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Old is gold: How Tunisia is turning to indigenous seeds to save its soil and its people

Thanks to Tunisia's National Gene Bank, Tunisian farmers have a solution to a changing environment - indigenous seeds. Now, those seeds are becoming like gold.

bird story agency

Hassan Chtioui, a Tunisian farmer and indigenous seeds researcher in Mornaguia, is someone who has seen first-hand the “disasters” brought about by the introduction of modern wheat and barley seeds across the nation.

Chtioui, who started farming at age 12 on his parents’ and grandparents’ farms, saw farmers in his region lose their produce when imported exotic seeds that failed to provide adequate yields when local environmental conditions changed.

“They either died, or the quantities were too low. The quality and productivity kept getting worse…local native seeds are, however, showing a great adaptation potential to climate change,” he explained.

Chtioui and other farmers are now seeing improvement in yields after returning to indigenous seeds.

“I’ve always been passionate about using local seeds…I opted to use indigenous seeds and I encouraged other farmers to do the same. Through the approach, food production in the region has improved,” he said.

With the help of the government of Tunisia, farmers now have access to indigenous seeds that are resistant to biotic stresses that affect normal growth, a challenge common in exotic seed species.

Since 2007 when the National Gene Bank of Tunisia was created, indigenous genetic resources have been conserved.

According to Ramzi Chaabane, the Director General of Tunisia National Gene Bank, biotic stress is uncommon in native seeds because they “contain adaptation genes to the environment because they have been planted in the same environment for long periods.”

The quest to get more farmers cultivating indigenous seeds has been successful, with more farmers onboarded into the program.

“Records from the National Gene Bank show a high number of farmers are engaged in the cultivation of indigenous seeds…they are all convinced by the value of native genetic resources,” he explained.

The National Gene Bank ensures the availability and continuity of genetic resources by conserving some specific native seeds for long periods.

Seeds are conserved in cold rooms at temperatures of -20 degrees Celsius, with a shelf life of more than 50 years. Some samples are preserved for shorter periods at +4 degrees Celsius.

Thanks to how sought-after the seeds have become internationally, for both research and breeding purposes, the gene bank also offers Tunisia a lucrative export market, the growth of which offers to contribute to the economic growth of the North African country. In this sense, the indigenous seeds have become a form of gold to the economy, offering to boost not only the coffers but also the health of the nation.

“Each indigenous seed could cost up to one dollar in foreign markets…one kilogram of native seeds costs more than twenty thousand dollars…In addition, the yields are so much better in terms of quantity, quality and nutritional value,” Chaabane explained.

Beyond using native seeds, Chtioui advocates for climate-smart approaches to counter the effects of climate change.

“Planting 200 kgs per hectare of land is too much. It complicates the mission of the seed from the planting stage through to harvest,” he said.

Just like Chtioui, Chabaane believes using indigenous seeds is an alternative the continent can utilise through individual countries’ governments and private institutions to foster food security.

“Having limited biodiversity is very risky. We have developed a course on native seeds with seven African countries…Tunisia’s national gene bank shines on the African continent,” he stated.

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