Recipient of the inaugural Crop Trust Legacy Award
Nicola Temple, Scriptoria and Michael Major, Crop Trust
Name a tune and chances are Ahmed Amri can sing it for you. If he doesn’t know the lyrics, then tell him once and he’ll add the tune to the extraordinary musical library in his brain. But Ahmed isn’t a professional singer – not yet, at least – he’s a gifted plant genetic scientist who knows even more wheat and barley varieties than tunes.
As a young man working the fields of his family’s farm in the drylands of Morocco, Ahmed never thought he would attend university, let alone become the head of genetic resources at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).
And yet, that is exactly what Ahmed – the singing scientist – did.
To Syria via Kansas
Ahmed stepped inside his first genebank in 1976. He was an undergraduate student at the Hassan II Agronomic and Veterinary Institute in Rabat. The Institute had a small genebank that held a working collection of medics – forage species from the Medicago genus. That visit sparked his interest in genetics and plant breeding.
Four years later, after completing his master’s degree, Ahmed’s professional career took a leap. He accepted a position as a barley breeder with INRA – the Moroccan public research institute dedicated to agricultural science – and soon became the head of their cereal research program.
His quest to learn more about plant genetic resources led him to the United States, where Ahmed pursued a PhD at Kansas State University, and began a lifelong professional relationship with Professor Bikram Gill.
Ahmed views his time in the USA as being pivotal to his professional development. “The time I spent at Kansas State University allowed me to appreciate the work undertaken by Professor Gill and Dr Stan Cox and their teams, who combined the conservation and use of wheat wild relatives,” said Ahmed. “It allowed me to invest time in research related to the conservation and curation of wheat and barley genetic resources and explore their use in crosses to develop good breeding germplasm.”
Ahmed applied what he learned at Kansas to develop new wheat varieties that are resistant to Hessian fly. “This is a pest so destructive to cereal crops that its scientific name is Mayetiola destructor,” said Ahmed. “It has caused considerable yield losses in Morocco and so I made it one of my primary research interests.”
With his newly minted PhD, Ahmed returned to his post in Morocco. After nearly 20 years with INRA, he joined ICARDA as a regional coordinator for a project aimed at promoting on-farm conservation and sustainable use of dryland agrobiodiversity in Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. In 2008, Ahmed was promoted to head of ICARDA’s genetic resources unit as deputy director for biodiversity and integrated gene management.
Working with wild relatives
At ICARDA, Ahmed held the keys to one of the world’s most important collection of crop diversity. ICARDA’s genebank holds more than 130,000 accessions; about two-thirds were collected from dryland areas around the world. These unique landraces and wild relatives of some of the world’s most important crops – cereals, legumes and forages – are adapted to harsh environments, particularly drought and heat.
Ahmed could probably sing a tune about all the crops in the genebank, but he does have his favorites. “My focus is on the wild relatives of wheat and barley,” said Ahmed. “I have tried to enrich the existing collections during collecting missions with new diversity by targeting varieties with adaptive traits such as tolerance to drought, heat, cold and salinity.”
The investment in the conservation of these large collections is more than repaid when there is an urgent need for specific traits that are clearly missing from breeders’ collections. “There are several examples where there has been an urgency to supply genes to overcome new challenges, such as resistance to new virulent strains of yellow and stem rusts in wheat, Hessian fly resistance in durum wheat, herbicide resistance and mechanization in food legumes.” For Ahmed, it is clear that a good genebank is an active one, both in terms of getting diversity in and getting diversity out.
When a genebank can no longer function
In 2012, the conflict in Syria reached Aleppo. As the violence escalated, it began to interrupt the core activities of ICARDA’s genebank – field activities became impossible and finally many of the staff were evacuated. Despite this, germplasm distribution still continued. However, something needed to be done to take the collection out of harm’s way and to ensure normal genebank activities could be resumed. Fortunately, ICARDA had shipped seeds to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault between 2009 and 2014. They also had other safety back-ups in genebanks outside Syria.
After careful thought, ICARDA decided to set up fully functioning genebanks in Lebanon and Morocco in facilities generously offered by national partners. In 2015, ICARDA began withdrawing safety duplicated deposits from Svalbard in order to regenerate ICARDA’s active collection and once again have cold rooms full of seeds that could be easily sent out on request.
“It has been a big challenge to relocate the collections and genebank activities to Lebanon and Morocco after leaving Syria,” said Ahmed. “I had to find funding for equipment, labs and cold rooms, hire and train new staff, and undertake the enormous task of reconstructing the active and base collections.”
The genebank in Terbol is not far from Lebanon’s border with Syria, but Ahmed is confident that it will not suffer the same disruptions. “The greatest challenge for ICARDA’s genebank managers going forward will not be dealing with armed conflicts, but rather making the most of the wealth of diversity in their charge to address daily challenges faced by farmers, such as floods, drought, unseasonal rain, disease outbreaks and more unpredictable events,” said Ahmed.
Not ready for retirement
Although Ahmed reached retirement age at the end of 2017, he isn’t quite ready to begin his singing career. The relocation of the genebank activities to Lebanon and Morocco continues to require help from everyone. “I feel like I can still contribute to improving the genebank activities and the science associated with using genetic resources.”
However, good succession planning has also meant that Ahmed can approach retirement with the knowledge that he leaves his post in very capable hands. “A genebank should always have a succession plan to ensure a smooth transition,” Ahmed said.
Looking over his career, Ahmed has much to sing about. He has released more than 20 varieties of barley and contributed to the development of Hessian fly-resistant varieties of durum and bread wheat as well as led the assembling of global collections of wheat, barley and numerous food and forage crops from the Fertile Crescent. And there was that small matter of helping to save some of the world’s most important plant genetic resources from destruction.
Not bad for a Moroccan farm boy who is just as comfortable singing on a stage as he is in a genebank.
The ICARDA genebanks are able to maintain routine operations thanks to the generous financial support of the European Union.