Ground Cover North : Ground Cover 048 February-March 2004 - North
FEATURE 29 FEBRUARY 2004 By EAMMON CONAGHAN Deteriorating soils and a catalogue of severe diseases can blunt the performance of Australia's finely bred 'greyhound' crop varieties. To fortify them against such stresses, researchers are looking to their forgotten crop ancestors, which are scattered across the wilds of the world, including the former Soviet states in Central Asia. Scouting these rich sources of hardy plant genetics through politically volatile desert outposts requires a special breed of scientist. Sergey Shuvalov is just that, and during two decades with the Foreign Relations Department of the Vavilov Institute, St Petersburg in Russia, he has participated in numerous missions to search for unique plant germplasm -- potentially crucial to the future robustness of Australian crops. "Wild relatives and land race varieties developed over centuries of farmer selection may contain useful traits such as disease resistances or tolerance to adverse conditions," he says. "Harsh climatic conditions and the saline or acid soils of places like Tajikistan naturally select races of stress-tolerant plants which could add resilience to newly bred varieties." To reach this natural laboratory for plant selection is not easy. Tajikistan defends a border with Afghanistan, and with garrisons and checkpoints dispersed by a rugged mountain landscape, 'defence' often means resorting to minefields -- not a workplace to appeal to the average plant breeder. Fortunately for Mr Shuvalov, the landmine warning signs are in Russian. Another constant source of tension is the increasing security being applied to try to stem the tide of drugs leaking across the border to world blackmarkets -- and the implausibility of explaining that you are looking for grass seeds. In 2000 a collection mission by scientists from the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), and the Vavilov Institute were confronted by unidentified gunmen several times. On another occasion Mr Shuvalov was arrested with a troupe of Australian researchers during a mission to eastern Kazakhstan. "We were told we were in a restricted area," he recalls. "We hadn't seen any signs, but apparently we were too close to the Chinese border and therefore suspected of smuggling exotic birds. It was odd because we were 150 kilometres from the border when arrested and travelling in the opposite direction. "We couldn't convince them who we were and eventually they brought in a 'judge' who fined us $30 each, but we refused to pay and were finally released eight hours later, after they inspected our cars." The latest mission to Tajikistan, which was supported by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), the GRDC and ICARDA, included three Tajikistan scientists who were able to negotiate access to previously restricted areas. Another distinguishing feature of the mission was that it took a course plotted by Nikolai Vavilov, 60 years after his death. Vavilov, after whom the famous Vavilov Institute in St Petersburg was named, pioneered the science of germplasm collection in the early to mid 1900s. "He was interested in the history of agriculture and developed the first concepts of where best to collect crops of greatest diversity," Mr Shuvalov says. "In 1920, he took charge of the Bureau of Applied Botany (founded in 1894 and renamed the Vavilov Institute in 1967) and developed it from a small office into the world's pre-eminent research institute and seed bank." The Institute, which houses 320,000 accessions of different plants, is 109 years old and has survived Tsarism, Communism and Nazi invasion. While under fire from German forces in 1941, scientists guarding the Institute starved to death rather than eat the packets of rice, corn and other seeds in their desks. "Vavilov went to Tajikistan in 1916, although it was before he had developed his centre of origins theory and there was little known about that mission," Mr Shuvalov says. "When I was in Tajikistan in 1990, we spent most of our time at an institute in Dushanbe, but there was a feeling that Tajikistan would be a great source of germplasm, so we began to investigate where Vavilov went during his mission." Guided by a mud-map of Vavilov's journey almost a century earlier, the GRDC-supported mission explored target areas of Tajikistan for more than two weeks to collect land race seeds from fields, harvest bundles, roadsides, orchards, threshing room floors and cottage gardens in remote mountain villages. Mr Shuvalov filled the role of interpreter and logistics specialist on the mission, which was led by an Australian, Dr Ken Street from ICARDA. Abandoned armoured trucks and tanks littering the roadsides were a constant reminder of the region's recent violent history. "It's hard, dangerous work, but it's work that has to be done," says Dr Street, regarded by many as the closest thing agriculture has to an Indiana Jones. "Farmers need improved crop varieties to plant, and breeders need the raw material to develop them." Dr Street's team collected more than 400 seed samples. They will end up in international collections available for use free of charge by breeders everywhere. GRDC RESEARCH CODE UWA308, program 1 For more information: Dr Ken Street, ICARDA, email@example.com Dr Collin Piggin, ACIAR, Piggin@aciar.gov.au Scouting for crop ancestors in volatile outposts Germplasm from ICARDA's collection of 127,000 accessions is just one of the benefits of ICARDA's work that is paying off for farmers in Australia. An Australian-commissioned study determined that Australia will benefit by an estimated $13.7 million annually from ICARDA's research over the next 20 years. In the republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus, ICARDA collected 1440 accessions with representatives from 140 species and 46 genera. Salt and drought- tolerant species collected have particular interest for Australia, says the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), which is a supporter of ICARDA's work. In ACIAR's annual report, it notes that the study anticipated spillover benefits in terms of cost reduction for producers of barley, durum wheat, kabuli chickpeas, faba beans and lentils, as well as the positive results of successful ICARDA research in several cropping industries. ACIAR's study showed that the average estimated net gain to Australia as a result of the overall research effort at ICARDA is $13.7 million per year (in 2001 Australian dollars) for the 20 years ending 2022 Most gains were being achieved in faba beans and lentils. ICARDA's collection already paying off for farmers in Australia 'To reach this natural laboratory for plant selection is not easy ... fortunately for Mr Shuvalov the landmines' warning signs are in Russian.' Special breeds: Ken Street (left) and Sergey Shuvalov collect ancient crop varieties from Lyangar village fields. PLANT GENETICS Not the average workplace for a plant breeder: Sergey Shuvalov on the border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
Ground Cover 049 April-May 2004 - North
Ground Cover 047 November-December 2003 - North