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Morocco: ICARDA research platform showcases model crop improvement program

May 12,2015

The Marchouch research station near Rabat is host to a model crop improvement program.
As changing climate, growing populations and diminishing natural resources worsen the challenges facing smallholder livelihoods and food security in dryland areas, developing improved crops that can keep pace with these demands is an ongoing mission for crop scientists. Morocco, one of ICARDA’s major research hubs for crop improvement, is leveraging the country’s diverse soils and climate conditions to develop crop production technologies for both high and low potential agroecosystems. 
 
A visit to ICARDA’s research station at Marchouch near Rabat, held in conjunction with the 56th Board Meeting (May 2-6, 2015), provided an opportunity for ICARDA’s Board of Trustees to get a glimpse of the crop improvement program that is bolstering ICARDA’s mission and mandate of food security and improved livelihoods in dry areas, while supporting breeding programs the world over.  
 
Highlights of ICARDA’s crop improvement program: 
 
Durum and bread wheat are core to food security and therefore, a major part of ICARDA’s crop improvement program at the Marchouch station. The program accomplishes this through global germplasm distribution from its international nurseries of durum and bread wheat, alongside breeding of new improved varieties with traits such as drought and heat tolerance, by screening thousands of landraces and cultivars. 
 
These new varieties are tested and adapted with national partners in countries for release. Collaboration being key to successful adoption of innovative technologies, a durum wheat project phenotyping root systems for drought tolerance and boron toxicity is working with Senegal scientists to test and validate results in the soils of Senegal. The largely rice growing country is seeking suitable wheat technologies to be able to start wheat production. The project is simultaneously building national capacities by training six PhD students from Morocco, Algeria and Senegal, while benefiting from the young talent in its team.    
 
Improving the production of barley, ICARDA’s mandate crop and a strategic component of its systems solutions, has diverse uses for farming communities in dry areas as food, feed and malt. Largely grown as a subsistence crop by resource-poor farmers, ICARDA’s crop improvement program has mainstreamed malt barley into its research agenda to add value to the crop and create a new source of income. Malt barley varieties are being researched at the Marchouch station for disease tolerance and higher yields, targeting the dry areas of East Africa and South Asia where poverty levels are high. Some 13 newly developed malt varieties are already demonstrating potential in Ethiopia, as part of an emerging value chain utilizing domestic malt barley for the beer industry. Alongside malt barley, low-input and high-input barley production technologies for food and feed continue to be the main focus of barley research.
 
Legumes, known for their triple benefits of making soils healthier, providing nutrition and more income, are at the heart of ICARDA’s strategy to sustainably intensify production systems in dry areas. Along with higher yields and resistance to diseases such as rust and Fusarium wilt, a high impact focus at the Marchouch station has been developing lentils with shorter growing periods – as short as 80 days. These fast maturing varieties have been transferred to rice farmers in India and Bangladesh, making it feasible for them to grow lentils in between two rice growing seasons by utilizing fallow land. The success is boosting lentil production in these countries, while bringing nutrition and added incomes for farmers.   
 
A visit to a nearby farmers’ cooperative aptly demonstrated the successful translating of research on experimental station to impacts on farmer fields – ICARDA’s underlying goal. The farmers are participating in a project funded by the European Union and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (EU-IFAD) on Enhancing Wheat-Legume Cropping System in West Asia and North Africa, a region where wheat and legumes form a staple part of people’s diet. The project, started in 2011 and coming to a close in 2015, introduced the farmers to improved wheat, chickpea, faba beans and lentils with participatory breed selection, conservation agriculture and integrated pest management, along with other sustainable practices.
 
These validated technology packages helped stabilize crop production and raised farmer incomes against a backdrop of increasing climate variability – a major concern in the region.  
The crop breeding activities are backed by extensive ex-situ conservation of crop genetic resources at ICARDA, which provides access to the desired genetic traits needed for developing improved varieties. Along with routine activities, the facility in the Marchouch station is serving an important function for global conservation of biodiversity. It is working on filling in the diversity gaps in ICARDA’s genebank to further enrich the gene pool afforded by its existing 30,000+ accessions.  
 
Crop improvement at ICARDA is grounded in an integrated approach combining improved varieties with conservation agriculture, integrated pest management, water productivity and seed systems, with crosscutting capacity building of national researchers and young scientists.  
 
The Marchouch research station is one of ICARDA’s main crop improvement facilities in Morocco and builds on its longstanding partnership with Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA). With cutting edge biotechnology labs, over 100 hectares of experimental fields, seed system infrastructure and a pool of world class scientists, Morocco has become one of the Center’s key crop research locations since decentralizing from its headquarters in Tel Hadya, Syria in 2012.  
 
For images of the Marchouch research station click here