Iran phenotyping workshop highlights wheat physiology

As part of the implementation of the 2017-18 work plan of the Iran-CIMMYT project “Increasing the Productivity of Wheat and Wheat Systems in Iran”, a workshop on “Application of Physiology (Phenotyping) in Wheat Breeding and Management” was held from 29 April-01 May 2018 at the Imam Khomeini Higher Education Center, Karaj, Iran. It was attended by 30 participants (four of whom were women) including wheat breeders, agronomists and physiologists from the Seed and Plant Improvement Institute (SPII), the Dryland Agriculture Research Institute (DARI), the Agricultural and Natural Resources Research and Education Centers and the Jahad-e-Agriculture Organizations. They learned about the theory and application (field practice and measurements) of physiological concepts and knowledge in wheat breeding and research programs, as well as wheat management. Field training and practices were conducted at SPII’s Cereal Research Field Station in Karaj.

Dr. Marta Da Silva Lopes and Dr. Alistair Pask, senior wheat physiologists at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), were the workshop instructors. The participants received books, articles, manuals, software and other educational materials pertaining to the theme of the workshop. To assess the quality and usefulness of the workshop, evaluation forms were distributed among participants and their feedback and comments were compiled and synthesized.

Ninety six percent of the participants found the workshop of high quality and useful. For example, one of the participants wrote, “Thank you so much for conducting such a wonderful and informative workshop. I have been waiting for this course for long time. It was very fruitful to me and I learned a lot from this event. I also found the answers for many of my questions about wheat physiology and phenology. This course will definitely help me to improve my work.” Another participant said “…this workshop helped me to better understand wheat physiological aspects in more detail. The tools were very useful and I hope to use them in my wheat breeding program.”

The aim of the workshop was to improve and upgrade the knowledge and skills of Iranian wheat breeders and agronomists on the application of physiology/precise phenotyping in wheat breeding and crop management across Iran. It was organized by the Iran-CIMMYT project, and benefited from the technical backstopping of CRP WHEAT and CIMMYT Project W3B-PR-18-Turkey.

Wheat blast screening and surveillance training in Bangladesh

Photo: CIMMYT/Tim Krupnik

Fourteen young wheat researchers from South Asia recently attended a screening and surveillance course to address wheat blast, the mysterious and deadly disease whose surprise 2016 outbreak in southwestern Bangladesh devastated that region’s wheat crop, diminished farmers’ food security and livelihoods, and augured blast’s inexorable spread in South Asia.

Held from 24 February to 4 March 2018 at the Regional Agricultural Research Station (RARS), Jessore, as part of that facility’s precision phenotyping platform to develop resistant wheat varieties, the course emphasized hands-on practice for crucial and challenging aspects of disease control and resistance breeding, including scoring infections on plants and achieving optimal development of the disease on experimental wheat plots.

Cutting-edge approaches tested for the first time in South Asia included use of smartphone-attachable field microscopes together with artificial intelligence processing of images, allowing researchers identify blast lesions not visible to the naked eye.

“A disease like wheat blast, which respects no borders, can only be addressed through international collaboration and strengthening South Asia’s human and institutional capacities,” said Hans-Joachim Braun, director of the global wheat program of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), addressing participants and guests at the course opening ceremony. “Stable funding from CGIAR enabled CIMMYT and partners to react quickly to the 2016 outbreak, screening breeding lines in Bolivia and working with USDA-ARS, Fort Detrick, USA to identify resistance sources, resulting in the rapid release in 2017 of BARI Gom 33, Bangladesh’s first-ever blast resistant and zinc enriched wheat variety.”

Cooler and dryer weather during the 2017-18 wheat season has limited the incidence and severity of blast on Bangladesh’s latest wheat crop, but the disease remains a major threat for the country and its neighbors, according to P.K. Malaker, Chief Scientific Officer, Wheat Research Centre (WRC) of the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI).

“We need to raise awareness of the danger and the need for effective management, through training courses, workshops, and mass media campaigns,” said Malaker, speaking during the course.

The course was organized by CIMMYT, a Mexico-based organization that has collaborated with Bangladeshi research organizations for decades, with support from the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Bangladesh Wheat and Maize Research Institute (BWMRI).

Speaking at the closing ceremony, N.C.D. Barma, WRC Director, thanked the participants and the management team and distributed certificates. “The training was very effective. BMWRI and CIMMYT have to work together to mitigate the threat of wheat blast in Bangladesh.”

Other participants included Jose Mauricio Fernandes, EMBRAPA-Passo Fundo, Brazil; Pawan Singh, CIMMYT wheat pathologist; T.P. Tiwari, Timothy J. Krupnik, and D.B. Pandit, CIMMYT-Bangladesh; Bahadur Mia, Bangladesh Agricultural University (BAU); and scientists from BMWRI and BARI, the Nepal Agricultural Research Council NARC, and Assam Agricultural University (AAU), India.

Q+A with Iván Ortíz-Monasterio on nitrogen dosages and greenhouse gases

Iván Ortíz-Monasterio, expert on sustainable intensification and wheat crop management at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), recently took part in a study detailing the detriments of excess fertilizer use and the benefits of more precise dosages.

In the following interview, he discusses the overuse of nitrogen fertilizer and related consequences, his experience with farmers, and his outlook for the future. According to Ortíz-Monasterio and study co-authors, research on wheat in the Yaqui Valley, state of Sonora, northwestern Mexico, and home to CIMMYT’s Norman E. Borlaug Experiment Station (CENEB), has direct implications for wheat crop management worldwide.

“The Yaqui Valley is agro-climatically representative of areas where 40 percent of the world’s wheat is grown, including places like the Indo-Gangetic Plains of India and Pakistan, the Nile Delta in Egypt, and the wheat lands of China,” said Ortíz-Monasterio.

  1. A key finding of the new publication was that, after a certain point, applying more nitrogen fertilizer does not increase yields, making excessive applications essentially a drain on farmers’ resources. Why then do farmers continue to apply more fertilizer than the crop needs?

Well there is a risk, if you under-apply N fertilizer, your yield goes down. Farmers are afraid that the yield will be lower and that their profit will be lower. The cost of under-applying for them is greater than the cost of over-applying, because they’re not paying all the costs of over applying. Those costs include the environmental impacts associated with greenhouse gas emissions, at a regional scale in the case of the Yaqui Valley because of nitrification of the Sea of Cortez, and at a local level due to contamination of the water table. All these costs are passed on to society. If we passed them on to farmers, then they would be more concerned about over-applying nitrogen fertilizers.

-Do you think farmers becoming more concerned is something that could happen?

Well there are starting to be more regulations in Europe. In the UK, farmers cannot apply any nitrogen before or at sowing; they can apply fertilizer only once the plant is about 15 centimeters tall. In other parts of Europe, like Germany, farmers cannot apply more than 150 kilograms of nitrogen on wheat, so it’s happening in other parts of the world. The government of Mexico and others are making commitments to reduce nitrous oxide emissions by 20 percent by 2030 and, in the case of agriculture, the main source of nitrous oxide is nitrogen fertilizer. To meet such commitments, governments will have to take policy action so, yes; I think there’s a good chance something will happen.

  1. There are technologies that can help farmers know precisely when to apply fertilizer and how much, for optimal crop yield and nitrogen use. Do many farmers use them? Why or why not?

NDVI (normalized difference vegetative index) map. Photo: CIMMYT.

Something interesting to me is what’s happening right now. For the last 10 years, we’ve been working with Yaqui Valley farmers to test and promote hand-held sensors and hiring farm advisors paid with government money who provide this service free to farmers, and adoption was high. Then the government removed the subsidy, expecting farmers to begin covering the cost, but

farmers didn’t want to pay for it.

Then a company that uses drones approached me and other researchers in the region and requested our help to convert wheat crop sensor data obtained using airborne drones to recommended fertilizer dosages. We agreed and, in their first year of operation, farmers growing wheat on 1,000 hectares paid for this service. I don’t know what it is—maybe seeing a colorful map is more sexy—but farmers seem to be willing to pay if you fly a drone to collect the data instead of having a farm advisor walk over the field. But it’s great! In the past we relied on the government to transfer the technology and now we have this  great example of a private-public partnership, where a company is helping to transfer the technology and making a profit, so that will make it sustainable. I’m very excited about that!

  1. Does CIMMYT have a plan to increase adoption of these technologies?

A CIMMYT technician uses a hand-held sensor to measure NDVI (normalized difference vegetative index) in a wheat field at the center’s CENEB experiment station near Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, northern Mexico. Photo: CIMMYT.

We’re not married to one technology, but need to work with all of them. You know we started with Greekseeker, which is a ground-based sensor, and now we’re also working with drones, with manned airplanes mounted with cameras, and even satellite images. So, there are four different ways to collect the data, and we’ve seen that the Greenseeker results correlate well with all of them, so the technology we developed originally for Greenseeker can be used with all the other platforms.

  1. Are you optimistic that farmers can shift their perceptions in this area and significantly reduce their nitrogen use?

I think we’re moving in that direction, but slowly. We need policy help from the government. Officials need to give some type of incentive to farmers to use the technology, because when farmers do something different they see it as a risk. To compensate for that risk, give them a carrot, rather than a stick, and I think that will help us move the technology faster.

From genes to networks to what-works

In a letter to the editorsof Nature, John R. Porter, Chair of the Independent Steering Committee for the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat, and Tony Fischer, Honorary Research Fellow, CSIRO Plant Industry, Australia, and former Director of the CIMMYT Wheat Program, along with other leading crop scientists, question where functional plant genomics research is headed. Their letter stems from a recent Editorial about reported progress in the 11th Plant Genomes Meeting. Porter et al. ask “what has been gained from decoding the alphabet of gene sequences,” and “when will the promise of genetics be translated into higher yields in farmers’ fields?”

“The best and most relevant research for crop science begins and ends in the field,” say Porter et al.

They call for an interdisciplinary approach aligning functional genomics with crop agronomy, while keeping food security in clear sight and contributing to the yield growth in crop production required to feed billions more consumers in coming decades.

* Full access requires a subscription to Nature or purchase of the letter.

Farmers, environment, and carbon markets to profit from more precise fertilizer management, study shows

A wheat farm family from the Yaqui Valley, northwestern Mexico. Photo: CIMMYT/Peter Lowe

EL BATÁN, MEXICO – 24 APRIL 2018–Farmers of irrigated wheat can increase profits and radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by applying fertilizer in more precise dosages, according to a new study.

Published today in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, the study shows that farmers in the Yaqui Valley, a major breadbasket region in northwestern Mexico that covers over 1.5 times the area of the Mexico City, are applying significantly more nitrogen fertilizer than they need to maximize wheat yields.

Lower application of nitrogen fertilizer would cut the region’s yearly emissions of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, by the equivalent of as much as 130,000 tons of carbon dioxide, equal to the emissions of 14 million gallons of gasoline, according to Neville Millar, a senior researcher at Michigan State University (MSU) and first author of the published paper.

“Our study is the first to isolate the effect of multiple nitrogen fertilizer rates on nitrous oxide emissions in wheat in the tropics or sub-tropics,” Millar said. “It shows that applying fertilizer to wheat at higher than optimal economic rates results in an exponential increase in nitrous oxide emissions.”

Yaqui Valley wheat farming conditions and practices are similar to those of huge wheat cropping expanses in China, India, and Pakistan, which together account for roughly half of worldwide nitrogen fertilizer use for wheat, according to study co-author Iván Ortíz-Monasterio, a wheat agronomist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), whose Yaqui Valley experiment station was the site of the reported research.

“The recommendations are thus globally relevant and represent a potential triple win, in the form of reduced greenhouse gas emissions, higher income for farmers and continued high productivity for wheat cropping,” Ortíz-Monasterio said.

Measuring nitrous oxide after nitrogen fertilizer applications in spring durum wheat crops during two growing seasons, Millar and an international team of scientists found an exponential increase in emissions from plots fertilized at greater than economically-optimal rates—that is, when the extra nitrogen applied no longer boosts grain yield.

They also found that grain quality at the economically optimal N rates was not impacted and exceeded that required by local farmer associations for sale to the market. They examined five different nitrogen fertilizer dosages ranging from 0 to 280 kilograms per hectare.

“In our study, the highest dosage to get optimum wheat yields was 145 kilograms of nitrogen fertilizer per hectare in the 2014 crop,” said Millar. “Yaqui Valley farmers typically apply around 300 kilograms. The wheat crop takes up and uses only about a third of that nitrogen; the remainder may be lost to the atmosphere as gases, including nitrous oxide, and to groundwater as nitrate.”

Promoting profitable, climate-friendly fertilizer use

Farmers’ excessive use of fertilizer is driven largely by risk aversion and economic concerns, according to Ortíz-Monasterio. “Because crops in high-yielding years will require more nitrogen than in low-yielding years, farmers tend to be optimistic and fertilize for high-yielding years,” said Ortíz-Monasterio. “At the same time, since farmers don’t have data about available nitrogen in their fields, they tend to over-apply fertilizer because this is less costly than growing a crop that lacks the nitrogen to develop and yield near to full potential.”

Ortíz-Monasterio and his partners have been studying and promoting management practices to help farmers to use fertilizer more efficiently and take into account available soil nitrogen and weather. This technology, including Greenseeker, a handheld device that assesses plant nitrogen needs, was tested in a separate study for its ability to advise farmers on optimal rates of fertilizer use.

“Sensing devices similar to Greenseeker but mounted on drones are providing recommendations to Yaqui Valley farmers for wheat crops grown on more than 1,000 acres in 2017 and 2018,” Ortiz-Monasterio notes.

Part of a research partnership between CIMMYT and MSU’s W.K. Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) Long-Term Ecological Research program to reduce greenhouse gas impacts of intensive farming, a key aim of the present study was to generate new emission factors for Mexican grain crops that accurately reflect nitrous oxide emissions and emission reductions and can be used in global carbon markets, according to Millar.

“The emission calculations from our work can be incorporated by carbon market organizations into carbon market protocols, to help compensate farmers for reducing their fertilizer use,” he said.

“This study shows that low emissions nitrogen management is possible in tropical cereal crop systems and provides important guidance on the optimal levels for large cropping areas of the world,” said Lini Wollenberg, an expert in low-emissions agriculture for the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), which helped fund the research. “With these improved emission factors, countries will be able to better plan and implement their commitments to reducing emissions.

To view the article

Millar, N., A. Urrea, K. Kahmark, I. Shcherbak, G. P. Robertson, and I. Ortiz-Monasterio. 2018. Nitrous oxide (N2O) flux responds exponentially to nitrogen fertilizer in irrigated wheat in the Yaqui Valley, Mexico. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agee.2018.04.003.

KBS LTER
Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station Long-term Ecological Research (KBS LTER) Program studies the ecology of intensive field crop ecosystems as part of a national network of LTER sites established by the National Science Foundation. More information at http://lter.kbs.msu.edu

MSU AgBioResearch
MSU AgBioResearch engages in innovative, leading-edge research that combines scientific expertise with practical experience to help advance FOOD, ENERGY and the ENVIRONMENT. It encompasses the work of more than 300 scientists in seven MSU colleges — Agriculture and Natural Resources, Arts and Letters, Communication Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Natural Science, Social Science and Veterinary Medicine — and includes a network of 13 outlying research centers across Michigan.

CIMMYT
The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) is the global leader in publicly-funded maize and wheat research and related farming systems. Headquartered near Mexico City, CIMMYT works with hundreds of partners throughout the developing world to sustainably increase the productivity of maize and wheat cropping systems, thus improving global food security and reducing poverty. CIMMYT is a member of the CGIAR System and leads the CGIAR Research Programs on Maize and Wheat and the Excellence in Breeding Platform. The Center receives support from national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies. For more information, visit www.cimmyt.org.

CCAFS
The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), led by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), brings together some of the world’s best researchers in agricultural science, development research, climate science and earth system science to identify and address the most important interactions, synergies and tradeoffs between climate change, agriculture and food security. CCAFS is carried out with support from CGIAR Fund Donors and through bilateral funding agreements. www.ccafs.cgiar.org

Bearish headlines overstate the extent of available global wheat stocks, analysts say

By Mike Listman

MEXICO CITY, 5 April 2018–Declining area sown to wheat worldwide, together with stockpiling by China, is masking significant risk in global wheat markets, experts at the United Kingdom’s Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) caution.

“Less area sown means a higher dependence on yield to meet demand and thus a greater reliance on good weather, which is out of our control,” said Amandeep Kaur Purewal, a Senior Analyst in AHDB’s Market Intelligence Cereals and Oilseeds team, speaking in a recent interview with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

“If there is a production issue—say, drought or a serious pest or disease outbreak in a key wheat growing country—then wheat stocks may not be as accessible as recent, bearish headlines suggest,” Kaur Purewal added. “Bear in mind that the world’s number-one wheat producer, China, is not exporting surplus wheat at the moment, so China’s wheat won’t really be available for the markets.”

Established in 2008 and funded by farmers , growers and others in the supply chain, AHDB provides independent information to improve decisions and performance in UK agriculture.

In “Global wheat: The risks behind the records,” a report published by AHDB in February 2018, Kaur Purewal and colleagues suggest that, despite an unprecedented run of surplus global wheat production in the last four years, there is a relatively small cushion for large-scale importers to fall back upon, if imports become harder to obtain.

“Likely linked to China’s efforts to become self-sufficient in wheat, since 2007/08 the country has increased its stockpile by 225 percent, giving it a 64 percent share of the 138 million ton increase in global wheat stocks over this period,” Kaur Purewal observed. “This and the recent, huge global harvests for maize have saturated grain markets and pressured prices, driving the price of wheat futures to historic lows.”

According to the AHDB report, prices for wheat futures have been relatively stable, but if yields fall and production declines, greater price volatility may return.

“It’s important to remain aware of the market forces and read the news,” she said, “but in the case of the wheat stocks-to-use ratio, which measures how much stock is left after demand has been accounted for, the headlines may not be providing a true reflection.”

Hans-Joachim Braun, director of CIMMYT’s global wheat program, called the AHDB report an “eye opener.”

“This resonates with the cautionary message of the landmark 2015 study by Lloyd’s of London, which showed that the global food system is actually under significant pressure from potential, coinciding shocks, such as bad weather combined with crop disease outbreaks,” Braun said.

“Price spikes in basic food staples sorely affect the poor, who spend much of their income simply to eat each day,” Braun added. “CIMMYT and its partners cannot let up in our mission to develop and share high-yielding and nutritious maize and wheat varieties, supported by climate-smart farming practices. In an uncertain world, these help foster resilience and stability for food systems and consumers.”

Francisco Barro, developer of gluten-free wheat, to deliver keynote address at BGRI Technical Workshop

By Samantha Hautea
Thursday, March 29, 2018
(Courtesy of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative)

A few years ago, the idea of gluten-free wheat was more theoretical than real. But last year, Francisco Barro, a plant scientist at the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in Spain, made headlines with a gene editing technique called CRISPR-Cas9 that significantly reduced the amount of reaction-causing proteins in wheat.

Barro led the team that conducted the research leading to this remarkable achievement and was one of the authors of a paper that described engineering wheat using CRISPR.

Francisco Barro, photo provided.

As the keynote speaker for the 2018 Borlaug Global Rust Initiative Technical Workshop, in Morocco, April 14-17, Barro will talk about CRISPR-Cas9 technology, gluten-free wheat and the future of plant breeding.

“I am interested in the development of wheat lines suitable for celiac people, and obviously I am excited to carry out this project. For me, the elimination of the toxic gliadins and the maintenance of the bread making quality of wheat is the most exciting,” Barro said. “However, I realize that one of the most important targets for CRISPR is the resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses, in particular drought and salinity resistances, since this will allow sowing in soils not currently suitable for wheat cultivation, especially in developing countries.”

Born in Córdoba, Spain, Barro received his PhD in Biology at the University of Córdoba. After a postdoc of two-and-a-half years at Rothamsted Research in the UK, where he first worked on the genetic engineering of cereals, he returned to Spain to begin the research to obtain wheat lines for celiacs.

“The idea of obtaining wheat lines safe for celiac people came in 2002 when I was preparing a project to over-express gliadin genes in wheat, with the aim to extend wheat functionality,” Barro explained. “I changed the target of my research when I realized that people suffering celiac disease do not need more gliadins but the opposite instead. Therefore, I reorganized the project towards the elimination of gliadins by RNAi, which was a cutting edge technology by that time. We succeeded several years later with the development of wheat lines containing until 95 percent less gliadins than the standard wheat.”

Gliadins, a class of proteins found in gluten, are what cause immune reactions in people with celiac disease. The only known treatment for the disease is a strict gluten-free diet. While Barro’s research has not eliminated gliadins entirely from wheat, he is optimistic.

“More recently, we have applied the new gene editing technologies to introduce mutations in the alpha-gliadin regions of bread and durum wheat. The main advantage of these editing technologies is that the product does not contain transgenes and, therefore general consumers could more readily accept it. “

Barro said he was not surprised that there was such interest in his research from the popular press and the wheat science community.

“First, this a very hot topic, a very nice example of using biotechnology to help people. Everyone knows celiac people, and celiacs know that bread is a very difficult product, that gluten-free bread is not as good as other gluten-free products. I think that for a celiac to enjoy good bread, made of wheat, with the taste of wheat, the aroma of wheat, it would be something really amazing, and we are getting closer. Second, most papers report the use of gene editing technologies being limited to only a few genes. In our work, we report the simultaneous mutation of at least 35 different genes in bread wheat, and this is something really outstanding.”

One of the challenges with current gluten-free products is that they have a different flavor and texture. Barro’s team has collaborated with a baker in Spain to use their low-gliadin RNAi line of wheat to create bread with flavor and aroma indistinguishable from standard wheat bread. Celiac patients have been able to eat this bread and report on its quality.

Barro said his team has already designed new sgRNAs to target other gliadin groups in wheat, like gamma and omega gliadins. A number of companies have expressed interest in the technology and in using the material as it is or incorporating it into their breeding programs.

Is CRISPR the future of plant breeding?

From Barro’s perspective, it is unlikely that gene editing technologies will completely replace conventional plant breeding methods.

“Targets for CRISPR will be the same as those for classical breeding technologies, i.e., technologies are changing but the problems are the same: increasing yield, biotic and abiotic stresses resistant, better quality, etc. CRISPR technology provides breeders with more precise control of some features, but CRISPR technology will not replace classical breeding — they will work together.”

Speaking about future applications of CRISPR and other genome editing technologies in agriculture, Barro added that it is likely we will see some trends in applications.

“In the short-term, introducing mutations in key genes will be the most wide application of this technology, where the aim is to kill DNA, avoiding the expression of toxic proteins, or introducing mutations in genes to make crops more resistant to diseases, or genes which limit crop adaptability, and to develop androsterile plants for hybrid production. In the medium-term, CRISPR technology will be useful not for killing DNA but for real DNA editing: for gene replacement, or to modify specific amino acids and provide new functionalities to existent genes, and for transcriptional activation of repression of genes, modulating their expression levels.”

The 2018 BGRI Technical Workshop will be held in Marrakech, Morocco, from 14-17 April 2018. Click here to view the full program for the workshop at the BGRI website.

Young women scientists who will galvanize global wheat research

By Laura Strugnell and Mike Listman

Winners of the Jeanie Borlaug Laube Women in Triticum (WIT) Early Career Award pose in front of the statue of the late Nobel Peace laureate, Dr. Norman E. Borlaug. Included in the photo are Amor Yahyaoui, CIMMYT wheat training coordinator (far left), Jeanie Borlaug Laube (center, blue blouse), and Maricelis Acevedo, Associate Director for Science, the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat Project (to the right of Jeanie Borlaug Laube). Photo: CIMMYT/Mike Listman

CIUDAD OBREGÓN, Mexico (CIMMYT) – As more than 200 wheat science and food specialists from 34 countries gathered in northwestern Mexico to address threats to global nutrition and food security, 9 outstanding young women wheat scientists among them showed that this effort will be strengthened by diversity.

Winners of the Jeanie Borlaug Laube Women in Triticum (WIT) Early Career Award joined an on-going wheat research training course organized by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), 21-23 March.

“As my father used to say, you are the future,” said Jeanie Borlaug Laube, daughter of the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, and mentor of many young agricultural scientists. Speaking to the WIT recipients, she said, “You are ahead of the game compared to other scientists your age.”

Established in 2010 as part of the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) project led by Cornell University, the WIT program has provided professional development opportunities for 44 young women researchers in wheat from more than 20 countries.

The award is given annually to as many as five early science-career women, ranging from advanced undergraduates to recent doctoral graduates and postdoctoral fellows. Selection is based on a scientific abstract and statement of intent, along with evidence of commitment to agricultural development and leadership potential.

Women who will change their professions and the world

Weizhen Liu. Photo: WIT files

Weizhen Liu, a 2017 WIT recipient and postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University, is applying genome-wide association mapping and DNA marker technology to enhance genetic resistance in tetraploid and bread wheat to stripe rust, a major global disease of wheat that is quickly spreading and becoming more virulent.

“I am eager to join and devote myself to improving wheat yields by fighting wheat rusts,” said Liu, who received her bachelors in biotechnology from Nanjing Agricultural University, China, in 2011, and a doctorate from Washington State University in 2016. “Through WIT, I can share my research with other scientists, receive professional feedback, and build international collaboration.”

Mitaly Bansal, a 2016 WIT award winner, currently works as a Research Associate at Punjab Agricultural University, India. She did her PhD research in a collaborative project involving Punjab Agricultural University and the John Innes Centre, UK, to deploy stripe and leaf rust resistance genes from non-progenitor wild wheat in commercial cultivars.

Mitaly Bansal. Photo: WIT files

“I would like to work someday in a position of public policy in India,” said Bansal, who received the Monsanto Beachell-Borlaug scholarship in 2013. “That is where I could have the influence to change things that needed changing.”

Networking in the cradle of wheat’s “Green Revolution”

In addition to joining CIMMYT training for a week, WIT recipients will attend the annual Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) technical workshop, to be held this year in Marrakech, Morocco, from 14 to 17 April, and where the 2018 WIT winners will be announced.

The CIMMYT training sessions took place at the Norman Borlaug Experiment Station (CENEB), an irrigated desert location in Sonora State, northwestern Mexico, and coincided with CIMMYT’s 2018 “Visitors’ Week,” which took place from 19 to 23 March.

An annual gathering organized by the CIMMYT global wheat program at CENEB, Visitors’ Week typically draws hundreds of experts from the worldwide wheat research and development community. Participants share innovations and news on critical issues, such as the rising threat of the rust diseases or changing climates in key wheat farmlands.

Through her interaction with Visitors’ Week peers, Liu said she was impressed by the extensive partnering among experts from so many countries. “I realized that one of the most important things to fight world hunger is collaboration; no one can solve food insecurity, malnutrition, and climate change issues all by himself.”

A strong proponent and practitioner of collaboration, Norman E. Borlaug worked with Sonora farmers in the 1940-50s as part of a joint Rockefeller Foundation-Mexican government program that, among other outputs, generated high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat varieties. After bringing wheat self-sufficiency to Mexico, the varieties were adopted in South Asia and beyond in the 1960-70s, dramatically boosting yields and allowing famine-prone countries to feed their rapidly-expanding populations.

This became known as the Green Revolution and, in 1970, Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his contributions. Borlaug subsequently led CIMMYT wheat research until his retirement in 1979 and served afterwards as a special consultant to the Center.

When a new, highly virulent race of wheat stem rust, Ug99, emerged in eastern Africa in the early 2000s, Borlaug sounded the alarm and championed a global response that grew into the BGRI and associated initiatives such as DGGW.

“This is just a beginning for you, but it doesn’t end here,” said Maricelis Acevedo, a former WIT recipient who went on to become the leader of DGGW. Speaking during the training course, she observed that many WIT awardees come from settings where women often lack access to higher education or the freedom to pursue a career.

“Through WIT activities, including training courses like this and events such as Visitors’ Week and the BGRI workshop,” Acevedo added, “you’ll gain essential knowledge and skills but you’ll also learn leadership and the personal confidence to speak out, as well as the ability to interact one-on-one with leaders in your field and to ask the right questions.”

CIMMYT is the global leader in publicly-funded maize and wheat research and related farming systems. Headquartered near Mexico City, CIMMYT works with hundreds of partners throughout the developing world to sustainably increase the productivity of maize and wheat cropping systems, thus improving global food security and reducing poverty. CIMMYT is a member of the CGIAR System and leads the CGIAR Research Programs on Maize and Wheat and the Excellence in Breeding Platform. The Center receives generous support from national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies.

Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) under UK aid, the DGGW project aims to strengthen the delivery pipeline for new, disease resistant, climate-resilient wheat varieties and to increase the yields of smallholder wheat farmers.

 

Global grain research and food industry experts meet to address rising malnutrition

The world’s quickly-rising population needs not only more food but healthier, more nutritious food, according to Julie Miller Jones, Professor Emerita at St. Catherine University, and Carlos Guzmán, who leads wheat quality research at CIMMYT. Photo: CIMMYT/ Mike Listman

MEXICO CITY (CIMMYT) — Malnutrition is rising again and becoming more complex, according to the director-general of the world’s leading public maize and wheat research center.

“After declining for nearly a decade to around 770 million, the number of hungry people has increased in the last two years to more than 850 million,” said Martin Kropff, director general of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), in the opening address of the 4th Latin American Cereals Conference.

“Those people suffer from calorie malnutrition and go to bed hungry at night, which is a terrible thing,” Kropff added. “But the diets of 2 billion persons worldwide lack essential micronutrients — Vitamin A, iron, or zinc — and this especially affects the health and development of children under 5 years old.”

Kropff noted that some 650 million people are obese, and the number is increasing. “All these nutrition issues are interconnected, and are driven by rising population, global conflicts, and — for obesity — increasing prosperity, in developed and emerging economies.”

“The solution? Good, healthy diets,” said Kropff, “which in turn depend on having enough food available, but also diverse crops and food types and consumer education on healthy eating.”

Held in Mexico City during 11-14 March and co-organized by CIMMYT and the International Association for Cereal Science and Technology (ICC), the 4th Latin American Cereals Conference has drawn more than 220 participants from 46 countries, including professionals in agricultural science and production, the food industry, regulatory agencies, and trade associations.

“We are dedicated to spreading information about cereal science and technology, processing, and the health benefits of cereals,” said Hamit Köksel, president of the ICC and professor at Hacettepe University, Turkey, to open the event. “Regarding the latter, we should increase our whole grain consumption.”

Köksel added that ICC has more than 10,000 subscribers in 85 countries.

New zinc biofortified maize variety BIO-MZN01, recently released in Colombia. Photo: CIMMYT archives

New zinc biofortified maize variety BIO-MZN01,
recently released in Colombia. Photo: CIMMYT archives

Breeding micronutrient-dense cereals

One way to improve the nutrition and health of the poor who cannot afford dietary supplements or diverse foods is through “biofortification” of the staple crops that comprise much of their diets.

Drawing upon landraces and diverse other sources in maize and wheat’s genetic pools and applying innovative breeding, CIMMYT has developed high-yielding maize and wheat lines and varieties that feature enhanced levels of grain zinc and are being used in breeding programs worldwide.

“In the last four years, the national research programs of Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan have released six zinc-biofortified wheat varieties derived from CIMMYT research,” said Hans Braun, director of the center’s global wheat program. “Zinc-Shakthi, an early-maturing wheat variety released in India in 2014 whose grain features 40 percent more zinc than conventional varieties, is already grown by more than 50,000 smallholder farmers in the Northeastern Gangetic Plains of India.”

CIMMYT is focusing on enhancing the levels of provitamin A and zinc in the maize germplasm adapted to sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Improved quality protein maize (QPM) varieties, whose grain features enhanced levels of two essential amino acids, lysine and tryptophan,  is another major biofortified maize that is grown worldwide, according to Prasanna Boddupalli, director of CIMMYT’s global maize program.

“Quality protein maize varieties are grown by farmers on 1.2 million hectares in Africa, Asia, and Latin America,” said Prasanna, in his presentation, adding that provitamin-A-enriched maize varieties have also been released in several countries in Africa, besides Asia.

A major partner in these efforts is HarvestPlus, part of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH), which supports the development and promotion of the biofortified crop varieties and related research.

“Biofortified crops have been released in 60 countries,” said Wolfgang Pfeiffer, HarvestPlus global director for product development and commercialization, speaking at the conference. “The pressing need now is to ‘mainstream’ biofortification, making it a standard component of breeding programs and food systems.”

Whole grains are good for you

A central issue on the conference agenda is promoting awareness about the importance of healthy diets and the role of whole grains.

“Participants will discuss the large body of published studies showing that whole grain foods, including processed ones, are associated with a significantly reduced risk of chronic diseases and obesity,” said Carlos Guzmán, who leads wheat quality research at CIMMYT and helped organize the conference. “There is a global movement to promote the consumption of whole grains and the food industry worldwide is responding to rising consumer demand for whole grain products.”

Guzmán also thanked the conference sponsors: Bimbo, Bastak Instruments, Brabender, Foss, Chopin Technologies, Perten, Stable Micro Systems Scientific Instruments, Cereal Partners Worldwide Nestlé and General Mills, Stern Ingredients-Mexico, World Grain, the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat, and Megazyme.

CIMMYT promotes gender awareness in agriculture research and development in Ethiopia

Gender awareness and gender-sensitive approaches are slowly spreading into agricultural research, extension, and policy in Ethiopia, based on recent statements from a cross section of professionals and practitioners in the country.

An initiative led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) is helping to drive evidence-based approaches to foster gender equality and include it in mainstream agricultural research.

Moges Bizuneh, deputy head of the agricultural office of Basona District, attended a CIMMYT-organized workshop in which Ethiopia-specific results were presented from GENNOVATE, a large-scale qualitative study involving focus groups and interviews with more than 7,500 rural men and women in 26 developing countries. “I have learned a lot about gender and it’s not just about women, but about both women and men,” said Bizuneh.

The District of Basona has nearly 30,000 households, 98 percent of which depend on agriculture for food and livelihoods but have access to an average of only 1.5 hectares of land. More than 10,000 of those households are headed by females, because many males and youth have left Basona to seek opportunities in large cities or other countries.

Bizuneh and his colleagues are working with a district gender specialist and a women and gender unit to make gender sensitive approaches a regular part of their activities. In this, he concedes that he and other professionals are contending with “deep-rooted social and cultural norms around divisions of labor and a lack of awareness regarding gender issues.”

One surprise for Bizuneh, from group discussions regarding innovation and involvement in CIMMYT’s gender research, was that women said it was important to share experiences with other farmers and obtain new knowledge.

“No men mentioned that,” he remarked. “This shows that, if provided with information and support, women can innovate.”

Kristie Drucza, CIMMYT gender and development specialist, has been studying, publishing on, and presenting widely about people-centered, evidence-based approaches for gender equality that are being taken up by agirculture for development professionals. Photo: CIMMYT/Apollo Habtamu

Kristie Drucza, CIMMYT gender and development specialist, has been studying, publishing on, and presenting widely about people-centered, evidence-based approaches for gender equality that are being taken up by agriculture-for-development professionals. Photo: CIMMYT/Apollo Habtamu

Women and men plan and change together

Another product from the project is a 2017 review of gender-transformative methodologies for Ethiopia’s agriculture sector, co-authored by Kristie Drucza, project lead, and Wondimu Abebe, a research assistant, both from CIMMYT.

Drucza presented on the people-centered methodologies described in the publication at a recent workshop in Addis Ababa, offering diverse lessons of use for research and development professionals.

“The methodologies involve participatory research to help households and communities assess their situation and develop solutions to problems,” said Drucza. “By working with men and boys and allowing communities to set the pace of change, these approaches reduce the likelihood of a backlash against women—something that too frequently accompanies gender-focused programs.”

Annet Abenakyo Mulema, social scientist in gender at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), intends to apply some of the same methods to help rural families understand household and community gender dynamics and their role in managing the families’ goats, sheep, and other livestock.

Annet Abenakyo Mulema, social scientist in gender at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), is applying participatory research and gender-sensitive methods to help households and communities assess their situation and develop solutions to problems. Photo: ILRI archives

Annet Abenakyo Mulema, social scientist in gender at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), is applying participatory research and gender-sensitive methods to help households and communities assess their situation and develop solutions to problems. Photo: ILRI archives

“A 2015 study we did uncovered gender relationships associated with disease transmission,” Mulema explained. “Women and girls normally clean the animal pens and so are exposed to infections. Social conventions in the community make women feel inferior and not empowered to speak out about animal health, which is considered a man’s domain. We encouraged men and women to share roles and work together, and this made it easier for both to quickly identify disease outbreaks at early stages and prevent infections from spreading throughout the herd or to humans.”

Mulema said Drucza’s workshop helped her to understand and appreciate methodologies such as social analysis and action, community conversations, and gender action learning systems to support a shared, local response to the problem. “As another outcome, we spoke to service providers, such as veterinarians and extension agents, who needed to understand how gender related to animal health and the fact that the relationships between women and men in a community can change.”

Meskerem Mulatu, gender and nutrition specialist in Ethiopia’s Agricultural Growth Program II (AGP II) Capacity Development Support Facility (CDSF), said her group invited Drucza to speak on gender and social norms at a national workshop organized by AGP II CDSF in October 2017.

“Our event was on gender, nutrition, and climate-smart agriculture,” according to Meskerem. “Many technologies are gender-sensitive but research and extension are not giving this adequate attention because there is no common operational definition. Their preconception is ‘technology is technology; it’s the same for men and women.’ Drucza’s evidence-based presentation showed that men and women may have different technology demands.”

Meskerem is going to train district agricultural officers to use a transformative methodology identified by Drucza. “Kristie’s report is really good timing,” she said. “We were thinking of doing something in terms of gender and these methodologies make sense.”

Recording data on changes in social norms

In June 2017, Drucza presented the findings of her meta-analysis of evaluations of gender in Ethiopian agricultural development at a senior staff meeting of the Ethiopia office of CARE, the global humanitarian organization. Among the 26 agricultural program evaluations considered, explained Drucza, only three had strong findings, a heavy inclusion of gender, and evidence of changes in social norms—and all three were CARE projects.

Moges Bizuneh helps lead an agricultural office in Basona District, home to more than 10,000 female-headed households, and is working to support innovation by women. Photo: CIMMYT/Mike Listman

Moges Bizuneh helps lead an agricultural office in Basona District, home to more than 10,000 female-headed households, and is working to support innovation by women. Photo: CIMMYT/Mike Listman

One was the Graduation with Resilience to Achieve Sustainable Development (GRAD) initiative. As an outcome of Drucza’s presentation, CARE is refining the way it records certain social data, according to Elisabeth Farmer, Deputy Chief of Party for the CARE’s Feed the Future Ethiopia–Livelihoods for Resilience Activity project, which emerged from GRAD.

“Our baseline study protocol and questionnaire for the new project hadn’t been finalized yet,” Farmer said. “We were thinking through the difference between using a scale that scores responses along a range, such as a Likert scale, versus asking respondents “yes or no”-type questions, for instance regarding women’s access to information or equitable decision-making in the household.

“As Drucza explained, when it comes to gender norms, you may not get all the way from a “no” to a “yes”, but only from a “2” to “3”, and we want to make sure that we are capturing these smaller shifts, so we incorporated scales with ranges into our baseline and will ensure that these are used in future assessments to track transformations in social norms.”

According to Drucza, who leads the CIMMYT project “Understanding gender in wheat-based livelihoods for enhanced WHEAT R4D impact in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Ethiopia,” funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, research must be relevant and useful.

“I’m happy to learn that our results are useful to a diverse range of actors, from development partners to policy makers and local agricultural officers,” she said.