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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.

Wheat to beat the heat

Adapted from a blog by Jacques Wery, ICARDA Deputy Director General – Research, originally posted on the International Center for Agriculture in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) website.

Land temperature on June 26, 2019. Map generated using information from the Copernicus Sentinel-3’s Sea and Land Surface Temperature Radiometer

Western Europe is in the midst of an intense heat wave that started at the end of June. The southern French commune of Villevieille recorded a temperature of 45.1 °C, breaking the country’s all-time record. The heat also set new temperature records in Germany and the Czech Republic. Other countries like Italy, Spain and Portugal are also gripped with temperatures much higher than normal.

Scientists have attributed the soaring temperatures to the combination of a storm over the Atlantic Ocean and high pressure over central Europe, which is importing hot air from the Sahara. Though heat waves are not uncommon in Europe, this one was unusually early. Experts say climate change is making heat waves more common (Global warming of 1.5 °C IPCC Special Report).

Apart from human health, the heat wave is already causing significant damage in agriculture. Major wheat growers experienced temperatures of 40 °C and higher. This is of great concern, as the heat wave occurred during the crop’s critical growth stages. Wheat is a cool season crop with an optimal daytime growing temperature of 15 °C during the critical reproductive stage. Wheat plants exposed to high temperatures around the period of flowering lose fertility due to pollen dehydration, resulting in less grain formed. It is calculated that for every degree above the optimum 15 °C, wheat experiences a yield reduction of three to four percent.

If a heat wave like such as this one had occurred one month earlier, at the end of May, when Northern European wheat is in full bloom, it could have caused up to 50 percent yield loses, a devastating blow to the European agriculture and food sectors costing billions of Euros.

The response of scientists

Breeding heat tolerant wheat varieties remains one of the most strategic approaches to cope with the risk of unseasonal heat waves. The International Center for Agricultural research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) started in 2012 to use field stations that experience continuous heat-stress to select new wheat cultivars better primed to tolerate this stress.

In Sudan, the experimental farm of Wad Medani was developed together with the Agricultural Research Corporation (ARC) and CIMMYT (International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement), to test thousands of wheat candidate varieties each year. This station experiences average maximum daily temperatures above 30 °C throughout the growing season, which is less than 100 days long, from planting to harvest. This test was used to identify critical genes controlling heat-tolerant in common wheat, and to release new cultivars of bread wheat and durum wheat capable of withstanding severe heat.

The ICARDA-ISRA durum variety Haby
Senegalese female cooperative growing the ICARDA-ISRA durum variety Haby at above 32 C throughout the season.

Similarly, two heat-stress experimental farms were developed in West Africa to test durum wheat germplasm. In collaboration with Prof Rodomiro Ortiz  of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) Department of Plant Breeding, the stations of Kaédi in Mauritania and Fanaye in Senegal were upgraded in partnership with the Centre National de Recherche Agronomique et de Développement Agricole (CNRADA) and the Institut Sénégalais de Recherche Agricole (ISRA).

Field testing conducted at these stations – with daily temperatures above 32 °C throughout the cycle and a season of only 90 days – have revealed four new durum wheat cultivars perfectly adapted to tolerate intense heat. The work conducted in West Africa has even resulted in the awarding of the prestigious OLAM Prize for Innovation in Food Security to the team of researchers involved.

To convert this success into cultivars that could be grown, heat tolerance must be combined with the ability to cope with drought stress. An experiment was devised at the Marchouch station in Morocco, where plastic tunnels were placed on the wheat plants at the time of flowering to raise temperatures to above 40 °C and simultaneously prevent any rainfall from reaching the plants.

Plastic tunnels at the ICARDA Marchouch station in Morocco
Plastic tunnels were placed on the wheat plants at the time of flowering at the ICARDA Marchouch station in Morocco

When all other tested varieties lost more than 50 percent yield to the two combined stresses, the ICARDA-INRA (Institut Nationale de la Recherche Agronomique in Morocco) cultivar Faraj lost only 25 percent, a major positive result considering the severity of the stresses tested. Along the same principles, more than 60 wheat varieties of ICARDA origin have been released by national breeding programs in Central and West Asia and North Africa regions and sub- Saharan Africa regions in the last five years alone, thanks to the ability of the germplasm to adapt to some of the most severe wheat stresses occurring around the world.

Can Europe take advantage of success stories?

In the USA and Canada, farmers grow mostly wheat varieties developed and commercialized by public wheat breeding programs. These cultivars have been very popular and public sector wheat-breeding activities are vital to the industry.

In Australia, wheat breeding is conducted by the private sector. However, public researchers are spending the same amount of money on pre-breeding as they did 10 years ago on breeding and variety development together. To take advantage of some of the success stories of ICARDA and CIMMYT, the Australian wheat breeding programs established 10 years ago the CIMMYT-Australia-ICARDA Germplasm Evaluation project (CAIGE). Each year, Australian breeders visit the trials of ICARDA in Morocco and CIMMYT in Mexico. They select the top high yielding wheat genotypes that combine drought and heat tolerance, with other useful traits. These are then imported and tested across Australian sites to confirm the best one for commercialization or use in hybridization programs.

Dr Allan Rattey
Allan Rattey, national early generation wheat breeder with Intergrain/Australia, toured Morocco in April 2019 to witness the performances of ICARDA germplasm in a season that received less than 200 mm of total moisture, equivalent to what most regions of Northern Europe receive in the month of December alone, and with temperatures during flowering regularly exceeding 26 °C.  Dr. Rattey had a chance to select a range of novel genetic material in the form of promising ICARDA lines tested next to popular Australian varieties. 

In Europe, the situation is more like Australia, and public researchers do not work directly on the commercialization and development of varieties, which is left to the private companies. Instead, public research focuses on pre-breeding to develop new breeding techniques and on high-risk, longer-term targets, thereby supporting the private sector and farmers with high-tech innovations.

CGIAR centers such as ICARDA and CIMMYT have worked in close collaboration with European universities and advanced research institutions for a long time to develop and adapt the most novel technologies for pre-breeding. It might also be advantageous for European private sector companies to start taking advantage of CGIAR stress-tolerant wheat varieties and develop a system similar to CAIGE used by Australian breeders. By taking advantage of similar environments in Morocco and  Mediterranean environments in Europe, European breeders can select promising germplasm of tomorrow and provide the continent’s agricultural sector with a practical defense against future heat waves.

An old/new business opportunity for Africa: Durum wheat

New breeding technologies offer great promise for expanding the area of durum wheat production in Sub Saharan Africa

This story was originally published on the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) website.

Filippo Bassi, durum wheat breeder at ICARDA Terbol station. Photo: Michael Major/Crop Trust

Durum wheat is an important food crop in the world and an endemic species of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). A new publication (Durum Wheat: Origin, Cultivation and Potential Expansion in Sub-Saharan Africa – May 2019, 20 pages) convincingly demonstrates that the potential of releasing durum wheat varieties adapted to all growing conditions of SSA, from the oases of the Sahara to the highlands of Ethiopia – is substantial.

In the highlands of Ethiopia and the oases of the Sahara this crop has been cultivated for thousands of years. Today, smallholder farmers still grow it on marginal lands to assure production for their own consumption. However, durum wheat is no longer just a staple crop for food security but has become a major cash crop. In fact, the pasta, burghul and couscous industry currently purchase durum grain at prices 10 to 20% higher than that of bread wheat. Africa as a whole imports over €4 billion per year of durum grain to provide the raw material for its food industry. Hence, African farmers could obtain a substantial share of this large market by turning their production to this crop.

“A participatory approach, that uses the farmers themselves to guide the breeding decisions helps hugely in achieving success. A simple example was for an advanced line that I really liked: the yield was very high, the grains very big, and it had very good disease resistance. Still, when I showed it to farmers they did not like it. The main reason was that it was too short, and they could not get enough straw to feed their livestock. This is but an example on how incorporating farmers’ opinions save me from investing a lot of efforts in releasing and promoting a variety that would have never made it to cultivation”.

Challenges and promises

New breeding technologies offer great promise for expanding the area of durum wheat production in SSA. However, this remains primarily dependent on the market ability to purchase these grains at a higher price to stimulate farmer adoption. Because of its industrial nature, durum wheat has often been disregarded by SSA policy makers in favor of bread wheat as a more direct “food security” approach. Considering that the most cultivated durum varieties are more than 30 years old, there is a significant genetic yield gap that could be filled through the release and commercialization of more modern varieties.

A significant effort has been made to expand the production of improved durum wheat cultivars to supply raw materials to the food industries.  The pasta producers used to rely on massive importation of durum wheat grains, which was not a sustainable long-term business strategy due to high and volatile costs. Further, the purchase of foreign grains competed with other national priorities for the use of governmental hard currency stocks.

Meeting the industrial standards

Recent investments in the pasta industry are proving extremely promising in Ethiopia thanks to new food habits of the growing urban populations, which are looking for fast and tasty foods, while still cheap and nutritious. The Ethiopian Millers Association has eagerly explored the possibility to procure the needed raw material directly from local farmers to reduce production costs and increase competitiveness against foreign pasta imports. Unfortunately, the local production did not guarantee sufficient rheological grain quality to satisfy the industrial needs. In fact, grain of tetraploid landraces does not meet industrial standards in terms of color or protein quality.

Hence, specific incentives needed to be provided to farmers to obtain industrial-grade harvests. The scope of the Ethiopian-Italian cooperation project for the Agricultural Value Chain in Oromia (AVCPO) was to re-direct some of the already existing bread wheat production system of the Bale zone toward the more lucrative farming of durum wheat for the industry.

The process acted on the key elements required by the pasta industry to stabilize and self-sustain the value chain: (a) competitive price, (b) high rheological quality for conversion into pasta, (c) easy and timely delivery, (d) consistent stock of grains and predictable increases over years.

For more information, please contact ICARDA’s F.Bassi@cgiar.org

Modern wheat breeding benefits high- and low-input farmers, study shows

Study results underscore the value of CIMMYT’s breeding programs.

Farmer Gashu Lema’s son harvests improved variety “Kubsa” wheat, Gadulla village, Mojo Ethiopia 2015. Photo: CIMMYT/P. Lowe

This story by Marcia MacNeil was originally posted on CIMMYT.org.

A recent article in the journal Nature Plants validates the work of wheat breeders who produce yield-boosting varieties for farmers across a range of incomes and environments. 

Based on a rigorous large-scale study spanning five decades of wheat breeding progress under cropping systems with low, medium and high fertilizer and chemical plant protection usage, the authors conclude that modern wheat breeding practices aimed at high-input farming systems have promoted genetic gains and yield stability across a wide range of environments and management conditions.

In other words, wheat breeding benefits not only large-scale and high-input farmers but also resource-poor, smallholder farmers who do not use large amounts of fertilizer, fungicide, and other inputs. 

This finding underscores the efficiency of a centralized breeding effort to improve livelihoods across the globe – the philosophy behind the breeding programs of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) over the past 50 years.

It also contradicts a commonly held belief that breeding for intensive systems is detrimental to performance under more marginal growing environments, and refutes an argument by Green Revolution critics that breeding should be targeted to resource-poor farmers.

In a commentary published in the same Nature Plants issue, two CIMMYT scientists — Hans Braun, director of CIMMYT’s global wheat program and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat and Matthew Reynolds, CIMMYT wheat physiologist – note the significance of the study.

“Given that wheat is the most widely grown crop in the world, sown annually on around 220 million ha and providing approximately 20% of human calories and protein, the social and economic implications are large,“ they state.

Among other implications,

  • The study found that modern breeding has reduced groups of genes (haplotypes) with negative or neutral effects – a finding which will help breeders combine positive haplotypes in the future, including for hybrid breeding.
  • The study demonstrates the benefits of breeding for overall yield potential, which — given that wheat is grown over a wider range of environments, altitudes and latitudes than any other crop, with widely ranging agronomic inputs – has significant cost-saving implications.

Braun and Reynolds acknowledge that the longstanding beliefs challenged by this study have a range of influences, from concern about rural livelihoods, to the role of corporate agribusiness and the capacity of Earth’s natural resources to sustain 10 billion people. 

While they welcome the conclusions as a validation of their work, they warn against seeing the study as “a rubber stamp for all things ‘high-input’” and encourage openness to new ideas as the need arises.

“If the climate worsens, as it seems destined to, we must certainly be open to new ways of doing business in crop improvement, while having the common sense to embrace proven technologies, ” they conclude.   

CIMMYT global partnership fights mutating wheat rust

Kenya research station offers a unique wheat science platform with global impact

By Joshua Masinde

KALRO staff selecting and taping promising wheat plants with resistance to stem rust disease at the wheat stem rust phenotyping facility in Njoro. Photo: Joshua Masinde/CIMMYT.

Stem rust, which occurs mainly in warm and humid conditions, is a serious biotic threat to wheat that can destroy healthy plants just a few weeks before harvest, resulting in huge yield losses to farmers. Along with leaf rust and stripe rust, it is the among the world’s most threatening wheat fungal diseases, dreaded by farmers for centuries.

Two decades ago, a virulent race of stem rust — identified as Ug99 — was identified in Uganda. The race went on to cause major epidemics in Kenya in 2002 and 2004. It continues to evolve and emerge into new races. Ug99 and its variants have since spread across East African highlands to South Africa, and to Yemen and Iran, threatening regional food security.

To tackle this stem rust pathogen, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and Cornell University established the International Stem Rust Phenotyping Platform in Njoro, Nakuru County, Kenya, in collaboration with the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) through the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project in 2008.

Stem rust resistant (left) and susceptible (right) wheat plants at the stem rust phenotyping facility in Njoro, Nakuru County in Kenya. Photo: Joshua Masinde/CIMMYT.

Over the past decade, wheat breeders and pathologists have worked collaboratively at the facility to stay ahead of this fast-evolving wheat stem rust fungus. This partnership has resulted in the release of over 150 wheat lines around the world, with resistance to Ug99 and its variants. The development of these high-yielding varieties suitable to various agro-ecologies has been possible with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Department for International Development (DFID) initially through the DRRW project, and presently as part of the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) project, managed by Cornell University.

Phenotyping – the use of field-testing technology to identify desired plant traits – is a core component in the facility. The facility uses the CIMMYT Mexico-Kenya shuttle breeding system to quickly evaluate and select wheat lines for stem rust resistance. It also evaluates wheat germplasm from different countries, and “mapping populations” — crosses of diverse parents — to identify and characterize new sources of rust resistance.  

Shuttle breeding

The CIMMYT Mexico-Kenya shuttle breeding system allows breeders to plant at two locations to rapidly advance new plant generations and expose the wheat to different stresses (abiotic and biotic). Testing in Obregon yields wheat lines adaptable to different agro-ecological zones, and with resistance to local races of leaf rust and stem rust pathogen, while additional testing in Kenya enhances stem rust resistance to Ug99 and its variants. This enables the Njoro facility to screen and select about 1,500-2,000 segregating wheat populations over the course of two seasons.

“Through the CIMMYT Mexico-Kenya shuttle breeding, continuous testing of wheat germplasm, speed breeding and use of modern marker technologies for genomic selection, we innovate continuously to develop improved wheat lines with a package of desired traits in a much shorter period of time,” explained Mandeep Randhawa, CIMMYT wheat breeder and wheat rust pathologist.

Scientists at the facility evaluate about 10,000 lines from yield trials for stem rust resistance over two seasons. The best performing lines undergo second year of yield tests under five different environments in Obregon, Mexico:  full irrigation, drought, flat bed, raised bed and heat stress. Breeders then select and compile high-yielding lines and distribute them as international nurseries to national partners with the help of CIMMYT’s germplasm bank.

Wheat plants infested with stem rust. Photo: Joshua Masinde/CIMMYT.

The Njoro screening facility has a capacity of testing 50,000 wheat lines in a year. As many as 20 countries send their germplasm to the facility for stem rust evaluation. About 600,000 wheat lines have been evaluated at Njoro over the last 10 years.

The critical challenge for breeders is to combine all desirable traits into single lines in a shorter period: say five, instead of 10 years. Such elaborate breeding efforts require sustained support and international cooperation to develop high-yielding stress resilient lines suited to various agro-ecologies. 

Training and capacity building for researchers and national programs

The Njoro facility plays a major capacity-building role for partner scientists, and MSc and PhD students. CIMMYT trains and equips early career scientists to better prepare them to deal with possible new epidemics, with an annual training targeting 20-25 early-career scientists from across the world. Last year’s training took place on October 1-9, 2018, as part of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation- and DFID-funded DGGW project (under the “talent pipeline” objective) managed through Cornell University.

In the last decade, CIMMYT has trained over 200 scientists from national research programs.

“In addition to imparting knowledge on new techniques in wheat breeding and genetics,” said Mandeep, “we normally use such opportunities to train the scientists on evaluating germplasm for stem rust resistance and standardizing stem rust note taking.”

“With such a partnership, it is easier and more cost-effective to train our local wheat researchers as opposed to sending them to all the way to Mexico. We have had a good number of young scientists trained at this facility as a result of this valuable partnership with CIMMYT,” said Ruth Wanyera, principal research scientist at KALRO.

Strengthening national programs better prepares them to put improved lines to appropriate use in the field – a core mandate of CIMMYT accomplished through the Njoro facility.

Discovering the value of “lost” wheat landraces

Efforts to preserve wheat biodiversity help crops, farmers and consumers

For more than 8000 years in an area that now includes Turkey and Afghanistan hundreds of local varieties — or landraces— evolved to be uniquely adapted to their environment and ideally suited for local production and consumption.  Over the years, for economic reasons, many farmers have adopted higher-yielding modern varieties, with only small subsistence farmers in remote areas still growing ancient landraces.  In Turkey, for example, a 2009 study showed the share of local landraces was under 1 percent of the total wheat production area.

Finding, identifying and conserving these local varieties not only safeguards the great biodiversity of wheat in the world, but also helps state of the art efforts to develop resistance to pests and disease, tolerance to environmental stresses and more nutritious wheat.

A selection of ancient wheat landraces found in Turkey. Photo: FAO

In a 5-year project supported by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture Benefit-Sharing Fund, wheat researchers from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), such as winter wheat breeder and head of the Turkey-based International Winter Wheat Improvement Program Alex Morgunov, combed the countryside of Turkey for ancient wheat varieties.  Between 2009 and 2014 they identified around 162 local landraces in Turkey alone. 

Now a new project, Wheat Landraces, supported by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture,  has expanded to more countries in this region, where wheat plays an important role in food security and landraces continue to be cultivated.  Researchers from CIMMYT and Turkey’s Bahri Dagdas International Agricultural Research Institute are selecting the most promising wheat landraces collected from farmers in those remote regions and using them to develop new, more resilient wheat germplasm for breeding and research.

To complete the cycle, they plan to distribute the seeds of these improved landraces to farming communities in the target provinces and offer training on sustainably cultivating their unique landraces to maintain biodiversity in their fields.  

“These landraces are very important to small farmers in remote mountainous regions,” said Morgunov.  “And they are rich source of genetic traits to fight future threats to wheat production.”

“We are honored to help farmers keep these varieties alive in their fields.”

Transporting harvested local wheat landraces in Turkey. Photo: Alex Morgunov, CIMMYT

Diversity is beneficial for not only wheat health, but human health as well. A conference this fall in Istanbul will bring wheat researchers and the health community together to share progress and discuss strategies for improving the health benefits of wheat using diverse genetic resources.


The Wheat Landraces project is led by CIMMYT and supported by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture Benefit-Sharing Fund.  

MARPLE team awarded for international impact

Research team behind a revolutionary field test for wheat disease wins prestigious BBSRC prize

International Impact winners Diane Saunders and Dave Hodson with Malcolm Skingle, director of Academic Liaison, GlaxoSmithKline and Melanie Welham, executive chair of BBSRC. Photo ©BBSRC

The research team behind the MARPLE (Mobile And Real-time PLant disEase) diagnostic kit won the international impact category of the annual Innovator of the Year Awards sponsored by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

The team — Diane Saunders of the John Innes Centre (JIC), Dave Hodson of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and Tadessa Daba of the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) — was presented with the award at a high-profile event at the London Science Museum on 15 May 2019 before an audience of leading figures from the worlds of investment, industry, government, charity and academia, including Chris Skidmore MP, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation.

The BBSRC Innovator of the Year awards, now in their 11th year, recognize and support individuals or teams who have taken discoveries in bioscience and translated them to deliver impact. Reflecting the breadth of research that BBSRC supports, they are awarded in four categories of impact: commercial, societal, international and early career.

Diane Saunders of John Innes Centre and Dave Hodson of CIMMYT pose with the MARPLE diagnostics kit. Credit: JIC

As finalists in the international impact category, Saunders, Hodson and Daba were among a select group of 12 finalists competing for the prestigious Innovator of the Year 2019 award. In addition to international recognition, they received a £10,000 award.

“I am delighted that this work has been recognized,” said Hodson. “Wheat rusts are a global threat to agriculture, and to the livelihoods of farmers in developing countries such as Ethiopia. MARPLE diagnostics puts state of the art, rapid diagnostic results in the hands of those best placed to respond: researchers on the ground, local government and farmers.”

MARPLE diagnostics is the first operational system in the world using nanopore sequence technology for rapid diagnostics and surveillance of complex fungal pathogens in the field.

In its initial work in Ethiopia, the suitcase-sized field test kit has positioned the country, among the region’s top wheat producers, as a world leader in pathogen diagnostics and forecasting. Generating results within 48 hours of field sampling, the kit represents a revolution in plant disease diagnostics with far-reaching implications for how plant health threats are identified and tracked into the future.

The MARPLE mobile lab in Ethiopia. Credit: JIC

MARPLE is designed to run at a field site without constant electricity and with the varying temperatures of the field.

“This means we can truly take the lab to the field,” explained Saunders. “Perhaps more importantly though, it means that smaller, less resourced labs can drive their own research without having to rely on a handful of large, well-resourced labs and sophisticated expertise in different countries.”

In a recent interview with JIC, EIAR Director Tadessa Daba said, “We want to see this project being used on the ground, to show farmers and the nation this technology works.”



Development of the MARPLE diagnostic kit was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture Inspire Challenge. Continued support is also provided by the BBSRC Excellence with Impact Award to the John Innes Centre and the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat project led by Cornell University International Programs that is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

More information on the JIC-CIMMYT-EIAR team’s BBSRC recognition can be found on the JIC website, the BBSRC website and the website of the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat.

WHEAT contributes to G20 agricultural research agenda

Wheat spikes damaged by blast. Photo: CIMMYT

Lead agricultural scientists from G20 member countries gathered in Tokyo, Japan last month to discuss ways to promote science and technology as mechanisms to support the global food system.

The Meeting of Agricultural Chief Scientists (MACS), which took place on April 25-26 in Tokyo, focused on identifying global research priorities in agriculture and ways to facilitate collaboration among G20 members and with relevant stakeholders.  The purpose is to develop a global agenda ahead of the May 11-12 meeting of G20 Agricultural Ministers.

CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) Program Manager Victor Kommerell was among the attendees.

“It is essential to advocate for science-based decision making,” he said. “Better connecting the dots between national agricultural research agendas and the CGIAR international agenda is important. The G20 wheat initiative and WHEAT have made a good start.”

The threat of pests and the importance of adopting climate smart technology came up as high priorities.

Transboundary pests have become a serious threat to food security, exacerbated by the globalized movement of people and commodities and the changing climate. As Kommerell commented to the attendees, pathogens and pests cause global crop losses of 20 to 30 percent. This has a “double penalty” effect, wasting both food and resources invested in farming inputs.

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) is particularly focused on pests and diseases threatening maize and wheat, such as Fall armyworm and wheat rust and blast.  Kommerell summarized a number of research-based solutions underway thanks to international collaboration – including building globally-accessible rapid screening facilities and using wild crop relatives as a genetic source for resistance. But non-technical solutions, such as boosting awareness and communicating preventative farming practices are also important.

The agricultural field is especially vulnerable to the effects of changing climate and weather variability, while at the same time heavily contributing as a source of greenhouse gases. Innovative agricultural technologies and practices are essential for sustainable production, climate resilience and carbon sequestration as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  

The key, the attendees concluded in a meeting communiqué, is the open and international exchange of knowledge, experience, and practices. Networks are already in place, but need strengthening at both the regional and international level.

To that end, a task force led by Australia and the United States will develop guidelines for working groups and initiatives designed to mitigate pests and scale adoption of climate smart technologies.

The government of Japan is also taking an active role, with plans to hold international conferences this year to facilitate sharing of experiences, research, and best practices from G20 countries.

Q&A with Mandeep Randhawa, CIMMYT wheat rust expert at Njoro Platform, Kenya

Photo Credit: Chris Knight, Cornell University

As a part of a global network to combat the Ug99 race of wheat stem rust, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), in collaboration with Cornell University and the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), established a stem rust phenotyping platform in Njoro, Kenya in 2008.

Under the aegis of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project and with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the platform evaluates the resistance of germplasm against Ug99 from 25 to 30 countries around the world.

Mandeep Randhawa — a wheat breeder and geneticist — joined CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program in 2015 and took responsibility as manager of the Njoro wheat stem rust phenotyping platform in 2017.

In the following Q&A —  based on an interview with Chris Knight of Cornell University’s Borlaug Global Rust Initiative — Mandeep talks about his role and his thoughts on global wheat production and the fight against Ug99.

Q: Could you describe the significance of the work that goes on here to global wheat production and global food security with respect to wheat?

A: CIMMYT has a global mandate to serve developing countries in terms of developing new wheat and maize varieties. Under the CIMMYT-Kenya shuttle breeding program, seed of about 2000 segregated populations are imported and evaluated against stem rust races for two seasons in Njoro, and spikes from resistant plants of each cross are selected, harvested and threshed together. Then, seed from each cross is shipped back to Obregon [the Campo Experimental Norman E. Borlaug in Obregon, Mexico].

In Obregon, CIMMYT selects for resistance against leaf rust and stem rust diseases using the local rust races. Plants are selected in Obregon and about 90,000 to 100,000 plants harvested. After grain selection, 40,000 to 50,000 small plots are grown in other testing sites in Mexico where another round of selections are made. About 10,000 lines undergo first year yield trials in Obregon, and are tested for stem rust resistance here in Kenya for two seasons.

After combining data from the various test sites with the stem rust score from Kenya, the top performing lines (about 10%) undergo second year yield tests in Obregon.

These high-yielding lines are distributed internationally to our national partners, and are available to the public for use in breeding program for release as potential varieties.  

I believe that it is helpful to develop new varieties with higher yield to benefit mankind.

Q: Twenty years have now passed since Ug99 was first identified. One way to frame the story is how high the stakes were at the time. If we didn’t have this screening platform, if we hadn’t come together around trying to fight Ug99, what would have happened to global wheat production?

This is a good question. We have done so much for the last 10 years using this platform. We are developing high-yielding lines that are rust resistant, which are benefiting not only the world’s wheat community, but will eventually benefit the farmer and help raise global wheat production. If we had not acted at the right time, we would not be able to know the effect of these emerging races and how they’re evolving and affecting the world of our wheat. If we didn’t have proper surveillance on rusts, we wouldn’t be able to know what types of stem rust races are evolving.

If we did not have this platform, we would see wheat varieties simply killed by stem rust and we wouldn’t have enough resources to tackle it today.

Now we are at a place where several Ug99-resistant genes have been identified – they are very useful in the breeding programs.

There are two types of resistance. One is race specific resistance and another is race non-specific resistance. If you deploy race specific resistance, there is always the fear that these genes will be rendered ineffective because of the evolution of new races. It has been seen in East Africa with the wheat varieties Robin and Digelu that were rendered susceptible with the emergence of virulent strains of wheat stem rust pathogen. To avoid sudden breakdown of resistance, we at CIMMYT are working to identify, characterize and combine race non-specific type of rust resistance sources. Race non-specific resistance is considered more durable. At least four to five genes need to be combined in one cultivar to have a stronger immunity or resistance.

Q: Let’s talk a little bit about the future. We’ve made a lot of progress, we’ve developed this platform, we brought a community of more than 25 countries together to work on this problem. What do we need to do in the next 20 years?

Stem rust was considered a disease prevalent in warmer environments, but now we can see that races have also evolved in Europe, which means that stem rust is adapting to cooler climates. In the near future, or in the next 20 years, I think we have to continue testing wheat germplasm at this platform to develop high-yielding rust resistant varieties that can be released in different countries, which will be helpful to the global wheat community. And globally speaking, it will be helpful to increase our wheat production.

Q: That’s really exciting. Thinking about the number of wheat lines that are screened here, how many wheat lines are screened here every year, and how many countries do we serve?

When the platform initially formed, my predecessors struggled a lot. It was very hard to plant wheat here. Now we have progressed in the last ten years to reach a level that we can test about 25,000 lines in one season. We have two seasons here in Kenya: one is the off-season starting from January to April/May, and then the main season starts from June and goes to the end of October. During these two seasons, about 50,000 lines per year can be tested at this platform. About 25 to 30 countries are benefitting by testing their germplasm here.

Q: We not only need to cultivate the wheat, we need to cultivate the next generation of scientists. So can you talk about the trainings that are run here on a regular basis? People from all over the world come here to learn about rust pathology and wheat breeding, right?

In the last 10 years, we have been implementing capacity building where young scientists are coming to attend a stem rust training course every year, in September and October. Every year we train about 20 to 30 young scientists from national programs in East Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and South America. Every year Dr. Bob McIntosh — he’s a living legend, an encyclopedia of rust resistance – comes over to Njoro to give field demonstrations, teach new technologies, how we can work together, how you can evaluate rust in the field and in the greenhouse. And in addition, a team of scientists from CIMMYT, ICARDA and Cornell University have been coming to provide lectures on genetics and breeding for rust resistance and rust surveys every year for the last 10 years. We have trained more than 200 scientists.

Q: Do you have a final word of motivation for all of the collaborators around the world who are supporting and helping together to achieve these goals?

We have seen in the last two decades of work here that rust never sleeps, as Dr. Norman Borlaug said. It continues to evolve, and the different races keep on moving around and tend to survive on wheat without any resistance. Not only in east Africa: you can see the stem rust is already in Europe – in Sicily, in Germany and the UK. And there is a risk to South Asia as well, as the wind is blowing toward the bread wheat producing area there. If stem rust reaches there, it can cause a huge loss to global wheat production.

So, I request that countries’ national agriculture research systems contact us: me or Ruth Wanyera, the wheat rust pathologist in KALRO  if they want to test or evaluate their material at this platform. We are more than happy to evaluate the germplasm from any country.

Mandeep can be reached at m.randhawa@cgiar.org

Reigning in the blast epidemic

Dr. J.M.C. Fernandes from Brazil explaining the working of spore trap to trainees

To build resilience against the threat of wheat blast, training sessions were held in Bangladesh to increase the reach of research findings and possible solutions as well as to educate the stakeholders involved. Since 2017, hands-on training on disease screening and surveillance of wheat blast have been organized every year in Bangladesh, with participation of national and international scientists. The third of its kind was jointly organized by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Wheat and Maize Research Institute (BWMRI), and the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) Bangladesh during 19-28 February, 2019 at Regional Agricultural Research Station, Jashore with financial support from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the Krishi Gobeshona Foundation (KGF) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The objective of the training was to learn the basic techniques of pathogen identification and its culturing, field inoculation and disease scoring and share experiences regarding combating the disease and its progress among the participants from home and abroad. Thirty five wheat scientists from China, India and Nepal as well as from BWMRI, DAE and CIMMYT in Bangladesh participated in the training.

The training was inaugurated by Kamala Ranjan Das, Additional Secretary (Research), Ministry of Agriculture, Bangladesh. The Director General of BWMRI, Dr. Naresh C. D. Barma was the Chair and Dr. T. P. Tiwari, Country Representative, CIMMYT Bangladesh and Additional Director of Jashore region of DAE were the special guests in the inaugural session. In addition to Bangladeshi experts, Dr. José Maurício C. Fernandes from Brazil, Dr. Pawan K. Singh from CIMMYT, Mexico and Dr. Timothy J. Krupnik from CIMMYT, Bangladesh presented the updates on the techniques for mitigating the disease. Dr. M. Akhteruzzaman, Deputy Director of DAE, Meherpur, who has been working very closely with wheat blast research and extension, spoke on the history and present status of wheat blast in Bangladesh. It was a unique opportunity for the trainees to listen from grass root level experience based on the real situation in the farmers’ fields.

Group photo of trainees at the precision phenotypic platform (PPP) for wheat blast at Regional Agricultural Research Station, Jashore, Bangladesh.

Wheat is especially susceptible to blast infection during warm and humid weather conditions. While the fungus infects all above ground parts of the crop, infection in spikes is most critical and responsible for yield loss. Hence, to determine whether blast is endemic to the specific region and also to assess the epidemic potential in unaffected regions, Dr. Fernandes developed a wheat blast forecasting model with support from CIMMYT Bangladesh. To collect data on the presence of wheat blast spores in the air, CIMMYT, in collaboration with BWMRI, installed four spore traps in four different wheat fields in Meherpur, Faridpur, Rajshahi and Dinajpur districts of Bangladesh. The results from these spore traps and weather parameters will help validate the wheat blast forecasting model. After final validation, the recommendation message will be sent to farmers and DAE personnel through mobile app. This will help farmers decide the perfect time for spraying fungicide to control blast effectively.

During the training participants received the hands-on experience of activities in the precision phenotypic platform (PPP) for wheat blast, where 4500 germplasm from different countries of the world and CIMMYT Mexico are being tested under artificial inoculated conditions. To keep the environment sufficiently humid, the trial is kept under mist irrigation to facilitate proper disease development. Trainees learned identification of leaf and spike symptoms of wheat blast, identification and isolation of conidia under microscope, inoculum preparation, tagging selected plants in the fields for inoculation, field inoculation of germplasms being tested at the PPP and more.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), wheat consumption in Bangladesh is 7.7 million tons as of 2018 while only 1.25 million tons are supplied domestically. Since the majority of wheat is imported, it will adversely affect the economy if the comparatively smaller amount the country produces decreases due to blast. So the impact of wheat blast is not limited to food production but affects the economy as a whole, and steps to help mitigate the disease are crucial in ensuring healthy growth of wheat yield.

Wheat blast, caused by Magnaporthe oryzae pathotype Triticum (MoT), was first discovered in Brazil in 1985 and then surprisingly appeared in the wheat fields of Bangladesh in 2016, causing 25-30% yield loss in 15,000 ha. As an immediate response to this crisis, CIMMYT and the government of Bangladesh have worked together to mitigate the disease, most notably by distributing factsheets to farmers, conducting routine follow-ups followed by the development and rapid release of blast resistant wheat variety BARI Gom 33 and tolerant varieties (BARI Gom 30 and 32) and strengthening research on blast.