Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire — “The precious germplasm collection of the local African rice species (Oryza glaberrima) that has been painstakingly built and conserved over many years in the genebank of the West Africa Rice Development Association (WARDA) will be irretrievably lost if the present crisis continues,” said Dr Kanayo F Nwanze, Director General, WARDA. “About 3000 interspecific hybrid crosses – a result of over a decade-long work by WARDA plant breeders – are also at tremendous risk of loss”, he added.
WARDA’s headquarters is based at M’bé, near Bouaké, which was seized by the rebel troops on 19 September and is now at the heart of the battle between the Côte d’Ivoire government and the rebel forces.
The magnitude of the loss of the African glaberrima germplasm collection – if it happens – can be gauged by the fact that this collection was the key to the creation of the New Rice for Africa (NERICA), which is bringing today hope to millions of poor people in subSaharan Africa. Although very low in yield, O. glaberrima is a rich reservoir of useful genes for resistance to diseases and insect pests, as well as tolerance to acid soils, iron toxicity, and drought.
WARDA researchers used advanced biotechnology techniques to combine the robustness of African glaberrima with the high yields of Asian rice (O. sativa) to develop NERICA.
NERICA is not a traditional hybrid seed like IR8 of the Green Revolution nor just one single variety. WARDA has developed hundreds of new varieties, opening new gene pools and increasing the biodiversity of rice to the world of science.
Dr R Guei, Coordinator of the International Network for Genetic Evaluation of Rice for Afica (INGER-Africa) based at WARDA, explained that the viability of the germplasm stored in the WARDA genebank can be lost in case of power shutdown in the cold rooms. “If that happens we will not be able to retrieve the new breeders’ lines that we had planned to duplicate this year,” he said.
Seed samples from this collection are regularly planted to assess their germination quality. Dr Guei was concerned about losing about a 1000 glaberrima germplasm lines as well as about 3000 sativa lines that had been planted at the WARDA research station for rejuvenation. “In case we can’t harvest these on time (around end October), these will be lost; rice breeding programs of WARDA and its collaborators will thus be badly affected,” he said.
WARDA breeders have spent years developing interspecific hybrids, an effort that has paid off with the successful creation of NERICAS. Researchers are continuing to screen these interspecifics to develop new NERICAs for different ecologies. About 3000 of the most promising of these interspecifics are at present kept in the WARDA Anther Culture growth chamber. “These interspecifics have to be transferred to other culture media before planting them in the greenhouse,” explained Dr Y Sere, Acting Director of Research. He was concerned that because of the present crisis, it wasn’t possible to do this work, which if left undone for too long can mean an irreparable loss in terms of research effort, time, and money.
Enumerating the other major possible losses, Dr Sere mentioned that for upland rice 100 of the best lines of interspecific crosses are at the last stage of the experimental process. Over 4 years of work will be lost if the researchers can’t finish these experiments. Similarly for lowland rice breeding, 7 years of work will be lost.
As part of a collaborative project, WARDA scientists are working with the Côte d’Ivoire NARES (CNRA and ANADER) to distribute rice varieties that are resistant to rice yellow mottle virus (RYMV), a major scourge of rice. Dr Sere said that this work is now completely disrupted.
Another major research work that will suffer is the study on the residual effect of natural phosphate in soil. This is the last year of a 5-year project and if the scientists can’t get this year’s data, the total project would lose its research value.
WARDA’s participatory work with farmers has suffered a major setback in Cote d’Ivoire. “This has a direct effect on WARDA’s technology transfer activities,” said Dr T Defoer, WARDA Technology Transfer Specialist. In collaboration with ANADER and CNRA, WARDA has trained Ivoirian farmers to produce seeds as part of its Community-based Seed Production System (CBSS). The crisis will jeopardize the production of 500-750 tons of NERICA seed by the trained farmers, which are in great demand in the subregion.
“Fortunately, there is much to be thankful for WARDA’s modus operandi of partnership that has kept our research and development activities outside of Côte d’Ivoire relatively undisturbed,” Dr Nwanze said.
WARDA hosts the central coordination of the Regional Rice Research and Development Network for West and Central Africa (ROCARIZ), the Inland Valley Consortium (IVC), and the African Rice Initiative (ARI). All of these operate on the basis of linkages with many countries in the subregion.
“It takes many years to build institutional linkages; the network process can regress by 10 years if the crisis continues,” said Dr S Sanyang, ROCARIZ Coordinator. The coordination and supervisory operations of ROCARIZ and IVC have been affected. “The direct effect of the crisis on IVC has been the premature departure of the Administrative Coordinator,” said Dr P Kiepe, IVC Scientific Coordinator.
The crisis has understandably affected the WARDA personnel. As an international research institute, WARDA employs about 30 international staff. After a harrowing experience in Bouaké, they have been relocated to Abidjan. Because of the crisis, the two international schools that used to attract international personnel to come to Bouaké will henceforth be partially or fully closed.
The effect has been equally adverse on WARDA’s local staff. About 70-75% of the total WARDA staff are Ivoirian. Their lives as well as the lives of their families have been totally disrupted.