RUNNING a gene bank is hard enough work at the best of times, but rebuilding genetic resources extracted from other facilities is even harder.
This is the case for Ahmed Amri, head of genetic resources with the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Morocco.
Retrieving material currently inaccessible due to political instability in ICARDA's Syrian facility has meant accessing genetic material from the world seed vault in Svalbard, Norway, and bulking up seed from there for collection in ICARDA's Moroccan facility in Rabat.
This has meant a lot of hard work in the field.
Speaking from ICARDA's farm facility at Marchouch, 45 minutes from Rabat, Dr Amri said over 46,000 accessions, or crop cultivars, had been grown on the Marchouch farm over the past two years to be processed and stored both in the ICARDA facility and others around the globe.
"We did 26,000 accessions last year and we'll do around 20,000 this year."
Dr Amri said these figures would come down once ICARDA had got the bulk of the material it wanted from Syria into the Rabat facility
"By 2022 I would expect it would be a more normal number of accessions, based on material presented from the field but for these few years it is really busy."
The focus is on ICARDA's core crops grown in dry cropping zones, including cereals such as wheat and barley, along with a range of pulses including lentils, chickpeas and faba beans.
Small plots are carefully planted with the crop variety recorded on bar codes to avoid human error.
Dr Amri said pollinated crops such as faba beans were more difficult again, as they had to be planted far enough apart to avoid cross pollination.
Once the crop is planted, the ICARDA team are faced with the same old seasonal concerns facing farmers across the globe, albeit on a much smaller scale, a lack of water, pests and disease all must be managed.
There is some irrigation on the Marchouch property to help get the seeds through to harvest if needed, which has helped this season which had an extremely dry early spring before late rains salvaged the crop.
In terms of pests, there are exotic weeds the Marchouch team has to face that Australia can thank its lucky stars it does not have.
For instance, the parasitic Egyptian broomrape or orobanche, is virtually impossible to control with herbicide on host crops.
"The plant generates thousands of tiny seeds which can lay dormant for up to 15 years," Dr Amri said.
The plant does not produce chlorophyll, so is completely reliant on host crops for nutrients.
It is particularly virulent on pulse crops.
"If it is not controlled you can see 100pc yield loss and there is no way to treat it chemically, really the only thing you can do is hand pick it."
However, Dr Amri said with a dedicated team of weeders at the ICARDA facility they were able to keep on top of the weed, which is used in southern Italian cooking.
"It is a difficult one for sure, it can be hard to see until it is flowering but we really need to keep on top of it to ensure we get the seeds bulked up so that we can get them into storage for use for breeders across the globe."
The genetic diversity in the gene bank plots is clear to see, with a massive range of barley, from two row to six row, to long awned to awnless to some land races cultivated in obscure regions that bear very little resemblance to the modern crop.
"The rewarding thing with the plots is that you get to see how the crop looks in real life," Dr Amri said.
* Gregor Heard travelled to Morocco with assistance from the Crawford Fund and with financial support from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Council on Australia Arab Relations.