A farmer in Tataouine who participates in the National Gene Bank’s on-farm conservation program
A farmer in Tataouine who participates in the National Gene Bank’s on-farm conservation program

On Saturday, 23 January 2016, fifty individuals gathered at the National Agronomy Institute of Tunisia (INAT) in Tunis for the first plenary meeting on the Tunisia-North Africa Food Sovereignty Forum. Launched by geographer and filmmaker Habib Ayeb, the Forum proposes an alternative to the country’s national consultation on agriculture, in efforts to transform–not just repair and reform–agriculture and the food system. Themes such as natural resource management, land and property issues, food distribution circuits, human and environmental health, are fundamental to the concept of food sovereignty and will be among the main issues discussed throughout Forum. To participate in this dialogue, Nawaat will publish an article per month on themes relating to food sovereignty until the comprehensive Forum event set to take place in 2017.

Mahmoudi, Beskri, Bidi, Richi, Jneh Khottifa, Rommani, Ouard Bled, Ajlili, Arbi, Ardhaoui, Souhili…many would not recognize the importance of these names, representing but a fraction of the wheat and barley varieties once cultivated in Tunisia. Since the 1940s, the number of local cereal varieties has decreased by 90%, from fifty to five. Having recently examined some of the nutritional and economic implications of cereal production in Tunisia, Nawaat spoke with Amine Slim, researcher at the National Gene Bank, for a closer look at cereals, a glimpse into this vital food source from the inside-out.

The National Gene Bank and conservation of local cereals

Amine Slim began his work at the National Gene Bank (BNG) in 2009, just two years after it became operational within the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development. As per Decree N°2003-1748 of 11 August 2003, the BNG is responsible for the collection, selection, identification, evaluation, and enhancement of genetic resources. Within the Bank’s broader mission, Slim highlights the particular importance of work for the conservation of local cereal landraces (traditional varieties that have adapted over time to their natural and agricultural environment).

National supply and demand for cereals provides context for this work, Slim explains. Although one third of its agricultural lands are dedicated to the cultivation of cereals, Tunisia is not self-sufficient in meeting needs for this staple food source. According to ONAGRI, the country produces 20% of its needs for soft wheat (used to make breads and pastries), 75% for hard wheat (the stuff of couscous and pasta), and 74% for barley (bread and shorba). Wheat constitutes the majority (54%) of calories consumed per person per day compared with a 20% world average. And in spite of wheat subsidies designed to protect consumers from fluctuating market prices, an average of 16% of Tunisians’ total food costs (and 6% of total household expenditures) go to cereals.

Grain imports, improved seeds, and genetic erosion

In order to meet domestic demands, the Ministry of Agriculture imports cereals through the Grain Board (OC), a state-owned company responsible for purchasing (from domestic and overseas producers) grains for consumption and seeds for agricultural use. The General Direction for Quality Protection and Control of Agricultural Products (DGPCQPA) ensures quality control, issuing licenses and cataloging all cereals authorized for distribution. According to two sources within the Ministry of Agriculture, in contrast with cereal grains, Tunisia imports minimal quantities of cereal seeds. Beginning in 2007, these same sources report, foreign cereal varieties (primarily from Italy and France) were introduced for diversification, but have not been propagated for wide-scale distribution to farmers.

FAO reports on phytogenetic resources indicate that the distribution and cultivation of improved over local seed varieties (often as a result of the foreign seed imports) has depleted genetic diversity worldwide. In Tunisia, the replacement of local with improved varieties, domestic or imported, is likely the greatest cause of genetic erosion, which threatens the irreversible loss of quality genes. In terms of cereal production, this trend has been drastic: since the 1940s, Slim reports, the number of cereal varieties has decreased from fifty to five.

Since the 1940s, the number of cereal varieties has decreased from fifty to five. The evaluation of native cultivars is therefore an absolute priority to preserve this genetic heritage, to ensure food security, and to help small operators face climatic changes. Amine Slim, National Gene Bank.

Farmers and seed-saving

In this context, the BNG began a program for the on-farm conservation of local durum and barley varieties. The idea, Slim explains, is simple: the Bank disburses a small quantity of seeds to farmers at the beginning of each growing season with the agreement that (climatic conditions permitting) he or she will return the same quantity after the harvest to be distributed to farmers in subsequent years. Slim emphasizes that there are no conditions attached to the agreement and that any farmer, regardless of the nature—conventional, traditional, or organic—of his or her operation, is encouraged to participate, the objective being “the systematic integration and recognition of the value of local knowledge, competencies, and preferences of farmers as well as their active participation in the conservation of this genetic heritage.”

In the early stages of the program (2008-2009), the Bank accumulated a reserve of native cereals, gathering and multiplying seeds from domestic sources (institutions and researchers), overseas gene banks (such as the USDA, ICARDA), and prospecting-collecting missions carried out in different regions. For the present (2015-2016) season, Slim reports that 32 cereal landrances (24 durum wheat, 8 barley) will be distributed to 77 farmers across 15 governorates. Indeed, aside from growing a seed reserve, the BNG has gradually expanded farmer participation in the conservation program through meetings and workshops held throughout the country, as well as visits to the Bank. Pointing to the increased representation of female farmers (0 in the first two years to 12 for the current season), Slim emphasizes that women play a crucial role in the recovery and preservation of distinct varieties given their practical knowledge relating to seed selection; It is generally female farmers who distinguish, for instance, which varieties of wheat and barley are ideal for basic food items such as bread, couscous, and bsissa.

Native varieties, the source of genetic improvement

Enticed by the comparatively high crop yield and commercial value of improved seed varieties, many farmers select these over their native counterparts. What many fail to appreciate when they invest in the former is that the promised output is based on experiments carried out in controlled test plots using a host of inputs (fertilizers, treatments, etc.), or technological package, which enables optimal production. Given that the majority of Tunisia’s farmers are small-scale operators who cannot afford these technological packages—let alone the seeds they accompany—many who invest in these improved and/or imported varieties are often disappointed when, come harvest period, crop yield is comparable to that of local seeds.


Improved and native seed varieties

Citing Cereal Varieties Cultivated in Tunisia by Mahmoud Deghaies (2003), Slim notes that genetic improvements in cereal seeds in the 1970s sought principally to improve crop yield. Among the most common varieties created from crosses in Tunisia are D77, INRAT 69, Razzak, Maali, while Karim, Khiar, and Om Rabiaa were produced abroad. At the National Gene Bank, native (durum wheat) seed varieties preserved and distributed include Mahmoudi, Beskri, Bidi, Richi, Chili, Jneh Khottifa, Rommani, Echatla, Ouard Bled, Ajimi, Ajlili, and Aouija; barley varieties include Arbi, Ardhaoui, and Souhili.

But as Slim points out:

It was never a question of creating competition between improved and local varieties. We could not ensure our food security with native seeds alone. Each one its potentials…

This much is evident when comparing Tunisia’s diverse regions and micro-climates. In the north, environmental and climatic conditions are vastly more favorable for intensive cereal production; here, improved seed varieties with high crop yield are appropriate. In the arid south, farmers manage, in spite of ostensibly difficult conditions, to cultivate enough grain for their own consumption; in this case, local landraces are more viable, for although their grain output is limited, it is consistent. Whether or not the year proves to be a “good” growing season, production is relatively stable, scientific studies have shown. This is because these seeds have naturally and over the long-term adapted to their environment. What is more, native cereal varieties are known to have a high straw yield, which is used as feed for livestock.

Thus local varieties represent a vital reserve of genes that can be introduced into other varieties to better adapt to specific bio-climatic conditions (such as drought, salinity, disease resistance); more precisely, these genes are the basis of genetic improvement for sustainable agriculture and food security.

Photographs courtesy of Amine Slim.