Five questions with Marie Haga

In the lead up to our Spotlight Seminar on the Future of Agriculture in Africa, we were delighted to speak to one of our speakers, Marie Haga, Executive Director of the Crop Trust. Ms. Haga gave a fascinating overview of the Crop Trust’s activities, as well as the exciting drought–resistant crop varieties that are helping to enhance agricultural production and food security in Africa.

1) What are the key challenges in agriculture on the African continent at present?

There are many, but I believe that climate change is the most fundamental challenge to African agriculture. Of course, this is a problem in many countries around the world, but it will disproportionately affect African countries.

Right now, we are facing a huge task: we have to produce enough nutritious food on less land, with less water, and less pesticides and fertilisers. World leaders really need to wake up to this issue. We must focus on managing the dual challenge of increasing population growth and climate change.

2) How is the Crop Trust working to secure greater crop diversity in Africa?

There are 11 major international gene banks around the world, and we are working with the four located in Africa: ILRI and the World Forestry Centre in Kenya, IITA in Nigeria, and Africa Rice in Benin. They are among our most important partners.

The Crop Trust is also doing projects in specific countries, and we have also just finalised a strategy for working more closely with national crop collections. We are seeking funding from the Green Climate Fund for this work, which we are optimistic about securing. We very much look forward to forging a tight-knit working relationship with national crop collections, as it will open up new doors to work in Africa.

When it comes to crops, it’s important to underscore that all countries are completely interdependent. When we breed new varieties of crops, we are dependent on material that is sourced from all over the world. For example, the newly developed wheat variety, Viri, was comprised of material from 26 different countries. I want to stress that all countries need to work together to adapt crops to new conditions.

3) Could you please tell us about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a storage facility that represents the world’s largest collection of crop diversity?

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is iconic and gets a lot of attention, but it’s only a tiny part of the Crop Trust’s work. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is the ‘hard disk’ of the global system for the conservation and availability of crop diversity that the Crop Trust is establishing. This system consists of 11 international gene banks that I touched on earlier, which have a special legal status. It also includes national gene banks that have unique material. I want to emphasise that it is the activities taking place in these national and international gene banks that are important on a day-to-day basis. I would love for these collections to get much more attention.

Basically, there are three levels in the global system: the national, the international, and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which stores duplicates of seed samples from the world’s crop collections. If a crisis occurs, we can go to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault to retrieve seeds and crop material from the affected country. For example, when the international gene bank in Aleppo, Syria, couldn’t operate any longer due to the country’s longstanding civil war, we took ICARDA’s seeds or part of ICARDA’s seeds out of the vault, and reestablished the gene bank partly in Morocco and partly in Lebanon. Last week, the ICARDA seeds actually came back to Aleppo, having travelled the full round from Aleppo to the Vault, to Syria and Lebanon, and back again. This was an incredible moment, and really demonstrates how the Global Seed Vault is supposed to work.

Ultimately, our dream is to have a copy of each variety of seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

4) What are some of the most exciting scientific and technical innovations that are enhancing the agricultural sector on the continent?

I’m a technological optimist. I firmly believe that we cannot deal with some of the major challenges globally if we don’t believe in technology and innovation.

Luckily, there is so much happening. I’m most excited about the drought-resistant varieties of crops that have recently been created in Africa. In particular, I’m referring to the progress made on drought-resistant bananas, peas, sorghum, and beans.

I want to add that we focus more on increasing nutritional value in crops, which is fundamental to securing food security. Of course, we need to ensure that people are able to eat an adequate number of calories to meet their energy needs, but they also require food that is high in nutrients. Again, we have made substantial progress on increasing the nutritional value of crops such as sweet potato, wheat and others.

5) What advice would you give to the African policy makers who are seeking to achieve greater food security?

I would actually turn that question around, and ask African policy makers to tell me what we can do better to support them. I firmly believe that it’s African political leaders who have their shoes on, so to speak, and know what can and should be done.

However, I do think that African political leaders should ‘raise their voices’ when they speak to their European and American colleagues, as well as those in rich countries. At a global level, there is already too little awareness about the challenges in agriculture, but this is especially acute in Africa. The continent’s policy makers and leaders are the best equipped to enhance our understanding of Africa’s real needs in food security.

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