[ASC-media] Indiana Jones of Australian Agriculture

Cathy Reade creade at squirrel.com.au
Mon Oct 13 09:03:26 EST 2003

13 October 2003

Australian Team Finds Gene Treasure in Forgotten Minefields of Tajikistan

An Australian-led team just back from Tajikistan has struck it rich; rich in
genes of value to Australian farmers that is.

Western Australian Ken Street, the closest thing agriculture has to an
Indiana Jones, spent two weeks picking his way between minefields, trekking
mountain passes and sleeping rough, leading an international team in search
of valuable food crop and forage plant lines.

Farmers in Australia and around the world rely on a steady stream of
improved crop varieties that can resist disease, insects and other stresses,
yet yield well and have good quality. These improved varieties are produced
by plant breeders who tap the traits found in plants collected by
agriculturists like Dr Street, who works for the International Center for
Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), based in Syria.

“It’s hard, dangerous work, but it’s work that has to be done,” said Dr
Street, just back from the collection mission. “Farmers need improved crop
varieties to plant, and breeders need the raw material to develop them.
Besides, it beats sitting behind a desk. You get to travel, take in some
beautiful scenery, and meet some nice people. It also feels good to know you
’re doing something that helps farm families earn a better income or stay
better fed.”

Dr Street’s team, made up of a Russian, Ukrainian, Uzbek, Dane, and three
Tajik scientists, collected more than 400 seed samples, which were shared
out equally. They will end up in international collections available for use
free of charge by breeders everywhere.

Germplasm from ICARDA’s collection of 127,000 accessions, for example, is
already paying off for farmers in Australia. An Australian-commissioned
study determined that the country will benefit an estimated A$13.7 million
annually from ICARDA’s research over the next 20 years. So when taxpayers
contribute to international agricultural research, and missions like the one
to Tajikistan, they are really contributing to the health of the Australian

Over the past four years, Dr Street has led missions to eight countries in
Central Asia and the Caucasus. Most of the work was funded by the Australian
Centre for Agricultural Research (ACIAR), a significant portion came from
the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), based in Canberra,
and important coordination support was provided by the Centre for Legumes in
Mediterranean Agriculture (CLIMA), based in Perth. All of the missions have
been in partnership with the Saint Petersburg-based Vavilov Institute, whose
founder and namesake, Nicholai Ivanovich Vavilov, first plied the Tajik
route some 70 years ago.

“Most of the credit for the success of this recent mission has to go to the
Tajik scientists. We wanted to retrace the steps of Vavilov, and we couldn’t
have done it without the able support of our local partners. They brought us
to places that have been off limits for decades,” Dr Street said.

“Armed civil conflict fueled by Al Qaeda from across the border in
Afghanistan meant the place was just too dangerous in recent years. It was
an overlooked war, a forgotten war. We saw burned out tanks and armored
personnel carriers everywhere and signs warned us away from minefields.

“Even now, with the guns silent so to speak, fighting through the paperwork
and red tape necessary to get into the Afghan border area and the autonomous
region of Baduksharn might have killed us if we’d tried to do it alone,” he

On all of his eight missions, Dr Street has relied on the logistical support
of Sergey Shuvalov, an ex-army translator who for the past 20 years has
worked for the Vavilov Institute—imagine Rambo with a passion for seeds. He
agrees that the Tajik mission stands out.

“There were plenty of signs that warned us about landmines. The mines were
planted about 500 meters around each checkpoint, to protect the scarce
checkpoint garrisons against any invasion from the Afghan side, to give them
more time to occupy their shooting emplacements in case of a surprise
attack,” Mr Shuvalov said.

Once at the collection sites, the team members were rewarded for their
courage and perseverance. The extreme climate, remote and unique
environments, coupled with harsh soil conditions have resulted in local crop
varieties that are hardy, dependable yielders. When in the past few years
improved varieties sent by humanitarian agencies as “seed relief” failed,
the local varieties flourished.

“The people in rural Tajikistan live in very harsh, mountainous
environments. They practice a form of agriculture that’s almost
 prehistoric,” Dr Street said. “We saw ploughs made entirely of wood. Some
farmers cut forage on hillsides so steep I’d be scared of falling and
breaking my neck. We talked to farmers who carried forage on their backs for
miles to keep their few animals fed. Forget powered farm equipment,
everything was done by hand, from harvest, to threshing, to planting.

“They live very close to the land and their survival depends on the success
of each crop. By planting mixtures of hardy local varieties, they are at
least ensured of a harvest. And when I say mixtures, I mean seeds of wheat,
legumes, forage, whatever, all broadcast sown together. The crop is
harvested, somewhat sorted, and then cooked up into a staple gruel,” Dr
Street explained.

Tajikistan proved a treasure trove of local crop varieties and their wild
relatives, but the world’s plant genetic diversity is being eroded due to
human population pressure, habitat loss, overgrazing, unsustainable
agricultural practices, and various other factors. Until this can be
reversed, ICARDA and centers like it are in a race against time to collect
and maintain useful genetic diversity before it is lost forever.

Photos are available at: ftp://ftp.cgiar.org/ICARDA/Images/ and captions
from Cathy Reade on 0413 575 934

For more information please contact:
Cathy Reade, Crawford Fund on 0413 575 934
Ken Street, Agricultural Ecologist Mission Leader, ICARDA Office +963 21
221-3433 ext 696 Home +963 21 267-4434 k.street at cgiar.org
Clive Francis, Deputy Director, Centre for Legumes in Mediterranean
Agriculture (CLIMA), University of Western Australia, Nedlands, WA 6009 Tel
61-9-380 2505 Fax 61-9-380 1140 Mobile 0438 844 185
cfrancis at cyllene.uwa.edu.au
Collin Piggin, Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research
(ACIAR) in Canberra on 02 62170500 Piggin at ACIAR.GOV.AU

Note to the press: Ken Street is available for phone interviews from his
office or home in Syria; Clive Francis is ready with information on the
importance of collecting and preserving agrobiodiversity; and Sergey
Shuvalov, from Russia, will be in Perth 10–20 October and in Adelaide 21–22
October. He can be reached through Dr Francis at CLIMA. Good,
high-resolution photos are available at the ftp site noted on this release.
This press release was written by David Abbass, Communication, Documentation
and Information Services, ICARDA.

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