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Successes highlight the critical role of NARS partnerships and agricultural research in dry areas


The 55th meeting of ICARDA’s Board of Trustees was held in Cairo, Egypt, October 10-15, 2014, under the patronage of H.E. Dr. Adel El-Beltagy, Minister of Agriculture and Land Reclamation. The meeting was marked by reflection on the special ties between the Center and Egypt’s national program and the critical role of such partnerships in enabling sustainable agriculture development and alleviating poverty, while also enriching scientific communities.   


In her opening statement, the Board Chair Dr. Camilla Toulmin touched on ICARDA’s longstanding research partnership with Egypt and acknowledged the important support provided by the Egyptian national agricultural research system (NARS) in the Center’s decentralization and in opening its research facilities to ICARDA in a time of need when its staff had to relocate from Syria.       


The Board Meeting evoked another special bond between Egypt and ICARDA as Dr. Beltagy, the newly appointed minister was also the former Director General of ICARDA from 1995 to 2006. Expressing his passionate interest ever since in the mission of ICARDA to promote food security in the region’s dry areas, Dr. El-Beltagy said, “There are 2.5 billion people that must be served in the dry areas of the world. It’s an important task to bring cutting edge research going on at ICARDA and other such centers to serve the poor and needy in these parts of the world.”     


Recalling ICARDA’s initial projects in Egypt, Dr. Mahmoud Solh, the Director General of ICARDA, pointed out the exceptionally fruitful partnership ICARDA has shared with Egypt since 1979.  “This is where scientists went outside the labs and the research station to the farmers’ fields and for the first time connected their technologies with the end users. This began with the Faba Bean Project supported by IFAD, involving Egypt and the Sudan, and at a later stage Ethiopia. Also the World Bank recognized its Matrouh Resource Management Project, executed by ICARDA in collaboration with the national program in the late 1990s, as an excellent example of research impacting development.”


The wide participation at the opening session of the Board Meeting by representatives from Egypt’s Agriculture Research Center (ARC), universities, the National Water Research Center, the World Food Programme, USAID, UNDP, IDRC and the  Arab Organization for Agricultural Development highlighted the important  role agricultural research could play in enabling sustainable development and mitigating poverty. Also in attendance were the Ambassador of Eritrea and NARS heads of Yemen and Sudan, the countries that are strategically aligned with Egypt for research activities and capacity development under ICARDA’s newly consolidated Nile Valley and Red Sea Regional Program.


Egypt faces some unique challenges in feeding its growing population as only 3.5% of its land is suitable for agriculture, while the annual availability of water per capita is barely one-fifth of the global average. Presenting on ARC’s research focus areas with ICARDA, Dr. Abdel Moneim El Banna, President of ARC, said introducing adaptation and mitigation strategies for the agriculture sector, improving water efficiency, strengthening the role of women in farming, and developing modalities for technology transfer are going to be some of the national priorities for their partnership with ICARDA.   


To address the many challenges in dry areas, Dr. El-Beltagy called for greater investment in the region and said, “We must keep moving as it’s worth it.” The historic Nile Valley Project, launched in 1979, funded by IFAD, proved the point by improving food security and increasing household incomes through its many successes, particularly through increased productivity of faba beans, a crop largely grown by subsistence farmers in dry areas and a major source of nutrition in the daily diet of rural poor.


The research updates presented by ICARDA’s team of scientists at the Board Meeting highlighted the returns on sustained investment in agricultural research and partnerships with the NARS. ICARDA’s activities are directly contributing to the impacts of 10 global CGIAR research programs (CRPs) in which ICARDA is a partner.  Amongst several successes, of particular note was the several-fold gain in wheat productivity by smallholder farmers in 12 African countries as part of Support to Agricultural Research for Development on Strategic Commodities in Africa (SARD-SC), a program funded by  the African Development Bank; the wheat component of the program is led by ICARDA.  The systems-based research under the CRP on Dryland Systems is steadily progressing across five flagship target regions, guided by cutting edge geo-informatics tools and a fully participatory approach in its mission to develop scalable solutions for dryland agro-ecosystems.


“As a center, ICARDA has no research agenda of its own. Its agenda is that of its partner countries” says Dr. Solh.  Even as ICARDA’s scientists address a range of agricultural challenges in dry areas across the world, capacity development is a cross-cutting activity and an essential part of ICARDA’s support to all partner countries. Since 1978, a combined total of over 20,000 researchers, extension staff, and technicians from over 40 countries have received training from ICARDA.


Board Chair Camilla Toulmin, Dr. Adel El-Beltagy, Egypt’s Minister of Agriculture and Land Reclamation and Dr. Mahmoud Solh, Director General of ICARDA




The ICARDA-AGERI partnership


Enriching scientific community and enabling larger public good in the region

Two years back, ICARDA faced the difficult challenge of finding a home for its cutting edge crop genetics research program, based in Tel Hadya, Syria, the headquarters of the Center since 1977. Last week, the board meeting held in Cairo presented the opportunity for ICARDA’s Board members to tour the new biotechnology research facility established at the Agricultural Genetic Engineering Research Institute (AGERI) in Egypt, where some of ICARDA’s crop geneticists and graduate students from Syria have found a new and welcoming home.


AGERI has been a center of excellence for biotechnology research in the region for a long time and is now benefiting from the international expertise and an expanded research agenda brought in by ICARDA. The many successes of the ICARDA-AGERI partnership have proven the potential of an open scientific collaboration in enriching the scientific community in the region and beyond and enabling prolific research for larger gains, said Dr. Osama Ahmed Momtaz, the former director of AGERI. The partnership, forged through an agreement signed in 2013, has been the fruit of a long-term relationship with Egypt’s NARS, highlighted Dr. Michael Baum, Director of ICARDA’s Biodiversity and Integrated Gene Management Program, as he gratefully acknowledged the support and commitment of AGERI in opening their doors to ICARDA.      


The partnership is serving both the agricultural priorities of Egypt and the larger research agenda of ICARDA to develop improved varieties of the Center’s mandated crops – barley, wheat, chickpeas, faba beans and lentils. The joint facilities are using cutting edge tools such as molecular markers, functional genomics and tissue culture and engaging with scientists from all over the world in their mission “The classical breeding is at its limits and biotechnology tools are critical in meeting the demands of nutrition and feeding a growing population in Egypt and other developing countries in the region,” stated Dr. Shireen Assem, the Director of AGERI.   


One of the major accomplishments of the ICARDA-AGERI partnerships has been in boosting the institution’s status as a recognized center for knowledge development in the region and a hub for international scientific collaboration. The joint facility is hosting 15 graduate students from five countries – Yemen, Sudan, Palestine, Syria and Morocco, along with local students from Egypt. Further, AGERI’s expanded capacity in molecular research in areas such as bioinformatics, marker assisted selection, whole genome sequencing and plant tissue culture, is expediting progress in sequencing of new genotypes in chickpeas and faba beans and has identified markers linked to drought and diseases.    


In addition to AGERI, Institut National de la Recherche Agronoique (INRA) in Morocco has also opened its doors, allowing ICARDA to establish another biotechnology research lab, while a pulses and crops research center is planned in the state of Madhya Pradesh in India, as per a newly signed agreement. These select locations are part of ICARDA’s decentralization strategy for its global research agenda for improving its mandate of crops for drylands


Some ICARDA crop geneticists and graduate students have found a new home at the Agricultural Genetic Engineering Research Institute (AGERI).