land in the river valleys and Mesopotamian Plain. The project is yet another violent threat to one of the temperate zone's most important reservoirs of genetic diversity.

Gulf genes on the go

While it is hard to assess the damage already done, there is no doubt that the Middle East continues to harbour one of the world's most incredible concentrations of genetic diversity for a broad range of species. This makes the region a heavy target for plant breeders in search of useful genes. One of the first to realise this in any grand manner was Vavilov, who initiated major expeditions in the 1920s to study, collect and utilise genetic variation for crop improvement.

More recently, certain countries have been scoured by the post-Vavilov generation of collectors. Since the 1960s above all, innumerous researchers and scientists have amassed an amazing wealth of landraces and wild species from Turkey and Yemen in particular. Turkey, bordering the Mediterranean zone, was once extremely rich in wild and cultivated wheats, sugarbeet, pulses and forage grasses, as well as spices and drugs (tobacco and opium poppy). Yemen, which is closer to the Abyssian centre of diversity ( Ethiopia and Sudan), abounds in unique pearl millets, maize landraces, coffee and barley. Both have been the site of major collecting activities.

Syria and Iran are probably the other two most gene-scavenged countries of the area, followed by Egypt. Both are very rich in durum wheat and barley, and Syria has provided an array of vegetables, pulses and forage crops to a number of genebanks. In addition to cereals, pulses and vegetables, Egypt has been an important source of cotton for genebank collectors.

Genetic refugee camps

But like genetic refugees of political strife in the region, most of the well-adapted farmers ' varieties and wild relatives are either lying exposed in the field or are camped up in foreign genebanks and international research centres. Little is being conserved by local governments; the rest, by the people who continue to protect, maintain and cultivate their hardy landraces.

Most all countries of the Middle East have genebanks, with the exception of Lebanon, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The largest national collection (25,000 seed samples) is in Israel, just outside of Tel Aviv. It contains a lot of foreign germplasm, including an appreciable array of avocado types, an important export crop. The second largest gene store (20,000 samples) is the Iranian collection in Karaj, northwest of Teheran. Iran has been collecting local grains, vegetables, fruits and pulses (particularly chickpeas and beans) and vegetables since the 1940s. Turkey comes in third, with 13,000 accessions located mainly at the Aegean Regional Agricultural Research Institute, on the west coast at Izmir. The centre has significant holdings for all crop types, including Turkey's prize resources in cereals, chickpea, beans, sugarbeet, spinach and peppers.

But if you look around today, the bulk of the Middle East's genetic refugees are tucked away in a few governmental genebanks of the industrialised world, as well as a couple of International Agricultural Research Centres (bascially ICARDA, the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas based in Syria, and ICRISAT, the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, based in India).

In fact, leaving ICARDA out, the Middle East can barely claim active responsibility for long term seed storage of their own genetic resources. As Table 1 shows, of the many important food crops that originated there, only figs and pistachio are predominantly left in the hands of the local governments. This may sound like good news for a region plagued by war, but when was the last time the American genebank repatriated local wheats to Iran?

ICARDA: a regional solution?

The big "X" on the Middle Eastern gene map is ICARDA, the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas, in Syria. Its headquarters are strategically located by the Turkish border - a region that IBPGR describes as "the heart of one of the world's most important sources of plant germplasm" but that Sadam Husein and George Bush might see differently. Set up in 1977 by the pro-Green Revolution club, ICARDA has a world responsibility for the improvement of barley, lentil and faba bean, and a regional mandate for wheat, kabuli chickpea, pasture and forage crops. Its professed mission is not to service global activities on these individual crops, but agricultural production systems in the arid region spanning from Pakistan to Morocco.

ICARDA holds the largest collection of crops indigenous to the area. By the end of 1990, the total number of seed samples was getting close to the 90,000 mark with an important stock of chickpea, faba bean, pea and various cereals. For security, the collections are duplicated in an extensive array of genebanks throughout the world.

The Centre's largest holding is its collection of durum wheat, which is mostly composed of landraces from elevated regions of West Asia and North Africa. In principle, this means that much the material could be immediately useful for breeding purposes. ICARDA is also responsible for worldwide improvement of barley, which is no minor task. It is highly susceptible to both drought and disease. ICARDA's barley collection is somewhat of a disaster, though, as it sorely lacks diversity in its makeup. The Centre's donors have been screaming for some crash collecting manoeuvres, with little outcome. There is also some pumping up to do with the lentil collection if it is to be useful.

Looking at the inevitable post-war breeding challenges, including global warming with its prospect of less dependable rainfall patterns and the evolution of diseases and pathogens in the region, there are definitely some gaps in ICARDA's tool box. Despite their mandate to conserve and improve a number of very important crops for both regional and world agriculture, only their durum wheat - and perhaps chickpea - collection seems to be satisfactory at present. Some of the most important resources are sitting exposed to extinction - by "progress" or bombs - in the field. A second major stumbling block is the lack of information about the collections, particularly the wild materials, as evaluation and screening activities have been progressing only slowly.

Genes of crisis, genes of hope

The genetic resources picture that the Gulf war has pushed us to face is not a bright one:

Inadequate collections: Little collecting has been done in this major centre of crop genetic diversity. More Middle East diversity remains in the fields and hills of the Arab world than in any artificial genebank. What has been removed from the region is essentially stored in a few national genebanks of the North and two international centres. Those are the doors Arab breeders and farmers might first knock on when the war is over.

Vulnerable genebanks: The largest national holding - outside of Tel Aviv, Israel - is in an area being bombed right now. ICARDA's collection, the most important of the region, is near the Syrian/Turkish border and highly vulnerable to destruction if the conflict spreads.

Erosion of indigenous resources: The remaining local materials - wild and cultivated - are increasingly under threat. With the exceptions of Turkey, Egypt and Cyprus, HYVs have not made great incursions in the region yet. Displacement by the introduction of modern varieties, destruction under irrigations schemes, and other gradual but ongoing trends could cause tremendous genetic erosion. But the current war could ravage entire areas of this rich and untapped region far more dramatically.

Lack of plant genetic resources programmes: Due to the lack of genetic resources activities in the region, breeding and seed production will not be able to match the immediate needs of post-war revival in the region. Middle East countries will be dependent on foreign seed sources and plant scientists, exacerbating the genetic erosion treadmill.

In the long term, however, one of the most far-reaching consequences of the war could be the wipe-out of a botanical treasure chest that may be unique for adapting local agriculture to climate change. Most wild species in the zone have unique forms of drought resistance that will be useful to maintain farming systems against the impact of lesser rainfall and extended desertification. Let us hope that the farmers survive to sow those future seeds.

This article draws from GRAIN's "Survey on Plant Genetic Resources in the Gulf Crisis", a 20-page literature and database review prepared (hastily...) in January 1991. It contains snapshot country profiles on plant genetic resources activities in the Middle East zone, as well as a review of relevant international activities directed to crop resources there. It is a technical reference paper, not an analysis. Copies are no longer available on request from GRAIN.

Author: GRAIN