Category : News
Published : September 18, 2019 - 1:02 PM
The Challenges and Successes
Eleanor Wilding – Technical Officer, Crop Wild Relatives Project
From the low plains along the coast of the Arabian Sea in the south to the heights of the Karakoram mountain range in the north, Pakistani plant collectors have been busy over the past two years. They have made 202 seed collections, gathering more than two million seeds of 32 species related to 18 crops from deserts, grasslands and forests subjected to temperatures as low as -20oC and as high as 50oC.
Dr Sadar Siddiqui is the Genebank Curator at Pakistan’s Plant Genetic Resources Program at the Bio-Resources Conservation Institute. I recently reached out to him to discuss the trials and tribulations he and his colleagues faced – and overcame – in collecting crop wild relatives in a country so large and geographically diverse. Pakistan is one of 24 national partners supported by the Crop Wild Relatives Project, a ten-year global effort that is helping to make sure the wild relatives of our most important crops are conserved and used for food security as the climate changes.
Preparing for the Task at Hand
Travelling over 30,000 km – the equivalent of climbing up and down Mount Everest twice – in search of crop wild relatives was not easy. “Each trip lasted between 10 to 15 days. In some cases, it took two full days of travelling just to get where we wanted to collect,” Sadar explained. To make the most of their time in the field, his team went to great lengths in organizing their trips. This involved thorough research to decide the best time of year to collect different species, and overcoming a lot of logistical challenges to assemble a team that was up to the challenge. It was also important to ensure they had all the necessary equipment, everything from breathable cloth bags to herbarium presses, hand lenses to secateurs; not forgetting lots of collecting forms. In addition, they took clothing for all weather and enough provisions to sustain the team for several days.
To ensure the highest quality seed was collected, in Pakistan and across the world, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, produced seed collecting guides to help the CWR Project’s partners identify and collect target species in their countries. “The guides proved very useful. They included a wealth of information, such as descriptions of the flora, key phenological features, the geographical location of the species, appropriate seed collecting techniques and images of the plants and seeds,” said Sadar.
Members of Sadar’s team collecting Vicia sativa ssp. nigra on a roadside in northern Pakistan.
A Team Effort
Sadar was joined in the field by two seed collectors, a taxonomist, a driver and a junior team member, who benefitted from hands-on training.
“It is important to educate the new generation and, overall, encourage more people to work with plant genetic resources,” Sadar said. “More so, because many skilled and knowledgeable people in the Bio-Resources Conservation Institute will be retiring in the coming years. So, it is crucial that their skills are passed on to ensure continuity in the work we do.”
“Thanks to the CWR Project, we were able to hire four additional staff to work in our lab. It has also provided us with the means, both financial and technical, to enable us to train our younger staff in seed collecting, handling and processing.”
Alongside the Principal Investigator of the CWR Project in Pakistan, Dr Shakeel Ahmed, the taxonomist Dr Amir Sultan also participated in collecting trips. He runs the National Herbarium at the Bio-Resources Conservation Institute. His expertise and experience, combined with knowledge from local communities, was key to the success of many of Sadar’s collecting trips. “Taxonomists are really important when working with wild relatives,” Sadar explained. “These plants are much harder to find and identify than their domesticated cousins.”
An image of “Avena trichopylla”, a wild relative of oat, taken on a collecting trip with Sadar and his team.
Trials, Tribulations and Successes
“Collecting CWR is difficult, much more difficult than collecting crops,” said Sadar. “Sometimes, the whole experience was frustrating. We would reach a place where a CWR had been reported, according to the collecting guide, only to discover that there were no seeds. But there were also moments of joy. For example, we worked with the local communities and made them aware of the importance of CWR and the need to conserve them. In some cases, these people also helped us get seed from wild populations.”
Locals were also key to the safety of the team. Like many other countries around the world, Pakistan has a complex geopolitical as well as physical environment. The northwest, for instance, the mountainous home to the Pashtun people, has been particularly affected by conflict in neighboring Afghanistan. Much of the tribal areas along the border are off limits to both foreigners and locals, and even areas accessible to Pakistanis have strict controls on certain activities.
“It is safe in the rest of Pakistan, and we travelled wherever we needed to go with no problem, but in these areas, it was critical for us to collaborate with local guides and work and travel only during daylight hours, and for short periods of time, to ensure our safety when collecting,” Sadar explained.
Difficult traveling routes through the mountains of Gilgit-Baltistan.
Livestock presented collectors with additional challenges. High up in the mountain ranges in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan provinces of northern Pakistan, over-grazing by goats threatens to wipe out entire CWR populations. In these mountains, where snow drapes the landscape for a good half of the year, grow important wild relatives of apples, alfalfa, aubergine, barley, carrot, chickpea, lentil, oats, pearl millet, rye and sorghum.
The climate there is unforgiving. “It’s a hard life up there. But we cannot ask farmers to stop feeding their goats,” Sadar explains. “Goats provide these communities with milk, cheese and meat. Often, they are also sold to generate income.”
Nevertheless, in one lucky break, Sadar’s team found and collected a chickpea wild relative growing next to an electricity pylon, which had been enclosed by a barbed wire fence for security reasons.
Extensive drought occurred in the Balochistan region of Pakistan, hindering collections of good seeds.
Drought is also having a major impact on plants in some areas of the country, while severe and catastrophic flooding affects others. Such stresses affect the life cycle of plants, forcing them to “either drop their seeds early or, even worse for us, form no seeds at all,” Sadar explained.
“Rapidly changing land use and the biotic and abiotic stresses caused by climate change are posing a huge threat to our overall biodiversity, including that of our crops,” Sadar added. “Crop wild relatives can play a vital role in crop improvement, so for us this project is essential for our future. We need to save them before it’s too late.”
In the case of Aegilops triuncialis – a wild relative of wheat known to have useful traits for pest resistance – even when the seeds were found and collected, drought had left them in very poor condition. The seeds that were collected might not be viable. “Wheat is a dietary staple in Pakistan and one of our country’s main agricultural crops,” said Sadar. “With 80% of farmers growing it on their land, securing populations of wheat’s wild cousins is crucial to national food security.”
Dr Amir Sultan, the Programme Leader of the National Herbarium at the Bio-Resources Conservation Institute, examining CWR in a difficult location in Sindh, Pakistan.
Thankfully though, these two years were also marked by many successes. Sadar said: “One of the biggest joys was being able to collect the wild rice Oryza coarctata. We never thought we would be able to collect it. In the past, we had worked in the coastal regions of Pakistan, where this species is found, but had not been able to collect it. Thanks to the CWR Project, we succeeded for the first time, and now hope there will be many more successes like this to come.”
In the end, and despite the many challenges that they faced, Sadar and his team collected almost all their targets – 202 accessions belonging to 17 of the 18 genepools they set out to collect. The sole holdout was a wild species of grasspea, which according to documentation only grows in Kashmir, an area unfortunately currently inaccessible to the seed collectors.
Before the CWR Project, the importance of crop wild relatives was not well recognised in Pakistan, not even by the agricultural and scientific community.
“We have entered a whole new, wild world of crop wild relatives in the past couple of years,” said Sadar. “We now see them as crucial to our efforts to improve our crops and help farmers face a changing climate – something that Pakistan is particularly suffering from.”
“Nevertheless, there is more work to be done. Looking forward, we want to find more funding to continue our crop wild relatives collecting and conservation efforts. We also want to develop germination protocols for CWR species that do not respond to routine germination processes, we want to work on evaluation and identification of genes of interest from CWR species, and also start using the material we collect in pre-breeding.”
“The true impact of this project will only be realised when we have rescued all of Pakistan’s CWR, banked them in our genebank and made full use of their genetic diversity for future generations. But at least we’ve made a start.”
This collecting project is part of Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change: Collecting, Protecting and Preparing Crop Wild Relatives, funded by the Norwegian Government, and coordinated by the Crop Trust with the Millennium Seed Bank, Kew. All materials produced by the project will be made available to users through the standard material transfer agreement (SMTA).