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Visiting scientist overcomes challenges to bring state of the art crop analysis to CIMMYT

Ajit Nehe with research assistant Ibrahim Ozturk, taking RGB images at early stage of wheat growth. Photo: CIMMYT

Visiting scientist and wheat physiology breeder Ajit Nehe recently completed a one and half year tenure at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

A native of India, Nehe joined CIMMYT as a visiting scientist in wheat physiology under the International Winter Wheat Improvement Program (IWWIP) based in Ankara, Turkey in August 2018. Under the supervision of IWWIP Head Alex Morgunov, Nehe, who has a PhD in wheat physiology, has been working on understanding drought tolerance in winter wheat and developing climate resilient varieties.

Growing up in a small village in the Maharashtra state of India, Nehe and his family depended on agriculture for their livelihoods. From a young age, Nehe noticed the unpredictability of the environment and agriculture, and became interested in the relationship between the environment and agriculture and the effect of agriculture on the soil. This childhood interest inspired him to study agricultural science.

Taking the academic path was not an easy one for Nehe, who faced his own personal challenges.

“Having dyslexia — not being able to read and write properly — and not knowing that I was dyslexic until I started my PhD in the UK, my life was never easy. But having the dyslexic advantage of logical and scientific thinking I always found the way during my difficult academic and professional life,” said Nehe. 

He hopes that his story will encourage other budding researchers who might face similar challenges. “I would like to inspire the young researchers who want to develop their careers despite their difficulties.”

At CIMMYT, Nehe has been working on experiments to study nitrogen use efficiency and grain quality in spring wheat at three research institutes in Turkey:  Adana, Adapazari, and Izmir. After a successful first year, Nehe’s colleagues will repeat the experiments next year, with his input, with a view to publishing their results in a high impact research paper.

He has also contributed to the development of a root phenotyping platform using shovelomic techniques – which involves excavating roots by shovel, washing the roots, taking images of the root system and using image analysis software to get data on root traits.

“Under this project, we have successfully identified the different root traits associated with yield improvement under drought conditions. We also found root traits that were associated with previously detected genetic markers for drought tolerance by doing a marker-traits association study,” explained Nehe.

Using high tech imagery to understand crop physiology 

Nehe trains researchers on the use of RGB cameras for crop analysis. Photo: CIMMYT

Nehe has trained numerous researchers from Turkish agricultural research institutes such as the Aegean Agricultural Research Institute, the Bahri Dagdas Winter Cereal International Research Institute and Transitional Zone Agricultural Research Institute — who are involved in collaborative research with CIMMYT – on new, low-cost, simple measurements of field phenotyping techniques for wheat physiological traits.

Most recently, he trained researchers on the use of RBG cameras and software for image analysis, drone image segmentation, and data extraction and analysis at a series of workshops held over the past year and a half at CIMMYT’s Izmir and Ankara offices in Turkey.


Nehe testing an RBG camera and remote control mobile app at an experimental plot at Bahri Dagdas International Agricultural Research Institute, Konya, Turkey. Photo: CIMMYT

“The University of Barcelona has developed expertise on this technique, which involves taking images of wheat plots from above using a remote control provided by a mobile app, and extracting data from this images using image analysis software,” explained Nehe.

The technique has shown promising results for throughput field phenotyping, which involves characterizing a plant’s physical and biological properties.

Despite leaving CIMMYT in October, Nehe hopes to continue collaborating with CIMMYT in the future. His current plans involve bridging the gap between international research institutes and local grassroots NGOs to solve the problems of smallholder farmers in rural India. He is planning to establish a project in collaboration with the Paani Foundation, a local NGO and international knowledge partners like the Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA) on the area of sweet sorghum biofuel production technology. The project will combine bio-economic modelling and GIS techniques to help in crop management.

The end of an era: Alexey Morgunov retires after a 28-year career

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

At the end of 2019, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) will say goodbye to Alexey Morgunov, head of the International Winter Wheat Improvement Program (IWWIP) in Turkey.

A native of Russia, Morgunov joined CIMMYT as a spring wheat breeder in 1991 working with Sanjaya Rajaram, former Global Wheat Program director and World Food Prize laureate. Morgunov went on to work as a breeder of winter wheat in Turkey in 1994 and later to Kazakhstan, where he helped generate new wheat varieties and technologies for Central Asia and the Caucasus region.

Since 2006 he has led the International Winter Wheat Improvement Program (IWWIP), a highly-productive collaboration between Turkey, the International Center for Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), and CIMMYT.

As part of that program, Morgunov contributed to the development of more than 70 widely grown wheat varieties in Central and West Asia and, in 2013, to a national wheat landrace inventory in Turkey. He has also helped develop and characterize synthetic wheats — created by crossing modern durum wheat with grassy relatives of the crop — and used them in breeding to broaden the diversity of winter wheat.

Alex Morgunov (right) with World Food Prize laureate and former CIMMYT wheat program director Sanjaya Rajaram. (Photo: Alex Morgunov/CIMMYT)
Alex Morgunov (right) with World Food Prize laureate and former CIMMYT wheat program director Sanjaya Rajaram. (Photo: Alex Morgunov/CIMMYT)

A professional journey across Central Asia

Morgunov said his childhood in rural Russia instilled in him the importance of agriculture and of education.

“My parents, who lived in rural Russia, went through hunger and were trying to make sure that their children worked somewhere close to food production so that we wouldn’t go hungry,” he explained. “They said: ‘OK, Alex, you go to an agricultural university and you will not be hungry.’ ”

After his university studies, Morgunov joined the Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge as a visiting scientist in the late 1980s, where he crossed paths with CIMMYT scientists seeking to partner with the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union. After an interview in 1991, he was invited to join the CIMMYT team in Mexico as a wheat breeder.

He was later posted to Kazakhstan to build relationships in Central Asia, a period he cites as a standout. “In the late 90s CIMMYT started working with Central Asian countries experiencing severe food security issues,” he said. “They didn’t really have any technologies or varieties for grain production, so we started a program in 95/96 which later developed into a CGIAR program.”

“We had great impact in those countries at the time, introducing zero tillage in Kazakhstan, new seed varieties in Tajikistan after the civil war, and high-yielding rust-resistant varieties to Uzbekistan.”

Reflecting on his time at CIMMYT, it was the friends and connections he made that stood out the most for Morgunov.

“The thing I most enjoyed was communicating with colleagues,” Morgunov said. “You start working in Kazakhstan and other places and building up cooperation and technical relationships and, over time, these relationships become friendships that we enjoy for as long as we live. I think this is very satisfactory for us as human beings.”

Last month, Morgunov received a fellowship from the Crop Science Society of America. The award is the highest recognition granted by the association.

Active retirement

One of Morgunov’s passions is sailing. (Photo: Alex Morgunov)
One of Morgunov’s passions is sailing. (Photo: Alex Morgunov)

Despite his plans to retire, Morgunov still plans to continue working — but on his own terms. “My wife is from Kazakhstan so we will be moving there and I plan to continue working in a different capacity and different schedule,” he explains. “Some Russian universities are writing to me to participate in projects and also universities from Kazakhstan. I have a couple of PhD students in Kazakhstan so I’d like to move more into the educational side of things, working with younger people.”

He was also given an Adjunct Faculty position by Washington State University early this year and will volunteer for them.

Morgunov has also recommended that CIMMYT creates an “emeritus” status for long-serving colleagues retiring from the organization, so they can continue to support the organization.

It won’t be all work though. Morgunov is a devoted tennis player and plans to improve his backhand. A keen sailor, he also hopes to spend more time on the waves and visiting new countries.

7th International Cereal Nematodes Symposium at New Delhi, India to combat nematode problems in cereal crops

Uma Rao, Tushar K. Dutta, Vishal S. Somvanshi and Abdelfattah A. Dababat contributed to this story.

Participants of the 7th International Cereal Nematodes Symposium at New Delhi, India, November 3-6, 2019

Fifty delegates from across the globe recently gathered at the 7th International Cereal Nematode Symposium in New Delhi, India to discuss the spread of cereal nematodes, strategies to lessen their impact on crops and ways to boost international collaboration on research.

Nematodes, microscopic plant parasites that include the Heterodera species of cereal cyst nematode and the Pratylenchus species of root lesion nematodes, are widespread in wheat production systems throughout West Asia, North Africa, parts of Central Asia, northern India, and China, and pose a grave economic problem for wheat production systems globally.

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the Turkish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry have been working over the last 12 years —  in collaboration with the International Center for Agriculture in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), national program partners, and research institutions in Australia and Europe – to understand the importance and distribution of these species of cereal nematodes, as part of the ICARDA-CIMMYT Wheat Improvement Program (ICWIP).  

“Because cereals are the staple food for the majority of the world’s population, cereal nematodes pose an enormous threat to global food security,” said Abdelfattah Dababat, leader of CIMMYT’s Soil Borne Pathogens Program.

“The symposium allows scientists from around the world to share their findings, lessons and strategies to combat this threat.”

The symposium, organized by ICWIP and hosted by the Division of Nematology at the ICAR- Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), was held November 3-6 at New Delhi’s National Agricultural Science Complex. The conference was inaugurated by Dr. Trilochan Mohapatra, Director General of ICAR & Secretary DARE, Government of India. It included sessions on the global status and distribution of cereal nematodes, their economic importance and population dynamics, management strategies both with and without using host resistance, the genomes and parasitism genes of cereal nematodes, and the use of molecular tools for cereal nematode research.

Among the notable global developments shared, highlights included the following.

  • Scientists from Turkey, Syria, Iran and Israel described the distribution and management status of Heterodera spp. in their region.
  • Hendrika Fourie from South Africa’s North West University, and colleagues, discussed the nematode problems in South Africa.
  • Rebecca Zwart and Senior Research Scientist Grant Hollaway, from the University of Southern Queensland, Australia, presented findings on the Pratylenchus menace in wheat in Australia.
  • Uma Rao, a co-organizer of the symposium from IARI, and colleagues, discussed the deployment of molecular tools to manage the problem of the Meloidogyne graminicola nematode in rice-wheat cropping systems.   
  • Richard Sikora, from the University of Bonn, Germany, summarized the current challenges in nematology, especially pertaining to wheat and maize, and reiterated the need for new technologies and management approaches for the small- and medium-sized farms of the future. He also highlighted the role of remote sensing in detecting nematode diseases.
  • A.K. Singh, Joint Director of Research at IARI gave a formal presentation on molecular breeding of Basmati rice.

Trilochan Mohapatra, Director General of ICAR & Secretary Dare, and Arun K. Joshi from CIMMYT’s India office were among the other distinguished speakers. 

Following the symposium, participants observed nematode-related research work underway at IARI’s Division of Nematology, the largest nematology center in India. They also visited the IARI museum and the institute’s Division of Entomology.

Symposium supporters include CIMMYT, the CGIAR Research Program On Wheat, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA), the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), the Republic of Turkey’s Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock, Corteva, Syngenta, and the Plant Breeders Union of Turkey (BISAB). Previous symposiums have been held in Turkey, Austria, China and Morocco.

Release of the Abstract book during 7th International Cereal Nematodes Symposium at New Delhi, India, November 3-6, 2019

Many conditions, same yield: Durum wheat selected for zero tillage performs equally under conventional farming practices

Researchers demonstrate that CIMMYT’s durum wheat lines can be grown, bred, and selected under zero tillage or conventional tillage conditions without negatively affecting yield

CIMMYT’s multi-crop, multi-use zero tillage seeder at work on a long-term conservation agriculture (CA) trial plot at the center’s headquarters at El Batán, Mexico. Crop residues, which are retained on the soil surface in CA, are visible in the foreground.
Photo credit: CIMMYT.

New research published in Field Crops Research by scientists at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) responds to the question of whether wheat varieties need to be adapted to zero tillage conditions.

With 33% of global soils already degraded, agricultural techniques like zero tillage – growing crops without disturbing the soil with activities like plowing – in combination with crop residue retention, are being considered to help protect soils and prevent further degradation. Research has shown that zero tillage with crop residue retention can reduce soil erosion and improve soil structure and water retention, leading to increased water use efficiency of the system. Zero tillage has also been shown to be the most environmentally friendly among different tillage techniques.

While CIMMYT promotes conservation agriculture, of which zero tillage is a component, many farmers who use CIMMYT wheat varieties still use some form of tillage. As farmers adopt conservation agriculture principles in their production systems, we need to be sure that the improved varieties breeders develop and release to farmers can perform equally well in zero tillage as in conventional tillage environments.

The aim of the study was to find out whether breeding wheat lines in a conservation agriculture environment had an effect on their adaptability to one tillage system or another, and whether separate breading streams would be required for each tillage system.

The scientists conducted parallel early generation selection in sixteen populations from the breeding program. The best plants were selected in parallel under conventional and zero-till conditions, until 234 and 250 fixed lines, were obtained.  They then grew all 484 wheat lines over the course of three seasons near Ciudad Obregon, Sonora, Mexico, under three different environments, — zero tillage, conventional tillage, and conventional tillage with reduced irrigation – and tested them for yield and growth traits. 

The authors found that yields were better under zero tillage than conventional tillage for all wheat lines, regardless of how they had been bred and selected, as this condition provided longer water availability between irrigations and mitigated inter-irrigation water stress. 

The main result was that selection environment, zero-till versus conventional till, did not produce lines with specific adaptation to either conditions, nor did it negatively impact the results of the breeding program for traits such as plant height, tolerance to lodging and earliness.

One trait which was slightly affected by selection under zero-till was early vigor – the speed at which crops grow during the earliest stage of growth. Early vigor is a useful adaptive trait in conservation agriculture because it allows the crop to cope with high crop residue loads – materials left on the ground such as leaves, stems and seed pods – and can improve yield through rapid development of maximum leaf area in dry environments. Results showed that varieties selected under zero tillage showed slightly increased early vigor which means that selection under zero tillage may drive a breeding program towards the generalization of this useful attribute.

The findings demonstrate that CIMMYT’s durum wheat lines, traditionally bred for wide-adaptation, can be grown, bred, and selected under either tillage conditions without negatively affecting yield performance. This is yet another clear demonstration that breeding for wide adaptation, a decades-long tradition within CIMMYT’s wheat improvement effort, is a suitable strategy to produce varieties that are competitive in a wide range of production systems. The findings represent a major result for wheat breeders at CIMMYT and beyond, with the authors concluding that it is not necessary to have separate breeding programs to address the varietal needs of either tillage systems.

This work was implemented by CIMMYT as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT).

Read more results and recommendations in the study, “Durum wheat selection under zero tillage increases early vigor and is neutral to yield” in Field Crops Research, November 2019.

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fcr.2019.107675

New mobile technology to help farmers improve yields and stabilize incomes

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

An international team of scientists is working with farmers in the Yaqui Valley, in Mexico’s Sonora state, to develop and test a new mobile technology that aims to improve wheat and sugarcane productivity by helping farmers manage factors that cause the yield gap between crop potential and actual field performance.

Scientists have been developing and testing a smartphone app where farmers can record their farming activities — including sowing date, crop type and irrigation — and receive local, precise crop management advice in return.

This project is a private-public partnership known as Mexican COMPASS, or Mexican Crop Observation, Management & Production Analysis Services System.

Research has shown that proper timing of irrigation is more important to yields than total water amounts. Earlier planting times have also been shown to improve wheat yields. Having optimum dates for both activities could help farmers improve yields and stabilize their incomes.

COMPASS smartphone app interface. (Photo: Saravana Gurusamy/Rezatec)
COMPASS smartphone app interface. (Photo: Saravana Gurusamy/Rezatec)

The COMPASS smartphone app uses earth observation satellite data and in-situ field data captured by farmers to provide information such as optimum sowing date and irrigation scheduling.

“Sowing and irrigation timing are well known drivers of yield potential in that region — these are two features of the app we’re about to validate during this next season,” explained Francelino Rodrigues, Precision Agriculture Scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

Sound data

Technological innovation for crop productivity is needed now more than ever with threats to food security increasing and natural resources becoming scarcer. Farmers are under increasing pressure to produce more with less, which means greater precision is needed in their agricultural practices.

The Yaqui Valley, Mexico’s biggest wheat producing area, is located in the semi-arid Sonoran Desert in the northern part of Mexico. Water security is a serious challenge and farmers must be very precise in their irrigation management.

The Mexican COMPASS consortium, which is made up of the geospatial data analytics company Rezatec, the University of NottinghamBooker TateCIMMYT and the Colegio de Postgraduados (COLPOS) in Mexico, evolved as a way to help Mexican farmers improve their water use efficiency.

“Yaqui Valley farmers are very experienced farmers, however they can also benefit by using an app that is designed locally to inform and record their decisions,” Rodrigues explained.

The smartphone app will also allow farmers to record and schedule their crop management practices and will give them access to weekly time-series Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) maps, that will allow farmers to view their fields at any time from any location.

“All of this information is provided for free! That’s the exciting part of the project. The business model was designed so that farmers will not need to pay for access to the app and its features, in exchange for providing their crop field data. It’s a win-win situation,” said Rodrigues.

CIMMYT research assistant Lorena Gonzalez (center) helps local farmers try out the new COMPASS app during the workshop in Ciudad Obregon, Sonora state, Mexico. (Photo: Alison Doody/CIMMYT)
CIMMYT research assistant Lorena Gonzalez (center) helps local farmers try out the new COMPASS app during the workshop in Ciudad Obregon, Sonora state, Mexico. (Photo: Alison Doody/CIMMYT)

Farmer-centered design

The app is now in the validation stage and COMPASS partners are inviting farmers to test the technology on their own farms. A workshop on October 21 in Ciudad Obregon provided farmers with hands-on training for the app and allowed them to give their feedback.

Over 100 farmers attended the workshop, which featured presentations from Saravana Gurusamy, project manager at Rezatec, Iván Ortíz-Monasterio, principal scientist at CIMMYT, and representatives from local farmer groups Asociación de Organismos de Agricultores del Sur de Sonora (AOASS) and Distrito de Riego del Río Yaqui (DRRYAQUI). The workshop featured a step-by-step demonstration of the app and practical exercises for farmers to test it out for themselves.

CIMMYT Principal Scientist Ivan Ortiz-Monasterio and representatives from DRRYAQUI giving presentations at last month’s workshop in Obregon, Mexico. Photo: CIMMYT/Alison Doody

“We need technology nowadays because we have to deal with many factors. The profit we get for wheat is getting smaller and smaller each year, so we have to be very productive. I hope that this app can help me to produce a better crop,” said one local wheat farmer who attended the workshop.

User feedback has played a key role in the development of the app. COMPASS interviewed dozens of farmers to see what design worked for them.

CIMMYT Precision Agriculture Scientist Francelino Rodrigues helps local farmers try out new COMPASS app during last month’s workshop in Obregon, Mexico. Photo: CIMMYT/Alison Doody

“Initially we came up with a really complicated design. However, when we gave it to farmers, they didn’t know how to use it,” explained Rezatec project manager, Saravana Gurusamy. The team went back to the drawing board and with the feedback they received from farmers, came up with a simple design that any farmer, regardless of their experience with technology or digital literacy, could use.

To watch the full interview click here

Sitting down with Gurusamy after the workshop, he outlined his vision for the future of the app.

“My vision is to see all the farmers in Sonora, working in wheat using the app. The first step is to prove the technology here, then roll it out to all of Mexico and eventually internationally.”

A breath of fresh air: New planting machinery offers solution to burning crisis in India

This article was originally posted on the CGIAR website.

When the rice harvest season arrives in northwest India, farmers have only ten to twenty days to prepare their fields for the next season’s crop, wheat. For several decades now, this has meant using the fastest, cheapest tool at their disposal – fire – with devastating effects for human and environmental health.

In recent years, burning rice crop residue to clear land for wheat has reached crisis proportions. In November 2016, haze from agricultural burning in India’s northwestern states compounded New Delhi’s pollution problem, making the city’s air quality the worst in the world, and prompting a national emergency.

Innovations in farm machinery now hope to provide a more sustainable solution. 

Where typical combine harvester machines leave behind narrow piles of dry residue that need to be cleared before planting can begin, innovative new machines and attachments can chop the leftover rice stalks, spread the residue evenly as mulch, and plant seeds into the soil – all without the need for clearing. 

The simple adjustment in technique has the potential to bring transformational benefits for farmers, city-dwellers, and the environment.

“Rice residue burning is responsible for 40 percent of the air pollution in Delhi during the winter months, posing health hazards for several million people, adversely affecting soil health and creating the need for more water for crop production,” says M.L. Jat, a principal scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), who leads the Center’s contributions to climate-smart villages in South Asia as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).

“Direct seeding of crops using the Happy Seeder helps reduce air pollution, improve soil health, and helps farmers adapt to weather risks, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, saving water and improving their income by US$ 100-150 per hectare per year.”

The approach has been tested and validated through a large number of trials over several years by the partnership as part of their research into climate-smart agriculture, with positive results. It has since been adopted by farmers over nearly 0.7 million hectares in northwest India. Efforts are now looking into even larger-scale adoption of the technology to cut out burning for good.

A burning question

Until recently, up to 84 percent of agricultural burning in India has happened in rotational rice-wheat fields, with farmers seeing it as the cheapest option for clearing between crops. But this ‘low-cost’ option bears many costs later down the track, including for farmers.

Burning is a major cause of air pollution, which poses serious public health risks, particularly for children and the elderly. Smoke from burning can stunt lung development in children, trigger chronic illnesses like asthma, and even cause cancer. India now has the highest rate of death from respiratory disease, at 159 deaths per 100,000 people.  

Soil health is also affected by burning. Clearing by fire depletes carbon stocks and nutrients in soil. It also dries the land and contributes to heat stress, which slows crop growth. The result is lower yields and a greater need for irrigation, among other costs for farmers.

Over the long term, burning is also contributing to global climate change, and posing a setback for India’s targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Burning one ton of rice residue can release up to 13 kilograms of particulate matter into the atmosphere. At the height of burning, up to 30 million tons of rice residue was being cleared by fire in India’s northwestern states every year.

“Burning crop residues, and especially rice, contributes significantly to India’s annual emissions of greenhouse gases like methane, carbon dioxide, carbon mono-oxide, nitrous oxide, sulpher dioxide and so on,” Jat says.

“Using the Happy Seeder instead of burning can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 79 percent.”

States like Haryana and Punjab are now taking action to stop burning, placing strict bans on the practice. But what are the alternatives for farmers, and how realistic are they?

Another way

Research shows that in their rush to remove rice residue from the field, farmers could be missing out on the use of a valuable resource

When collected, leftover rice stalks can be reused as animal feed, and research is ongoing into its potential as a source of biofuel. But even if farmers can’t afford to clear, collect and process the residue, there are yet more benefits to be had by simply leaving it on their fields.

Chopped rice residue can be used as mulch, preparing the soil for the next season’s wheat crop. Using mulch can help farmers better control weeds, prevent waterlogging, lock in important nutrients, and maintain soil moisture, reducing the need for at least one round of irrigation per year. There is also evidence to suggest that mulch assists in carbon sequestration, bringing benefits for efforts on climate change.

The Happy Seeder planter is able to at once chop rice straw, bore through the residue to open a slit, deposit wheat seed and cover the seed. A combine harvester equipped with the Super Straw Management System (Super SMS) attachment can then be used to spread the residue evenly as mulch.

The technology eliminates the need for plowing, giving farmers the option of planting and harvesting their wheat crops up to two weeks earlier, avoiding the pre-monsoon heat. Importantly, it also eliminates the need to clear residue, effectively removing the need for burning.

The latest version of the improved Happy Seeder costs $1,900, which is still beyond the means of many farmers. But the machines are available for hire, and the number of service providers are rapidly growing. 

In the northwestern states of Punjab and Haryana adoption of the machines has grown rapidly from 400 in use in 2015 to nearly 11,000 in 2018. In two years, the number of Happy Seeders in use in northwestern India is expected to grow to 35,000, bringing the practice of zero-tillage farming to around 2 million hectares of farmland.

As for the Super SMS attachment, there are now at least 100 manufacturers producing the essential piece, which is used on more than 5,000 combine harvesters. The attachment has been made mandatory for harvesters in Punjab and Haryana states, and is expected to be universally adopted over the next two years.

Looking ahead

By avoiding burning, assisting sequestration and keeping carbon stocks in the soil for longer, the new approach to rice-wheat rotations is a win for climate-smart agriculture – a priority for the Government of India. As India’s population continues to grow and global weather patterns change, climate-smart farming will be essential for meeting national targets on emissions reduction and food security. 

The principles of sustainable intensification – such as “minimal soil disturbance, permanent soil cover and crop rotation techniques” – as supported by the new approach, can help the Government reach its goals and build resilience among farmers against climate shocks. 

Healthy diets feature both whole- and refined-grain foods, new study shows

This press release was originally posted on the CIMMYT website.

Freshly baked rye bread is displayed next to wheat spikes and grains. (Photo: Marco Verch/Flickr)

Grain-based foods — both whole-grain and refined, from which the bran has been removed — are a key part of healthy diets, according to a study published in the science journal Advances in Nutrition.

The study, co-authored by Julie Miller Jones of St. Catherine University, Carlos Guzman of the Universidad de Córdoba and Hans-Joachim Braun of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), reviewed findings of more than 100 research papers from nutrition and medical journals as well as national health recommendations. It presents evidence for positive health impacts from diverse diets that include not more than 50% carbohydrates and the right mix of grain-based foods.

“Epidemiological studies consistently show that eating three 30-gram portions of whole-grain foods — say, half a cup of oats — per day is associated with reduced chronic disease risk,” said Miller Jones, Professor Emerita at St. Catherine University and first author of the study. “But refined-grain foods — especially staple, enriched or fortified ones of the ‘non-indulgent’ type — also provide key vitamins and minerals that are otherwise lacking in people’s diets.”

“Cereal grains help feed the world by providing millions of calories per hectare and large amounts of plant-based protein,” said Braun, director of CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat. “They are affordable, shelf stable, portable, versatile, and popular, and will play a key role as the world transitions to plant-based diets to meet future food needs.”

Folate fortification of refined grains has helped reduce the incidence of spina bifida, anencephaly, and other birth defects, according to Miller Jones. “And despite contributing to high sugar intake, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals are typically consumed with nutritious foods such as milk, yogurt, and fruit,” she added.

All grain-based foods, refined and whole, are good sources of dietary fiber, which is essential for sound health but critically lacking in modern diets. “Only 4 percent of the U.S. population, for example, eats recommended levels of dietary fiber,” she said.

Obesity, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and other illnesses from unbalanced diets and unhealthy habits are on the rise in countries such as the U.S., driving up health care expenditures. The annual medical costs of obesity alone there have been estimated at nearly $150 billion.

“Dietary choices are determined partly by lifestyle but also co-vary with daily habits and personal traits,” Miller Jones explained. “People who eat more whole-grain foods are more likely to exercise, not smoke, and have normal body weights, as well as attaining higher levels of education and socioeconomic status.”

According to the study, recommendations for grain-based foods need to encourage a healthy number of servings and replacing half of refined-grain foods with whole-grain products, as well as providing clearer and unbiased definitions of both types of grain-based foods.


RELATED RESEARCH PUBLICATIONS:

Perspective: Whole and Refined Grains and Health — Evidence Supporting “Make Half Your Grains Whole”

INTERVIEW OPPORTUNITIES:

Hans Braun – Director of the Global Wheat Program, CIMMYT

FOR MORE INFORMATION, OR TO ARRANGE INTERVIEWS, CONTACT THE MEDIA TEAM:

Marcia MacNeil, Communications Officer, CGIAR Research Program on Wheat, CIMMYT.
m.macneil@cgiar.org, +52 (55) 5804 2004 ext. 2070.

Rodrigo Ordóñez, Communications Manager, CIMMYT.
r.ordonez@cgiar.org, +52 (55) 5804 2004 ext. 1167.

ABOUT 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.

This research is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.

CIMMYT is ready to support Ethiopia’s move toward — and beyond — wheat self-sufficiency

This article by Simret Yasabu was originally posted on the CIMMYT website.

Ethiopia, 2017. Photographer: ILRI/ Apollo Habtamu.

Ethiopia has huge potential and a suitable agroecology for growing wheat. However, its agriculture sector, dominated by a traditional farming system, is unable to meet the rising demand for wheat from increasing population and urbanization. Wheat consumption in Ethiopia has grown to 6.7 million tons per year, but the country only produces about 5 million tons per year on 1.7 million hectares. As a result, the country pays a huge import bill reaching up to $700 million per year to match supply with demand.

A new initiative is aiming to change this scenario, making Ethiopia wheat self-sufficient by opening new regions to wheat production.

“We have always been traditionally a wheat growing country, but focusing only in the highlands with heavy dependence on rain. Now that is changing and the government of Ethiopia has set a new direction for import substitution by growing wheat in the lowlands through an irrigated production system,” explained Mandefro Nigussie, director general of the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR). Nigussie explained that several areas are being considered for this initiative: Awash, in the Oromia and Afar regions; Wabeshebelle, in the Somali Region; and Omo, in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR).

A delegation from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) recently met Ethiopian researchers and policymakers to discuss CIMMYT’s role in this effort. Ethiopia’s new Minister of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Umar Hussein, attended the meeting.

“We understand that the government of Ethiopia has set an ambitious project but is serious about it, so CIMMYT is ready to support you,” said Hans Braun, director of the Global Wheat Program at CIMMYT.

Hans Braun (center), director of CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program, speaks at the meeting. (Photo: Simret Yasabu/CIMMYT)
Hans Braun (center), director of CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program, speaks at the meeting. (Photo: Simret Yasabu/CIMMYT)

Strong collaboration

CIMMYT and the Ethiopian government have identified priority areas that will support the new government initiative. These include testing a large number of advanced lines to identify the right variety for the lowlands; developing disease resistant varieties and multiplying good quality and large quantity early generation initial seed; refining appropriate agronomic practices that improve crop, land and water productivity; organizing exposure visits for farmers and entrepreneurs; implementing training of trainers and researchers; and technical backstopping.

CIMMYT has been providing technical support and resources for wheat and maize production in Ethiopia for decades. As part of this support, CIMMYT has developed lines that are resistant to diseases like stem and yellow rust, stress tolerant and suitable for different wheat agroecologies.

“This year, for example, CIMMYT has developed three lines which are suitable for the lowlands and proposed to be released,” said Bekele Abeyo, wheat breeder and CIMMYT Country Representative for Ethiopia. “In India, the green revolution wouldn’t have happened without the support of CIMMYT and we would also like to see that happen in Ethiopia.”

“With our experience, knowledge and acquired skills, there is much to offer from the CIMMYT side,” Abeyo expressed. He noted that mechanization is one of the areas in which CIMMYT excels. Through a business service providers model, CIMMYT and its partners tested the multipurpose two-wheel tractors in Oromia, Amhara, Tigray and the southern regions. Good evidence for impact was generated particularly in Oromia and the south, where service providers generated income and ensured food security.

“Import versus export depends on a comparative advantage and for Ethiopia it is a total disadvantage to import wheat while having the potential [to grow more],” said Hussein. “The Ministry of Agriculture is thus figuring out what it can do together with partners like CIMMYT on comparative advantages.”

Hussein explained that the private sector has always been on the sidelines when it comes to agriculture. With the new initiative, however, it will be involved, particularly in the lowlands where there is abundant land for development under irrigation and available water resources, with enormous investment potential for the private sector. This, he noted, is a huge shift for the agricultural sector, which was mainly taken care of by the government and smallholder farmers, with support from development partners.

Ethiopia’s Minister of Agriculture, Umar Hussein, speaks about the new initiative. (Photo: Simret Yasabu/CIMMYT)
Ethiopia’s Minister of Agriculture, Umar Hussein, speaks about the new initiative. (Photo: Simret Yasabu/CIMMYT)

Thinking beyond the local market

As it stands now, Ethiopia is the third largest wheat producing country in Africa and has great market potential for the region. With more production anticipated under the new initiative, Ethiopia plans to expand its market to the world.

“We want our partners to understand that our thinking and plan is not only to support the country but also to contribute to the global effort of food security,” Hussein explained. However, “with the current farming system this is totally impossible,” he added. Mechanization is one of the key drivers to increase labor, land and crop productivity by saving time and ensuring quality. The government is putting forward some incentives for easy import of machinery. “However, it requires support in terms of technical expertise and knowledge transfer,” Hussein concluded.

Digital Warning System Boosts Resilience in Bangladesh

Farmers around the world face a constant threat from crop diseases, but digital tools are making it easier for farmers to prepare for outbreaks.

This story by Matt O’Leary was originally published on the USAID Feed the Future blog.

Farmers around the world face constant threats from crop pests and diseases. One such threat is wheat blast, a disease that attacks maturing grains, causing them to shrivel. Fortunately, new advances in technology and modeling are making it easier to identify, prevent and control diseases like this.

Outbreaks of wheat blast in South Asia — a region where people consume over 100 million tons of wheat each year — have a major impact on food security and income. In 2016, a wheat blast outbreak struck South Asia unexpectedly. In Bangladesh alone, 25 to 30 percent of wheat was negatively affected, threatening progress in regional food security. Blast disease has the potential to reduce wheat production by up to 85 million tons in Bangladesh — a projected $13 million loss in farmers’ profits each year when an outbreak occurs.

Luckily, with support from Feed the Future and its partners, there is a reason for hope. A new digital early warning system can help farmers and scientists get ahead. It integrates mathematical models that, when combined with weather forecasts, can simulate disease growth and risks to provide an advanced warning about potential wheat blast outbreaks. With three years of data already recorded, the system — originally piloted in Brazil, where the wheat blast originated in 1985 — is being rolled out across Bangladesh to deliver real-time disease updates to extension workers and smallholder farmers via SMS and voice message.

“Through collaborative research with Professor Jose Mauricio Fernandes, a crop pathologist from Embrapa, and Mr. Felipe de Vargas, a computer scientist with Universidade de Passo Fundo, we have established a model to identify areas at risk of wheat blast infection with five days advanced warning,” said Timothy J. Krupnik, senior scientist and systems agronomist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT). “It can provide Bangladesh’s 1.2 million wheat farmers a head start against this disease.”

This data-driven early warning system analyzes environmental conditions for potential disease development in crucial wheat-growing areas of Bangladesh and Brazil. Using this information, the system generates forecast maps and automatic advice for farmers of where and when an outbreak is most likely to strike.

This innovation can also save wheat farmers money. Many apply fungicides on a calendar basis — between two to three times per season — as a preventative measure. This is costly and risks negative environmental effects. Now, the early warning system can push advice to extension agents and farmers, indicating when disease control is really needed.

“Our hope is that it will help reduce unnecessary fungicide use and empower farmers to implement cost-effective and resilient practices to overcome wheat blast risks instead,” Krupnik said.

With wheat as a key crop in Bangladesh, the digital warning system will help prepare farmers to get a head start to reduce the impact of wheat blast with crucial advice from extension agents in areas of need.

New publications: Special collection on wheat genetics and breeding

Researchers present highlights from 40 years of collaboration on wheat genomics, breeding for disease resistance and quality improvement.

This article by Emma Orchardson was originally posted on the CIMMYT website.

Wheat rust expert Bob McIntosh, of the Plant Breeding Institute, University of Sydney, Australia, examining rust symptoms on a wheat line in the field at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute’s (KARI) Njoro research station in Kenya. Photo: CIMMYT/Petr Kosina

Global wheat production is currently facing great challenges, from increasing climate variation to occurrence of various pests and diseases. These factors continue to limit wheat production in a number of countries, including China, where in 2018 unseasonably cold temperatures resulted in yield reduction of more than 10% in major wheat growing regions. Around the same time, Fusarium head blight spread from the Yangtze region to the Yellow and Huai Valleys, and northern China experienced a shortage of irrigated water.

In light of these ongoing challenges, international collaboration, as well as the development of new technologies and their integration with existing ones, has a key role to play in supporting sustainable wheat improvement, especially in developing countries. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) has been collaborating with China on wheat improvement for over 40 years, driving significant progress in a number of areas.

Notably, a standardized protocol for testing Chinese noodle quality has been established, as has a methodology for breeding adult-plant resistance to yellow rust, leaf rust and powdery mildew. More than 330 cultivars derived from CIMMYT germplasm have been released in the country and are currently grown over 9% of the Chinese wheat production area, while physiological approaches have been used to characterize yield potential and develop high-efficiency phenotyping platforms. The development of climate-resilient cultivars using new technology will be a priority area for future collaboration.

In a special issue of Frontiers of Agricultural Science and Engineering focused on wheat genetics and breeding, CIMMYT researchers present highlights from global progress in wheat genomics, breeding for disease resistance, as well as quality improvement, in a collection of nine review articles and one research article. They emphasize the significance of using new technology for genotyping and phenotyping when developing new cultivars, as well as the importance of global collaboration in responding to ongoing challenges.

In a paper on wheat stem rust, CIMMYT scientists Sridhar Bhavani, David Hodson, Julio Huerta-Espino, Mandeep Randawa and Ravi Singh discuss progress in breeding for resistance to Ug99 and other races of stem rust fungus, complex virulence combinations of which continue to pose a significant threat to global wheat production. The authors detail how effective gene stewardship and new generation breeding materials, complemented by active surveillance and monitoring, have helped to limit major epidemics and increase grain yield potential in key target environments.

In the same issue, an article by Caiyun Lui et al. discusses the application of spectral reflectance indices (SRIs) as proxies to screen for yield potential and heat stress, which is emerging in crop breeding programs. The results of a recent study, which evaluated 287 elite lines, highlight the utility of SRIs as proxies for grain yield. High heritability estimates and the identification of marker-trait associations indicate that SRIs are useful tools for understanding the genetic basis of agronomic and physiological traits.

Other papers by CIMMYT researchers discuss the history, activities and impact of the International Winter Wheat Improvement Program, as well as the ongoing work on the genetic improvement of wheat grain quality at CIMMYT.

Find the full collection of articles in Frontiers of Agricultural Science and Engineering, Volume 6, Issue 3, September 2019.