TUNISIA: Progress in agricultural R&D

Agricultural research and development projects have been highlighted in La Presse of Tunis. The newspaper has interviewed Amor Chermiti on the activities of Inrat, the National Institute of Agronomic Research of Tunisia, of which he is Director General, and it has published reports on the Bizerte competitive research cluster and its Agri-tech business centre and the research assessment area of the Institute of Arid Regions, which became fully operative in 2009.

Inrat, established over a century ago, is the country's leading institute of agricultural research. Chermiti explained to La Presse it was concerned especially with plant and animal technology - the study and development of genetic resources, creating varieties of plants and improving animal breeding, carrying out economic and social agricultural research, and transfer and application of research results.

The institute employs 83 researchers, 50 technicians and administrative staff and 140 general workers. Its seven laboratories specialise in arable crops, animal and fodder production, horticulture, agronomy, plant protection, biotechnology and plant physiology, and the rural economy. Its activities take place at regional and local levels through a network of nine agricultural experimentation units or stations.

Its research programmes reflected national development priorities and were aimed at satisfying farmers' needs, helping them to raise their yields, said Chermiti.

Recent innovations at Inrat included new strains of cereals characterised by increased productivity and resistance to certain diseases and adapted to regional conditions such as soil type and salt or hydrous stress.

In other sectors, 20 years of research had produced six new varieties of almond trees and six of apricot, new kinds of capsicum, chickpeas, field beans and lentils, said Chermiti.

A genetic programme Inrat had developed over more than 40 years had increased the fertility of a breed of sheep unique to Tunisia by 160%. By-products from local vegetable products - such as tomato pulp, straw, barbary figs, ground olives, herbs and seaweed - were adapted for animal feed.

Thanks to commercial contracts with seed and plant companies at home and abroad, said Chermiti, farmers had access to seeds and crops free from disease, and researchers were guaranteed royalties on their results.

Inrat would play an important role coordinating numerous research projects, notably in the domain of arable crops, for the new national plan which would run until 2018, said Chermiti. Multidisciplinary teams from several institutions would participate in the research which would aim at producing new strains adapted to regions' pedoclimatic conditions. Other research sectors would include arboriculture, livestock, biotechnology, plant protection and the rural economy, he said.

The institute would also work on adaptation of agriculture in the event of rapid or unexpected climate change, evolving consumer tastes and international competition, he said.

La Presse also reported on the Bizerte competitive cluster, or PCB, which includes Agri-Tech, a technological agribusiness centre in Menzel Abderrahman. Agri-Tech has three components - applied R&D, training and production - and comprises 18 Tunisian and four foreign R&D partners, and 38 companies. In 2010 it is planned to extend the network to 42 partners.

The cluster's main objectives are to promote innovation and new technologies, develop high value-added innovatory projects, create employment and increase business competitivity. It also aims to protect the local market, promote exports and develop partnerships in the agribusiness sector.

PCB works out its research programme with the Ministries of Industry, Energy and Small Businesses, as well as its partners, and has collaborated on seafood production with the Q@LI-Med cluster based in Montpellier, France, and with Ifremer, the French Institute for Exploitation of the Sea.

PCB's education and training programmes include a masters in agribusiness management organised by Iamm, the Montpellier Mediterranean Agronomic Institute, and Inat, the National Agronomic Institute of Tunis. A professional higher diploma in industrial agribusiness is planned, along with other courses to fit the needs of the sector.

Finally, La Presse gave a progress report on the research assessment area of the Institute of Arid Regions, or IRA, in Médenine, which was set up in 2005 and became fully operational last year. It has developed about a dozen projects concerned with animal and plant fibres - including dromedary hair and rushes - and agricultural produce from oases and arid areas.

Products included allium roseum (rosy garlic), camel's milk, aromatic and medicinal oils and reproduction of wild plants, said La Presse. In addition the IRA was developing economic techniques of irrigation.

The assessment area was contributing to creation of 'high value-added' projects, enhancing research results carried out by the IRA and the development of natural resources in arid and Saharan zones, said La Presse.