Posts Tagged ‘CIMMYT’

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.

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.

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.

Now available: 2016-17 Annual Report of the International Wheat Yield Partnership

Wheat breeding lines from the IWYP Hub at CIMMYT are out-yielding local checks in tests, validating the strategy of combining high biomass individuals with those that feature better grain filling attributes. The lines are being sent to public and private breeding programs worldwide. Read more about this and other exciting IWYP activities and outputs:

Annual Report

First blast resistant, biofortified wheat variety released in Bangladesh

Scientists inspecting plants for wheat blast infection, at a workshop in Bangladesh in February 2017. Photo: Chris Knight-Cornell.

DHAKA, Bangladesh (CIMMYT) — As wheat farmers in Bangladesh struggle to recover from a 2016 outbreak of a mysterious disease called “wheat blast,” the country’s National Seed Board (NSB) released a new, high-yielding, blast-resistant wheat variety, according to a communication from the Wheat Research Centre (WRC) in Bangladesh.

Called “BARI Gom 33,” the variety was developed by WRC using a breeding line from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), a Mexico-based organization that has collaborated with Bangladeshi research organizations for decades, according to Naresh C. Deb Barma, Director of WRC, who said the variety had passed extensive field and laboratory testing. “Gom” means “wheat grain” in Bangla, the Bengali language used in Bangladesh.

“This represents an incredibly rapid response to blast, which struck in a surprise outbreak on 15,000 hectares of wheat in southwestern Bangladesh just last year, devastating the crop and greatly affecting farmers’ food security and livelihoods, not to mention their confidence in sowing wheat,” Barma said.

Caused by the fungus Magnaporthe oryzae pathotype triticum, wheat blast was first identified in Brazil in 1985 and has constrained wheat farming in South America for decades. Little is known about the genetics or interactions of the fungus with wheat or other hosts. Few resistant varieties have been released in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, the countries most affected by wheat blast.

The Bangladesh outbreak was its first appearance in South Asia, a region where rice-wheat cropping rotations cover 13 million hectares and over a billion inhabitants eat wheat as main staple.

Many blast fungal strains are impervious to fungicides, according to Pawan Singh, a CIMMYT wheat pathologist. “The Bangladesh variant is still sensitive to fungicides, but this may not last forever, so we’re rushing to develop and spread new, blast-resistant wheat varieties for South Asia,” Singh explained.

The urgent global response to blast received a big boost in June from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), which funded an initial four-year research project to breed blast resistant wheat varieties and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), which also provided grant to kick-start the work in South Asia. Led by CIMMYT, the initiative involves researchers from nearly a dozen institutions worldwide.

Chemical controls are costly and potentially harmful to human and environmental health, so protecting crops like wheat with inherent resistance is the smart alternative, but resistance must be genetically complex, combining several genes, to withstand new mutations of the pathogen over time.

Key partners in the new project are the agricultural research organizations of Bangladesh, including the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), and the Instituto Nacional de Innovación Agropecuaria y Forestal in Bolivia, which will assist with large-scale field experiments to select wheat lines under artificial and natural infections of wheat blast.

Other partners include national and provincial research organizations in India, Nepal and Pakistan, as well as Kansas State University (KSU) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Services (USDA-ARS). The U.S. Agency for International Agricultural Development (USAID) has also supported efforts to kick-start blast control measures, partnerships and upscaling the breeding, testing and seed multiplication of new, high-yielding, disease resistant varieties through its Feed the Future project.

BARI Gom 33 was tested for resistance to wheat blast in field trials in Bolivia and Bangladesh and in greenhouse tests by the USDA-ARS laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland. International partnerships are critical for a fast response to wheat blast, according to Hans-Joachim Braun, director of CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program.

“Worldwide, we’re in the middle of efforts that include blast surveillance and forecasting, studies on the pathogen’s genetics and biology, integrated disease management and seed systems, as well as raising awareness about the disease and training for researchers, extension workers, and farmers,” said Braun.

With over 160 million people, Bangladesh is among the world’s most densely populated countries. Wheat is Bangladesh’s second most important staple food, after rice. The country grows more than 1.3 million tons each year but consumes 4.5 million tons, meaning that imports whose costs exceed $0.7 billion each year comprise more than two-thirds of domestic wheat grain use.

WRC will produce tons of breeder’s seed of BARI Gom 33 each year. This will be used by the Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation (BADC) and diverse non-governmental organizations and private companies to produce certified seed for farmers.

“This year WRC will provide seed to BADC for multiplication and the Department of Agricultural Extension will establish on-farm demonstrations of the new variety in blast prone districts during 2017-18,” said Barma.

As an added benefit for the nutrition of wheat consuming households, BARI Gom 33 grain features 30 percent higher levels of zinc than conventional wheat. Zinc is a critical micronutrient missing in the diets of many of the poor throughout South Asia and whose lack particularly harms the health of pregnant women and children under 5 years old.

With funding from HarvestPlus and the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition, CIMMYT is leading global efforts to breed biofortified wheat with better agronomic and nutritional quality traits. The wheat line used in BARI Gom 33 was developed at CIMMYT, Mexico, through traditional cross-breeding and shared with Bangladesh and other cooperators in South Asia through the Center’s International Wheat Improvement Network, which celebrates 50 years in 2018.

Stable window 1 and 2 (W1W2) funding from CGIAR enabled CIMMYT and partners to react quickly and screen breeding lines in Bolivia, as well as working with KSU to identify sources of wheat blast resistance. The following W1 funders have made wheat blast resistance breeding possible: Australia, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Canada, France, India, Japan, Korea, New Zeland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the World Bank. The following funders also contributed vital W2 funding: Australia, China, the United Kingdom (DFID) and USAID.

Improved wheat helps reduce women’s workload in rural Afghanistan

Afghan women from wheat farming villages in focus-group interviews as part of Gennovate, a global study on gender and agricultural innovation. Photo: CIMMYT archives

by Katelyn Roett, Mike Listman / October 12, 2017

New research shows improved wheat raises the quality of life for men and women across rural communities in Afghanistan.

recent report from Gennovate, a major study about gender and innovation processes in developing country agriculture, found that improved wheat varieties emerged overwhelmingly among the agricultural technologies most favored by both men and women.

In one striking example from Afghanistan, introducing better wheat varieties alone reduced women’s work burden, showing how the uptake of technology – whether seeds or machinery – can improve the quality of life.

“Local varieties are tall and prone to falling, difficult to thresh, and more susceptible to diseases, including smuts and bunts, which requires special cleaning measures, a task normally done by women,” said Rajiv Sharma, a senior wheat scientist at International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and country liaison officer for CIMMYT in Afghanistan. “Such varieties may comprise mixes of several seed types, including seed of weeds. They also give small harvests for which threshing is typically manual, with wooden rollers and animals, picking up sticks, stones, and even animal excrement that greatly complicates cleaning the grain.”

Both women and men spoke favorably about how improved wheat varieties have eased women’s wheat cleaning work.  “Improved seeds can provide clean wheat,” said an 18-year old woman from one of the study’s youth focus groups in Panali, Afghanistan. “Before, we were washing wheat grains and we exposed it to the sun until it dried. Machineries have [also] eased women’s tasks.”

Finally, Sharma noted that bountiful harvests from improved varieties often lead farmers to use mechanical threshing, which further reduces work and ensures cleaner grain for household foods.

Gennovate: A large-scale, qualitative, comparative snapshot

Conceived as a “bottom-up” idea by a small gender research team of CGIAR in 2013, Gennovate involves 11 past and current CGIAR Research Programs. The project collected data from focus groups and interviews involving more than 7,500 rural men and women in 26 countries during 2014-16.

Some 2,500 women and men from 43 rural villages in 8 wheat-producing countries of Africa and Asia participated in community case studies, as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat.

“Across wheat farm settings, both men and women reported a sense of gradual progress,” said Lone Badstue, gender specialist at the CIMMYT and Gennovate project leader. “But women still face huge challenges to access information and resources or have a voice in decision making, even about their own lives.”

According to estimates of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), if women farmers, who comprise 43 per cent of the farm labor force in developing countries, had the same access to resources as men, agricultural output in 34 developing countries would rise by an estimated average of as high as 4 percent.

“Gender-related restrictions such as limitations on physical mobility or social interactions, as well as reproductive work burden, also constitute key constraints on rural women’s capacity to innovate in agriculture,” Badstue explained.

Gender equity drives innovation

The Gennovate-wheat report identified six “positive outlier communities” where norms are shifting towards more equitable gender relations and helping to foster inclusiveness and agricultural innovation. In those communities, men and women from all economic scales reported significantly higher empowerment and poverty reductions than in the 37 other locations. Greater acceptance of women’s freedom of action, economic activity, and civic and educational participation appears to be a key element.

“In contexts where gender norms are more fluid, new agricultural technologies and practices can become game-changing, increasing economic agency for women and men and rapidly lowering local poverty,” Badstue said.

The contributions and presence of CIMMYT in Afghanistan, which include support for breeding research and training for local scientists, date back several decades. In the last five years, the Agricultural Research Institute of Afghanistan (ARIA) of the country’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation & Livestock (MAIL) has used CIMMYT breeding lines to develop and make available to farmers seed of 15 high-yielding, disease resistant wheat varieties.

Read the full report “Gender and Innovation Processes in Wheat-Based Systems” here.

GENNOVATE has been supported by generous funding from the World Bank; the CGIAR Gender & Agricultural Research Network; the government of Mexico through MasAgro; Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ); numerous CGIAR Research Programs; and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

 

Afghanistan scientists assess achievements of Australia-funded wheat research

Scientists take readings of rust disease incidence on experimental wheat lines at the Shishambagh research station, Nangarhar, of the Agricultural Research Institute of Afghanistan. Photo: Raqib

With generous funding from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) over the last 15 years, Afghanistan research organizations and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) have helped supply Afghan farmers with improved varieties and farming practices to boost production of maize and wheat.

“As of 2012, the start of the most recent phase of ACIAR-funded work, Afghanistan partners have developed and released 12 high-yielding and disease resistant bread wheat varieties, as well as 3 varieties of durum wheat, 2 of barley and 3 of maize,” said Rajiv Sharma, a senior wheat scientist at CIMMYT and country liaison officer for CIMMYT in Afghanistan.

Sharma spoke at a workshop, which took place on August 28, with partners from the Agricultural Research Institute of Afghanistan (ARIA) of the country’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation & Livestock (MAIL). The event was organized to review accomplishments and facilitate MAIL’s takeover of all activities, when the project ends in October 2018.

“The pedigrees of all new varieties feature contributions from the breeding research of CIMMYT and the International Winter Wheat Improvement Programme based in Turkey, both responsible for introducing more than 9,000 new wheat and maize lines into the country since 2012,” Sharma added. The International Winter Wheat Improvement Programme (IWWIP) is operated by Turkey, CIMMYT, and ICARDA (the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas).

Sharma noted that CIMMYT’s presence in Afghanistan, which includes support for breeding research and training for local scientists, dates back several decades and that the latest achievements with ARIA and other partners and ACIAR support include:

  • The delineation of wheat agro-climatic zones.
  • Forecasting climate change impacts on the Afghan wheat crop.
  • Strategizing to raise wheat production.
  • Characterization of Afghanistan’s wheat genetic resource collection.
  • Training abroad for 64 Afghan researchers and in-country for 4,000.
  • Launching research on wheat hybridization.
  • In direct partnership with farmers, more than 1,800 farmer field demonstrations, 80 field days, and introduced machinery like seed drills and mobile seed cleaners.
  • Shared research on and promotion of conservation agriculture, genomic selection, wheat bio-fortification, quality protein maize, climate change, crop insurance and wheat blast resistance and control.

In good years Afghan farmers harvest upwards of 5 million tons of wheat, the country’s number-one food crop, but in some years annual wheat imports exceed 1 million tons to satisfy domestic demand, which exceeds 5.8 million tons.

Multiple partners map avenues to fortify cereal farming

The workshop attracted 45 participants representing ARIA, MAIL, ICARDA, CIMMYT, Michigan State University, ACIAR, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Embassy of Australia, and several provincial Directorates of Agriculture, Irrigation & Livestock (DAIL) of Afghanistan.

Among other participants, Mahboobullah Nang, Director of Seed Certification, and Akbar Waziri, Director of the Cereal Department, both from MAIL, offered the Ministry’s support for the continuation of CIMMYT’s longstanding efforts in Afghanistan, particularly in breeding and varietal testing and promotion.

Representing ACIAR, Syed Mousawi commended capacity development activities organized by CIMMYT since the 1970s, which have raised the quality of crop research in Afghanistan and provided a vital link to the global science community over the years.

Participants also recommended extending CIMMYT outreach work, offering training in extension, introducing advanced technologies, and support for and training in varietal maintenance, conservation agriculture, experimental designs, research farm management, data analysis and data management.

Asian scientists join cross-continental training to restrain wheat blast disease

Gary Peterson (center), explaining wheat blast screening to trainees inside the USDA-ARS Level-3 Biosafety Containment facility. Photo: CIMMYT archives

With backing from leading international donors and scientists, nine South Asia wheat researchers recently visited the Americas for training on measures to control a deadly and mysterious South American wheat disease that appeared suddenly on their doorstep in 2016.

Known as “wheat blast,” the disease results from a fungus that infects the wheat spikes in the field, turning the grain to inedible chaff. First sighted in Brazil in the mid-1980s, blast has affected up to 3 million hectares in South America and held back the region’s wheat crop expansion for decades.

In 2016, a surprise outbreak in seven districts of Bangladesh blighted wheat harvests on some 15,000 hectares and announced blast’s likely spread throughout South Asia, a region where rice-wheat cropping rotations cover 13 million hectares and nearly a billion inhabitants eat wheat.

“Most commercially grown wheat in South Asia is susceptible to blast,” said Pawan Singh, head of wheat pathology at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), an organization whose breeding lines are used by public research programs and seed companies in over 100 countries. “The disease poses a grave threat to food and income security in the region and yet is new and unknown to most breeders, pathologists and agronomists there.”

As part of an urgent global response to blast and to acquaint South Asian scientists with techniques to identify and describe the pathogen and help develop resistant varieties, Singh organized a two-week workshop in July. The event drew wheat scientists from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Mexico, taking them from U.S. greenhouses and labs to fields in Bolivia, where experimental wheat lines are grown under actual blast infections to test for resistance.

The training began at the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) Foreign Disease-Weed Science Research facility at Fort Detrick, Maryland, where participants learned about molecular marker diagnosis of the causal fungus Magnaporthe oryzae pathotype triticum (MoT). Sessions also covered greenhouse screening for blast resistance and blast research conducted at Kansas State University. Inside Level-3 Biosafety Containment greenhouses from which no spore can escape, participants observed specialized plant inoculation and disease evaluation practices.

The group then traveled to Bolivia, where researchers have been fighting wheat blast for decades and had valuable experience to share with the colleagues from South Asia.

“In Bolivia, workshop participants performed hands-on disease evaluation and selection in the field—an experience quite distinct from the precise lab and greenhouse practicums,” said Singh, describing the groups time at the Cooperativa Agropecuaria Integral Colonias Okinawa (CAICO), Bolivia, experiment station.

Other stops in Bolivia included the stations of the Instituto Nacional de Innovación Agropecuaria y Forestal (INIAF), Asociación de Productores de Oleaginosas y Trigo (ANAPO), Centro de Investigación Agrícola Tropical (CIAT), and a blast-screening nursery in Quirusillas operated by INIAF-CIMMYT.

“Scientists in South Asia have little or no experience with blast disease, which mainly attacks the wheat spike and is completely different from the leaf diseases we normally encounter,” said Prem Lal Kashyap, a scientist at the Indian Institute of Wheat and Barley Research (IIWBR) of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). “To score a disease like blast in the field, you need to evaluate each spike and check individual spikelets, which is painstaking and labor-intensive, but only thus can you assess the intensity of disease pressure and identify any plants that potentially carry genes for resistance.”

After the U.S.A. and Bolivia, the South Asia scientists took part in a two-week pathology module of an ongoing advanced wheat improvement course at CIMMYT’s headquarters and research stations in Mexico, covering topics such as the epidemiology and characterization of fungal pathogens and screening for resistance to common wheat diseases.

The knowledge gained will allow participants to refine screening methods in South Asia and maintain communication with the blast experts they met in the Americas, according to Carolina St. Pierre who co-ordinates the precision field-based phenotyping platforms of the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat.

“They can now also raise awareness back home concerning the threat of blast and alert farmers, who may then take preventative and remedial actions,” Singh added. “The Bangladesh Ministry of Agriculture has already formed a task force through the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council (BARC) to help develop and distribute blast resistant cultivars and pursue integrated agronomic control measures.”

The latest course follows on from a hands-on training course in February 2017 at the Wheat Research Center (WRC) of the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), Dinajpur, in collaboration with CIMMYT, Cornell University, and Kansas State University.

Participants in the July course received training from a truly international array of instructors, including Kerry Pedley and Gary Peterson, of USDA-ARS, and Christian Cruz, of Kansas State University; Felix Marza, of Bolivia’s Instituto Nacional de Innovación Agropecuaria y Forestal (INIAF); Pawan Singh and Carolina St. Pierre, of CIMMYT; Diego Baldelomar, of ANAPO; and Edgar Guzmán, of CIAT-Bolivia.

Funding for the July event came from the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), CIMMYT, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (through the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia), the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat.