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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Promoting profitable, climate-friendly fertilizer use

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

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

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

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

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

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

To view the article

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Francisco Barro, photo provided.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is CRISPR the future of plant breeding?

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Gender transformative methodologies in Ethiopia’s agricultural sector

The seven methodologies in this report represent a different way of incorporating gender into
agricultural programs in Ethiopia with encouraging results. All use a collection of participatory
research methods combined in a structured manner that enables participants to assess,
monitor, review and reflect on their current situation, and develop plans to solve their
problems. These methodologies strengthen and empower whole communities, groups and
households while creating more egalitarian relationships. This reduces the likelihood of a
backlash against women, something that too frequently accompanies gender-focused
programs. Creating more egalitarian gender relations contributes to improving productivity,
growth, social cohesion, and sustainability, but more research on these linkages is needed.
The participatory research tools used in these methodologies can be incorporated into
baselines, evaluations and agriculture research, for they are gender-friendly, appropriate for
illiterate women, and capture normative changes.

Click here to download a copy of this publication.

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.

CIMMYT 2016 annual report ‘Maize and wheat for future climates’

The 2016 CIMMYT Annual Report details the strong partnerships and science through which CIMMYT creates and shares innovations for farmers to grow more, earn more and reduce environmental impacts, now and in the future. Highlights include:

  • Maize and wheat breeding speeds up to equip farmers with varieties for dryer, hotter climates, and to resist evolving pathogens and pests.
  • Scientists refute trendy claims disparaging wheat and promote the nutritional benefits of this vital food grain.
  • Growing partnerships, including the joint launch with Henan Agricultural University, China, of a new maize and wheat research center.
  • Dramatically expanded maize seed markets for Mexican farmers.
  • Use of zero tillage and other sustainable agriculture practices in southern Africa and South Asia.

In 2016, CIMMYT marked and celebrated 50 years of applying excellence in maize and wheat science to improve the livelihoods of the disadvantaged. With the commitment and continuous support of dedicated staff, partners and donors, the Center will continue contributing to a food- and nutrition-secure future for all.

Click here TO VIEW OR DOWNLOAD A COPY OF THE REPORT.

Australia funds worldwide project to restrain wheat blast disease

The grain in this blast-blighted wheat head has been turned to chaff (Photo: CKnight/ DGGW/ Cornell University)

EL BATAN, Mexico (July 1, 2017) — The urgent global response to wheat blast, a little understood fungal disease that appeared suddenly and blighted wheat crops in Bangladesh in 2016, has received a big boost from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), which is funding an initial four-year research project to breed blast resistant wheat varieties.

The wheat blast pathogen, which can move on air currents or ride infected grain, is likely to spread soon throughout South Asia, a region where rice-wheat cropping rotations cover 13 million hectares and nearly a billion inhabitants eat wheat.

Under the initiative led by the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), researchers from nearly a dozen institutions worldwide will join forces to develop high-yielding varieties with resistance to blast, reducing the risk of catastrophic crop losses.

“This research project aims to identify sources of resistance, characterize the resistance genes, and develop DNA markers to create resistant, locally-adapted wheat varieties and make them available to farmers,” said Pawan Singh, head of wheat pathology at CIMMYT, an organization whose breeding lines are used by public research programs and seed companies in over 100 countries. “The work could not be more critical, given the likelihood of blast’s spread and its deadly virulence for wheat varieties worldwide.”

Caused by the fungus Magnaporthe oryzae pathotype Triticum (MoT), wheat blast was first identified in Brazil in 1985 and has threatened and constrained wheat farming in South America for decades.

Fungicides offer only partial control of blast, according to N.C.D. Barma, director at Bangladesh’s Wheat Research Centre (WRC). “Under the right conditions, the fungus can develop with lightning speed, blanching and withering the grain,” Barma said. “By that time the farmer’s losses are near total.”

Wheat experts and government officials in Bangladesh, in collaboration with CIMMYT, sounded the alarm last year, when a surprise blast outbreak struck 15,000 hectares of wheat fields near the country’s border with India.

Farmers in Pakistan benefit from new zinc-enriched high-yielding wheat

Hans-Joachim Braun (left, white shirt), director of the global wheat program at CIMMYT, Maqsood Qamar (center), wheat breeder at Pakistan’s National Agricultural Research Center, Islamabad, and Muhammad Imtiaz (right), CIMMYT wheat improvement specialist and Pakistan country representative, discussing seed production of Zincol. Photo: Kashif Syed/CIMMYT.

By Mike Listman/CIMMYT

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (June 30, 2017) – Farmers in Pakistan are eagerly adopting a nutrient-enhanced wheat variety offering improved food security, higher incomes, health benefits and a delicious taste.

Known as Zincol and released to farmers in 2016, the variety yields harvests as high as other widely grown wheat varieties, but its grain contains 20 percent more zinc, a critical micronutrient missing in the diets of many poor people in South Asia.

Due to these benefits and its delicious taste, Zincol was one of the top choices among farmers testing 12 new wheat varieties in 2016.

“I would eat twice as many chappatis of Zincol as of other wheat varieties,” said Munib Khan, a farmer in Gujar Khan, Rawalpindi District, Punjab Province, Pakistan, referring to its delicious flavor.

Khan has been growing Zincol since its release. In 2017, he planted a large portion of his wheat fields with the seed, as did members of the Gujar Khan Seed Producer Group to which he belongs.

The group is one of 21 seed producer associations established to grow quality seed of new wheat varieties with assistance from the country’s National Rural Support Program (NRSP) in remote areas of Pakistan. The support program is a key partner in the Pakistan Agricultural Innovation Program (AIP), led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“Over the 2016 and 2017 cropping seasons, 400 tons of seed of Zincol has been shared with farmers, seed companies and promotional partners,” said Imtiaz Muhammad, CIMMYT country representative in Pakistan and a wheat improvement specialist.