After years of research and testing, Safaa Kumari, a Syrian plant virologist, managed to come up with disease-resistant and highly productive plant varieties that contribute to supporting small farmers and maintaining food security in the region.
“When viruses and other pathogens affect basic agricultural crops, poor farmers will find nothing to eat if they lose their crops,” she said.
Kumari, who is currently based in Lebanon, has been head of the Seed Health Laboratory at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (Icarda) since 2015, working to ensure that seeds are healthy, disease-free, and in compliance with international standards.
She also continues her longtime research on producing virus-resistant varieties of fava beans, chickpeas and lentils, by cultivating different varieties, transmitting a viral infection to them and monitoring their growth, to learn which prosper.
Patience Is Key to Success
“It is a hard job,” she said. “Sometimes all the plants we grow die after 20 days of the viral infection, so we might reach the end of the season without plants or harvest.”
She added, “When we encounter plants that show resistance to viral infection, we harvest them and evaluate their seeds in the coming seasons in what is called the selection process.”
Kumari spent many years in isolating virus-resistant plant varieties, including varieties of fava beans that are resistant to a pathogen called fava bean necrotic yellows virus, before she managed to achieve what she calls her biggest success.
“In 2009, I began to notice in a collection of fava bean seeds I received that 10 percent of the plants showed resistance to the virus after being infected with aphids carrying the virus,” she said. “So I replanted the seeds of these plants that did not die and showed resistance to infection in the following seasons until we got plants that are 100 percent resistant to the pathogen.”
That took about 10 years of continuous work, but “the results were amazing in the end,” she said.
Safeguarding Crops and Livelihoods
Kumari, who was selected on the BBC’s list of the 100 most influential and inspiring women in the world for 2020, is interested in fava beans because they are one of the main crops in the region, a mainstay of the population’s diet and the source of many farmers’ livelihoods.