Lebanese scientists are "breeding" to counteract climate change
Joelle Breidy says she looks for the most attractive-looking wheat spikes before she “emasculates” them, which, in the parlance of agricultural engineers, refers to the first step in plant breeding. The “male” anthers are extracted from the stalk of wheat to cross-pollinate one species with another, in this case one of Lebanon’s most vital crops.
Breidy, the seed bank director at the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute, cuts open the spikelets from one ear of wheat, removes the anthers inside, and discards them.
“Now I have a receptive female,” she says of the smooth barb, ready to be cross-bred with another class, found to contain genes more resistant to climate-change-induced drought.
The male anthers of this more defiant wheat species is already lying in the sun, ready to pollinate.
“One is a high-yielding crop,” says Breidy, pointing to the emasculated head. “The other is low-yielding but resistant to drought, and other factors attributable to climate change.” These plants will be cross-bred to introduce traits from one variety into a new genetic background, she explains.
Breidy places the “female” head in a plastic bag, and introduces the awaiting “male” anthers. She leaves them alone for two to three days. It will be nearly 10 years until their progeny can be delivered to farmers, however, as this is the time it takes for the genes to stabilize.
The cross-breeding of the two wheat species offers a solution to conditions set by farmers who seek to mitigate the expected effects of climate change, without the risk of losing revenue. Most are reluctant to plant the low-yielding, yet resistant, varieties because their business, dictated by the market, requires them to produce high yields.
The purposeful manipulation of plant species, in order to create new desirable genotypes for cultivation is not new. Manipulation techniques, such as controlled pollination, as in Breidy’s case, genetic engineering, or both, are as old as domestication itself. But in the age of global warming, the practice has become more salient, as newer crop varieties capable of adapting to changing weather patterns are being sought to avoid food insecurity.
“When we breed, we breed the same crop, but a different species,” says Breidy, who works exclusively with wheat and barley. “We search for new varieties, proven to be more resistant to disease, to insects and to climate change.”
“If I know that I have a variety which is resistant but not productive, I will cross it with another more productive variety [of wheat], to transfer the resistant gene to the productive variety.”
In particular, emphasis is placed on the conservation of wild varieties, or the parents of cultivated crops as well as local varieties, called landraces, which demonstrate resistance to changing weather patterns. Currently, Lebanon imports the seeds of its high-yielding crops.
Breidy says she regularly makes trips to north Lebanon, and collects samples from the landraces of small-scale farmers to conserve them.
“Especially if [the seeds] are from semi-arid areas like northern Bekaa or Akkar, we are sure that they have genes responsible for resistance to drought,” she said.
Ever since the seminal report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007, there is widespread agreement among scientists that the effects of climate change entails rising temperatures, soil moisture decline, leading to sustained drought conditions, and sea level rise.
In 2011, the Second National Communication report to the UNFCCC for Lebanon highlighted the crops that are of strategic importance and vulnerable to climate change as potatoes, tomatoes, apples, cherries, grapevines and wheat.
According to Lea Abou Jaoude, the project officer for a joint initiative between the UNDP and the Environment Ministry, the climate-induced impacts to these crops have been extensively studied, with reports showing some would not meet necessary chilling requirements, while others would be affected by heat waves, pest outbreaks and a decrease in available water for irrigation.
“Farmers tell us this is happening already,” she says.
The assumption is that the agricultural sector will simply adapt to these changes over time and plant crops more suitable to the growing conditions, safeguarding food security in the face of rising population trends. However, researchers and policymakers have maintained that the assumption overlooks one crucial condition: the genetic manipulation through breeding involved in shifting to adaptable crops, and the monumental efforts needed to collect, evaluate and conserve the genetic material of these crops – or their seeds – for breeding purposes.
According to a technological assessment put together by the UNDP and the Environment Ministry, plant breeding and biotechnology were listed as two crucial pillars to produce adapted plant varieties to help the agriculture sector cope with climate change.
In Lebanon, conservation efforts at a national scale have only recently begun, as the country’s first seed bank was inaugurated last month, at the LARI complex in Riyaq. The cold room contains about 950 odd species that LARI has so far collected, stored in refrigerators, capable of lasting for centuries. The country has around 260,000 wild species, with 120 unique to Lebanon.
And while conservation efforts are underway, Dr. Salah Hajj Hasan, an adviser to the agriculture minister on the issue of plant genetic resources, says a national plan for the conservation and evaluation of plant genetic resources would fulfill the missing link between legislation and production.
Lebanon has already signed and ratified key international documents pertaining to plant resources, including Convention on Combating Desertification and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Species and Agriculture. But so far, these have not been implemented on a national scale.
“We are looking to build this strategy, it’s very important,” Hajj Hasan says. “We have initiated a gene bank at LARI, but we need more investment and more capacity in this gene bank, so it can sustain all the material we are hoping to collect and store.”