Saving Georgia's biodiversity for food security of future generations

Date: 16.01.2014.

The Agricultural University of Georgia prepares students for a career in agricultural research. Photo credit: Agricultural University of Georgia.

In the Caucasus and even beyond, Georgia's biodiversity takes some beating. It is so exceptional that German biologist and ecologist Michael Succow once said: "Not a single country in Europe possesses such a rich flora and fauna as Georgia. No European country offers such diverse landscape in such a small area." Georgia also boasts great agricultural biodiversity, an integral part of its natural riches and a product of human activity over centuries. Local farmers have developed many unique varieties that can be used in improvement of cultivated crops.

This legacy, however, has been at recurrent risk of loss as agricultural production, a mainstay in the national economy, is growing. Many of the traditional varieties have been lost because of abandonment or replacement by new varieties and alternative crops. But as pests and diseases remain the main concern of farmers in Georgia, plant genetic resources, that is the genetic materials holding valuable traits in both indigenous domesticated and wild plants, are all the more important. Preserving genetic diversity is necessary not only for research, but also for increased productivity and sustainable agriculture. Plant breeding programs, which used to be quite effective in the past, face problems from insufficient funding to aging human and material resources to uncertainties about future research priorities. Conservation activities are often underfunded and understaffed too, and their scope is limited. And in some cases, facilities are lacking or in need of modernization.

Georgia is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity, and has commitment to conservation of biodiversity and sustainable management of genetic resources. As one of the first steps, Georgia completed a National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan in 2005. It is a comprehensive document on biodiversity in the country and provides an excellent framework for designing conservation measures, including those for agricultural biodiversity. Lack of financing for conservation and research, however, puts a drag on the progress. In 2007 FAO commissioned an EU-funded study in partnership with the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) to facilitate efforts on effective management and use of plant genetic resources in Georgia. The study reviewed the state of plant genetic resources conservation, management, improvement and use in Georgia. It identified a range of issues from the need for an integrated and coordinated national plant genetic resources program to capacity building.

The situation has picked up since then. More efforts are now under way to preserve plant genetic resources in situ (as wild resources or on-farm) and ex situ (usually in gene-banks or field collections). Both public and private organizations are joining forces in support of conservation and crop improvement. Where government institutions left off, NGOs and private companies have taken up the slack. Two of them are Elkana, a Georgian NGO, and Agro Cartu, a research-focused company. Both have programs for conservation and sustainable use of local landraces. Founded in 1994, the biological farming association Elkana promotes conservation and sustainable use of landraces of traditional agricultural crops. It works with local communities on in situ or on-farm and community-based preservation of important landraces of Georgian crops. The association also helps to improve the livelihoods of rural populations and step up environmental protection through, among other things, agro-tourism. Elkana members, currently 450 farmers, offer agro-tourism services, promoting them online ( This gives them extra income and stimulus to conserve traditional landraces.

Georgian farmers are also getting support from international research and development agencies. In 2009 the USAID and its national partners completed a 23-million USD program called AgVANTAGE. Launched in 2002, the program contributed to increased production, sale and export of value-added agricultural products. Georgian suppliers and producers learnt how to better compete on the domestic and international markets. As a result, the US is now a leading export market for Georgian wines. Potential for wine tourism increased too. The program helped to create 1,880 permanent jobs and generated over 37 million USD in foreign and domestic sales.

Georgia is known for its unique grapevine genetic diversity. According to a widely-held view, grapevine was domesticated here about 4,000 years ago. Since that time, wine - and with it grapevine - has spread throughout the world and has evolved from being a major part of the diet before the advent of safe drinking water to a social drink. A project implemented by Bioversity International in 2003-2009 supported the conservation of the local varieties of grapevine in Georgia and other five countries of the Caucasus and Northern Black Sea. In fact, a field inventory was carried out, which resulted in a comprehensive database of varieties and ampelography, and the unique genetic material was multiplied under safe and standard conditions and re-planted in new collections. The Research Institute of Horticulture, Viticulture and Winemaking, which now operates under the Georgian Agricultural University, continues these efforts and now conducts research on indigenous grapevine genetic resources at molecular markers.

As Georgia's food industry picks up steam, improving quality of agricultural products like wine, fruits, vegetables, and bread depends on finding the right variety for the right location. This again requires plant genetic resources. Crop varieties have to be resistant to pests and diseases. Without access to plant genetic resources, it is impossible to breed crops with desirable traits. Thus, conservation of plant genetic resources as seeds in gene-banks must also be a priority. More advanced short, medium and long-term storage facilities are needed. In 2004 ICARDA helped to open a gene-bank, which became fully operational in 2006. The gene-bank is based at the Georgian Agricultural University and is the only facility in Georgia with medium and long-term seed storage capacity, where temperatures are maintained at 0-+40C and under -200C respectively. It has recently been moved to new, renovated rooms on the university campus. Out of the available accessions, 1,990 have already been regenerated and studied for various agronomic and morphological traits. Much of the research is focused on field crops, especially grain and food legumes. The gene-bank currently holds more than 2,500 accessions of various crops. Safety duplicates are stored at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, USA. The Georgian Agricultural University is installing a cryogenic storage facility at the gene-bank. As this technology is new in Georgia, a group of scientists has undergone training at Kew's Millennium Seed Bank recently. Researchers at the gene-bank collect samples from local breeders, through exchange with foreign gene-banks and field collecting missions. In 2013 local scientists took part in two international expeditions to collect and evaluate plant genetic resources in the country together with Dutch, South Korean and Russian experts.

Collecting and preserving plant genetic resources are one thing. But it is also necessary to ensure there are enough quality seeds of existing and new crop varieties for farming purposes. In recent years private companies have taken the lead in meeting domestic demand for seeds and planting material. For example, Agro Cartu has been developing production of high-quality virus-free vegetable and potato seed since 2007. The company hopes to not only meet local demand but also increase exports and advance Georgia's reputation as a reliable supplier of high-quality agricultural products. Agro Cartu operates a research center near Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. The center has 54 ha of land in the highlands and is well-equipped for production of high-quality virus-free seed and planting material. There are greenhouses, screen houses and laboratories for tissue culture and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) analysis at the center. One of the laboratories studies viruses according to European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organization (EPPO) standards. The center has a collection of 430 local and 280 introduced grape varieties. It also cooperates with research organizations from Germany, Italy, France, USA, Ukraine and other countries. In 2008 Agro Cartu and the International Potato Center (CIP) signed an agreement of collaboration on seed potato research and production. CIP regularly provides germplasm material to Agro Cartu. To date around 18 new potato cultivars have been tested at the Akhalkalaki experimental station. And three new varieties 'Meskhuri', 'Meskhuri Tsiteli' and 'Javakheturi' were registered in Georgia in 2012-2013. They are high-yielding and resistant to viruses, late blight and drought. They also demonstrate good marketable traits, which is one of the reasons their seeds are being multiplied on farms. Seed multiplication is particularly important as potato is one of Georgia's major staple and cash crops. It is cultivated in an area of 30,000-35,000 ha, but productivity still remains very low. And poor seed quality is often blamed.

There are strong research partnerships with CGIAR members. Besides Bioversity, CIP and ICARDA, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and AVRDC - The World Vegetable Center also provide technologies to support farmers. Maize germplasm from CIMMYT is used to develop hybrids suited to Georgia's climatic and soil conditions. In 2011-2012 local scientists patented high-yielding hybrids such as 'Tserovani 4', 'Tserovani 5', 'Lomtagora 4' and 'Lomtagora 5'. AVRDC - The World Vegetable Center collaborates closely with the Institute of Farming and shares improved lines and germplasm from its gene-bank. As a result, tomato variety 'Saadreo (CLN 2026D)' was released in 2011. What is more, non-traditional crops such as vegetable soybean are being introduced. For example, two new varieties like 'Mtsvane Parkiani (AGS 292)' and 'Sabostne 1 (Jasuto-75)' were also released in 2011. A new variety of common bean 'Mravalmartsvala (TOT 5976)' is now expected to be registered in 2014.

Thus, collaboration with the international centers has already borne fruit. Initial seed multiplication of released chickpea and lentil varieties originating from ICARDA, 'Aragvi', 'Eleksir', 'Tsilkani', 'Sarkineti' and 'Pablo', is under way. In 2013 local scientists received new chickpea and lentil germplasm, which is resistant to diseases and pests most widespread in Georgia. Since 2000, the Institute of Farming has been successfully working with CIMMYT and ICARDA under the International Winter Wheat Improvement Program (IWWIP). The six nurseries obtained in 2012-2013 alone were planted at the Sartychala experimental station in Gardabani district, eastern Georgia. Seven promising varieties will be multiplied at seed production nurseries. So far wheat varieties 'Lomtagora 109', 'Lomtagora 123' and 'Sauli 9' have been released. They are grown in eastern Georgia and produce yields of 3 to 5 t/ha in normal conditions, reaching 7-8 t/ha in optimal conditions. These varieties are used extensively by local farmers. Wheat developed through such collaboration is cultivated on considerable acreages in Georgia. It currently stands at 20,000 ha, or 10% of the total area.

Despite these successes, some problems persist. One of them is the slow pace of seed multiplication. Seed distribution is also disjointed. Farmers and researchers also often lack knowledge and skills. So capacity building remains a priority. As Dr Guram Aleksidze, President of the Georgian Academy of Agricultural Sciences, an advisory body, said at a recent regional meeting, knowledge sharing was very important for the country as local farmers often seek knowledge from their parents and other people rather than scientists. Farmers need to learn and introduce new technologies. Capacity-building efforts, he added, should also focus on training young specialists and researchers on climate change. Georgia's biodiversity is extraordinary. But making sure it stays so in future depends on how effective measures are today.

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