NAAS fellow M.L. Jat talks about climate change, sustainable agriculture

Katelyn Roett

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M.L. Jat observing wheat germination in a zero-till field in Haryana, India (credit: DK Bishnoi/CIMMYT).

CIMMYT senior scientist M.L. Jat has received India’s National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) fellowship in Natural Resource Management for his “outstanding contributions in developing and scaling” conservation agriculture-based management technologies for predominant cereal-based cropping systems in South Asia.

Jat’s research on conservation agriculture (CA) – sustainable and profitable agriculture that improves livelihoods of farmers via minimal soil disturbance, permanent soil cover, and crop rotations – has guided improvements in soil and environmental health throughout South Asia. His work has led to policy-level impacts in implementing CA practices such as precision land leveling, zero tillage, direct seeding, and crop residue management, and he has played a key role in building the capacity of CA stakeholders throughout the region.

Sustainable innovation, including climate-smart agriculture, were a major theme at the COP21 climate talks .

What are the major threats global climate change poses to South Asian agriculture?
Jat: South Asia is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to climate change. With a growing population of 1.6 billion people, the region hosts 40% of the world’s poor and malnourished on just 2.4% of the world’s land. Agriculture makes up over half of the region’s livelihoods, so warmer winters and extreme, erratic weather events such as droughts and floods have an even greater impact. Higher global temperatures will continue to add extreme pressure to finite land and other natural resources, threatening food security and livelihoods of smallholder farmers and the urban poor.

How does CA mitigate and help farmers adapt to climate change?
Jat:
In South Asia, climate change is likely to reduce agricultural production 10‐50% by 2050 and beyond, so adaptation measures are needed now. Climate change has complex and local impacts, requiring scalable solutions to likewise be locally-adapted. Climate-smart agriculture practices such as CA not only minimize production costs and inputs, but also help farmers adapt to extreme weather events, reduce temporal variability in productivity, and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, according to ample data on CA management practices throughout the region.

What future developments are needed to help South Asian farmers adapt to climate change?
Jat: Targeting and access to CA sustainable intensification technologies, knowledge, and training—such as precision water and nutrient management or mechanized CA solutions specific to a farmer’s unique landscape—will be critical to cope with emerging risks of climate variability. Participatory and community-based approaches will be critical for scaled impact as well. For example, the climate smart village concept allows rural youth and women to be empowered not only by becoming CA practitioners but also by serving as knowledge providers to the local community, making them important actors in generating employment and scaling CA and other climate-smart practices. Where do you see your research heading in the next 10-15 years? Now that there are clear benefits of CA and CSA across a diversity of farms at a regional level, as well as increased awareness by stakeholders of potential challenges of resource degradation and food security in the face of climate change, scaling up CA and CSA interventions will be a priority. For example, the Government of Haryana in India has already initiated a program to introduce CSA in 500 climate smart villages. Thanks to this initiative, CA and CSA will benefit 10 million farms across the region in the next 10-15 years.


Climate-Smart Villages are a community-based approach to adaptation and mitigation of climate change for villages in high-risk areas, which will likely suffer most from a changing climate. Created by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), the project began in 2011 with 15 climate-smart villages in West Africa, East Africa and South Asia, and is expanding to Latin America and Southeast Asia. CIMMYT is leading the CCAFS-CSV project in South Asia.


 

Call for Applications for Basic Wheat Improvement Course

IMG_0901Applications for the Basic Wheat Improvement Course (BWIC) are due 15 December.

The BWIC is a three-month intensive program at the Campo Experimental Norman E. Borlaug (CENEB) in Ciudad Obregon, Sonora, that targets young and mid-career scientists, focusing on applied breeding techniques in the field.

The training program has benefited national research programs since its inception. The increasing number of wheat scientists in major wheat producing countries reflects the great need and interest of national programs in training young scientists. One of the most frequent requests from countries and national programs is for more trained scientists.

Since 1968, over 1000 scientists from 106 countries have participated in training courses in Mexico. The training program has helped form positive bonds between CIMMYT and the trainees’ countries of origin. Course alumni have gone on to lead national programs, receive advanced degrees and contribute nationally and internationally to wheat improvement.

The course will run from February 20- May 25, 2016 and will focus on practical aspects of breeding, pathology, physiology and wheat quality. Trainees will participate in lectures, workshops, seminars and field work covered by CIMMYT scientists and guest lecturers.

Testimony from a 2015 Trainee:

“This program was important for me to start my professional career. It was vital for me to learn from an international program, so that I could adapt this new information for our national program. Coming to CIMMYT was a dream; it’s one of the most famous international centers with an incredible staff that we all learned so much from.

I would recommend this course for the young and old to come and learn the basic methodology for selection and to share with other people their experiences and culture.” – Rifka Hammami, Tunisia

Read more about The 2016 BWIC and  apply for the course here.

 

Fast-tracking wheat seed deployment in remote Pakistan regions

Mike Listman

Nearly 10,000 smallholder farmers in marginal, far-flung areas of Pakistan are harvesting more, eating better, and earning cash from their wheat crops, as a result of a partnership that is working to offer widespread access to improved wheat seed and farming practices.

“The extra grain from the new varieties will be enough for my family for three additional months,” said farmer Khan Said of Swat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, as he surveyed his tawny, sun-kissed wheat field. He also hoped the extra straw from his crop would earn him about US $140.

In autumn-2014, participating farmers in 63 moderately-to-highly-food-insecure districts received a 25-kilogram bag of seed of the new varieties—enough to sow a quarter hectare and compare their performance with that of traditional varieties, as well as helping to grow more seed for redistribution. The new varieties are high-yielding and resist wheat rust, a fungal disease whose three forms—stem, leaf, and yellow rust—are found on as much as half of Pakistan’s wheat area and which constitute a rising threat to the crop.

“Our results show a yield advantage of more than 100% in harsh environments for the new varieties and, after just one season, farmers are attesting to significant improvements in their food security and livelihoods,” said Krishna Dev Joshi, CIMMYT wheat improvement specialist who is coordinating the contributions of 27 partners with this aim. “This proves how, with better access to seed of new varieties and technical support, Pakistani farmers can benefit from the latest wheat science and replace older, rust-susceptible varieties.”

According to Joshi, if half of the harvest from the new varieties were saved as seed, this could be sown on at least 30,000 hectares, producing enough additional seed to cover 1 million hectares in the third year with no extra costs, through farmer-to-farmer seed flow networks, and ultimately creating visible impacts in the project area. The follow-up surveys indicated an overwhelming acceptance of new wheat varieties, as over 87% of participating farmers saved their seeds to expand area under the varieties.

“Targeting smallholders, vulnerable people, and women-headed households has been seen as a good strategy to ensure food security and improve livelihoods,” said Joshi. “We’re moving forward on our vision to integrate the best wheat varieties with appropriate agronomic practices.”

Initiatives are now focusing on building capacity in various public and private sector partners for sustainable impact. Encouraged by the results, the National Rural Support Program (NRSP), a not-for-profit development organization established in 1991 that fosters a countrywide network of more than 200,000 grassroots organizations across 56 districts, has committed to make the activities described part of their regular program. Recently, the NRSP Board of Directors also approved setting up a subsidiary seed company to commercialize best wheat and other crop seed varieties through their networks. Joshi said that nearly 2,000 tons of seed, including basic seed of new wheat varieties, will be produced in the far-flung areas of Pakistan, and new partnerships have been developed for Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan, where agriculture research and extension needs extra support, to fast-track the spread of best practices from this work.

The activities and outputs are part of the Agricultural Innovation Project (AIP) for Pakistan, led by CIMMYT and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Clone of magic wheat disease-resistance gene sheds light on new defense mechanism

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A resistant wheat line surrounded by susceptible lines infected by rust disease (photo: CIMMYT/Julio Huerta).

Mike Listman

Scientists have sequenced and described a gene that can help wheat to resist four serious fungal diseases, potentially saving billions of dollars in yearly grain losses and reducing the need for farmers to use costly fungicides, once the gene is bred into high-yielding varieties.

A global research team isolated the wheat gene Lr67, revealing how it hampers fungal pathogen growth through a novel mechanism.

The study, which was published in Nature Genetics on 9 November, involved scientists from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), Mexico’s National Institute of Forestry, Agriculture, and Livestock Research (INIFAP), the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and scientists from Australia, including the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the University of Newcastle, and the University of Sydney.

According to Ravi Singh, CIMMYT distinguished scientist, wheat breeder, and co-author of the new study, Lr67 belongs to a group of three currently-known “magic” genes that help wheat to resist all three wheat rusts and powdery mildew, a disease that attacks wheat in humid temperate regions. The genes act in different ways but all slow — rather than totally stopping — disease development. When combined with other such partial resistance genes through breeding, they provide a strong, longer-lasting protection for plants, boosting food security.

To read more about Lr67‘s cloning and resistance type, click here.

$20 million in grants for research to boost wheat yield potential

Wheat Remote Sensing-flip

Photo Alfredo Saénz/CIMMYT.

The International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP) will recommend around US $20 million in grants awards from its funders for a selection of 8 research projects by leading institutes to increase wheat’s photosynthetic and energy-use efficiency and harness the genetics behind key components of yield.

Resulting from a January 2015 call for competitive research proposals, the projects fit the IWYP goal of raising the genetic yield potential of wheat by up to 50% in the coming 20 years.

To read more about the projects, IWYP, and the Initiative’s funders, click here.

Kenya wheat breeders win the 2015 BGRI Gene Stewardship Award

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From left to right: Sridhar Bhavani, CIMMYT; Godwin Macharia and Ruth Wanyera, KALRO; Jeanie Borlaug Laube and Ronnie Coffman, BGRI.

Plant pathologist Ruth Wanyera and wheat breeders
Godwin Macharia and Peter Njau of the Kenya Agriculture
and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) received the 2015 Gene Stewardship Award at the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative Workshop (BGRI) in Sydney, Australia.

“The KALRO team has done an outstanding job – their work has had significant global impact by accelerating the capacity of developing countries to protect themselves against this swift-moving and devastating disease,” said Sridhar Bhavani, a wheat breeder who leads the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) stem-rust screening nurseries in East Africa and nominated the team for the award.

Since 1998, Ug99, which reduces grain to useless papery chaff, has been creeping across Africa to the Middle East from its origin in Uganda. Altogether, 11 confirmed races in the Ug99 lineage have been detected in Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iran, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Yemen and Zimbabwe, showing that the pathogen has evolved and expanded widely, according to new research.

Scientists fear the disease could decimate the global wheat supply if it spreads to the major Asian wheat growing areas of India and China.

The KALRO team has facilitated the testing of wheat lines from all over the world, screening close to 400,000 accessions since the project started in 2008, and currently able to screen some 50,000 lines a year, all under the frequent and severe natural infections of stem rust that occur at the team’s Njoro, Kenya, research station.

The team has also managed CIMMYT-Kenya “shuttle breeding,” whereby over the last decade lines developed in CIMMYT programs in Mexico and elsewhere are tested at Njoro. “Several new breeding lines from this effort combine high yields with resistance to Ug99 stem rust and to yellow rust and are included in international nurseries sent to partners worldwide,” said Bhavani.

“The KALRO team generates reliable phenotypic data to identify and characterize new resistance genes,” he said. “They also develop, release, and multiply seed of resistant varieties for Kenya, while conducting surveillance, training, and extension and promotion activities.”

Bhavani cited the release of seven new varieties that yield 30-40% more than older cultivars, contributing to an increase average wheat yields in Kenya from 2.4 to 3.0 tons per hectare in the last 5 years.

What is gene stewardship?
The BGRI Gene Stewardship Award recognizes a researcher or team of researchers in a national breeding program or other institution who demonstrate excellence in the development and spread of rust resistant wheat varieties, while encouraging the genetic diversity and complexity of disease resistance and furthering BGRI’s goal of responsible gene deployment and stewardship.

Together with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and Cornell University, CIMMYT helped initiate BGRI in 2008. BGRI is fostered by the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project, a collaborative effort among 22 research institutions and led by Cornell University.

Zero-till Wheat Raises Farmers’ Incomes in Eastern India, Research Shows

By Anuradha Dhar

Large-scale adoption of zero tillage wheat production could play a major role in making the eastern Indian state of Bihar self-sufficient in wheat, according to a new study published by CIMMYT agricultural scientists.Farmer with wheat harvest (2)

In a study published last month in Food Security, CIMMYT researchers reported that wheat farmer’s total annual income increased by 6% on average with the introduction of zero tillage (ZT) in Bihar. While studies done in the past in the eastern Indo-Gangetic Plains (IGP) have shown ZT impacts in field trials or controlled environments, this research is believed to be the first that studied actual impacts in farmers’ fields.

ZT allows direct planting of wheat without plowing, sowing seeds directly into residues of the previous crop on the soil surface, thus saving irrigation water, increasing soil organic matter and suppressing weeds.

“We found that the prevailing ZT practice, without full residue retention, used by farmers in Bihar has led to an average yield gain of 498 kilogram per hectare (19%) over conventional tillage wheat, which is in contrast to the results of a recent global meta-analysis” says Alwin Keil, Senior Agricultural Economist, CIMMYT and the lead author of this study.

The global meta-analysis published last year compared crop yields in ZT and conventionally tilled production systems across 48 crops in 63 countries. It reported that ZT is only profitable in rainfed systems and when it is combined with full residue retention and crop rotation. “However, in Bihar, marginal and resource-poor farmers cannot afford to leave the full residue in the field as they use the rice straw to feed their livestock,” says Keil.

According to Keil, the divergent findings of the meta-analysis may be caused by the fact that most of the reviewed studies were conducted in moderate climatic zones (U.S., Canada, Europe, China) and results were aggregated across various crops.

Bringing a Wheat Revolution to Eastern India

Compared to the prosperous northwestern states, the eastern IGP is characterized by pervasive poverty and high population density, and its resource-poor farmers are more prone to the risks of climate change. Bihar has the lowest wheat yields in the IGP with an average of 2.14 tons per hectare.

To feed a growing wheat-consuming population, Bihar currently imports wheat largely from Punjab, where yields have stagnated over the last five years due to an over-exploitation of resources, especially water.

While ZT is widespread on the mechanized farms of Punjab and Haryana, seat of the first Green Revolution in India, farmers in the eastern IGP are yet to benefit. “There is also evidence that the positive effect of ZT is larger in areas with low agricultural productivity (generally low yields, such as Bihar) than in areas with higher productivity (such as Punjab, for instance),” remarks Keil.

Increasing Access among Smallholders

The study concludes that ZT users reap substantial benefits, and that this technology could help close the growing yield gap between production and consumption of wheat in Bihar. A 19% yield increase would translate into a production increase of 950,000 MT, which exceeds the total wheat imports into Bihar (868,000 MT in 2011).

However, with low ownership of tractors and ZT drills, large-scale adoption of ZT in eastern India hinges on an expansion of the network of service providers, who can custom-hire these kinds of services to smallholder farmers.

With public and private sector partners, the CIMMYT-led Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA) has supported the development of ZT service providers among tractor owners by facilitating the purchase of ZT drills and providing technical trainings and know-how since 2009. Consequently, the number of ZT service providers in Bihar increased from 17 in 2011 to 1,624 in 2014, servicing a total of approximately 44,700 acres.

“Furthermore, we found that only 32% of non-users of ZT in our sample were aware of the technology. Hence, increasing the number of service providers to enhance farmer’s access to ZT has to go hand-in-hand with large-scale information campaigns to raise their awareness of the technology,” says Keil.

 

 

Strengthening Results-based Management in the MAIZE and WHEAT CRPs

By Michelle Guertin

Recognizing the importance of managing for results and learning from experience, the MAIZE and WHEAT CGIAR Research Programs (CRPs) have been taking steps to strengthen results-based management (RBM) within the CRPs. In the last several months, both CRPs held multiple participatory workshops (see details below) to develop theories of change (ToCs) for their diverse research areas. These ToCs map out how and why a given research area will lead to specific results. ToCs are often used as a framework for testing hypotheses, where evidence is collected to validate the pathway of change.

The participatory nature of these workshops allowed the research teams to come together and develop consensus-based and aligned theories of change. This process was important to build buy-in and ownership. It was also recognized that change maps can support the development of research strategies and contribute to strengthening proposal development and results reporting by ensuring alignment and consistency across projects and programs.

Alignment is important not only at the project and program levels. Theories of change were clearly linked to attaining higher and global level results from the new CGIAR Strategy and Results Framework 2016-2030 and the upcoming Sustainable Development Goals. It was important for both CRPs to demonstrate how their programs contribute to global issues of poverty reduction, food security, improved nutrition, promotion of sustainable agriculture, and the achievement of gender equality.

In preparation for phase II of the CGIAR research programs, both CRPs will be looking to these theories of change to show how they intend to manage for results. In addition, other measures, such as monitoring plans, evaluation strategies and learning actions, will be initiated as part of their RBM framework.

The MAIZE and WHEAT CRPs are also committed to working with their colleagues from other CRPs to build harmonized platforms, approaches, methods and tools to better manage for results and build strong evidence for learning and improving research programs. In line with this approach, both CRPs hosted a three-day Cross-CRP Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (ME&L) Workshop in Paris (30 June to July 2) with colleagues from the other Agri-food System CRPs and a number of Integrating CRPs. The objectives of the workshop were to exchange information on each CRP’s proposed ME&L approach for phase II, identify areas of commonality for joint work, and develop a joint action plan to support the CGIAR CRP phase II.

During the workshop, a number of exercises and discussions took place, where participants exchanged views on key questions and issues and shared best practices and lessons learned from various ME&L initiatives. This will help them in their role of supporting CRPs to achieve solid results.

Participants also received advice and recommendations from John Mayne, a globally recognized expert in the field of results-based management, to support the development of their respective RBM framework. John Mayne’s participation was possible thanks to the generous contribution of the CGIAR Consortium Office.

At the end of the workshop, the participants made a strong commitment to work together on a variety of initiatives, the first of which is to create a formal community of practice dedicated to monitoring, evaluating and learning across the CGIAR. This voluntary network would allow for continued exchange and development of consistent and aligned CRP RBM frameworks.

Reflections of a Wheat Trainee: Zaki Afshar, Afghanistan

Zaki Afshar in the field at CIMMYT Afghanistan after the 2015 Basic Wheat Improvement Course

Zaki Afshar in the field at CIMMYT Afghanistan
Photo Courtesy of Zaki Afshar/ CIMMYT

By Katie Lutz

Zaki Afshar grew up in the small city of Puli Khumri in Northern Afghanistan, visiting his father’s seven-hectare (ha) farm every weekend. Growing up in a farming community where the staple crops are wheat and rice, Afshar saw the impact agriculture could have on a community.

“A big part of why I chose agriculture was because I saw how hard the farmers worked and still suffered,” said Afshar. “I wanted to know how I could help them. Why were they not using the advanced technologies I saw available in other parts of the world?”

According to The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), 60 percent of Afghan citizens rely on agriculture to sustain their livelihoods and families. Wheat is the chief crop in Afghanistan, covering 2.5 million ha and providing about 60 percent of daily calorie intake for an average Afghan.

“We have a very basic agriculture system,” explained Afshar. “You will only see machinery used for plowing and trashing, not for sowing or even harvesting.”

Afshar attended Balkh University in Mazari Sharif, receiving a degree in Agricultural Plant Science. He currently works at the CIMMYT Afghanistan office as a project associate as in the Wheat Improvement Program.

The CIMMYT- Agricultural Research Institute of Afghanistan (ARIA) joint wheat breeding program in Afghanistan is relatively small and new. Afshar’s dream upon starting at CIMMYT was eventually to join the wheat breeding team. Last March, Afshar was able to make this dream a reality, by participating in the CIMMYT 2015 Basic Wheat Improvement Course.

The course is comprised of a three-month intensive program at the Campo Experimental Norman E. Borlaug (CENEB) in Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, Mexico. It targets young and mid-career scientists, focusing on applied breeding techniques in the field.

“On my first field visit after returning home, I realized how different things were in Kabul than in Obregón,” said Afshar “Because our program is very new, we have fewer breeders, and need more training. I am excited to share with them everything I learned in Mexico.”

In Obregón, Afshar was able to meet scientists from all over the world and learn about breeding methods used in various regions worldwide. For Afshar it was extremely important to come to Mexico to receive his training. At the end of the BWIC, Afshar was honored with the most improved wheat trainee award.

“Through this course I learned how to be a breeder, how different breeders work and new information in wheat breeding,” said Afshar. “The most exciting moment was when I joined my team back in Afghanistan and it was easy for me to score and differentiate between different types of rust, and when I realized that everyone in the field was paying attention to what I had to say.”

Available Now: The WHEAT Wire!

wheatwire2.2The WHEAT Wire is a quarterly newsletter designed to keep you informed of important events and outcomes in WHEAT, with a special focus on our national and international research and development partners.

This volume features information regarding the next generation of CRPs, the results of the WHEAT Independent Evaluation and updates from CIMMYT and ICARDA. Read more in latest version of The WHEAT Wire.