Author Archive

Seed vaults, field experiments and being evacuated; a PhD adventure

This blog was originally posted on the website of the John Innes Centre.

Last month we were proud to announce that PhD student Anna Backhaus, was the recipient of a prestigious Women in Triticum (WIT) award.

Here, Anna reflects on the award and an interrupted but still memorable trip to Mexico – and offers some advice for colleagues.

“In March I departed Norwich Airport expecting to spend the next month in Mexico. I had sown all my seeds at the John Innes Centre, cleaned my desk and handed over my beloved houseplants to friends. As part of receiving this year’s Women in Triticum (WIT) award we were invited to visit the international centre for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT) in Obregon Ciudad.

However, two weeks later I found myself living back home in my mother’s house, cooking wonky tortillas for dinner, a trip cut short by Covid-19. Despite the abrupt end of the trip, I’d had a wonderful journey.

The first days of the trip were spent in the CIMMYT headquarters, near Mexico City. Our group was Amor Yahyaoui, who was leading the training program and the other WIT awardees of 2019/20: Fiktre and Yewubdar from Ethiopia, Ritika from India, Valentina who just started her Post-doc in Canada and Dalma from Chile.

One of the highlights of the trip was that we spent so much time together as WITs and thus made great new friendships (possibly the slightly mad ending and evacuation out of Mexico also helped us to bond).

Upon our arrival, we immediately started with what we came for; the science, and joined the ongoing conference on insect pests.

We also got a tour of the centre’s facilities; my personal highlight was, of course, the cold vaults where the germplasm collection is stored. The vaults hold the seeds collected over many years in all regions of the world. The seeds and grains are valuable as they are used in today’s pre-breeding programs to introduce new genetic material and improve agronomic traits.

We got to see this pre-breeding material a few days later when we arrived in the field station 1,500 km north of Mexico City. In the field we talked with many CIMMYT scientists and got to see a snapshot of their work.

We also did some hands-on training, such as crossing wheat varieties, scoring of diseases or washing roots with high pressure hoses (for logging experiments). At the Obregon CIMMYT camp station we were also joined by another WIT awardee, Carolina, who works in the Physiology department of the centre.

I must say a huge thank you to everyone at CIMMYT, especially to Carolina and her colleagues from physiology as well as Karim Anmar, head of the Durum program, for making our two-week stay at CIMMYT so fantastic.

Most of the usual visitor’s program for WITs had been cancelled due to Covid-19 and much of our day-to-day program had to be improvised. They all made a huge effort and went out of their way to introduce us to CIMMYT, take us to the fields, explain their work to us and, of course, show us life in Obregon. I am looking forward to seeing them all again at future wheat(y) meetings.

The Women in Triticum is awarded yearly to early career scientists by the BGRI (Borlaug Global Rust Initiative) to continue the legacy of the pioneering agronomist Dr Norman Borlaug. The award is supported by Jeanie Borlaug, daughter of the Nobel peace prize laureate.

I think the award is so relevant as institutes, conferences, and especially (senior positions) around the globe are still male dominated. The opportunities, such as visiting CIMMYT and attending the bi-annual BGRI meeting, that come with the award are great opportunities and I would encourage everyone to apply (and not only once, some of us applied five or more times)”.

Anna’s PhD is funded by the John Innes Foundation. She is a second-year student supervised by Professor Cristobal Uauy and Professor Richard Morris.

An environmental look at WHEAT research

As we recognize the 50th year of Earth Day, the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) looks back on recent impactful research to increase crop productivity while conserving natural resources.

WHEAT and its lead research partner, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), are proud of our research to move the needle on improving the environmental sustainability of farming and food production.

Plant resistance to insects

The 24th biannual session of the International Plant Resistance to Insects (IPRI) workshop, held at CIMMYT headquarters this year, featured innovative insect resistance solutions to the global threat of crop pests. Their goal: to reduce the use of pesticides.

Conservation agriculture

WHEAT and CIMMYT research has consistently shown the wide-ranging benefits of conservation agriculture practices such as zero tillage, crop rotation and soil cover – for crop performance, water use efficiency, farmer incomes and climate action. This research helps governments in South Asia — a global “hotspot” for climate vulnerability – develop policies to prioritize and encourage these techniques.

Appropriate fertilizer use

Research by WHEAT scientist Tek Sapkota has identified the optimum rates of nitrogen fertilizer application for rice and wheat in the Indo-Gangetic Plains of India — minimizing dangerous greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining crop productivity.

Reducing residue burning

A  study  by a global team including WHEAT scientist ML Jat shows that replacing rice residue burning with no-till farming practices raises farmers’ profits, cuts farm-related greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 78%, and lowers the choking air pollution that plagues the region each winter. These findings support Indian government policies including a US$166 million subsidy to promote mechanization such as the Happy Seeder.

Earth Day 1970 gave a voice to an emerging public consciousness about the state of our planet. With the same consciousness, we at WHEAT continue to work on research solutions to sustainably increase the production of nutritious wheat for improved livelihoods throughout the world.

Genes from the wild offer potential for faster photosynthesis, higher-yielding wheat

New IWYP brief highlights innovations for high-yielding wheat lines

Aegilops neglecta, a wild wheat relative. Photo: Rocio Quiroz / CIMMYT

Our partners at the International Wheat Yield Partnership are examining hundreds of wheat wild relatives, wheat-wild crosses and landraces in a search for gene variants associated with a high rate of photosynthesis – a trait related to higher crop yield. 

This news is highlighted in the first IWYP Science Brief — a series launched to share ongoing research and exciting outputs that aim to transform scientific innovations into new higher yielding wheat lines.

A research collaboration led by Erik Murchie at the University of Nottingham, UK has found a number of wheat wild relative species with photosynthetic rates up to a third greater than any of the modern wheat varieties.

 Twenty-one wheat lines with chromosomal segments associated with this trait have been evaluated in the field at the IWYP Hub in Obregon, Mexico. The four best segments are being introduced into IWYP lines to evaluate their effect in the elite spring wheat lines that are used in breeding programs around the world.

Read the full brief here, and check the IWYP website and twitter account — and our Facebook page – for new briefs as they are released.

Safeguarding biodiversity is essential to prevent the next COVID-19

Experts share their insights on the link between biodiversity loss and emerging infectious diseases.

This story by Alison Doody was originally posted on the website of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of CIMMYT.

Forests in the land of the Ese’eja Native Community of Infierno, in Peru’s Madre de Dios department. (Photo: Yoly Gutierrez/CIFOR)

While the world’s attention is focused on controlling COVID-19, evidence points at the biodiversity crisis as a leading factor in its emergence. At first glance, the two issues might seem unrelated, but disease outbreaks and degraded ecosystems are deeply connected. Frédéric Baudron, systems agronomist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and Florian Liégeois, virologist at the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) share their insights on the current COVID-19 crisis and the link between biodiversity loss and emerging infectious diseases.

What trends are we seeing with infectious diseases like COVID-19?

We see that outbreaks of infectious diseases are becoming more frequent, even when we account for the so-called “reporting bias::” surveillance of such events becoming better with time and surveillance being better funded in the North than in the South.

60% of infectious diseases are zoonotic, meaning that they are spread from animals to humans and 72% of these zoonoses originate from wildlife. COVID-19 is just the last in a long list of zoonoses originating from wildlife. Other recent outbreaks include SARS, Ebola, avian influenza and swine influenza. As human activities continue to disturb ecosystems worldwide, we are likely to see more pathogens crossing from wildlife to humans in the future. This should serve as a call to better manage our relationship with nature in general, and wildlife in particular.

Researchers in Zimbabwe enter the cave dwelling of insectivorous bats (Hipposideros caffer) to conduct fecal sampling for viral research. (Photo: Florian Liégeois/IRD)
Researchers in Zimbabwe enter the cave dwelling of insectivorous bats (Hipposideros caffer) to conduct fecal sampling for viral research. (Photo: Florian Liégeois/IRD)

Why are we seeing more cases of diseases crossing from animals to humans? Where are they coming from?

Evidence points to bushmeat trade and consumption as the likely driver for the emergence of COVID-19. The emergence of SARS and Ebola was also driven by bushmeat consumption and trade. However, when looking at past outbreaks of zoonoses caused by a pathogen with a wildlife origin, land use changes, generally due to changes in agricultural practices, has been the leading driver.

Pathogens tends to emerge in well known “disease hotspots,” which tend to be areas where high wildlife biodiversity overlaps with high population density. These hotspots also tend to be at lower latitude. Interestingly, many of these are located in regions where CIMMYT’s activities are concentrated: Central America, East Africa and South Asia. This, in addition to the fact that agricultural changes are a major driver of the emergence of zoonoses, means that CIMMYT researchers may have a role to play in preventing the next global pandemic.

Smallholders clear forests for agriculture, but they also have an impact on forests through livestock grazing and fuelwood harvesting, as on this picture in Munesa forest, Ethiopia. (Photo: Frederic Baudron/CIMMYT)

How exactly does biodiversity loss and land use change cause an increase in zoonotic diseases?

There are at least three mechanisms at play. First, increased contact between wildlife and humans and their livestock because of encroachment in ecosystems. Second, selection of wildlife species most able to infect humans and/or their livestock — often rodents and bats — because they thrive in human-dominated landscapes. Third, more pathogens being carried by these surviving wildlife species in simplified ecosystems. Pathogens tend to be “diluted” in complex, undisturbed, ecosystems.

The fast increase in the population of humans and their livestock means that they are interacting more and more frequently with wildlife species and the pathogens they carry. Today, 7.8 billion humans exploit almost each and every ecosystem of the planet. Livestock have followed humans in most of these ecosystems and are now far more numerous than wild vertebrates: there are 4.7 billion cattle, pigs, sheep and goats and 23.7 billion chickens on Earth! We live on an increasingly “cultivated planet,” with new species assemblages and new opportunities for pathogens to move from one species to another.

Wildlife trade and bushmeat consumption have received a lot of attention as primary causes of the spread of these viruses. Why has there been so little discussion on the connection with biodiversity loss?

The problem of biodiversity loss as a driver of the emergence of zoonoses is a complex one: it doesn’t have a simple solution, such as banning wet markets in China. It’s difficult to communicate this issue effectively to the public. It’s easy to find support for ending bushmeat trade and consumption because it’s easy for the public to understand how these can lead to the emergence of zoonoses, and sources of bushmeat include emblematic species with public appeal, like apes and pangolins. Bushmeat trafficking and consumption also gives the public an easy way to shift the blame: this is a local, rather than global, issue and for most of us, a distant one.

There is an inconvenient truth in the biodiversity crisis: we all drive it through our consumption patterns. Think of your annual consumption of coffee, tea, chocolate, sugar, textiles, fish, etc. But the biodiversity crisis is often not perceived as a global issue, nor as a pressing one. Media coverage for the biodiversity crisis is eight times lower than for the climate crisis.

The Unamat forest in Puerto Maldonado, Madre de Dios department, Peru. (Photo: Marco Simola/CIFOR)
The Unamat forest in Puerto Maldonado, Madre de Dios department, Peru. (Photo: Marco Simola/CIFOR)

Agriculture is a major cause of land use change and biodiversity loss. What can farmers do to preserve biodiversity, without losing out on crop yields?

Farming practices that reduce the impact of agriculture on biodiversity are well known and form the foundation of sustainable intensification, for which CIMMYT has an entire program. A better question might be what we can do collectively to support them in doing so. Supportive policies, like replacing subsidies by incentives that promote sustainable intensification, and supportive markets, for example using certification and labeling, are part of the solution.

But these measures are likely to be insufficient alone, as a large share of the global food doesn’t enter the market, but is rather consumed by the small-scale family farmers who produce it.

Reducing the negative impact of food production on biodiversity is likely to require a global, concerted effort similar to the Paris Agreements for climate. As the COVID-19 pandemic is shocking the world, strong measures are likely to be taken globally to avoid the next pandemic. There is a risk that some of these measures will go too far and end up threatening rural livelihoods, especially the most vulnerable ones. For example, recommending “land sparing” — segregating human activities from nature by maximizing yield on areas as small as possible —  is tempting to reduce the possibility of pathogen spillover from wildlife species to humans and livestock. But food production depends on ecosystem services supported by biodiversity, like soil fertility maintenance, pest control and pollination. These services are particularly important for small-scale family farmers who tend to use few external inputs.

How can we prevent pandemics like COVID-19 from happening again in the future?

There is little doubt that new pathogens will emerge. First and foremost, we need to be able to control emerging infectious diseases as early as possible. This requires increased investment in disease surveillance and in the health systems of the countries where the next infectious disease is most likely to emerge. In parallel, we also need to reduce the frequency of these outbreaks by conserving and restoring biodiversity globally, most crucially in disease hotspots.

Farming tends to be a major driver of biodiversity loss in these areas but is also a main source of livelihoods. The burden of reducing the impact of agriculture on biodiversity in disease hotspots cannot be left to local farmers, who tend to be poor small-scale farmers: it will have to be shared with the rest of us.

WHEAT carries on in the “new normal” of COVID-19

A wheat field in Kazakhstan. Photo: V. Ganeyev/CIMMYT

The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat and its lead center, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), based in Mexico, are responding to the threat of COVID-19 and taking measures to ensure our worldwide staff is as safe as possible.  While we adjust to the “new normal” of social distancing, temperature checks and quarantines, we will continue to perform field and desk research as best we can, and share our progress and findings with you through our website, newsletter, and Facebook page.

At times such as this, we step back and remember the vision that brings us all here: a world free of poverty, hunger and environmental degradation. We would not be able pursue this vision without your support.

We hope you, your colleagues and loved ones stay safe and healthy. We are all in this together and we look forward to continuing our conversation.

Latest COVID-19 news:

Insect resistance workshop focuses on legacy, importance of collaboration

Community celebrates nearly 50 years of achievements; highlights ways to meet future challenges

Workshop participants pose in front of CIMMYT Headquarters in Texcoco, Mexico. Photo: Alfonso Cortes/CIMMYT

It was 1974.  In the United States, the environmental movement was in full swing, with the first celebration of Earth Day, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the publication of Rachel Carson’s revolutionary book, Silent Spring. Around the world, the public was gaining awareness of the danger of overuse of pesticides, as a small group of crop breeders and entomologists decided to get together in what would become the first International Plant Resistance to Insects (IPRI) workshop.

Today, the need for insect resistance is even greater. The UN, which has named 2020 as the International Year of Plant Health, estimates that almost 40% of food crops are lost annually due to plant pests and diseases. The losses due to insects total up to $1billion a year for wheat alone.  Climate change is another factor affecting the population and geographical distribution of pests.

Last week, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) hosted IPRI’s 24th biannual session, convening entomologists, pathologists, breeders and nematologists to validate past work and highlight innovative solutions.  To name a few:

  • South Africa’s Agricultural Research Council has developed 43 new cultivars of wheat that are resistant to Russian Wheat Aphid.
  • CIMMYT precision scientists are using high-tech cameras on drones or planes to measure individual plants for signs of biotic stress, to allow farmers advance notice of infestation.
  • North Dakota State University’s mapping of the Hessian Fly H26 gene has revealed two clear phenotypic responses to Hessian fly attacks, bringing breeders a step closer towards developing resistant wheat varieties.
  • CIMMYT-designed Integrated Pest Management (IPM) packages are helping farmers from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds and cropping systems effectively fight the devastating maize pest fall armyworm through a combination of best management practices.

A recurring theme was the importance of collaboration between entomologists and breeders to ensure breakthroughs in resistance genes are taken up to develop new varieties that reach farmers.

“There is a disconnect between screening and breeding,” CIMMYT Global Wheat Program Director Hans Braun told attendees.  “We need more and better collaboration between disciplines, to move from screening to breeding faster.”

Communicating to farmers is crucial. Pesticides are expensive, harmful to both human health and the environment, and can lead to crop resistance.  However, they can appear to be the quick and easy solution. “IPM also means ‘integrating people’s mindsets,’” said B.M. Prasanna, director of CIMMYT’s Global Maize Program.

B. M. Prasanna describes the Integrated Pest Management toolbox of solutions for fall armyworm. Photo: Alfonso Cortes/CIMMYT.

National policies instituting strict quarantines pose another serious barrier to the exchange of seeds required for testing and research.

To mark the workshop’s 24th anniversary, Michael Smith, entomologist at Kansas State University and longtime IPRI participant, offered a brief history of the event and the field—from the first insect-resistant wheat developed in the early 1920s to the wake-up call of pesticide abuse in the 1960s.

Michael Smith, Kansas State University, U.S.

“We’ve grown, we’ve made enormous technological changes, but ‘talking to people’ is still what we’re here for,” he stated. He added a challenge for his colleagues:  “We need to tell a better story of the economic benefits of our science. We need to get to the table in an even more assertive way.”

He also shared some lighter memories, such as the sight of imminent plant scientists relaxing in leisure suits at the 1978 session. A traditional mariachi serenade and traditional Mexican cuisine ensured that more memories were made in 2020.

Leonardo Crespo-Herrera, CIMMYT wheat breeder and workshop moderator closed with encouraging and provocative words for the group.

 “The ultimate objective is to reduce the use of pesticides,” he said, adding: “How do we get this research out of the lab and into the field?”

Leonardo Crespo, CIMMYT wheat breeder and workshop moderator. Photo: Alfonso Cortes/CIMMYT.
Workshop participants toured CIMMYT’s Germplasm Bank. Photo: Alfonso Cortes/CIMMYT.
CIMMYT Global Maize Director B.M. Prasanna and CIMMYT Global Wheat Director Hans Braun. Photo: Alfonso Cortes/CIMMYT
The workshop also included a demonstration by CIMMYT Wheat Chemistry, Quality and Nutrition Laboratory Head Maria Itria Ibba. Photo: Alfonso Cortes/CIMMYT.

OPINION: Africa’s devastating locust outbreak exposes need for crop science on all fronts

This op-ed by Dr. Nteranya Sanginga from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), featuring research by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), was originally published by Thomson Reuters Foundation News.

Ahmed Ibrahim, 30, an Ethiopian farmer attempts to fend off desert locusts as they fly in his khat farm on the outskirt of Jijiga in Somali region, Ethiopia January 12, 2020. Picture taken January 12, 2020. REUTERS/Giulia Paravicini

A perfect storm of conditions led to the locust attack currently tearing through East Africa and Pakistan, where countries are deploying pesticidesmilitary personnel and even ducks.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has given the ultimatum of March to bring Africa’s desert locust outbreak under control, calling for US$76 million to fund insecticide spraying.

But the ongoing outbreak is only the latest example of the devastation that crop pests can cause – there are tens of thousands more that farmers have to contend with, from diseases and fungi to weeds and insects.

And with such a variety of threats to harvests and yields, there is no silver bullet to protect against losses and damage. Rather, an integrated approach is needed that incorporates all available tools in the toolbox, from better forecasting and monitoring technologies to the controlled spraying of crops with biocontrol products, all supported by stronger partnerships.

Smallholder farmers are on the frontline when a pest outbreak takes hold. A small swarm of desert locusts can eat the equivalent food of 35,000 people per day, for example, while crop losses resulting from the spread of fall armyworm across sub-Saharan Africa are estimated to cost up to $6.1 billion a year.

Yet while their livelihoods are most at risk, smallholders can also play a significant part in tackling crop pests like the desert locust.

By giving farmers access to better surveillance technology that enables them to monitor pests and forecast potential outbreaks, infestations can be tracked and managed effectively.

A project in Bangladesh that helps farmers to deal with fall armyworm is one example of how this can be done effectively. Led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the initiative has trained hundreds of farmers and extension agents in identifying, monitoring and tackling infestations using combined approaches.

Yet effective pest management is not the responsibility of farmers alone – nor does it begin in the field. Behind every farmer dealing with a crop pest is a scientist who has supported them by developing better seeds, crop protection methods and scouting apps to identify weeds.

Using either conventional breeding or genetic modification, scientists can develop seeds that produce pest-resistant crops, for example.

CGIAR researchers from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) developed and released a modified cassava variety in Colombia, bred to be resistant against high whitefly, which outperformed regional varieties without the need for pesticides.

The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) has also developed maize varieties resistant to the stem borer insect for use in West and Central Africa.

And last year, the Nigerian Biosafety Management Agency approved the commercial release of genetically modified cowpea to farmers – a variety resistant to the maruca pod borer, a type of insect.

Better seeds and crop protection products are vital – but we need to do still more.

Some biocontrol pesticides such as Green Muscle and Novacrid have been highly effective in the past if used against locust hopper bands before they congregate into swarms. But they have limited impact once the swarms start to move as well as limited availability and regulatory approval, and a relatively short shelf-life.

Further research into crop protection methods will pave the way for new chemical and biological solutions, which can keep pest outbreaks under control – or prevent them altogether.

But we also need closer collaboration with governments, research institutions, universities, donors and investors, and – crucially – farmers to address the challenges of pest infestations, and lessen their impact on food systems.

Collaboration is central to IITA’s Biorisk Management Facility (BIMAF), a partnership established around the need for better coordination between researchers, civil society, farming communities, and non-governmental, public and private organisations.

There is no single, superior way to fight and control agricultural pests like the desert locust – battling them on all fronts is our best hope. Of course, prevention is the ultimate goal, and it is achievable. But stopping an outbreak in its tracks requires a huge amount of coordination and sustained financial support.

We must work together to develop new crop protection methods and get them into the hands of those who need them the most. The current locust outbreak – and future pest infestations – will only be defeated with a united front.

First cohort of Arab Women Leaders in Agriculture graduates

This press release was originally posted on the website of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA)

  The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat joined the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture for the graduation of the first cohort of fellows of the Arab Women Leaders in Agriculture (AWLA) program.

In celebration of International Women’s Day the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) hosted today a graduation ceremony for the first cohort of fellows of the Arab Women Leaders in Agriculture (AWLA) program.

Funded by the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and CGIAR Research Program on Wheat, AWLA supports women scientists from the Middle East and North Africa.

Being the first of its kind, the program is managed by ICBA and is designed to empower women researchers to spearhead positive changes in agriculture and food security while addressing the challenges they face in their careers.

The first cohort included 22 women scientists from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia. They completed a 10-month program from 2019 to 2020, which was delivered through 12 online R&D modules and face-to-face workshops in Tunisia and the UAE.

Her Excellency Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, Managing Director of the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD) and Chairperson of ICBA’s Board of Directors. Photo: ICBA

Speaking at the graduation ceremony, Her Excellency Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, Managing Director of the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD) and Chairperson of ICBA’s Board of Directors, said: “International Women’s Day is an important occasion when we celebrate women and girls around the world and showcase their invaluable contributions to different fields, including science. Unfortunately, women are still underrepresented in research and development around the world, but more so in the Middle East and North Africa. This is despite research showing that gender-balanced teams improve innovation and productivity and that women are critical to innovation. That is why it is great to see how programs like AWLA are creating opportunities for women scientists from across the Middle East and North Africa and equipping them with skills and tools to grow in their careers and make greater contributions in their communities and countries.”

For her part, Dr. Ismahane Elouafi, Director General of ICBA, said: “We are delighted to see the inaugural cohort of AWLA fellows graduating on such a special occasion – International Women’s Day. The AWLA fellowship program was able to open a door of opportunities for 22 Arab women scientists by providing them with soft skills to positively impact their communities and countries.”

Dr. Ismahane Elouafi, Director General of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA). Photo: ICBA

“I want to thank the Islamic Development Bank, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat, and the International Atomic Energy Agency, for their exceptional support for the program. I would also like to thank the Council for Australian-Arab Relations for supporting the study tour of two AWLA fellows,” Dr. Ismahane Elouafi added.

Dr. Tarifa Alzaabi, Deputy Director General of ICBA, remarked: “As we are celebrating International Women’s Day, it gives me a great pleasure to congratulate all AWLA fellows and commend them for the exceptional dedication they demonstrated during their AWLA journey. AWLA is a unique program that significantly contributed to our efforts to empower women in science and agriculture. AWLA extends the right skills and opportunities to fellows to boost their intellectual collaboration by exchanging ideas, good practices, and stories on how women can make a difference in agriculture. Moreover, the program offers new perspectives on research and leadership to make a positive difference not only in the professional lives of fellows but also towards the prosperity of agriculture across the nations and regions they represent.”

Cake-cutting at the graduation ceremony. Photo: ICBA

Ms. May Ali Babiker Eltahir, Manager at the Women and Youth Empowerment Division, the Islamic Development Bank, commented: “AWLA, through empowering young Arab women working on food, nutrition and water security issues, has contributed to the pillars of the IsDB Women’s Empowerment Policy, namely improving women’s access to services and resources and promoting women’s agency and participation.”

Mr. Hassan Damluji, Deputy Director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said: “Empowering women to take up leadership positions in all fields, particularly critical sectors like agriculture and science, is an essential lever towards achieving gender equality globally. AWLA is a wonderful example of partners coming together to deliver concrete solutions that help break down barriers for Arab women researchers”.

“Women make up an important part of the agricultural labor force in MENA, and any solution to the region’s critical food security challenges should ideally be evidence-based and innovative, making use of all talent by being gender-inclusive and by greatly improving cross-border collaboration,” said Mr. Victor Kommerell, Program Manager for the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (CIMMYTICARDA, and partners). 

“I am confident this cohort of AWLA graduates from 6 countries will have a powerful impact on the future of agriculture in the region,” Mr. Victor Kommerell added.

Dr. Farah Baroudy Mikati, an AWLA fellow from Lebanon, who works as an agricultural engineer at the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute, said: “The spirit of AWLA reminded me about my ambitions and strength, especially after seeing that things like research for impact exist and can succeed. Before AWLA, I used to give less importance to some managerial knowledge, but now I consider it as a priority. In addition, I started learning project proposal writing skills through this program. In general, AWLA made me aim for more even in harsh conditions!”

“During the program, the fellows got the opportunity to learn through interactive online and classroom training, coaching and mentoring, and continuous assessment. The fellows worked on a variety of individual assignments in addition to four team-based capstone projects that connect and translate their learning and impact as the golden thread,” Mr. Ghazi Jawad Al-Jabri, Capacity Building Specialist at ICBA and AWLA Coordinator, said.

AWLA’s long-term goal is to improve food security and nutrition in the region through empowering women researchers and helping them realize their full potential. The program contributes to the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals on Gender Equality (SDG 5), Climate Action (SDG 13), Life on Land (SDG 15), and Partnerships for the Goals (SDG 17).

a wheat-themed place setting at the AWLA graduation ceremony. Photo: Victor Kommerell/CIMMYT

New publication: Breeder friendly Phenotyping

In crop research fields, it is now a common sight to see drones or other high-tech sensing tools collecting high-resolution data on a wide range of traits – from simple measurement of canopy temperature to complex 3D reconstruction of photosynthetic canopies.

This technological approach to collecting precise plant trait information, known as phenotyping, is becoming ubiquitous on research fields, but according to experts at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and other research institutions, breeders can profit much more from these tools, when used judiciously. 

Examples of different classes and applications of breeder friendly phenotyping. Image: M. Reynolds et al.

In a new article in the journal Plant Science, CIMMYT Wheat Physiologist Matthew Reynolds and colleagues explain the different ways that phenotyping can assist breeding — from simple to use, “handy” approaches for large scale screening, to detailed physiological characterization of key traits to identify new parental sources — and why this methodology is crucial for crop improvement. The authors make the case for breeders to invest in phenotyping, particularly in light of the imperative to breed crops for warmer and harsher climates.

Read the full article here.

This work was supported by the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP); the Sustainable Modernization of Traditional Agriculture (MasAgro) Project by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (SADER) of the Government of Mexico; and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT).

Q&A with Fatima Camarillo Castillo, CIMMYT Global Wheat Program Training Coordinator

This story by Janet Lewis was originally posted on the website of the Borlaug Training Foundation.

On February 3rd of 2020, the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT) launched its annual Basic Wheat Improvement Course (BWIC).  The Borlaug Training Foundation’s Janet Lewis had a chat with Fatima Camarillo Castillo, CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program Training Coordinator, to discuss the course and her role as coordinator.

2020 CIMMYT BWIC Trainee Group.
The 2020 CIMMYT BWIC Trainee Group at CIMMYT headquarters. Photo: CIMMYT

Janet Lewis: “Can you give our audience a brief description of the Basic Wheat Improvement Course?”

Fatima Camarillo Castillo: “The wheat improvement courses at CIMMYT are short-term programs designed to train breeders working on national agricultural programs from countries where wheat is a major staple crop. During the basic training program, we provide participants an overview of the breeding pipeline and review breeding methodologies utilized in the Global Wheat Program for developing superior wheat germplasm. We also review core concepts on support disciplines for breeding such as genetics, statistics, plant pathology, and physiology. A set of practical and hands-on exercises follow where trainees collaborate directly with scientists and technicians on breeding activities of the program.”

A group of 2019 Basic Wheat Improvement Course trainees in the field.
Photo: F. Caramillo Castillo/CIMMYT

JL: “What is your main role as the Training Coordinator?”

FCC: “I organize the content of the programs and communicate with the scientists to conduct the course. I also contribute to the training by lecturing on basic statistics, programming and genetics. During the training course, participants submit reports and prepare an oral and poster presentation. I support them by providing feedback on these activities. With the assistance of the training team, we also facilitate all the accommodations and arrangements for the participant’s trips and lodging in Mexico.”

JL: “What sparked your interest in being the training coordinator at CIMMYT?”

FCC: “As an alumnus, I personally understand the value of being part of this course. My goal as the current coordinator is to contribute to ensuring food security worldwide through training and capacity building on wheat research!”

A group of 2019 trainees pose in front of the statue of Norman Borlaug at CIMMYT’s Centro Experimental Norman E. Borlaug in Ciudad Obregon, Sonora.
Photo: F. Caramillo Castillo/CIMMYT

JL: “2019 was your first year as the training coordinator. What experiences captivated you the most from 2019?”

FCC: “My greatest experience last year was that, as a coordinator, you do not expect to learn. The class of 2019 was a wonderful group of bright researchers that challenged me to keep working to become a better teacher and scientist. Some of them already excel in specific disciplines, so they provide me invaluable support to cover the academic content of the program.”

2019 CIMMYT BWIC Trainee Group in the field.
2019 CIMMYT BWIC Trainee Group in the field. Photo: F. Caramillo Castillo/CIMMYT

JL: “The 2020 class started on February 4th. Do you have any special expectations this year? The Women in Triticum group is participating this year, yes?”

FCC: “We will spend a couple of weeks at the CIMMYT research station at El Batan and move to Ciudad, Obregón to complete the training. We hope that trainees will interact with current scientists already established in Obregón. In the past, trainees were assigned to specific research groups in the middle of the course, but this year trainees will be integrated into the breeding activities starting the first day of their arrival in Obregon! We expect this will expose and familiarize the trainees with the breeding pipeline on a larger scale.

This year we will also have the recipients of the Women in Triticum Early Career Award. All our young scientists that have dedicated their scientific career to wheat research from Ethiopia, Uruguay, Germany, India, China, Mexico, and Pakistan.”


If you’d like to learn more about the Basic Wheat Improvement Course or any programs offered at CIMMYT, you can find them at https://www.cimmyt.org/events/