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Back from the brink of extinction

Visiting scientist Roi Ben-David discusses Israel’s exotic germplasm gap and ongoing efforts to restore the country’s lost wheat landrace collections.

This story by Emma Orchardson was originally published at CIMMYT.org.

In the early 20th century, Aaron Aaronsohn, a prominent agronomist best known for identifying the progenitor of wheat, began looking for durum wheat landraces in Israel. He travelled to villages across the country, carefully collecting and recording details of the local varieties used in each area.

This task was not without purpose. Aaronsohn recognized that as increasing numbers of settlers like himself came to the territory, the varietal change from the introduction of new and competitive wheat varieties and the rapid intensification of agriculture would soon cause all the traditional structures he had identified to disappear.

IPLR durum wheat landrace, Rishon LeZion, Israel. (Photo: Matan Franko/ARO-Volcani Center)

Aaronsohn was one of the first to begin collecting germplasm in the region, but others saw the importance of collecting before large-scale change occurred. For example, Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov gathered samples from Israel on one of his expeditions through the Middle East. By the end of the century, a number of collections had been established, but overall efforts at conservation were fragmented.

“That’s why we say the collection was on the verge of extinction,” explains Roi Ben-David, a researcher at the Volcani Center, Israel’s Agricultural Research Institute (ARO). “There were single accessions in genebanks around the world but no one really gave them special treatment or saw their value. Many were in private collections; others were simply lost.”

When Ben-David and his colleagues began looking for landraces six years ago, even the collection housed at the Israeli Genebank (IGB) was disappointing, with many samples stored in unmarked boxes in sub-optimal conditions. “When we came in nobody was really trying to study what we had and put it together to represent the area’s wheat landscape as it was 100 years ago.”

Long-term efforts to restore and conserve a collection of Israeli and Palestinian wheat landraces (IPLR) have led to the restoration of 930 lines so far, but there are many varieties that cannot be recovered. Therefore, it came as a great surprise to Ben-David when he arrived at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) headquarters in Mexico and stumbled upon one of the collections presumed lost. “I think it was actually my first week at CIMMYT when I spotted a demonstration plot growing one of the lost varieties – a subset of the Ephrat-Blum collection – and I couldn’t believe it.”

He had heard about this collection from the late Abraham Blum, but had never been able to locate it. “Someone might have moved the seeds, or maybe the box was not well labelled and thrown out. We don’t know, but needless to say it was a very good surprise to rediscover 64 of our missing lines.”

What prompted you and your colleagues to start looking for landraces in Israel?

We began because we recognized local landraces are good genetic resources but unfortunately, we couldn’t find any. It wasn’t so much that they didn’t exist, but the accessions were scattered across the world, mostly in private collections in countries like the USA or Australia. The Israeli Genebank, which sits only two floors above my office, had a few buckets of germplasm but nobody really knew what was inside.

The Middle East and the Fertile Crescent are centers of diversity, not only for wheat but for all crops that were part of the Neolithic revolution 10,000 years ago. They started here – the exact point of origin was probably in what is now southeast Turkey – so we have had thousands of years of evolution in which those landraces dominated the agricultural landscape and adapted to different environments.

Why do you think so much of the collection was lost?

The lines from Israel were lost because their conservation simply wasn’t prioritized. Losses happen everywhere but what was missing in this case was the urgency and understanding of just how important these collections are. Luckily, the current manager of the IGB, who is a fundamental partner in building the IPLR, understood the need to prioritize this and allocated a budget to conserve it as one collection.

What is the value of conserving landraces and why should it be prioritized?

Landraces are an extremely important genetic resource. Wild relatives are the biggest treasure, but breeders are usually reluctant to use them because they are so very different from modern varieties. So landraces form the link between these two, having already been domesticated and developed within farming systems while remaining genetically distinct from the modern. In wheat, they’re quite easy to spot because of how tall they are compared to the semi-dwarf varieties that replaced them in the 20th century.

There are two main reasons why we need to prioritize conservation. First, we believe that the evolution under domestication in this region is important to the community as a whole. Second, it is now a critical time, as we’re getting further from the time in which those traditional lines were in use. The last collection was carried out in the 1980s, when people were still able to collect authentic landraces from farmers but this is just not possible any more. We travelled all over the country but the samples we collected were not authentic – most were modern varieties that farmers thought were traditional. Not everybody knows exactly what they’re growing.

The time factor is critical. If we were to wake up 50 years from now and decide that it’s important to start looking for landraces, I don’t know how much we could actually save.

Plant height variability among IPLR wheat landraces, Rishon LeZion, Israel. (Photo: Matan Franko/ARO-Volcani Center)

Are there any farmers still growing landraces in Israel?

When we started looking for farmers who are still growing landraces we only found one farm. It is quite small – only about ten acres shared between two brothers. They grow a variety which is typically used to make a traditional food called kube, a kind of meat ball covered in flour and then then either fried or boiled. If you boil it using regular flour it falls apart, so people prefer to use a landrace variety, which is what the brothers grow and are able to sell for up to six times as much as regular durum wheat in the market. However, they’re not really interested in getting rich; they’re just trying to keep their traditions alive.

How are you and your colleagues working to conserve the existing collection?

There are two approaches. We want to develop is ex-situ conservations to preserve the diversity. As landraces are not always easy to conserve in a genebank, we also want to support in-situ conservation in the field, like traditional farmers have done. Together with the IGB we’ve distributed seed to botanical gardens and other actors in the hope that at least some of them will propagate it in their fields.

Having established the collection, we’re also trying to utilize it for research and breeding as much as possible. So far we’ve characterized it genetically, tested for drought tolerance and other agronomic traits and we’re in talks to start testing the quality profile of the lines.

Did you continue working on this while you were based at CIMMYT?

Yes, this was an additional project I brought with me during my sabbatical. The main success was working with Carolina Sansaloni and the team at the Genetic Resources Program (GRP) to carry out the genotyping. If it were left to my own resources, I don’t think we could have done it as the collection contains 930 plant genotypes and we only had the budget to do 90.

Luckily, CIMMYT also has an interest in the material so we could collaborate. We brought the material, CIMMYT provided technical support and we were able to genotype it all, which is a huge boost for the project. We had already been measuring phenotypes in Israel, but now that we have all the genetic data as well we can study the collection more deeply and start looking for specific genes of interest.

What will happen to the lines you discovered at CIMMYT?

They’ve been sent back to Israel to be reintegrated into the collection. I want to continue collaborating with people in CIMMYT’s GRP and genebank to do some comparative genomics and assess how much diversity we have in the IPLR collection compared with what CIMMYT has. Is there any additional genetic diversity? How does it compare to other landraces collections? That is what we want to find out next.

Roi Ben-David is based at Israel’s Agricultural Research Organization (ARO). He works in the Plant Institute, where his lab focuses on breeding winter cereals such as wheat. He has recently completed a one-year sabbatical placement at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

CIMMYT’s germplasm banks contain the largest and most diverse collections of maize and wheat in the world. Improved and conserved seed is available to any research institution worldwide.

Gender equality champion wins Borlaug award for ag research

This story by Matt Hayes was originally posted on the Cornell Chronicle website.

Hale Ann Tufan, adjunct assistant professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and co-director of Gender-responsive Researchers Equipped for Agricultural Transformation.

Hale Ann Tufan, a leading advocate for gender equality as a central tenet of crop improvement, has won the 2019 Norman E. Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application.

Tufan is a veteran of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT), serving as assistant wheat breeder at the CIMMYT Winter Wheat Improvement Program in Turkey.

The award, given by the World Food Prize, is the premier recognition for agricultural scientists younger than 40.

Tufan, co-director of Gender-responsive Researchers Equipped for Agricultural Transformation (GREAT) and adjunct assistant professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), was recognized for championing gender-supportive activities within the global agricultural research community. Her advocacy across disciplines has shifted crop improvement and agriculture research to include all people and genders.

“To effectively confront global hunger, all voices must be heard and valued, regardless of gender, age, race, ethnicity and ability,” said Tufan. “Norman Borlaug believed in the power of human ingenuity to solve our greatest challenges, and his dedication reshaped the world. I am humbled to receive this award named in his honor.”

She will receive the award Oct. 16 at a ceremony in Des Moines, Iowa.

By drawing attention to how gender issues can impact crop breeding, Tufan’s work is benefiting men and women farmers and making communities healthier and more productive. The GREAT project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, increases opportunities for equitable participation and the sharing of benefits from agricultural research, and improves outcomes for smallholder female farmers, entrepreneurs and farmer organizations across sub-Saharan Africa. Researchers from 18 countries and 22 institutions have been trained through GREAT courses since 2016.

“Hale is committed to the vision to transform plant breeding globally and especially in African national agricultural research organizations,” said Margaret Mangheni, co-director of the GREAT project and associate professor of agricultural extension education at Makerere University in Uganda. “Under the GREAT project, the drive is to build a critical mass of scientists who are able to conduct gender-responsive research and transform agricultural systems. The GREAT model is innovative, challenging conventional modes of research and gender training – and is Hale’s brainchild.”

Tufan has championed the creation of a more gender-supportive academic, research and work environment. She has emerged as a leading voice for incorporating gender internationally and at Cornell. In March, she received a Cook Award for her work improving the campus climate for women.

“The world is waking up to a long-neglected truth: that global hunger cannot be adequately addressed when gender is ignored,” said Kathryn J. Boor ’80, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of CALS. “Dr. Hale Ann Tufan is a young scientific leader ringing the alarm bell for this cause.”

In 2012, Tufan joined International Programs in CALS to manage the Next Generation Cassava Breeding (NextGen) project. There she designed and led an initiative to reach female smallholder farmers in Uganda and Nigeria to better understand the gender needs and impacts in these communities. Her work with national agricultural research centers in Africa helped to mainstream and prioritize end-user preferences into breeding program design and implementation.

In 2018, she assumed a new role at NextGen, heading up the Survey Division with the aim of identifying traits preferred by farmers to ensure that NextGen cassava breeding is demand-driven and inclusive.

The World Food Prize lauded Tufan for shaping new ways of thinking about agricultural science to create a more equitable society for all.

“By continuing Norman Borlaug’s legacy,” Tufan said, “we can ensure that men, women, boys and girls all equally benefit in the fight to end hunger.”

Bottlenecks between basic and applied plant science jeopardize life-saving crop improvements

International collaboration and a visionary approach by both researchers and funders are urgently needed to translate primary plant research results into real impact in the fields, argue crop improvement experts.

Visitors at the CIMMYT’s experimental station in Obregon, Mexico, where elite wheat lines are tested for new traits.

For a number of reasons – including limited interdisciplinary collaboration and a dearth of funding, revolutionary new plant research findings are not being used to improve crops.

 “Translational research” — efforts to convert basic research knowledge about plants into practical applications in crop improvement – represents a necessary link between the world of fundamental discovery and farmers’ fields.  This kind of research is often seen as more complicated and time consuming than basic research and less sexy than working at the “cutting edge” where research is typically divorced from agricultural realities in order to achieve faster and cleaner results; however, modern tools — such as genomics, marker-assisted breeding, high throughput phenotyping of crop traits using drones, and speed breeding techniques – are making it both faster and cost-effective.

In a new article in Crop Breeding, Genetics, and Genomics, wheat physiologist Matthew Reynolds of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and co-authors make the case for increasing not only funding for translational research, but the underlying prerequisites: international and interdisciplinary collaboration towards focused objectives and a visionary approach by funding organizations. 

“It’s ironic,” said Reynolds. “Many breeding programs have invested in the exact technologies — such as phenomics, genomics and informatics — that can be powerful tools for translational research to make real improvements in yield and adaptation to climate, disease and pest stresses.  But funding to integrate these tools in front-line breeding is quite scarce, so they aren’t reaching their potential value for crop improvement.” 

Many research findings are tested for their implications for wheat improvement by the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP) at the IWYP Hub — a centralized technical platform for evaluating innovations and building them into elite wheat varieties, co-managed by CIMMYT at its experimental station in Obregon, Mexico.

IWYP has its roots with the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT), which in 2010 formalized the need to boost both wheat yield potential as well as its adaptation to heat and drought stress. The network specializes in translational research, harnessing scientific findings from around the world to boost genetic gains in wheat, and capitalizing on the research and pre-breeding outputs of WHEAT and the testing networks of the International Wheat Improvement Network (IWIN). These efforts also led to the establishment of the Heat and Drought Wheat Improvement Consortium (HeDWIC).

Members of the International Wheat Yield Partnership which focuses on translational research to boost wheat yields.

“We’ve made extraordinary advances in understanding the genetic basis of important traits,“ said IWYP’s Richard Flavell, a co-author of the article.  “But if they aren’t translated into crop production, their societal value is lost.”

 The authors — all of whom have proven track records in both science and practical crop improvement — offer examples where exactly this combination of factors led to the impactful application of innovative research findings.

  • Improving the Vitamin A content of maize: A variety of maize with high Vitamin A content has the potential to reduce a deficiency that can cause blindness and a compromised immune system. This development happened as a result of many translational research efforts, including marker-assisted selection for a favorable allele, using DNA extracted from seed of numerous segregating breeding crosses prior to planting, and even findings from gerbil, piglet and chicken models  — as well as long-term, community-based, placebo-controlled trials with children — that helped establish that Vitamin A maize is bioavailable and bioefficacious.
  • Flood-tolerant rice: Weather variability due to climate change effects is predicted to include both droughts and floods. Developing rice varieties that can withstand submergence in water due to flooding is an important outcome of translational research which has resulted in important gains for rice agriculture.  In this case, the genetic trait for flood tolerance was recognized, but it took a long time to incorporate the trait into elite germplasm breeding programs. In fact, the development of flooding tolerant rice based on a specific SUB 1A allele took over 50 years at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines (1960–2010), together with expert molecular analyses by others. The translation program to achieve efficient incorporation into elite high yielding cultivars also required detailed research using molecular marker technologies that were not available at the time when trait introgression started.

Other successes include new approaches for improving the yield potential of spring wheat and the discovery of traits that increase the climate resilience of maize and sorghum. 

One way researchers apply academic research to field impact is through phenotyping. Involving the use of cutting edge technologies and tools to measure detailed and hard to recognize plant traits, this area of research has undergone a revolution in the past decade, thanks to more affordable digital measuring tools such as cameras and sensors and more powerful and accessible computing power and accessibility.

An Australian Pine on CIMMYT’s El Batan Experimental Station commemorates the 4th Symposium of the International Plant Phenotyping Network.

Scientists are now able to identify at a detailed scale plant traits that show how efficiently a plant is using the sun’s radiation for growth, how deep its roots are growing to collect water, and more — helping breeders select the best lines to cross and develop.

Phenotyping is key to understanding the physiological and genetic bases of plant growth and adaptation and has wide application in crop improvement programs.  Recording trait data through sophisticated non-invasive imaging, spectroscopy, image analysis, robotics, high-performance computing facilities and phenomics databases allows scientists to collect information about traits such as plant development, architecture, plant photosynthesis, growth or biomass productivity from hundreds to thousands of plants in a single day. This revolution was the subject of discussion at a 2016 gathering of more than 200 participants at the International Plant Phenotyping Symposium hosted by CIMMYT in Mexico and documented in a special issue of Plant Science.

There is currently an explosion in plant science. Scientists have uncovered the genetic basis of many traits, identified genetic markers to track them and developed ways to measure them in breeding programs. But most of these new findings and ideas have yet to be tested and used in breeding programs – wasting their potentially enormous societal value.

Establishing systems for generating and testing new hypotheses in agriculturally relevant systems must become a priority, Reynolds states in the article. However, for success, this will require interdisciplinary, and often international, collaboration to enable established breeding programs to retool.  Most importantly, scientists and funding organizations alike must factor in the long-term benefits as well as the risks of not taking timely action. Translating a research finding into an improved crop that can save lives takes time and commitment. With these two prerequisites, basic plant research can and should positively impact food security.

Authors would like to acknowledge the following funding organizations for their commitment to translational research.

The International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP) is supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) in the UK; the U. S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in the USA; and the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture (SFSA) in Switzerland.

The Heat and Drought Wheat Improvement Consortium (HeDWIC) is supported by the Sustainable Modernization of Traditional Agriculture (MasAgro) Project by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (SADER) of the Government of Mexico; previous projects that underpinned HeDWIC were supported by Australia’s Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC).

The Queensland Government’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries in collaboration with The Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) have provided long-term investment for the public sector sorghum pre-breeding program in Australia, including research on the stay-green trait. More recently, this translational research has been led by the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) within The University of Queensland.

ASI validation work and ASI translation and extension components with support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, respectively.

Financial support for the maize proVA work was partially provided by HarvestPlus (www.HarvestPlus.org), a global alliance of agriculture and nutrition research institutions working to increase the micronutrient density of staple food crops through biofortification. The CGIAR Research Program MAIZE (CRP-MAIZE) also supported this research.

The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) is led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), with the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) as a primary research partner. Funding comes from CGIAR, national governments, foundations, development banks and other agencies, including the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR),  the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Extensive use of wild grass-derived “synthetic hexaploid wheat” adds diversity and resilience to modern bread wheat

New study shows that improved bread wheat varieties obtained from crosses of durum wheat and goat grass are helping to ensure the crop’s future.

Elite wheat varieties in CIMMYT’s Centro Experimental Norman E. Borlaug (CENEB) in Obregon, Sonora, Mexico. Photo: Marcia MacNeil/CIMMYT

In a new study, scientists have found that genome segments from a wild grass are present in more than one in five of elite bread wheat lines developed by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

Scientists at CIMMYT and other research institutes have been crossing wild goat grass with durum wheat (the wheat used for pasta) — with the help of complex laboratory manipulations — since the 1980s. The new variety, known as synthetic hexaploid wheat, boosts the genetic diversity and resilience of wheat, notoriously vulnerable due to its low genetic diversity, adding novel genes for disease resistance, nutritional quality and heat and drought tolerance.

The study, which aimed to measure the effect of these longterm efforts using state-of-the-art molecular technology, also found that 20% of CIMMYT modern wheat lines contain an average of 15% of the genome segments from the wild goat grass.

“We’ve estimated that one-fifth of the elite wheat breeding lines entered in international yield trials has at least some contribution from goat grass,” said Umesh Rosyara, genomic breeder at CIMMYT and first author of the paper, which was published in Nature Scientific Reports.

“This is much higher than expected.”

Although the synthetic wheat process can help bring much-needed diversity to modern wheat, crossing with synthetic wheat is a complicated process that also introduces undesirable traits, which must later be eliminated during the breeding process.

“Many breeding programs hesitate to use wild relatives because undesirable genomic segments are transferred in addition to desirable segments,” said Rosyara.  “The study results can help us devise an approach to quickly eliminate undesirable segments while maintaining desirable diversity.”

CIMMYT breeding contributions are present in nearly half the wheat sown worldwide, many of such successful cultivars have synthetic wheat in the background, so the real world the impact is remarkable, according to Rosyara.

“With this retrospective look at the development and use of synthetic wheat, we can now say with certainty that the best wheat lines selected over the past 30 years are benefiting from the genes of wheat’s wild relatives,” he explained. “Even more, using cutting-edge molecular marker technology, we should be able to target and capture the most useful genes from wild sources and better harness this rich source of diversity.”

Modern breeders tread in nature’s footsteps

The common bread wheat we know today arose when an ancient grain called emmer wheat naturally cross-bred with goat grass around 10,000 years ago. During this natural crossing, very few goat grass genes crossed over, and as a result, current bread wheat is low in diversity for the genome contributed by goat grass.  Inedible and considered a weed, goat grass still has desirable traits including disease resistance and tolerance to climate stresses. 

Scientists sought to broaden wheat’s genetic diversity by re-enacting the ancient, natural cross that gave rise to bread wheat, crossing improved durum wheat or primitive emmer with different variants of goat grass. The resulting synthetic wheats were crossed again with improved wheats to help remove undesirable wild genome segments.

Once synthetic wheat is developed, it can be readily crossed with any elite wheat lines thus serving as a bridge to transfer diversity from durum wheat and wild goat grass to bread wheat. This helps breeders develop high yielding varieties with desirable traits for quality varieties and broad adaption.

CIMMYT is the first to use wheat’s wild relatives on such a large scale, and the synthetic derivative lines have been used by breeding programs worldwide to develop popular and productive bread wheat varieties. One example, Chuanmai 42, released in China in 2003, stood as the leading wheat variety in the Sichuan Basin for over a decade. Other synthetic derivative lines such as Sokoll and Vorobey appear in the lineage of many successful wheat lines, contributing crucial yield stability – the ability to maintain high yields over time under varying conditions.

The successful, large-scale use of genes from wheat’s wild relatives has helped broaden the genetic diversity of modern, improved bread wheat nearly to the level of the crop’s heirloom varieties. This diversity is needed to combat future environmental, pest, and disease challenges to the production of a grain that provides 20% of the calories consumed by humans worldwide.

This work was supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) and Seeds of Discovery (SeeD), a multi-project initiative comprising MasAgro Biodiversidad, a joint initiative of CIMMYT and the Ministry of agriculture and rural development (SADER) through the MasAgro (Sustainable Modernization of Traditional Agriculture) project; the CGIAR Research Programs on Maize (MAIZE) and Wheat (WHEAT); and a computation infrastructure and data analysis project supported by the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).  CIMMYT’s worldwide partners participated in the evaluation of CIMMYT international wheat yield trials.

For more information, or to arrange interviews with the researchers, please contact:

Marcia MacNeil, Wheat Communications Officer, 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 the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat
The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) is led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), with the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) as a primary research partner. Funding comes from CGIAR, national governments, foundations, development banks and other agencies, including the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR),  the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

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 CGIAR 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.

Scientists use DNA fingerprinting to gauge the spread of modern wheat in Afghanistan

New study finds that wheat farmers often do not accurately identify their varieties.

Wheat is Afghanistan’s number-one staple crop, but the country does not grow enough and must import millions of tons of grain each year to satisfy domestic demand.

Despite the severe social and political unrest that constrain agriculture in Afghanistan, many farmers are growing high-yielding, disease resistant varieties developed through international, science-based breeding and made available to farmers as part of partnerships with national wheat experts and seed producers.

These and other findings have emerged from the first-ever large-scale use of DNA fingerprinting to assess Afghanistan farmers’ adoption of improved wheat varieties, which are replacing less productive local varieties and landraces, according to a paper published yesterday in the science journal BMC Genomics.

The study is part of an activity supported between 2003 and 2018 by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, through which the Agricultural Research Institute of Afghanistan and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) introduced, tested, and released improved wheat varieties.

“As part of our study, we established a ‘reference library’ of released varieties, elite breeding lines, and Afghan wheat landraces, confirming the genetic diversity of the landraces and their value as a genetic resource,” said Susanne Dreisigacker, wheat molecular breeder at CIMMYT and lead author of the new paper.

“We then compared wheat collected on farmers’ fields with the reference library. Of the 560 wheat samples collected in 4 provinces during 2015-16, farmers misidentified more than 40%, saying they were of a different variety from that which our DNA analyses later identified.”

Wheat is the most important staple crop in Afghanistan — more than 20 million of the country’s rural inhabitants depend on it — but wheat production is unstable and Afghanistan has been importing between 2 and 3 million tons of grain each year to meet demand.

Over half of the population lives below the poverty line, with high rates of malnutrition. A key development aim in Afghanistan is to foster improved agronomic practices and the use of high quality seed of improved wheat varieties, which together can raise yields by over 50%.

“Fungal diseases, particularly yellow rust and stem rust, pose grave threats to wheat in the country,” said Eric Huttner, research program manager for crops at the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and co-author of the present paper. “It’s crucial to know which wheat varieties are being grown where, in order to replace the susceptible ones with high-performing, disease resistant varieties.”

Varietal adoption studies typically rely on questionnaires completed by breeders, extension services, seed producers, seed suppliers, and farmers, but such surveys are complicated, expensive, and often inaccurate.

“DNA fingerprinting resolves uncertainties regarding adoption and improves related socioeconomic research and farm policies,” Huttner explained, adding that for plant breeding this technology has been used mostly to protect intellectual property, such as registered breeding lines and varieties in more developed economies.

This new study was commissioned by ACIAR as a response to a request from the Government of Afghanistan for assistance in characterizing the Afghan wheat gene bank, according to Huttner.

“This provided the reference library against which farmers’ samples could be compared,” he explained. “Accurately identifying the varieties that farmers grow is key evidence on the impact of introducing improved varieties and will shape our future research

Joint research and development efforts involving CIMMYT, ACIAR, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the International Centre of Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), French Cooperation, and Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL) and Agricultural Research Institute (ARIA) have introduced more than 400 modern, disease-resistant wheat varieties over the last two decades. Nearly 75% of the wheat grown in the areas surveyed for this study comes from these improved varieties.

“New gene sequencing technologies are increasingly affordable and their cost will continue to fall,” said Dreisigacker. “Expanded use of DNA fingerprinting can easily and accurately identify the wheat cultivars in farmers’ fields, thus helping to target breeding, agronomy, and development efforts for better food security and farmer livelihoods.”


For more information, or to arrange interviews with the researchers, please contact:

Marcia MacNeil, Wheat Communications Officer, 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 CGIAR 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.

About ACIAR
As Australia’s specialist international agricultural research for development agency, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) brokers and funds research partnerships between Australian scientists and their counterparts in developing countries. Since 1982, ACIAR has supported research projects in eastern and southern Africa, East Asia, South and West Asia and the Pacific, focusing on crops, agribusiness, horticulture, forestry, livestock, fisheries, water and climate, social sciences, and soil and land management. ACIAR has commissioned and managed more than 1,500 research projects in 36 countries, partnering with 150 institutions along with more than 50 Australian research organizations.

About Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock
The Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL) of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan works on the development and modernization of agriculture, livestock and horticulture. The ministry launches programs to support the farmers, manage natural resources, and strengthen agricultural economics. Its programs include the promotion and introduction of higher-value economic crops, strengthening traditional products, identifying and publishing farm-tailored land technologies, boosting cooperative programs, agricultural economics, and export with marketing.

Global group of journalists find wheat research, comradery in Canada

WHEAT media sponsorship connects scientists and reporters at international wheat conference

by Marcia MacNeil

WHEAT Sponsored journalists with farmer Merle Rugg, Elstow, Saskatchewan. Photo: Amit Bhattacharya

A diverse group of agriculture, food security, environment and science journalists gathered in Saskatoon, Canada recently for an intensive course in innovative wheat research, interviews with top international scientists and networking with peers.

The occasion was the International Wheat Congress (IWC), which convened more than 900 wheat scientists and researchers in Saskatoon, in Canada’s biggest wheat-growing province, Saskatchewan, to discuss their latest work to boost wheat productivity, resilience and nutrition.

The seven journalists were part of a group of 11 who won a competitive sponsorship offered by the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT).  Seven journalists attended the conference, while another four followed the proceedings and activities from home.  The 10-day immersive training included multiple daily press briefings with top scientists in climate change modeling and resilience testing, innovative breeding techniques, analysis and protection of wheat diversity and many more topics, on top of a full schedule of scientific presentations. 

“The scientists were so eager to talk to us, and patient with our many questions,” said Nkechi Isaac from the Leadership newspaper group in Nigeria. “Even the director general of CIMMYT spoke with us for almost an hour.”

“It was a pleasant surprise for me.”

Martin Kropff, director general of CIMMYT, and Hans Braun, director of the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat, speak to the sponsored journalists. Photo: Marcia MacNeil/CIMMYT

The journalists, who come from regions as diverse as sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia,  offered support and encouragement from their travel preparations though their time in Saskatoon and beyond – sharing story ideas, interview and site visit opportunities, news clips and photos through a What’sApp group.

 “It is really helpful to be connected to colleagues around the world,” said Amit Bhattacharya of the Times of India. “I know we will continue to be a resource and network for each other through our careers.”

Linda McCandless of Cornell University and David Hodson of CIMMYT were among panelists sharing tips on wheat news coverage at the IWC journalist round table. Photo: Matt Hayes/Cornell

The week wasn’t all interviews and note-taking. The journalists were able to experience Saskatchewan culture, from a tour of a wheat quality lab and a First Nations dance performance to a visit to a local wheat farm, and even an opportunity to see Saskatoon’s newest modern art gallery.

The media sponsorship at IWC aimed to encourage informed coverage of the importance of wheat research, especially for farmers and consumers in the Global South, where wheat is the main source of protein and a critical source of life for 2.5 billion people who live on less than $2 a day.

The group also spoke with members of the many coalitions that facilitate the collaboration that makes innovative wheat research possible, including the International Wheat Yield Partnership, the Heat and Drought Wheat Improvement Consortium and the G20-organized Wheat Initiative.

“This is the first time we’ve invested this heavily in journalist training,” said WHEAT program director Hans Braun. “We think the benefits – for the journalists, who gained a greater understanding of wheat research issues, and for developing country audiences, who will be more aware of the importance of improving wheat –– are worth it.”

Tom Payne from CIMMYT and Maricelis Acevedo from Cornell University discuss conserving wheat diversity. Photo: Marcia MacNeil/CIMMYT

A roundtable discussion with peers from Canadian news organizations and seasoned science communications professionals and a networking breakfast with CIMMYT scientists provided platforms for a candid exchange on the challenges and opportunities in communicating wheat science in the media.

A common refrain was the importance of building relationships between scientists and media professionals – because wheat science offers dramatic stories for news audiences, and an informed and interested public can in turn lead to greater public investment in wheat science.  The journalists and scientists in Saskatoon have laid a solid foundation for these relationships.

Lominda Afedraru from Uganda’s Daily Monitor shares her experience covering science with participants at the journalist round table. Photo: Marcia MacNeil/CIMMYT

The sponsored journalists are:

Amit Bhattacharya: Senior Editor at The Times of India, New Delhi, and a member of the team that produces the front page of India’s largest English daily. He writes on Indian agriculture, climate change, the monsoon, weather, wildlife and science. A 26-year professional journalist in India, he is a Jefferson Fellow on climate change at the East-West Center, Hawaii.

Emmanuelle Landais: Freelance journalist based in Dakar, Senegal, currently reporting for Deutsche Welle’s radio service in English and French on the environment, technology, development and youth in Africa. A former line producer for France 24 in Paris and senior environment reporter for the daily national English newspaper Gulf News in Dubai, she also reports on current affairs for the Africalink news program, contributes to Radio France International’s (RFI) English service, and serves as news producer for the Dakar-based West Africa Democracy Radio. 

Julien Chongwang: Deputy Editor, SciDev.Net French edition. He is based in Douala, Cameroon, where he has been a journalist since 2002. Formerly the editor of the The Daily Economy, he worked on the French edition of Voice of America and Morocco economic daily LES ECO, and writes for Forbes Africa, the French edition of Forbes in the United States.

Lominda Afedraru: Science correspondent at the Daily Monitor newspaper, Uganda, part of the Nation Media Group.  A journalist since 2004, she also freelances for publications in the United States, UK, Kenya and Nigeria among others and has received fellowships at the World Federation of Science Journalists, Biosciences for Farming in Africa courtesy of University of Cambridge UK and Environmental Journalism Reporting at Sauti University, Tanzania.

Muhammad Amin Ahmed: Senior Correspondent, Daily Dawn in Islamabad, Pakistan. He has been a journalist for more than 40 years. Past experience includes working at the United Nations in New York and Pakistan Press International. He received a UN-21 Award from former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan (2003).

Muhammad Irtaza: Special Correspondent with Pakistan’s English daily The Nation at Multan. A 10-year veteran journalist and an alumnus of the Reuters Foundation, he also worked as a reporter with the Evansville Courier and Press in Indiana, United States. He is an ICFJ-WHO Safety 2018 Fellow (Bangkok), Asia Europe Foundation Fellow (Brussels), and a U.S.-Pakistan Professional Partnership in Journalism Program Fellow (Washington). He teaches mass communications at Bahauddin Zakariya University Multan.

Nkechi Isaac: Deputy Editor, Leadership Friday in Nigeria. She is also the head, Science and Technology Desk of the Leadership Group Limited, publishers of LEADERSHIP newspapers headquartered in Abuja, Nigeria. She is a Fellow of Cornell University’s Alliance for Science.

Reaz Ahmad: Executive Editor of the Dhaka Tribune, Bangladesh’s national English newspaper. A journalist for 30 years, he is a Cochran Fellow of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and an adjunct professor of University of Dhaka (DU) and Independent University, Bangladesh.

Rehab Abdalmohsen: Freelance science journalist based in Cairo, Egypt who has covered science, health and environment for 10 years for such websites as the Arabic version of Scientific American, SciDev.net, and The Niles.

Tan Yihong: Executive Deputy Editor-in-Chief, High-Tech & Commercialization Magazine, China. Since 2008, she has written about science particularly agriculture innovation and wheat science. She has attended several Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) Technical Workshops. In Beijing, she helped organize a BGRI communication workshop and media outreach.

Tony Iyare: Senior Correspondent, Nigerian Democratic Report.  For more than 30 years, he has covered environment, international relations, gender, media and public communication. He has worked as a stringer for The New York Times since 1992, and freelanced for the Paris-based magazine, The African Report and the U.N. Development Programme publication Choices. He was columnist at The Punch and co-authored a book: The 11-Day Siege: Gains and Challenges of Women’s Non-Violent Struggles in Niger Delta.

Journalist Nkechi Isaac from Nigeria tours a Saskatchewan wheat farm. Photo: Julie Mollins

Alternatives to burning can increase Indian farmers’ profits and cut pollution, new study shows

Published in Science, the article provides evidence for national policies that block stubble burning and promote no-till mechanization to manage crop residues.

This story by Mike Listman was originally posted on the website of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

India’s farmers feed millions of people. (Photo: Dakshinamurthy Vedachalam)

The new study compares the costs and benefits of 10 distinct land preparation and sowing practices for northern India’s rice-wheat cropping rotations, which are spread across more than 4 million hectares. The direct seeding of wheat into unplowed soil and shredded rice residues was the best option — it raises farmers’ profits through higher yields and savings in labor, fuel, and machinery costs.

The study, conducted by a global team of eminent agriculture and environmental scientists, was led by researchers from The Nature Conservancy, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA) and the University of Minnesota.

A new economic study in the journal Science shows that thousands of farmers in northern India could increase their profits if they stop burning their rice straw and adopt no-till practices to grow wheat. Alternative farming practices could also cut farmers’ greenhouse gas emissions from on-farm activities by as much as 78% and help lower air pollution in cities like New Delhi.

A burning issue

To quickly and cheaply clear their fields to sow wheat each year, farmers in northern India burn an estimated 23 million tons of straw from their rice harvests. That enormous mass of straw, if packed into 20-kilogram 38-centimeter-high bales and piled on top of each other, would reach a height of over 430,000 kilometers — about 1.1 times the distance to the moon.

Regulations are in place in India to reduce agricultural fires but burning continues because of implementation challenges and lack of clarity about the profitability of alternate, no-burn farming.

Farmers have alternatives, the study shows. To sow wheat directly without plowing or burning rice straw, farmers need to purchase or rent a tractor-mounted implement known as the “Happy Seeder,” as well as attach straw shredders to their rice harvesters. Leaving straw on the soil as a mulch helps capture and retain moisture and also improves soil quality, according to M.L. Jat, CIMMYT Principal Scientist, cropping systems specialist and a co-author of the study.

A combine harvester (left) equipped with the Super Straw Management System, or Super SMS, works alongside a tractor fitted with a Happy Seeder. (Photo: Sonalika Tractors)

Win-win

The Science study demonstrates that it is possible to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in a way that is profitable to farmers and scalable.

The paper shows that Happy Seeder-based systems are on average 10%–20% more profitable than straw burning options.

“Our study dovetails with 2018 policies put in place by the government of India to stop farmers from burning, which includes a US$166 million subsidy to promote mechanization to manage crop residues within fields,” said Priya Shyamsundar, Lead Economist, Global Science, of The Nature Conservancy and first author of the study.

Shyamsundar noted that relatively few Indian farmers currently sow their wheat using the Happy Seeder but manufacturing of the Seeder had increased in recent years. “Less than a quarter of the total subsidy would pay for widespread adoption of the Happy Seeder, if aided by government and NGO support to build farmer awareness and impede burning.”

“With a rising population of 1.6 billion people, South Asia hosts 40% of the world’s poor and malnourished on just 2.4% of its land,” said Jat, who recently received India’s prestigious Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Award for outstanding and impact-oriented research contributions in natural resource management and agricultural engineering. “Better practices can help farmers adapt to warmer winters and extreme, erratic weather events such as droughts and floods, which are having a terrible impact on agriculture and livelihoods. In addition, India’s efforts to transition to more sustainable, less polluting farming practices can provide lessons for other countries facing similar risks and challenges.”

In November 2017, more than 4,000 schools closed in Delhi due to seasonal smog. This smog increases during October and November when fields are burned. It causes major transportation disruptions and poses health risks across northern India, including Delhi, a city of more than 18 million people.

Some of these problems can be resolved by the use of direct sowing technologies in northwestern India.

“Within one year of our dedicated action using about US$75 million under the Central Sector Scheme on ‘Promotion of agriculture mechanization for in-situ management of crop residue in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and NCT of Delhi,’ we could reach 0.8 million hectares of adoption of Happy Seeder/zero tillage technology in the northwestern states of India,” said Trilochan Mohapatra, director general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). “Considering the findings of the Science article as well as reports from thousands of participatory validation trials, our efforts have resulted in an additional direct farmer benefit of US$131 million, compared to a burning option,” explained Mohapatra, who is also secretary of India’s Department of Agricultural Research and Education.

Read the full study in Science

This research was supported by the Susan and Craig McCaw Foundation, the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT), and the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). The Happy Seeder was originally developed through a project from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).

For more information, or to arrange interviews with the researchers, please contact:

Rodrigo Ordóñez, Communications Manager, CIMMYT
r.ordonez@cgiar.org, +52 5558042004 ext. 1167


Warmer night temperatures reduce wheat yields in Mexico, scientists say

International gathering highlights cutting edge efforts to improve yields, nutrition, and climate change resilience of a globally vital staple food 

by Julie Mollins

A view from the Norman E. Borlaug Experiment Station, Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, Mexico. Photo: M. Ellis/CIMMYT.

As many regions worldwide baked under some of the most persistent heatwaves on record, scientists at a major conference in Canada shared data on the impact of spiraling temperatures on wheat.

In the Sonora desert in northwestern Mexico, nighttime temperatures varied 4.4 degrees Celsius between 1981 and 2018, research from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) shows. Across the world in Siberia, nighttime temperatures rose 2 degrees Celsius between 1988 and 2015, according to Vladimir Shamanin, a professor at Russia’s Omsk State Agrarian University who conducts research with the Kazakhstan-Siberia Network on Spring Wheat Improvement.

“Although field trials across some of the hottest wheat growing environments worldwide have demonstrated that yield losses are in general associated with an increase in average temperatures, minimum temperatures at night – not maximum daytime temperatures –are actually determining the yield loss,” said Gemma Molero, the wheat physiologist at CIMMYT who conducted the research in Sonora, in collaboration with colleague Ivan Ortiz-Monasterio.

“Of the water taken up by the roots, 95% is lost from leaves via transpiration and from this, an average of 12% of the water is lost during the night. One focus of genetic improvement for yield and water-use efficiency for the plant should be to identify traits for adaptation to higher night temperatures,” Molero said, adding that nocturnal transpiration may lead to reductions of up to 50% of available soil moisture in some regions.

Climate challenge

Saskatchewan farmer Brian Rugg in his wheat fields. Photo: Marcia MacNeil/CIMMYT

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in October that temperatures may become an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer in the next 11 years. A new IPCC analysis on climate change and land use due for release this week, urges a shift toward reducing meat in diets to help reduce agriculture-related emissions from livestock. Diets could be built around coarse grains, pulses, nuts and seeds instead.

Scientists attending the International Wheat Congress in Saskatoon, the city at the heart of Canada’s western wheat growing province of Saskatchewan, agreed that a major challenge is to develop more nutritious wheat varieties that can produce bigger yields in hotter temperatures.

As a staple crop, wheat provides 20% of all human calories consumed worldwide. It is the main source of protein for 2.5 billion people in the Global South. Crop system modeler Senthold Asseng, a professor at the University of Florida and a member of the International Wheat Yield Partnership, was involved in an extensive study  in China, India, France, Russia and the United States, which demonstrated that for each degree Celsius in temperature increase, yields decline by 6%, putting food security at risk.

Wheat yields in South Asia could be cut in half due to chronically high temperatures, Molero said. Research conducted by the University of New South Wales, published in Environmental Research Letters also demonstrates that changes in climate accounted for 20 to 49% of yield fluctuations in various crops, including spring wheat. Hot and cold temperature extremes, drought and heavy precipitation accounted for 18 to 4% of the variations.

CIMMYT wheat physiologist Gemma Molero shares her findings with IWC attendees. Photo: Marcia MacNeil/CIMMYT

At CIMMYT, wheat breeders advocate a comprehensive approach that combines conventional, physiological and molecular breeding techniques, as well as good crop management practices that can ameliorate heat shocks. New breeding technologies are making use of wheat landraces and wild grass relatives to add stress adaptive traits into modern wheat – innovative approaches that have led to new heat tolerant varieties being grown by farmers in warmer regions of Pakistan, for example.

Collaborative effort

Matthew Reynolds, a distinguished scientist at CIMMYT, is joint founder of the Heat and Drought Wheat Improvement Consortium (HeDWIC), a coalition of hundreds of scientists and stakeholders from over 30 countries.

“HeDWIC is a pre-breeding program that aims to deliver genetically diverse advanced lines through use of shared germplasm and other technologies,” Reynolds said in Saskatoon. “It’s a knowledge-sharing and training mechanism, and a platform to deliver proofs of concept related to new technologies for adapting wheat to a range of heat and drought stress profiles.”

Aims include reaching agreement across borders and institutions on the most promising research areas to achieve climate resilience, arranging trait research into a rational framework, facilitating translational research and developing a bioinformatics cyber-infrastructure, he said, adding that attracting multi-year funding for international collaborations remains a challenge.

Nitrogen traits

Another area of climate research at CIMMYT involves the development of an affordable alternative to the use of nitrogen fertilizers to reduce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. In certain plants, a trait known as biological nitrification inhibition (BNI) allows them to suppress the loss of nitrogen from the soil, improving the efficiency of nitrogen uptake and use by themselves and other plants.

Victor Kommerell, program manager for the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat and Tim Searchinger, senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, answer media questions. Photo: Marcia MacNeil/CIMMYT

Scientists with the BNI research consortium, which includes Japan’s International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences (JIRCAS), propose transferring the BNI trait from those plants to critical food and feed crops, such as wheat, sorghum and Brachiaria range grasses.

“Every year, nearly a fifth of the world’s fertilizer is used to grow wheat, yet the crop only uses about 30% of the nitrogen applied, in terms of biomass and harvested grains,” said Victor Kommerell, program manager for the multi-partner CGIAR Research Programs (CRP) on Wheat and Maize led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.

“BNI has the potential to turn wheat into a highly nitrogen-efficient crop: farmers could save money on fertilizers, and nitrous oxide emissions from wheat farming could be reduced by 30%.”

Excluding changes in land use such as deforestation, annual greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture each year are equivalent to 11% of all emissions from human activities. About 70% of nitrogen applied to crops in fertilizers is either washed away or becomes nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to Guntur Subbarao, a principal scientist with JIRCAS.

Although ruminant livestock are responsible for generating roughly half of all agricultural production emissions, BNI offers potential for reducing overall emissions, said Tim Searchinger, senior fellow at the World Resources Institute and technical director of a new report titled “Creating a Sustainable Food Future: A Menu of Solutions to Feed Nearly 10 Billion People by 2050.”

To exploit this roots-based characteristic, breeders would have to breed this trait into plants, said Searchinger, who presented key findings of the report in Saskatoon, adding that governments and research agencies should increase research funding.

CGIAR Research Program on Wheat Director Hans Braun (Photo: Marcia MacNeil/CIMMYT)

Other climate change mitigation efforts must include revitalizing degraded soils, which affect about a quarter of the planet’s cropland, to help boost crop yields. Conservation agriculture techniques involve retaining crop residues on fields instead of burning and clearing. Direct seeding into soil-with-residue and agroforestry also can play a key role.

Wheat expert calls for global unity to avert future hunger crises

Adapted from original blog by Matt Hayes on the website of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI)

Maricelis Acevedo (left), associate director of science for Delivering Genetic Gains in Wheat and Ronnie Coffman (right), international professor of plant breeding and director of International Programs in the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. (Photo: L. McCandless/Cornell) 

A global alliance of countries and research institutions committed to sharing plant genetic material , including the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and Cornell University, has secured food access for billions of people, but a patchwork of legal restrictions threatens humanity’s ability to feed a growing global population.

That jeopardizes decades of hard-won food security gains, according to Ronnie Coffman, international professor of plant breeding and director of International Programs in the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (IP-CALS).

“Global food security depends on the free movement and open sharing of plant genetic resources,” Coffman said July 23 at the International Wheat Congress in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. “Without a strong commitment to scientific exchange in support of global plant breeding efforts, we risk our ability to respond to current food crises and to protect future generations.”

Effective plant breeding programs depend on the exchange of seeds, pathogens, and plant genetic material – known as germplasm – between and among countries. Coordination among plant pathologists and breeders forms a symbiotic partnership as plant and disease specimens collected in countries around the world are sent to research institutions to be analyzed and tested. Those findings in turn inform the breeding of improved, location-specific crop varieties that are resistant to disease and adapted to increasingly unpredictable environmental conditions.

The Convention on Biological Diversity gives countries sovereign rights over their own biological resources. The multilateral treaty, signed in 1993, allows each state to draw up its own regulations. An update known as the Nagoya Protocol, ratified in 2014, has subjected plant breeders and the seed industry to increased legal wrangling. Some countries are particularly draconian in their enforcement, and without a universal legal framework, the uneven standards threaten to undermine scientific exchange, Coffman said.

He argued that current regulations bring international lawyers, accountants and bankers with little to no background in plant breeding onto the playing field of crop improvement to act as referees. The patchwork of laws and norms, which have grown increasingly complicated in recent years, hampers scientific advancement and ultimately harms the farmers who depend on improved crops.

Coffman called for an overhaul of international laws that regulate the sharing of plant genetic resources, and for plant scientists to advocate to protect the unimpeded exchange of material and knowledge.

“It takes an international community of scientists and genetic resources to fight pathogens like stem rust that do not respect international boundaries,” he said. “Stringent regulations and country-specific control are stifling the germplasm exchanges critical to agriculture and horticulture.”

The CGIAR system — and CIMMYT and ICARDA (International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas) in particular — are the conservators of enormous gene banks of germplasm. Those resources have been essential in improving many crops to fight biotic and abiotic stresses.

“Germplasm exchange and information sharing is paramount for global wheat improvement as they are the basis for much of the progress made,” said Hans Braun, director of CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat. “Going forward, we must protect open access and exchange because the value of germplasm resources in national and international gene banks can only be realized when they are shared and used.”

Hunger and malnutrition cause 9 million deaths globally per year, a number that could skyrocket without an international effort to respond in unison. Annual global losses to crops like wheat could be devastating in the absence of germplasm and effective breeding programs.

Since 2008, the Cornell-led Borlaug Global Rust Initiative has spearheaded efforts to combat threats to global wheat production. There are now approximately 215 million hectares of wheat under cultivation worldwide, most of it genetically susceptible to one or more races of newly identified stem rust and yellow rust pathogens. Highly virulent races of rust pathogens can easily reduce yields by 10% or more. The 1953 rust epidemic in North America resulted in average yield losses of 40% across U.S. and Canadian spring wheat growing areas.  

As one part of its efforts to reduce the world’s vulnerability to wheat diseases, the Cornell-led Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) project – funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UK Aid from the British people – collects samples of plant pathogens such as stem rust and yellow rust from 40 countries and analyzes them in biosafety testing labs in Minnesota, Denmark, Canada, Turkey, Ethiopia, Kenya and India.

Exchanging germplasm has allowed the DGGW project to take multiple approaches to achieving long-lasting resilience, from conventional breeding, to marker assisted selection and high-end basic science explorations. DGGW and its forerunner, the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project, have, since 2008, released more than 169 wheat varieties with increased yields and improved disease resistance in 11 at-risk countries, helping to improve smallholder farmers’ food security and livelihoods.

The DGGW relies on exchanges of germplasm and rust samples across international borders, and the project has encountered increased regulation in recent years, said Maricelis Acevedo, associate director of science for the DGGW and adjunct associate professor of plant pathology at Cornell.

“It takes an international community of scientists and genetic resources to fight pathogens like stem rust that know no international boundaries,” Acevedo said. “We must continue to protect — and use — those resources in our quest for global food security.”

WHEAT Annual Report 2018 launched

International collaboration in wheat breeding research is at the heart of the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT).

The newly released CGIAR Research Program on Wheat 2018 Annual Report highlights joint achievements that are making an invaluable contribution to global food security, especially for the 2.5 billion people who depend on wheat for their livelihoods.

The report describes work with national and global partners using state of the art technology to measure traits and performance for faster development of high-yielding, heat- and drought- varieties; rapidly diagnosing diseases in farmers’ fields; supporting gender equality in agricultural innovations, and much more. 

With its national partners, WHEAT released 48 new CGIAR-derived wheat varieties to farmers in 2018, and developed 11 innovations related to farm management practices or social sciences.

See the full SPARK web-based annual report here.