October 31, 2013

JICA Helps Afghanistan Regain its Heritage as a Wheat Producer
Landrace varieties collected and preserved by Japanese researchers in the 1950s are the key to restarting cultivation in the country after 30 years of war

Afghanistan was once one of the world's leading agricultural nations, and verdant fields of native wheat fanned out across its vast lands. But during 30 years of war, the country was reduced to ashes, its irrigation facilities were destroyed, its land was left in ruins, and the preservation of genetic resources and selective breeding collapsed.

Many of the native species of wheat adapted to the dry climate have been wiped out. Today many farmers are growing cultivars introduced from abroad, but in areas without irrigation facilities, it has not been possible to make adequate use of the growing environment. Before the wars, the country boasted almost complete self-sufficiency in food. But now, under harsh natural conditions in which droughts and flooding are common, farmers cannot satisfy domestic demand.

A miracle wheat

Facing a brain drain and the serious destruction of the country's economic and social infrastructure, the revival of agriculture, the principal industry, is one important issue for Afghanistan. So in April 2011, JICA began the Project for the Development of Wheat Breeding Materials for Sustainable Food Production through Yokohama City University's Kihara Institute for Biological Research. It is part of the Science and Technology Research Partnership for Sustainable Development (SATREPS) (1), for which JICA formed a partnership with the Japan Science and Technology Agency. While selectively breeding Afghanistan's wheat, the project promotes the development of young researchers, the next generation leaders who will support continuous food production.

In the background of this project is the existence of a "miracle wheat" that has been resurrected after half a century. Kyoto University's Karakorum and Hindu-Kush expedition (led by Dr. Hitoshi Kihara, 2) visited pre-conflict Afghanistan in 1955 to search for the birthplace of wheat, traveled to every part of the country and collected 500 species of native wheat and their ancestors and brought them back to Japan. Thereafter, the precious genetic material needed for selective breeding was lost amid war in Afghanistan, and neither its meaning nor value were passed on to the current generation.

Surprisingly enough, it was Afghan seeds resistant to the dry climate and disease preserved at Yokohama City University's Kihara Institute for Biological Research that became the genetic material essential for reviving wheat production in the country.

A half century later

Yokohama City University's Professor Tomohiro Ban, who leads the project research on the Japanese side, having the idea that the genetic material of wheat brought back by Kihara and the seeds that correspond to its ancestors (preserved in the Kihara Institute for Biological Research) could probably adapt to the environment of modern Afghanistan, started cultivation in the country. As a result, the wheat that returned to its home in the Afghan capital of Kabul after half a century bore an abundant crop and has been drawing attention as a "miracle wheat."

Today, researchers are using Japanese scientific techniques to analyze the special characteristics of these genetic resources, and then through the crossbreeding and selection of modern cultivars, developing cultivars with high drought and disease resistance that can be raised in areas without irrigation.

"The difficult part was the strict international rules for carrying cultivars across international borders," Ban said. "I hope the development of human resources leads to the further development of rules and systems regarding disease risk management and intellectual property rights for the situation of carrying new cultivars. In the future, I hope the people of Afghanistan will be able to develop with their own hands new wheat cultivars that match the environment of Afghanistan, filling the gap of the long years of civil war."

And what about the fact that so long as the public order and security in Afghanistan remain in question, the project must be carried out without entering Afghanistan? Ban puts his hopes in Japan's international cooperation. "To get results in this difficult situation, we must make various innovations without being limited by existing frameworks. For example, Japan should take the initiative on an international joint research network, develop the next generation of leaders through third-country training and South-South cooperation, and move forward with turning over the results of the project to the Afghan people."

South-South cooperation activities by Mexico

In February of this year, Afghanistan sent two young researchers from the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture Irrigation and Livestock, Eid Mohammad Zahery and Sayed Hasibullah Ahmadi, to Mexico for short-term training under SATREPS as part of Mexico's framework for South-South cooperation. At Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Forestales y Agropecuarias and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), an agency studying international breeding of wheat and corn and related technologies, the two worked to acquire knowledge and technology needed for selective breeding of wheat adapted to Afghanistan's environment. Their studies included genetics, agriculture, biotechnology and social sciences.

The two also enrolled in the graduate school of Yokohama City University in October. After they complete their master's courses, they will aim to advance to a higher level as researchers in order to be active leaders supporting their country's agriculture and engage in building bridges with the rest of the world.

On Oct. 3, on the Kanazawa-Hakkei campus of Yokohama City University, the two attended a graduation and entrance ceremony along with Arifi Mujiburrahman of the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture Irrigation and Livestock, who had already completed the postgraduate course in nanobioscience, specializing in life and environmental system science.

"In Mexico, I learned the basics of cultivating wheat with researchers from around the world. I hope to learn more in Japan and pass it on to young Afghan researchers," Zahery said.

"I want to follow in the footsteps of senior researchers who came to Japan to study before me in this project, and after returning to Afghanistan, work not only for the Ministry of Agriculture Irrigation and Livestock, but also for the farmers of Afghanistan," Ahmadi added.

Mujiburrahman, one of those who participated before Ahmadi, then returned to his country, said, "For two years I learned about wheat that is adapted to dry weather. After returning to Afghanistan, I would like to use the genetic resources of the native species the project returned to Afghanistan, provide farmers with a wheat that grows in a severe climate, and contribute to the country's continuous production of food."

Today four project participants, including Ahmadi and Zahery, are studying as international students at the same graduate school. Project stakeholders hope that in the near future, Ahmadi and Zahery, like Mujiburrahman and the other young researchers brought up in this project, will support selective breeding of wheat and food production in Afghanistan and bring an abundant harvest to the country.

1. A program to use Japanese technology to conduct joint research with partner agencies in developing countries to solve global-scale problems such as those of the environment and food.

2. A Japanese geneticist and the founder of the Kihara Institute for Biological Research. Professor emeritus of Kyoto University. Known for discovering ancestors of wheat. He also developed the seedless watermelon.


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