Author Archive

Multi-disciplinary approaches to crop improvement for faster climate change adaptation

This article by Sakshi Saini was originally published on the CCAFS website

A high throughput crop phenotyping platform, the ‘Leasyscan’ located at ICRISAT’s HQ Patancheru, India. Photo: A. Whitbread (ICRISAT)
A high throughput crop phenotyping platform, the ‘Leasyscan’ located at ICRISAT’s HQ Patancheru, India. Photo: A. Whitbread (ICRISAT)

Ever-increasing emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) is a global concern due to the association of high atmospheric GHG concentrations with global warming and climate change. A large and growing body of evidence predicts that this would further have a multifaceted impact on the human population, especially the poor and vulnerable groups, further exacerbating their vulnerabilities.

But what about crops? Plants use carbon dioxide (CO2)—one of the most abundant GHGs, for photosynthesis. So shouldn’t an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide aid crops to flourish? A counter-argument to this would be that at the same time there would be changes in other factors such as a change in precipitation rate, frequency and intensity of rains, among others, which might negatively impact crop production. So, how exactly would climatic variations impact the yield and productivity of crops? These are some of the questions that have been a global concern. Many studies have researched this, employing varied approaches such as systems biology, physiology and crop modelling. However, unprecedented changes in climatic conditions still pose uncertainties on the impacts on crops.

Recent research by an interdisciplinary team of scientists from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Chanage, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS)-Africa and CCAFS-Asia aspires to answer some of these questions. As part of this research, they have compiled recent progress made in the physiological and molecular attributes in plants, with special emphasis on legumes under elevated CO2 conditions in a climate change scenario. The study proposes a strategic research framework for crop improvement that integrates genomics, systems biology, physiology and crop modelling approaches to cope with the changing climate. Some of the prime results of the study are as follows:

1. Major physiological and biochemical alterations in legumes triggered by elevated CO2

A range of physiological and biochemical alterations take place in plants exposed to elevated CO2. In the case of legumes, elevated atmospheric COconcentrations also affect the nutritional quality and nodulation, causes changes in rhizosphere and Biological Nitrogen Fixation (BNF), among others. Studies have shown that elevated CO2 would stimulate plant growth under nitrogen-sufficient conditions, but under nitrogen-limited conditions, it may have the detrimental effect of reducing plant growth by altering its primary metabolism. The anatomical differences between C3 and C4 plants (plants with C3 and C4 photosynthetic pathways) and their different ways of sequestering carbon (removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere), have been an area of interest for climate scientists. Elevated COcombined with limited nitrogen may also promote biological ageing (senescence) rates as observed in flag leaves of rice and wheat. Studies also show that a higher level of carbon dioxide increases senescence rate in legumes.

2. Impact of elevated carbon-dioxide interaction with other abiotic stresses

As mentioned earlier, CO2 is not the only factor that is impacting plant growth, it is dependent on other environmental factors such as water deficit stress and temperature, among others. Thus, these factors also need to be considered in combination with the atmospheric concentration. Studies have reported that elevated CO2 induced a decrease (of 10%) in evaporation rates in both C3 and C4 plants. This caused an increase in canopy temperature (0.7 °C) coupled with a 19% yield increase in C3 crops. There is evidence that an increase in CO2 has also phased down the effect of oxidative stress. Though, there is limited literature available about the impact of elevated carbon dioxide keeping into consideration the drought and heat responses of various crops.

3. Elevated carbon dioxide and its interaction with biotic stress-altered pathogen aggravation and virulence

The changing climate has affected pest-crop dynamics with more frequent outbreaks and changed the geographical distribution of pests, posing an economic threat to crops. Sometimes, other abiotic stresses like drought could increase fungal virulence as reported in drought-tolerant peanut and Aspergillus interaction. However, a combined interaction is not always additive as both unique and common responses have been observed. Increased COcauses greater photosynthate availability, but reduced foliage quality along with an increased concentration of plant defensive compounds after a pest infestation. This, in turn, affects insect feeding and increases disease incidence and predator parasitism interactions.

4. Molecular interventions for crop improvement under elevated carbon-dioxide

While elevated CO2 may cause greater photosynthate availability, the interaction of elevated CO2 with mentioned biotic and abiotic stresses calls for the development of climate change ready crop varieties. Thus, genomics assisted breeding along with other modern approaches can be very powerful tools to develop superior varieties, to de-risk the existing food system. This transformative approach towards the production of plants and crops would be instrumental in sustainably ensuring food security.

An integrated research framework for the future

The discussion and evidence presented illustrate that the effect of elevated CO2 under a changing climate scenario is multifaceted and aggravated by the overlapping interaction of stressors. The notion that CO2 has beneficial effects in terms of increased productivity is now being questioned since the photosynthetic fertilization effect is short term and often not time-tested for major crop species. The IPCC 2018 special report highlights several policy-level approaches that are aimed at limiting greenhouse gas emission. The scientific community needs to be prepared with suitable research outcomes to cope with the effects of elevated atmospheric CO2 levels. In this regard, an integrated framework combining different biological disciplines has been proposed by the team (Fig. 1).

Figure 1: A representation of a multifaceted strategy that could be employed to harness cutting edge technologies and greater precision to cope with elevated CO2, and generally with a changing climate.
Figure 1: A representation of a multifaceted strategy that could be employed to harness cutting edge technologies and greater precision to cope with elevated CO2, and generally with a changing climate.

While significant advances have been made in crop genomics, systems biology and genomics-assisted breeding, the success of trait dissection and trait deployment is very much dependent on the quality and precision of phenotyping. Recent advances in plant phenotyping using high throughput phenotyping tools have revolutionized the uptake of phenotype and allelic information in a more precise and robust way and complemented high throughput genomic resources

In the opinion of the authors of the publication, an integrated research framework that includes genomics/ systems biology and phenomics together with crop modelling would result in faster data-driven advances for understanding the optimal GxExM (genotype x environment x management) scenarios for current and projected climates. Interdisciplinary approaches as has been done through the Climate-Smart Village approach, are key to graduating from a descriptive level to an improved quantitative and process-level understanding of sustainable crop productivity.

Read more:

A view from Afghanistan

Rajiv Kumar Sharma on insecurity, rural isolation and challenge of supporting crop production in a conflict zone.

by Emma Orchardson

Farmers inspect wheat in Balkh, Afghanistan. Credit: USAID Afghanistan

In September 2002, looters raided the storage facilities housing Afghanistan’s largest collection of crop genetic material. In the towns of Ghazni and Jalalabad, hundreds of samples of the country’s rich agricultural heritage were lost as wheat, barley, pistachio and pomegranate seeds were ripped from the plastic containers designed to preserve them. The incident was described as a tragic loss, with representatives from the United Nations lamenting the fact that these lost varieties were essential genetic resources for sustaining future food production in a country where farmers struggle to withstand harsh climatic conditions such as recurrent drought.

Nearly two decades later, these climatic challenges have been further compounded by demographic ones, as rising population and income levels fuel consumption of some of the country’s most important cereal crops, including wheat – which makes up around 60% of the nation’s daily caloric intake – and maize. Failure to meet domestic demand could have devasting consequences in a country whose growth and economy are dominated by agriculture.

Some of Afghanistan’s obstacles to crop production are not unique. Poor market support, limited mechanization and inadequate storage stifle growing and processing activities from Latin America to South Asia. Others – such as rain dependent wheat and grossly deficient extension services – are more specific to a country in the midst of ongoing and widespread conflict. As anti-government forces continue to target transport infrastructure and police road travel between provinces, links between the nation’s pockets of relative urban security and the 70% of Afghans who live and work in rural areas are drastically reduced.

Farmers beyond reach

“Insecurity is by far the biggest hurdle in communication with and reaching out to farmers,” says Rajiv Kumar Sharma, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center’s (CIMMYT) Country Representative for Afghanistan.

The organization has been operating in the country since 2002, supporting national agricultural research systems through the provision of germplasm, support for data collection and analysis, and working to release high-yielding, disease resistant crop varieties into the Afghan seed system and farmers’ fields. While capacity development for local research partners has been extremely successful, connecting directly with farmers remains practically impossible in many areas.

Sharma points to the results of a 2016 survey on the adoption of new improved maize and wheat varieties and crop management practices under local conditions, which found much higher adoption rates among farmers who had received some form of training or who had access to markets and a main road. “However, because even the most basic transport facilities are missing in most places, during our field visits or meetings it was not unusual to hear from farmers that it was the first time they had ever met their extension workers.”

“It’s a very complicated situation,” he explains. “We cannot look at any one factor in isolation because everything is interconnected – insecurity, governance, infrastructure, logistics, access to roads, transport and markets.”

Even the country’s seed market, he adds, seems to be an artificial one. “I used to say that the seed market was donor-driven because they would give money to the government, who would purchase all the seed produced and distribute among farmers. But once that system dwindled around 2014/15, seed production came down. If production is not remunerative, farmers simply aren’t going to invest.”

In the face of limited resources and capacity, non-available irrigation services, collapsed industry and a fragile economy, Sharma highlights the lack of infrastructure as the main limiting factor in developing the country’s seed sector. “It matters because it really impacts the extent to which we can reach people.”

“Did you know, for example, that Afghanistan did not have a postal system until few years ago and the one present today is not fully functioning. Can you imagine how much effort it takes for us just to move our seed packets and data sheets from one province to another?”

With no functioning courier services and limited public transport between cities, trial data dispatches are sent across the country using private taxi services. There are obvious and imaginable challenges involved in working in a conflict zone, he explains, but realities on the ground are often more challenging than what you’d expect.

Successes with seed

It’s not all doom and gloom in Kabul though, and Sharma remains optimistic about the progress of CIMMYT’s work in Afghanistan despite the numerous challenges. “It’s not easy working here, but still we can do something.”

Recent successes include the release of four new high yielding and disease resistant wheat varieties in early 2020 and the successful culmination of the “Improving food security by enhancing wheat production and its resilience to climate change through maintaining the diversity of currently grown landraces” project in December 2019. Funded by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, the project supported the collection, characterization and evaluation of the country’s landraces and relied heavily on dedicated local staff and their ability to navigate the territory as safely as possible. “They know where they can and can’t go, as well as the dynamics and how to protect themselves,” Sharma explains.

In the northwestern provinces of Balkh and Herat, staff were able to collect landraces from farmer fields for testing against modern improved varieties at research stations. The team were then able to remove those susceptible to disease, purify the superior ones and improve them with regards to variability and uniformity. They found that, on average, Afghan wheat landraces yielded highest under rainfed conditions when compared with those from Iran and Turkey, as well as against winter wheat trials carried out in 2018.

These landraces have since been used in breeding improvement and crossing programs, as well as being multiplied and given back to local communities. “This has really enriched regional variability and made these landraces more useful for those communities who grow them and thus contribute to conserving useful variability on farm.”

Historic wheat research station poised to host cutting-edge research

This story by Alison Doody was originally published on the CIMMYT website.

Early photo of Toluca station. (Photo: Fernando Delgado/CIMMYT)

It was the site where International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) scientist Norman Borlaug famously received news of his 1970 Nobel Peace Prize win. Now, Toluca station will become CIMMYT’s new testing site for rapid generation advancement and speed breeding in wheat – a method that accelerates generation advancement of crops and shortens the breeding cycle using tools like continuous lighting and temperature control.

The Toluca wheat experimental station is one of CIMMYT’s five experimental stations in Mexico, located in a picturesque town on the outskirts of Mexico’s fifth largest city, Toluca, about 60 kilometers southwest of Mexico City. The station was strategically chosen for its cool, humid conditions in summer. These conditions have made it an ideal location for studying wheat resistance to deadly diseases including yellow rust and Septoria tritici blotch.

Since its formal establishment in 1970, Toluca has played a key role in CIMMYT’s wheat breeding program. The site is also of significant historical importance due to its origins as a testing ground for Borlaug’s shuttle breeding concept in the 1940s, along with Ciudad Obregón in the Sonora state of northern Mexico. The breeding method allowed breeders to plant at two locations to advance generations and half the breeding cycle of crops.

Applying this unorthodox breeding method, Borlaug was able to advance wheat generations twice as fast as standard breeding programs. Planting in contrasting environments and day lengths — from the cool temperatures and high rainfall of Toluca to the desert heat of Ciudad Obregón — also allowed Borlaug and his colleagues to develop varieties that were more broadly adaptable to a variety of conditions. His shuttle breeding program was so successful that it provided the foundations of the Green Revolution.

Toluca was also the site where the first sexual propagation of the destructive plant pathogen Phytophtora infestans was reported. The deadly pathogen is best known for causing the potato late blight disease that triggered the Irish potato famine.

Recent progress of the rapid generation advancement screenhouse under construction at Toluca station. (Photo: Suchismita Modal/CIMMYT)

New life for the historic station

More than 50 years since its establishment, the station will once again host cutting-edge innovation in wheat research, as the testing ground for a new speed breeding program led by wheat scientists and breeders from Accelerating Genetic Gains in Maize and Wheat (AGG).

Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), AGG aims to accelerate the development and delivery of more productive, climate-resilient, gender-responsive, market-demanded, and nutritious maize and wheat varieties.

While most breeding programs typically take between 7-8 years before plants are ready for yield testing, shuttle breeding has allowed CIMMYT to cut the length of its breeding programs in half, to just 4 years to yield testing. Now, AGG wheat breeders are looking to shorten the breeding cycle further, through rapid generation advancement and speed breeding.

Speed breeding room at Toluca station. The Heliospectra lights support the faster growth of plants. (Photo: Suchismita Mondal/CIMMYT)

“The AGG team will use a low-cost operation, in-field screenhouse, spanning 2 hectares, to grow up to 4 generations of wheat per year and develop new germplasm ready for yield testing within just 2 years,” said Ravi Singh, CIMMYT distinguished scientist and head of wheat improvement. “This should not only save on cost but also help accelerate the genetic gain due to a significant reduction in time required to recycle best parents.”

Construction of the new rapid generation advancement and speed breeding facilities is made possible by support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and DFID through Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW), a 4-year project led by Cornell University, which ends this year. It is expected to be complete by September.

The concept of speed breeding is not new. Inspired by NASA’s efforts to grow crops in space, scientists at the University of Sydney, the University of Queensland (UQ) and the John Innes Centre developed the technique to accelerate the development of crops and improve their quality. The breeding method has been successfully used for crops like spring wheat, barley, pea, chickpea, radish and canola.

CIMMYT Global Wheat Program Director Hans Braun highlighted the importance of testing the new breeding scheme. “Before completely adopting the new breeding scheme, we need to learn, optimize and analyze the performance results to make necessary changes,” he said.

If all goes well, Toluca could once again be on the vanguard of wheat research in the near future.

“We plan to use the speed breeding facility for rapid integration of traits, such as multiple genes for resistance, to newly-released or soon to be released varieties and elite breeding lines,” said CIMMYT Wheat Breeder Suchismita Mondal, who will lead the work in these facilities. We are excited to initiate using the new facilities.”

Rapid generation advancement screenhouse under construction at Toluca station in October 2019. (Photo: Alison Doody/CIMMYT)

“Better, faster, equitable, sustainable” – wheat research community partners join to kick off new breeding project

This story by Marcia MacNeil was originally published on the CIMMYT website.

More than 100 scientists, crop breeders, researchers, and representatives from funding and national government agencies gathered virtually to initiate the wheat component of a groundbreaking and ambitious collaborative new crop breeding project led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

The new project, Accelerating Genetic Gains in Maize and Wheat for Improved Livelihoods, or AGG, brings together partners in the global science community and in national agricultural research and extension systems to accelerate the development of higher-yielding varieties of maize and wheat — two of the world’s most important staple crops.

Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the project specifically focuses on supporting smallholder farmers in low- and middle-income countries. The international team uses innovative methods — such as rapid cycling and molecular breeding approaches — that improve breeding efficiency and precision to produce varieties that are climate-resilient, pest and disease resistant and highly nutritious, targeted to farmers’ specific needs.

The wheat component of AGG builds on breeding and variety adoption work that has its roots with Norman Borlaug’s Nobel Prize winning work developing high yielding and disease resistance dwarf wheat more than 50 years ago. Most recently, AGG builds on Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW), a 4-year project led by Cornell University, which ends this year.

“AGG challenges us to build on this foundation and make it better, faster, equitable and sustainable,” said CIMMYT Interim Deputy Director for Research Kevin Pixley.

At the virtual gathering on July 17, donors and partner representatives from target countries in South Asia joined CIMMYT scientists to describe both the technical objectives of the project and its overall significance.

“This program is probably the world’s single most impactful plant breeding program. Its products are used throughout the world on many millions of hectares,” said Gary Atlin from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “The AGG project moves this work even farther, with an emphasis on constant technological improvement and an explicit focus on improved capacity and poverty alleviation.”

Alan Tollervey from DFID spoke about the significance of the project in demonstrating the relevance and impact of wheat research.

“The AGG project helps build a case for funding wheat research based on wheat’s future,” he said.

Nora Lapitan from the USAID Bureau for Resilience and Food Security listed the high expectations AGG brings: increased genetic gains, variety replacement, optimal breeding approaches, and strong collaboration with national agricultural research systems in partner countries.

Reconnecting with trusted partners

The virtual meeting allowed agricultural scientists and wheat breeding experts from AGG target countries in South Asia, many of whom have been working collaboratively with CIMMYT for years, to reconnect and learn how the AGG project both challenges them to a new level of collaboration and supports their national wheat production ambitions.

“With wheat blast and wheat rust problems evolving in Bangladesh, we welcome the partnership with international partners, especially CIMMYT and the funders to help us overcome these challenges,” said Director General of the Bangladesh Wheat and Maize Research Institute Md. Israil Hossain.

Director of the Indian Institute for Wheat and Barley Research Gyanendra P. Singh praised CIMMYT’s role in developing better wheat varieties for farmers in India.

“Most of the recent varieties which have been developed and released by India are recommended for cultivation on over 20 million hectares. They are not only stress tolerant and high yielding but also fortified with nutritional qualities. I appreciate CIMMYT’s support on this,” he said.

Executive Director of the National Agricultural Research Council of Nepal Deepak K. Bhandari said he was impressed with the variety of activities of the project, which would be integral to the development of Nepal’s wheat program.

“Nepal envisions increased wheat productivity from 2.84 to 3.5 tons per hectare within five years. I hope this project will help us to achieve this goal. Fast tracking the replacement of seed to more recent varieties will certainly improve productivity and resilience of the wheat sector,” he said.

The National Wheat Coordinator at the National Agricultural Research Center of Pakistan, Atiq Ur-Rehman, told attendees that his government had recently launched a “mega project” to reduce poverty and hunger and to respond to climate change through sustainable intensification. He noted that the support of AGG would help the country increase its capacity in “vertical production” of wheat through speed breeding. “AGG will help us save 3 to 4 years” in breeding time,” he said.

For CIMMYT Global Wheat Program Director Hans Braun, the gathering was personal as well as professional.

“I have met many of you over the last decades,” he told attendees, mentioning his first CIMMYT trip to see wheat programs in India in 1985. “Together we have achieved a lot — wheat self-sufficiency for South Asia has been secured now for 50 years. This would not be possible without your close collaboration, your trust and your willingness to share germplasm and information, and I hope this will stay. “

Braun pointed out that in this project, many national partners will gain the tools and capacity to implement their own state of the art breeding strategies such as genomic selection.

“We are at the beginning of a new era in breeding,” Braun noted. “We are also initiating a new era of collaboration.”

The wheat component of AGG serves more than 30 million wheat farming households in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Nepal and Pakistan. A separate inception meeting for stakeholders in sub-Saharan Africa is planned for next month.

New infographic highlights an early warning system for wheat blast in Bangladesh

Wheat blast is a devastating fungal disease threatening agricultural productivity and food security in the Americas and South Asia. First identified in Brazil in 1984, it spread to Bangladesh in 2016, prompting the government to request scientists for an early warning system.

A new infographic, developed by researchers at the Cereal Systems Initiative for Asia (CSISA) explains how wheat blast is spread and how an early warning system can help extension agents and farmers get ahead of the disease.

Harnessing the potential of state-of-the-art genomic technologies for accelerating the rate of genetic gain in wheat

This blog by Philomin Juliana was originally published on the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative website.

Genomic breeding technologies offer exciting opportunities for wheat improvement amidst escalating challenges like changing climates, unpredictable temperatures, reduced precipitation and biotic stresses. Recognizing the need for accelerating the rate of genetic gain in wheat, the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat and the USAID Feed the Future projects have contributed extensively to the phenotyping and genotyping of an impressive number of 74,403 CIMMYT wheat breeding lines, generating more than a million phenotyping datapoints and 3 billion marker datapoints. These big datasets have been leveraged for evaluating state-of-the-art genomic technologies like genomic selection, genome-wide association mapping, and genomic fingerprinting that have empowered the CIMMYT wheat breeding program to efficiently deliver high-yielding, climate resilient and disease resistant varieties.

Genomic selection, a genomics-based selection strategy where genomic-estimated breeding values obtained from genome-wide molecular markers are used for the selection of individuals has gained burgeoning interest in recent years and is advocated as an approach that can dramatically accelerate genetic gains and change the role of phenotyping in breeding. Since it can be beneficial for CIMMYT and other wheat breeding programs, particularly in developing countries that are constrained in their ability to evaluate a large number of breeding lines due to limited resources, we have done a comprehensive evaluation of genomic selection for 35 key traits in wheat evaluated by CIMMYT and national partners.

Our results have provided strong evidence that genomic selection will be a very powerful tool for end-use quality related traits like alveograph, mixing time, grain protein, flour yield, flour sedimentation, loaf volume etc. and some diseases, that were well predicted using historic training populations. Hence, genomic estimated breeding values for these traits have been routinely integrated into selection decisions and selections have been scaled up to un-phenotyped early-generations using predicted values. This has led to a paradigm shift in integrating genomic breeding tools into CIMMYT’s wheat breeding pipeline and has resulted in better selection efficiency and high phenotyping cost-savings to the program.

We have also explored several genomic selection implementation scenarios for grain yield and determined the prospects of using genomic selection for minimizing the number of lines, years and sites tested by borrowing information from relatives, correlated years and sites. For this, we leveraged a large dataset of 61,064 grain yield observations from 1,974 yield trials evaluated by CIMMYT and national partners at 100 locations in 34 countries including Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Argentina, Bangladesh, Canada, Chile, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Greece, India, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mexico, Morocco, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Paraguay, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sudan, Taiwan, Tanzania, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, Venezuela, Zambia and Zimbabwe. We also applied a quantitative genetics framework to explore the relationships between grain yield predictabilities and estimated heritabilities, variance components, phenotypic and genetic correlations for grain yield evaluated in different environments, all of which provided substantial insights into the challenges of predicting grain yield and the prospects for designing future genomic selection schemes.

We also performed a large genome-wide association study that led to a significant breakthrough in understanding the genetic-architecture of key traits like phenology, plant height, lodging, resistance to rusts and other foliar diseases, grain color, kernel weight, dough strength, bread-making quality, protein content and grain yield in wheat. We have identified hundreds of significant marker-trait associations and delineated 142 unique linkage-based QTLs, among which 55.6% were novel. One of the extremely intriguing and novel co-locations identified in our study was the association of the 2NS translocation from Aegilops ventricosa with grain yield in 10 different environments, stem rust seedling resistance to many races, stripe rust in Mexico, wheat blast, and lodging, demonstrating its remarkable value for wheat breeding. We also anchored about 542 significant trait-associated markers and 118 previously reported genes in proximity to the significant markers onto a powerful reference phenotype-genotype map aligned to the refence genome of bread wheat, which is a valuable resource providing new opportunities for accelerating genomics-assisted wheat breeding through a targeted selection of desired regions.

We have fingerprinted 44,624 wheat lines for 195 traits-associated markers, generating over 7.6 million data-points, which is a phenomenal resource to the global wheat community for enhancing productivity and stress-resilience in wheat. The fingerprinted panel comprises several key varieties cultivated worldwide, parents from CIMMYT’s crossing blocks 2009-2018 and is a quantum leap in understanding the genetic basis of traits in superior varieties. For example, a benchmark high-yielding CIMMYT-derived Mexican variety, BORLAUG100 F2014 was found to be rich in grain yield favorable alleles and a key stem rust QTL against the Ug99 lineage was traced back to old Kenyan (Kenya Fahari, Kenya Swara) and Ethiopian (FH6-1-7) varieties.

Furthermore, we also examined the marker allele frequency dynamics for key traits over 15 years to characterize the role of selection at CIMMYT in shaping patterns of allelic variation over time. While there was a spectacular increase in favorable allele frequencies for many traits over years due to selection, the results also emphasized the need for a continued effort to introduce novel sources of favorable alleles and the importance of integrating genomic tools in achieving accelerated enrichment of favorable alleles. Overall, our research has facilitated extending the frontiers of genomics-assisted breeding in wheat and will be very beneficial for future diagnostic marker development, gene discovery, marker-assisted selection and genomic selection in wheat.

Philomin Juliana’s 5 May 2020 seminar is here.

BGRI-led coalition protects world’s wheat crop

This story by Matt Hayes was originally published on the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative website.

When a novel strain of a wheat pathogen first emerged in East Africa in 1998, Norman Borlaug knew the world faced a dire threat to food security.

The virulent race of stem rust that became known as Ug99 was deadly to nearly all wheat varieties, threatening to cause epidemic losses in wheat fields around the globe. To combat the disease, the Borlaug and a team of committed scientists at Cornell, CIMMYT, ICARDA, FAO and other organizations sounded the global alarm in 2005. Those pioneers launched the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) to protect the global wheat supply against the spread of Ug99 and other challenges.

In a keynote speech delivered June 25 during the BGRI’s second virtual workshop, Ronnie Coffman, vice-chair of the BGRI, described those early efforts and the long-running scientific work to combat wheat disease.

The virtual “Take It to the Farmer” event featured videos and discussion with farmers and experts from around the wheat-growing world. Six wheat growers from five countries focused on the challenges they face — Felix Austin of F1 Seed in the UK, Hajo Mergo from Ethiopia, Deviprasad Aryal and Ramchandra Adhikari from Nepal, Esther Chelule from Kenya, Gurjeet Singh Mann from India, and Jesús Larraguibel Artola from Mexico. While wheat panelists discussed possible solutions  — Bill Angus from Angus Wheat in the UK; Hans Braun from CIMMYT, in Mexico; Anne Cichangi from KALRO, in Kenya; Bedada Girma, from EIAR, Ethiopia; Chhavi Tiwari from Shri Vaishnav Institute of Agriculture in India, and Vijay Vijayaraghavan from Sathguru Management Consultants in India.

According to Coffman, the world averted disaster thanks to the coordinated global effort led by Cornell’s BGRI with more than $100 million in funding for the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) and Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) projects from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UK aid from the British people.

The BGRI and the projects it managed was essential to protecting one of the world’s most important crops, according to Coffman.

Crucial outcomes from the DRRW and DGGW projects noted by Coffman include vast increases in land area planted to rust-resistant varieties, global expansion of a wheat pathogen surveillance network, more young wheat scientists in countries around the world — especially women — trained to be wheat breeders, pathologists, gender experts and project leaders, and the establishment of a global wheat community dedicated to the improvement of one of the world’s most important crops.

“For 12 years, through the DRRW and the DGGW projects, the BGRI has focused on delivering rust-resistant varieties of wheat to the farmers around the world who depend on agriculture and wheat production for their livelihoods,” said Coffman. “We have been especially dedicated to smallholder farmers in wheat-producing countries in Africa and Asia. Men and women who do not always have the access to new technologies — like improved seed — that they need.”

During the past 12 years, BGRI scientists have released more than 270 new varieties of wheat with greater resistance to diseases and environmental stresses such as climate change, working with national programs in 11 at-risk countries.

“These varieties have contributed enormously to improving the livelihoods of the farmers who adopted them,” Coffman said.

Maricelis Acevedo, associate director for science for DGGW, said that the successes were only possible by building a network of global researchers working in tandem with farmers on a common goal to secure the world’s wheat.

“Science and agriculture are forever linked in our enduring quest to feed the world,” Acevedo said. “The BGRI is committed to making sure scientific innovations help the world’s farmers prosper.”

One element of those efforts is robust surveillance of wheat pathogens. To track the spread of rust and other diseases, the BGRI expanded the international monitoring network from two countries in 2007 to 43 today. By utilizing precise location tagging equipment and mobile devices, “our partners now operate the world’s largest international crop disease monitoring system in the world,” said Coffman.

Mobile plant disease diagnostic technologies allow researchers to identify individual strains of complex fungal pathogens directly in the field, making it easier for farmers to quell outbreaks quickly. 

The projects also helped establish facilities needed to monitor and respond to diseases. Investments in greenhouses, irrigation systems, laboratories, field equipment and communications technology gave global partners the tools needed to collaborate with other wheat scientists around the world to breed more rust resistant wheat, and help farmers stay ahead of epidemics caused by evolving races of rust. At nursery facilities built in Ethiopia and Kenya, scientists are able to test elite wheat varieties from national wheat breeding programs around the world against various strains of rust.  

Long-term sustainability and durability depend on knowledgeable and dedicated scientists, according to Coffman. Since 2008, more than 1000 wheat scientists from countries around the world have been trained with funding from the projects, Coffman said.

“As we move forward, to 2030 and beyond, we must rededicate ourselves to understanding farmers’ needs because they are the ultimate beneficiaries of our work,” said Coffman.

“We will continue to build this coalition of great scientists committed to the big, big task of increasing food security one wheat field at a time,” said Acevedo, in her closing remarks.

The next BGRI Virtual Workshop will take place in October.

Watch Take It to the Farmer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSOdFDZUZrY&feature=youtu.be

CIMMYT Annual Report 2019 launched

This post was originally published on the CIMMYT website.

Read the web version of the Annual Report 2019

Download the Annual Report 2019 in PDF format 

Download the financial report 2019

In 2019, CIMMYT continued to perform groundbreaking crop research and forge powerful partnerships to combat hunger and climate change, preserve maize and wheat biodiversity, and respond to emerging pests and diseases.  

Bill Gates spoke about the “essential role of CGIAR research centers in feeding our future” and together with other stakeholders urged us to “do even better.” In his Gates Notes blog, he highlighted the great example of CIMMYT’s drought-tolerant maize, which helps resource-poor farmers withstand increasing climate risks. 

Over the course of the year, we supported our national partners to release 82 maize and 50 wheat varieties. More than 14,000 farmers, scientists, and technical workers across the world took part in over 900 training and capacity development activities. CIMMYT researchers published 386 peer-reviewed journal articles. 

In 2019, CIMMYT also marked the end of a decade of achievements in seed security. CIMMYT celebrated being the largest depositor at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault with 173,779 accessions from 131 countries. The most recent deposit included 15,231 samples of wheat and 332 samples of maize. 

Innovative solutions like DNA fingerprinting – a method used to identify individual plants by looking at unique patterns in their genome – brought state of the art research into farmer’s fields, providing valuable insights into the diversity of wheat varieties grown in Afghanistan and Ethiopia.   

CIMMYT also continued to play a key role in the battle against fall armyworm, coordinating a global research-for–development consortium to build an evidence-based response against the pest in both Africa and Asia. 

Through the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA), CIMMYT helped women find business opportunities and empowered female entrepreneurship with the help of mechanization solutions. 

The year 2019 showed us that while CIMMYT’s work may begin with seeds, our innovations support farmers at all stages of the value chain. The year ahead will be a challenging one as we continue to adjust to the “new normal” of life under COVID-19.  We hope you enjoy this Annual Report as we look back on the exciting year that was 2019.   

Read the web version of the Annual Report 2019

Download the Annual Report 2019 in PDF format 

Download the financial report 2019

African small-scale mechanization project winds down after strong results

This story by Vanessa Meadu was originally published on the CIMMYT website.

Demonstration of a minitiller, Naivasha, Kenya. (Photo: CIMMYT)

Smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe and Ethiopia have embraced small-scale mechanization thanks to an innovative CIMMYT-led project, which is now drawing to a close. Since 2013, the Farm Mechanization and Conservation Agriculture for Sustainable Intensification (FACASI) project has helped farmers access and use two-wheel tractors that significantly reduce the time and labor needed to grow, harvest and process their crops. To ensure long-term sustainability, the project and its partners helped support and develop local enterprises which could supply, service and operate the machines, and encouraged the development of supportive government policies. The project was funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), as well as the CGIAR Research Programs on Maize and Wheat.

“Mechanization is a system not a technology

From its inception, FACASI went beyond simply providing machinery to farmers, and instead envisioned mechanization as a way out of poverty. “Mechanization is a system, not only a technology,” said Bisrat Getnet, the project’s national coordinator in Ethiopia and director of the Agricultural Engineering Research Department at the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research. “Mechanization needs infrastructure such as roads, fuel stations, spare part dealerships, maintenance centers, training centers and appropriate policies. This project assessed which measures are needed to sustain a new technology and addressed these with direct interventions,” he explained.

The FACASI project worked to introduce and develop new small-scale machines, including two-wheel tractors, small shellers and threshers, and small pumps, in African rural settings, collaborating with local engineers, farmers and manufacturers. This included adapting a range of attachments that could be used to mechanize on-farm tasks such as planting, harvesting, transporting and shelling. In parallel, the project developed local business opportunities around the supply, maintenance and use of the machines, to ensure that users could access affordable services and equipment in their communities.

The project initially worked in four countries: Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Researchers saw significant potential for mechanization to reduce the labor intensity associated with smallholder farming, while encouraging application of conservation agriculture techniques and developing rural service provision businesses. In its second phase, which began in 2017, the project focused on strengthening its efforts in Zimbabwe and Ethiopia.

“In my view the most innovative aspect enabling FACASI’s success was the concept of combining engineering and business modelling, with an understanding of the political, legislative and policy situations in the four countries,” said Professor John Blackwell, an Adjunct Professor at Charles Sturt University who reviewed FACASI and also invented and helped commercialize several successful machines in South Asia, including the famous Happy Seeder.

“FACASI has proven that small mechanization is viable in smallholder settings,” said CIMMYT scientist and project coordinator Frédéric Baudron. “It has shown smallholders that they don’t have to consolidate their farms to benefit from conventional machines, but that machines can instead be adapted to their farm conditions. This, to me, defines the concept of ‘appropriate mechanization’,” he said.

Conservation agriculture planter manufacturing in Arusha, Tanzania. (Photo: CIMMYT)

Benefits to local communities

During its course, the project improved the efficiency and productivity of smallholder farming, reducing labor requirements and creating new pathways for rural women and youth.

The reduction in the labor and drudgery of farming tasks has opened many doors. Farmers can save the costs of hiring additional labor and reinvest that money into their enterprises or households. With a small double-cob sheller producing one ton of kernels in an hour compared to up to 12 days by hand, women can do something else valuable with their time and energy. Entrepreneurs offering mechanization services — often young people who embrace new technologies — can earn a good income while boosting the productivity of local farms.

Mechanization has shown to sustainably improve yields. In Ethiopia, farmers using two-wheel tractors were able to reduce the time needed to establish a wheat crop from about 100 hours per hectare to fewer than 10 hours. In trials, maize and wheat respectively yielded 29% and 22% more on average, compared with using conventional crop establishment methods.

Local female artisan, Hawassa, Ethiopia. (Photo: CIMMYT)

Impacts now and into the future

According to its national partners, FACASI has laid the groundwork for cheap and practical two-wheel tractors to proliferate. In Ethiopia, there are currently 88 service providers whose skills has been directly developed through FACASI project interventions. “This has been a flagship project,” said Ethiopia national coordinator Bisrat Getnet. “It tested and validated the potential for small-scale mechanization and conservation agriculture, it proved that new business models could be profitable, and it opened new pathways for Ethiopian agriculture policy,” he said.

In Zimbabwe, the project has also set the wheels of change in motion. “FACASI demonstrated an opportunity for creating employment and business opportunities through small-scale mechanization,” said Tirivangani Koza, of Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Water and Rural Resettlement. “With the right funding and policies, there is a very wide and promising scope to scale-up this initiative,” he said.

Read more:
Explore the FACASI Hello Tractor knowledge platform to learn more about conservation agriculture and small-scale mechanization

From working in the fields to taking control

This story by Alison Doody was originally published on the CIMMYT website.

Using data from 12 communities across four Indian states, an international team of researchers has shed new light on how women are gradually innovating and influencing decision-making in wheat-based systems.

The study, published this month in The European Journal of Development Research, challenges stereotypes of men being the sole decision-makers in wheat-based systems and performing all the work. The authors, which include researchers from the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT)-funded GENNOVATE initiative, show that women adopt specific strategies to further their interests in the context of wheat-based livelihoods.

In parts of India, agriculture has become increasingly feminized in response to rising migration of men from rural areas to cities. An increasing proportion of women, relative to men, are working in the fields. However, little is known about whether these women are actually taking key decisions.

The authors distinguish between high gender gap communities — identified as economically vibrant and highly male-dominant — and low gender gap communities, which are also economically vibrant but where women have a stronger say and more room to maneuver.

The study highlights six strategies women adopt to participate actively in decision-making. These range from less openly challenging strategies that the authors term acquiescence, murmuring, and quiet co-performance (typical of high gender gap communities), to more assertive ones like active consultation, women managing, and finally, women deciding (low gender gap communities).

In acquiescence, for example, women are fully conscious that men do not expect them to take part in agricultural decision-making, but do not articulate any overt forms of resistance.

In quiet co-performance, some middle-income women in high gender gap communities begin to quietly support men’s ability to innovate, for example by helping to finance the innovation, and through carefully nuanced ‘suggestions’ or ‘advice.’ They don’t openly question that men take decisions in wheat production. Rather, they appear to use male agency to support their personal and household level goals.

In the final strategy, women take all decisions in relation to farming and innovation. Their husbands recognize this process is happening and support it.

“One important factor in stronger women’s decision-making capacity is male outmigration. This is a reality in several of the low gender gap villages studied—and it is a reality in many other communities in India. Another is education—many women and their daughters talked about how empowering this is,” said gender researcher and lead-author Cathy Farnworth.

In some communities, the study shows, women and men are adapting by promoting women’s “managerial” decision-making. However, the study also shows that in most locations the extension services have failed to recognize the new reality of male absence and women decision-makers. This seriously hampers women, and is restricting agricultural progress.

Progressive village heads are critical to progress, too. In some communities, they are inclusive of women but in others, they marginalize women. Input suppliers — including machinery providers — also have a vested interest in supporting women farm managers. Unsurprisingly, without the support of extension services, village heads, and other important local actors, women’s ability to take effective decisions is reduced.

“The co-authors, partners at Glasgow Caledonian University and in India, were very important to both obtaining the fieldwork data, and the development of the typology” said Lone Badstue, researcher at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and another co-author of the paper.

The new typology will allow researchers and development partners to better understand empowerment dynamics and women’s agency in agriculture. The authors argue that development partners should support these strategies but must ultimately leave them in the hands of women themselves to manage.

“It’s an exciting study because the typology can be used by anyone to distinguish between the ways women (and men) express their ideas and get to where they want”, concluded Farnworth.

Read the full article in The European Journal of Development Research:
From Working in the Fields to Taking Control. Towards a Typology of Women’s Decision-Making in Wheat in India