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.

A new Deputy Director General for ICARDA

As of 29 April, Dr. Jacques Wery, Professor of Agronomy and Agricultural Systems of the University of Montpellier, will begin serving as Deputy Director General for Research for ICARDA. In his new role, he will provide scientific and managerial leadership in setting priorities, planning, implementing, and monitoring a cohesive research agenda aligned with ICARDA’s strategic direction and results framework.

Click here to read the full announcement on the ICARDA web page.

 

Scientists confirm value of whole grains and wheat for nutrition and health

15 February 2018

New study squashes claims that gluten and wheat are bad for human health. Photo: CIMMYT/ Mike Listman

Based on a recent, special compilation of 12 reports published in the scientific journal Cereal Foods World during 2014-2017, eating whole grains is actually beneficial for brain health and associated with reduced risk of diverse types of cancer, coronary disease, diabetes, hypertension, obesity and overall mortality.EL BATAN, Mexico (CIMMYT) – A new, exhaustive review of recent scientific studies on cereal grains and health has shown that gluten- or wheat-free diets are not inherently healthier for the general populace and may actually put individuals at risk of dietary deficiencies.

“Clear and solid data show that eating whole-grain wheat products as part of a balanced diet improves health and can help maintain a healthy body weight, apart from the 1 percent of people who suffer from celiac disease and another 2 to 3 percent who are sensitive to wheat,” said Carlos Guzmán, wheat nutrition and quality specialist at the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), which produced the compilation.

Guzmán said wheat and other grains are inexpensive sources of energy that also provide protein, digestible fiber, minerals, vitamins, and other beneficial phytochemicals.

“Among wheat’s greatest benefits, according to the research, is fiber from the bran and other grain parts,” he explained. “Diets in industrialized countries are generally deficient in such fiber, which helps to regulate digestion and promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria.”

Guzmán and hundreds of other grain quality and health specialists will meet for the 4th Latin American Cereals Conference and the 13th International Gluten Workshop, organized jointly by CIMMYT and the International Association for Cereal Science and Technology (ICC) in Mexico City from 11 to 17 March 2018.

Contributing to humankind’s development for the last 10,000 years, wheat is cultivated on some 220 million hectares (539 million acres) worldwide. The crop accounts for a fifth of the world’s food and is the main source of protein in many developing and developed countries, and second only to rice as a source of calories globally. In the many countries where milling flours are fortified, wheat-based foods provide necessary levels of essential micronutrients such as iron, zinc, folic acid and vitamin A.

Inhabitants in developing and industrialized countries are experiencing higher incidences of diabetes, allergies, inflammatory bowel disorder, and obesity. A profitable industry has developed around gluten- and wheat-free food products, which the popular press has promoted as beneficial for addressing such disorders. But much scientific evidence contradicts popular writings about these food products.

“Much of the anti-grain messaging comes from publications produced by supposed ‘specialists’ who are not nutritionists, and are often built on faulty premises.” according to Julie Miller Jones, Distinguished Scholar and Professor Emerita at St. Catherine University, U.S.A., and a key contributor to the review studies in the compilation.

“Causes of obesity and chronic disease are complex, and it is not only simplistic but erroneous to name a single food group as the cause or the cure for these problems,” Miller Jones explained.  “We do know that we consume large portions, too many calories, and too few fruits, vegetables, or whole grains.  Instead today’s lifestyles encourage consumption of many high calorie foods and beverages that contain few nutrients. Then the risks of poor diets are often amplified by our sedentary lifestyles.”

CIMMYT scientists are concerned that the negative portrayal of wheat to promote the lucrative gluten-free fad diet industry will discourage low-income families from consuming the grain as part of an affordable and healthy diet, particularly in areas where there are few low-cost alternatives.

Consumer Reports magazine reported in January 2015 that sales of “gluten-free” products soared 63 percent between 2012 and 2015, with almost 4,600 products introduced in 2014 alone. Retail sales of gluten-free foods in the United States were estimated at $12.2 billion in 2014 and by 2020 the market is projected to be valued at $23.9 billion, Statistica reports.

However, wheat biofortified through breeding or fortified during milling with zinc and iron can play a vital role in diets in areas where “hidden hunger” is a concern and where nutritional options are unaffordable or unavailable. About 2 billion people worldwide suffer from hidden hunger, which is characterized by iron-deficiency anemia, vitamin A and zinc deficiency.

The compilation draws on more than 1,500 peer-reviewed studies regarding the dietary and health effects of eating cereals and wheat-based foods.

CIMMYT specialists also worry that misinformation about wheat might affect investments in vital research to sustain wheat production increases of at least 60 percent by 2050, the output required to keep pace with rising population and demand, according to Hans Braun, director of the center’s global wheat program.

“Climate change is already constraining wheat production in regions such as South Asia, where more than 500 million inhabitants eat wheat-based foods,” Braun said. “Worldwide, the crop is threatened by deadly pest and disease strains, water shortages, and depleted soils.”

“As we have seen in 2008, 2011, and just recently in Tunisia and Sudan, grain shortages or price hikes in bread can lead to social unrest,” Braun added. “The international community needs to speed efforts to develop and share high-yielding, climate-resilient, and disease-resistant wheat varieties that also meet humanity’s varied nutritional demands.”

The compilation was produced with special permission from AACC International.

Deadly strain of wheat stem rust disease surfaces in Europe

Scientists have shown that the first appearance of wheat stem rust disease in the U.K. in nearly 60 years, which occurred in 2013, was caused by the same virulent fungal strain responsible for recent wheat stem rust outbreaks in Ethiopia, Denmark, Germany, and Sweden.

Wheat stem rust was reported by the Greeks and Romans, and the latter sacrificed to the gods to avoid disease outbreaks on their wheat crops. Photo: CIMMYT/Petr Kosina

Wheat stem rust was reported by the Greeks and Romans, and the latter sacrificed
to the gods to avoid disease outbreaks on their wheat crops.
Photo: CIMMYT/Petr Kosina

As reported today in Communications Biology, an international team of researchers led by the John Innes Centre, U.K., found that 80 percent of U.K. wheat varieties are susceptible to the deadly stem rust strain. The group also confirmed for the first time in many decades that the stem rust fungus was growing on barberry bush, the pathogen’s alternate host, in the UK.

“This signals the rising threat of stem rust disease for wheat and barley production in Europe,” said Dave Hodson, senior scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and co-author on the study.

A scourge of wheat since biblical times, stem rust caused major losses to North American wheat crops in the early 20th century. Stem rust disease was controlled for decades through the use of resistant wheat varieties bred in the 1950s by scientist Norman Borlaug and his colleagues. Widespread adoption of those varieties sparked the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 70s.

In 1999 a new, highly-virulent strain of the stem rust fungus emerged in eastern Africa. Spores of that strain and variants have spread rapidly and are threatening or overcoming the genetic resistance of many currently sown wheat varieties. Scientists worldwide joined forces in the early 2000s to develop new, resistant varieties and to monitor and control outbreaks of stem rust and yellow rust, as part of collaborations such as the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative led by Cornell University.

Barberry is a shrub found throughout the temperate and subtropical regions. Photo: CIMMYT archives

Barberry is a shrub found throughout
the temperate and subtropical regions.
Photo: John Innes Centre

The Communications Biology study shows that 2013 U.K. stem rust strain is related to TKTTF, a fungal race first detected in Turkey that spread across the Middle East and recently into Europe. It was the dominant race in the 2013 stem rust outbreak in Germany and infected 10,000 hectares of wheat in Ethiopia’s breadbasket the same year.

Because disease organisms mutate quickly to overcome crop resistance controlled by single genes, researchers are rushing to identify new resistance genes and to incorporate multiple genes into high-yielding varieties, according to Ravi Singh, CIMMYT wheat scientist who participated in the reported study.

“The greatest hope for achieving durable resistance to rust diseases is to make wheat’s resistance genetically complex, combining several genes and resistance mechanisms,” Singh explained.

Barberry, which serves as a spawning ground for the stem rust fungus, was largely eradicated from the U.K. and U.S. last century, greatly reducing the spread and genetic diversification of rust disease races. Now barberry is being grown again in the U.K. over the last decade, according to Diane G.O. Saunders, John Innes Centre scientist and co-author of the study.

“The late Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug said that the greatest ally of the pathogen is our short memory,” Saunders stated. “We recommend continued, intensive resistance breeding. We would also welcome work with conservationists of endangered, barberry-dependent insect species to ensure that planting of common barberry occurs away from arable land, thus safeguarding European cereals from a large-scale re-emergence of wheat stem rust.”

Click here to read the John Innes Centre media release about the Communications Biology report and view the report.

Goat grass gives wheat breeders an edge

31 January 2018
by Laura Strugnell

A commentary published on 30 January in the leading science journal Nature Plants highlights the importance of an ancient grass species for wheat breeding. The commentary was sparked by the recent publication of a reference genome from Aegilops tauschii, also called goat grass.

Bread wheat was created some 10,000 years ago by a natural cross of more simple, primitive wheats with a sub-species of goat grass. As such, goat grass genes constitute a major component of the very large wheat genome. The sequencing of goat grass DNA opens the way for wheat breeders to apply a number of advanced approaches to improve the speed and precision of wheat breeding for important traits that may be found in the goat grass segment of the wheat genome.

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) have produced many wheat x grass crosses, recreating the original, natural cross but using other goat grass species and thus greatly expanding wheat’s diversity. Wheat lines derived from those crosses have since been used in breeding programs worldwide and have helped farmers to boost yields by up to 20 percent. Goat grass is known for being highly adaptable and disease tolerant, so the crosses endow wheat with similar qualities. Varieties from these crosses make up over 30 percent of international seed stores.

Researchers expect that the sequencing of this grass species’ DNA will facilitate advanced approaches such as “speed breeding” – a technique that uses controlled variables to achieve up to seven rounds of wheat crops in one year. This will help allow wheat breeding to keep up with the rising global demand for the crop and to address the challenges of new, virulent diseases and more extreme weather.

Read the Nature Plants article: The goat grass genome’s role in wheat improvement. 2018. Rasheed, A., Ogbonnaya, F.C., Lagudah, E., Appels, R., He, Z. In: Nature Plants.

Breakthrough in the battle against Ug99

Melania Figuroa and Peter Dodds
Thursday, January 25, 2018 (Posted on the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative web page)

Wheat stem rust at important flag leaf stage. Photo by Robert Park

A significant breakthrough in combatting wheat stem rust disease caused by the fungus Puccinia graminis f. sp. tritici was recently achieved through the combined work of an international collaborative team, showing the power of cooperative research approaches.

The emergence of the Ug99 race of stem rust in Africa and the Middle East together with the appearance of new strains in Europe catalyzed a major effort to identify new sources of stem rust resistance and breed these genes into wheat lines. However, the continued emergence of stem rust variants that overcome new resistance genes, now demands an increased focus on pathogen evolution and virulence mechanisms.

Numerous stem rust resistance (Sr) genes are known and in recent years several of these have been cloned and used to develop so-called ‘perfect’ markers to allow more rapid and accurate breeding. These genes typically encode immune receptors that recognize specific protein components of the fungal pathogen to trigger resistance. However, the molecules recognized by these Sr genes have been unknown until now, hampering our understanding of how new strains of P. graminis f. sp. tritici evolve to escape plant recognition.

New insight into this evolution came from the identification of the protein, AvrSr50, which is recognized by the wheat Sr50 resistance gene, by  an international collaboration led by Dr. Peter Dodds (CSIRO Food and Agriculture and University of Minnesota Adjunct Professor) and Professor Robert Park (University of Sydney and Director of theAustralian Cereal Rust Control Program) and involving teams in the UK and the US.

Click here to read the full article.

Emergency seed fuels quick farm recovery in drought-affected Ethiopia

In response to Ethiopia’s worst drought in 50 years and the country’s critical shortage of maize and wheat seed for sowing in 2016, Ethiopian organizations, seed producers, and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) partnered to deliver over 3,400 tons of high quality seed to farmers, which was sown on more than 100,300 hectares.

“This effort helped rescue the food security and livelihoods of more than 271,000 rural households and 1.6 million individuals in Ethiopia’s Amhara, Oromia, Tigray, and SNNP regions, and strengthened seed systems to address future climate, disease, and pest crises,” said Bekele Abeyo, CIMMYT wheat scientist who led the seed relief initiative.

Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) of the U.S. Ethiopia mission, seed relief complemented international and national food aid, helping farm families to quickly grow crops after several seasons of erratic or failed rains in Ethiopia and the catastrophic 2015-16 El Niño droughts. At that time, more than 10 million people struggled to find food, as eastern Ethiopia faced crop losses from 50 to 90 percent of expected yields.

“We went three years without rain,” says farmer Usman Kadir, whose 1.5-hectare homestead in Wanjo Bebele village, Halaba Special Woreda, supports a household of 11 persons. “We were able to eat thanks to emergency food programs.” In 2017, Kadir used emergency maize seed to sow half a hectare and harvested 3 tons, getting his farm back on its feet. “If more new improved varieties come, we want to work with you and expand our farming operation.”

Photo: Atlabtamu/CIMMYT.

Usman Kadir. Photos here and above: CIMMYT/A.Habtamu.

Wheat and maize: Mainstays of food security

Agriculture provides 42 percent of Ethiopia’s GDP, 77 percent of employment, and 84 percent of exports. Subsistence, smallholder farmers predominate, making their living from less than two hectares of land. Wheat and maize are the most important crops for food security; they are also at the center of Ethiopia’s increasingly vibrant agricultural output markets and have been the focus in recent years of public investment to raise national production.

Maize and wheat production in Ethiopia depends on rainfall, making the unpredictable weather patterns caused by climate change exceptionally detrimental here. Various studies predict an average 30 percent reduction in farm incomes due to climate change impacts, including greater extremes in temperatures and rainfall (floods, droughts) and the emergence of new pest and disease strains. Research shows that reduced precipitation is already holding back wheat yields.

To address this, experts identified maize and wheat varieties suitable for drought-affected areas and highly resistant to prevalent crop diseases. Of the maize varieties, some 10 percent were quality protein maize, which carries enhanced levels of key amino acids for protein synthesis in humans.

“This effort also provided training for district and zonal development agents in crop protection, agronomy, drought mitigation practices, and seed systems,” said Abeyo. “Finally, five women seed producer associations received wheat seed threshers and a large union of farmer seed producer cooperatives received a maize sheller through the initiative. This equipment will greatly expedite their operations and contribute to the expanded and more reliable access of farmers to affordable, quality seed in the future.”

Partners and contributors

Emergency relief seed was sourced through diverse CIMMYT partnerships, including producers in the USAID-funded “Drought Tolerant Maize for Seed Scaling Project” (DTMASS) and “Wheat Seed Scaling Initiative.” Stakeholders included the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources (MoANR), the Bureau of Agriculture and Natural Resources (BoANR), public and private seed companies/enterprises, farmer cooperative unions, federal and regional research institutes, and non-government organizations working in target areas. With funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates FoundationEthiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) helped deliver seed to drought-affected districts and jointly organized training and workshops.

Click here to read a full report on the emergency seed relief initiative.