Following the recent AfricaRice deposit of 2,400 rice accessions to Svalbard, the Crop Trust sat down with Dr. Marie-Noëlle Ndjiondjop, Head of Genetic Resources Unit and GRiSP Theme 1 Leader for Africa at AfricaRice, to discuss the work of her genebank and the key role rice plays in the life of the continent.
My role as a scientist is to promote the conservation, evaluation and effective utilization of rice germplasm to broaden the genetic base of rice in Africa.
AfricaRice was created in 1971. Could you introduce your genebank?
Based in Cotonou, Benin, we are the largest rice bank in Africa, with 20 thousand accessions, including the world’s largest collection of Oryza glabberima. 85 percent of our collection originated from Africa. Both our conservation work and seed collection focus on the continent. Thus, we are collecting and conserving rice varieties that came from Africa. This is what makes our collection unique.
How important is rice to Africa?
Rice is a staple food and strategic commodity in sub-Sahara Africa. It is grown and consumed in more than 40 African countries and is the third largest source of calories.
What role does genetic diversity play in securing this crop for the continent?
The constraints rice production faces are dynamic – climate and emerging new diseases. By conserving diversity, we can give back to the farmer and researcher the varieties that have been grown before, or varieties that perform better, or have adapted to the changing conditions and can be used to increase or maintain the yield. We want to ensure that we capture all the diversity that the farmers have in the field. This is why we are conserving genetically diverse germplasm that meets breeders’ needs and can be used for rice improvement. Because of this, our current shipment to Svalbard includes something extraordinary: accessions of Oryza glaberrima, commonly known as African rice.
What makes it so unique?
In Africa, there are two cultivated rice species – Oryza sativa and Oryza glaberrima. And out of the 24 wild species, five are found in Africa. It was domesticated in the Niger River Delta over 3,500 years ago, but today O. glaberrima is an endangered species. However, it is known to possess enormous phenotypic diversity and is better adapted to the kinds of harsh environments encountered in Africa. It is tolerant to fluctuations in water depth, to infertile soils, to severe climatic conditions and to various pests and diseases. The indigenous rice varieties represent a wide source of genetic variation for rice improvement in Africa and a potentially valuable resource for strengthening food security and adapting to climate change. Scientists from AfricaRice managed to cross-breed African rice with Asian rice varieties to produce a group of cultivars called NERICA, which stands for “New Rice for Africa.”
The most recent deposit from AfricaRice to Svalbard brings the total of rice varieties you keep there to 14,839. Why do we need to preserve so many and why is it important to have these seeds backed up in the Arctic?
The AfricaRice collection at Svalbard is part of the risk management strategy of our genebank. We have our medium-term storage here in Benin and our base collection at IITA in Nigeria. We also have two safety backups – one in Fort Collins and the other in Svalbard. The aim of the backup of our collection is to guarantee the conservation of diversity of African rice forever, and have it available for the next generation of scientists.
We cannot foresee which accessions will be useful for research in 20 or 30 years. So my role is to conserve everything. This way, in case of a catastrophe, we can still retrieve these accessions to feed humanity. We need to conserve the whole of Africa’s rice diversity for immediate use and for the future. The same is true for rice collections in Asia and in Latin America, for example.
Could you tell us about the challenges that rice producers and breeders in Africa are facing today?
These challenges can be linked to the climate change that we all are facing now. The temperature has increased and as a consequence, we have drought in some regions, and elsewhere we have a lot of floods. Climate change also triggers the emergence of new pathogens, and therefore new diseases. Our role at the genebank is to collect and make available diversity in the areas where you have such drastic effects provoked by changing climate, and which we believe can be useful in solving these problems. And because the population is growing, we need to make sure that we have the appropriate germplasm in our genebank, the full set of varieties that can be used to increase the yield and produce enough food for everybody.
Could you talk in more detail about your achievements and the challenges in your work?
The main achievement is that we have managed to fill some gaps in our collection – we did collections in Cameroon, in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Burundi in 2014. Collections were also made in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya for wild species in collaboration with IRRI.
We also send a lot of germplasm to users: farmers, scientists, research organizations. Last year, 11,087 seed samples were sent to 38 countries, including 30 countries in Africa.
Our main challenge is to fully automate seed management in the genebank, including seed sorting and seed viability testing. We need to computerize our operations in order to increase cost-efficiency. We also plan collecting trips to gather germplasm from countries and regions underrepresented in our genebank.
Could you tell us about your relationship with the Crop Trust?
The Crop Trust is our main donor, and its goal to sustain the work of genebanks long-term is vital. It provides us with very strong financial support – for genebank activities and for collecting.
We are very grateful for the support the Crop Trust provides: they visit us and have discussions with the genebank managers and staff to really know the challenges we are facing, even on a daily basis. Together with the Crop Trust, we are currently doing quality management training and implement the quality management system of all the daily activities.
Another area of cooperation is the GeneSys database that the Crop Trust has developed. Through this database, we share our data with the world. This is one way that together we make our work more visible, more available to those who need it. The Crop Trust is doing a lot to support us and to publicise our contribution to preserving crop diversity.
The work of genebanks like ours is the key to solving the food problems of the rice-dependent population of Africa. If you want to develop new varieties, the starting point is the seeds that we are conserving. We truly feel that the Crop Trust is accompanying us in this responsibility that we have.