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Safaa Kumari: A Syrian Plant Virologist Seeks to Safeguard Key Agricultural Crops

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.

“I hope to produce large quantities of disease-resistant varieties and distribute them in all countries of the region for the benefit of farmers,” she said.

Kumari is pleased to work with an international organization like Icarda that provides her with sufficient financial resources to support her research.

“I hope to produce large quantities of disease-resistant varieties and distribute them in all countries of the region for the benefit of farmers.”

Safaa Kumari  

“If I worked in a routine government job, I would never be able to achieve the research outcome that I got during my work in an international center that has the financial capabilities and strict rules in work and scientific research,” she said.

At the same time, Kumari does not hide her deep regret over the situation in her native Syria.

“Before the war, all the necessary capabilities and equipment for scientific agricultural research were available,” she said. “Yet, unfortunately, after the destruction that afflicted Syria, if you find a scientific apparatus in a laboratory now, you will not find the power to run it or the necessary materials the device needs to complete a certain experiment.” (See a related article, “Syrian Higher Education Is ‘Highly Fractured and Diminished,’ Report Says.”)

A Daring Mission to Rescue Seeds

In 2010, Kumari had samples of resistant seeds of 27 plants, which she placed at Icarda’s headquarters near Aleppo, but the outbreak of the war in Syria the following year prompted her to also store some virus-resistant seeds at her sister’s home in Aleppo for safekeeping.

Later, while she was on a business trip to Ethiopia, her family was forced to flee to Turkey after their home was seized. Nevertheless, Kumari decided to return to save the seeds.

“These seeds were the product of 20 years of hard work, and there was nothing like them anywhere else,” she said. “If I had lost the seeds, everything I did to get there would have been lost.”

The return journey was arduous and fraught with dangers. “It took three days to get home,” she said. “There were fighting and bombings all over the place.”

Safaa Kumari working at an Icarda plant research facility in Tunisia. She brought her research to Tunisia in 2012 after fleeing her native Syria (Photo courtesy of Safaa Kumari).
Safaa Kumari working at an Icarda plant research facility in Tunisia. She brought her research to Tunisia in 2012 after fleeing her native Syria (Photo courtesy of Safaa Kumari).

Within a few days, Icarda found an opportunity for her in the Virus Laboratory of Tunisia’s National Institute of Agronomic Research. So Kumari came out of Syria with the virus-resistant seeds and continued her research in Tunisia.

She was working under difficult psychological conditions at the time as a result of the dispersal of her family to various parts of Syria, Turkey and Germany, but she finally managed to produce plants with stable immunity in 2015.

“We have solved our problem with the disease, but the farmer’s problem is still going on, as he wants a strong and productive plant,” she said.

The scientists crossed the virus-resistant seeds with other high-yielding fava varieties to create hybrid species that are now being tested to find plants that are both virus-resistant and high-yielding.

The process of crossbreeding and generational testing takes a long time, Kumari says, and requires patience, but the researchers are approaching their goal.

“I hope that the new strains with the virus-resistant gene along with high productivity will be distributed to research institutes in countries where the fava bean necrotic yellows virus is causing great losses within two or three years, to be distributed later to farmers,” she said.

Determined and Capable

Kumari’s colleagues attest to her dedication and passion for research.

Khaled Makkouk, former head of Icarda’s virus laboratory and editor-in-chief of the Arab Journal of Plant Protection, met Kumari in 1985.

“We were recruiting new graduates from Faculties of Agriculture to work as temporary technicians with the aim of training them on the one hand, and recruiting distinguished ones to work permanently on the other hand,” he said. “From the first days, Safaa was distinguished by her seriousness at work. Therefore, it did not take long for her to be chosen to work in the virus laboratory permanently.”

Makkouk believes that one of the most important qualities that contributes to Kumari’s professional excellence is her love of public service.

“Safaa does not hesitate to participate in any activity that supports research, even if it is unpaid.”

Khaled Makkouk  
Former head of Icarda’s virus laboratory and editor-in-chief of the Arab Journal of Plant Protection

“Safaa does not hesitate to participate in any activity that supports research, even if it is unpaid,” he said. “For years, she has been helping in preparing newsletters and organizing conferences for a nongovernmental association concerned with plants, as well as in editing research articles issued by the Arab Society for Plant Protection. All this requires time and effort, and she never failed me.”

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Kumari does not like to talk about specific challenges facing women researchers. She believes that it is about people’s abilities, rather than their gender. “Researchers only need to believe in themselves and their abilities,” she said. “Scientists are evaluated based on achievement, not gender.”

Kumari hopes she can return to Syria someday soon, to share the knowledge she has gained with farmers, researchers and students there.

“Years ago, I thought I would return to Syria within months,” she said. “But it has been a long time. I hope to return quickly so that I can put what I learned to use in serving my country.”


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