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Mounira Lage: 1959–2021

ISSUE:
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74-75

Plant researcher Mounira Lage, PhD, died in Rabat, Morocco, on July 23, 2021, at age 62. Lage worked with international organizations and the Moroccan government to improve the quality of saffron (Crocus sativus, Iridaceae) produced in Morocco and create a high-value product that could improve the financial prospects of rural communities and particularly women-owned businesses. Her research also involved other valuable commercial crops, including rice (Oryza sativa, Poaceae) and stevia (Stevia rebaudiana, Asteraceae).

Lage was born in Beni Mellal, Morocco, on July 19, 1959. In 1985, she completed her bachelor’s degree in agronomy at the Institut Agronomique et Vétérinaire Hassan II (Hassan II Agronomic and Veterinary Institute; IAV) in Rabat. She started work on her master’s degree in agronomy at the Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon (now part of the AgroParisTech institute) in Paris, France, before returning to IAV to complete her studies in 1987. She began her career as an agrophysiologist (a scientist who focuses on the biological study of agricultural products) with the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (National Institute for Agricultural Research; INRA) in Rabat in 1990.

At INRA, Lage headed a program that studied rice’s water needs and the feasibility of rice cultivation in Morocco. This research also included a water-needs study of stevia, which had been introduced recently to the country. When Lage was granted a Fulbright scholarship to work on her doctoral degree, she collaborated with the University of Arkansas on this subject from 1998 to 2000. At the end of the project, her team had produced more drought-tolerant rice varieties.

After receiving her PhD in vegetable production and agronomy from IAV in 2004, Lage began studying saffron, which would be her major research interest for the rest of her life. Saffron stigmas are the most expensive spice in the world by weight since they must be harvested by hand, and each flower produces only three or four stigmas. The saffron crocus does not appear in the wild and exists only in cultivation, and the stigmas are high-value products in the culinary, supplement, and cosmetic industries. Saffron primarily is cultivated in Iran, which accounts for approximately 90% of the total global yield. Morocco has produced saffron on a small scale for centuries, primarily in the region around the town of Taliouine, for local culinary and medicinal uses. However, Lage was interested in expanding this burgeoning industry by breeding saffron varieties that were suited to different climates outside of Taliouine and produced the preferred aromatic and active compounds sought by various industries, which could help alleviate rural poverty and play a potential role in improving public health.

Lage conducted field work throughout Morocco to improve saffron quality and promote sustainable, equitable harvesting conditions. These efforts included the development of quality-control methods, the use of molecular techniques to determine genetic variations among growing regions, analyzing the environmental impact of saffron cultivation, and organizing workshops and presentations on best practices for farmers. She focused her efforts on cooperative farms, particularly women-led cooperatives. She also mentored postgraduate students at the master’s and doctoral levels.

Abdelmjid Zouahri, PhD, research director at INRA, noted Lage’s devotion to empowering women in rural areas. “[Mounira] initiated many women from rural cooperatives [into] saffron cultivation,” he wrote (email, November 4, 2021). “Her work consisted of providing them with corms (saffron [bulbs]) and showing them how to sow saffron: soil preparation, sowing rate, fertilization, irrigation, weeding, harvesting, drying and quality evaluation. Her relationship with these cooperatives was very professional and friendly [which kept] them so enthusiastic [about] the saffron culture.”

Throughout her career, Lage served as a consultant for various governmental and non-governmental organizations, including the Morocco Ministry of Interior, US Agency for International Development, and the University of Mississippi’s National Center for Natural Products Research. In 2007, she earned a second Fulbright grant that enabled her to collaborate with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Products Utilization Research (NPUR) laboratory in Oxford, Mississippi. The outcome of this project was the publication of two papers: one that quantified marker compounds in saffron that can distinguish the plant’s area of origin and another that detailed the sustainable production of high-quality saffron in Morocco.1,2

Charles Cantrell, PhD, research leader at NPUR, worked closely with Lage on this research. “I met Mounira when I was fortunate enough to travel to Morocco in 2006 on a trip sponsored by the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service,” Cantrell wrote (email, October 8, 2021). “We visited many wonderful locations and sites in Morocco, including the INRA facilities and field sites where Mounira performed her research.… She was an extremely talented and dedicated scientist.”

Lage briefly worked with other economically important plants when she studied the viability of cultivating physic nut (Jatropha curcas, Euphorbiaceae) in Morocco as an oil plant. However, saffron remained her main research focus. In addition to her field work, lab work, and consultancy, she also served as a reviewer for multiple agricultural journals, including Industrial Crops and Products, Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, and Journal of the Association of Arab Universities for Basic and Applied Sciences.

In 2016, Lage successfully organized the Fifth International Symposium on Saffron Biology and Technology, held in Agadir, Morocco. Zouahri noted that this was the first time that Moroccan saffron farmers could meet with an international community of producers and scientists. She also presented the results of her research at the University of Vermont’s North American Center for Saffron Research and Development’s 2019 Saffron Workshop in Burlington, Vermont.

Lage’s colleagues remember her as caring and warm-hearted. “At [a] personal level, Mounira was a very kind person, appreciated by all her colleagues,” wrote Zouahri. “She was always ready to help anyone in need…. She has left a personal legacy among her family, friends, and colleagues with her gentleness and kindness to all those who had the pleasure to know her.”

Cantrell echoed these sentiments: “I have known Mounira for more than 15 years, and I will personally remember her for her gentleness and kindness to all those [who] had the pleasure of working with her in my laboratory in Oxford, Mississippi. Everyone working with [her] would always comment on her … eagerness to work together to accomplish the research objectives.... Mounira was a remarkable person and a stellar scientist. She will be genuinely missed as a friend and research colleague.”

Mounira Lage is survived by her husband, three sons, three sisters, and one brother.

References

  1. Lage M, Cantrell CL. Quantification of saffron (Crocus sativus L.) metabolites crocins, picrocrocin and safranal for quality determination of the spice grown under different environmental Moroccan conditions. Scientia Horticulturae. 2009;121:366-373.
  2. Lage M, Cantrell CL, Gaboun F, Bakhy K, Dakak H, Zouahri A. Sustainable production of high quality saffron (Crocus sativus L.) in some Moroccan areas. In: Tsimidou MZ, Polissiou M, Fernandez JA, eds. Third International Symposium on Saffron: Forthcoming Challenges in Cultivation, Research and Economics. Leuven, Belgium: International Society for Horticultural Science. 2010:850;235-238.