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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.


Arab Women Leaders in Agriculture (Awla) fellowship program opens call for applications

This press release was originally posted on the website of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA). The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat is a program sponsor.

  • Awla fellowship program aims to help women researchers in agriculture secure leadership roles by encouraging gender-responsive working cultures and creating platforms that showcase their intellect, capability and contribution.
  • Applications can be made through www.awlafellowships.org and close on 15th April 2019.
Photo Credit: International Center for Biosaline Agriculture

Dubai, UAE, March 7, 2019 – On the eve of International Women’s Day, the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) and CGIAR Research Program on Wheat launched a call for applications for the first edition of the Arab Women Leaders in Agriculture (Awla) fellowship program for women researchers in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

The Awla fellowship program aims to help women researchers in agriculture to secure leadership roles by encouraging gender-responsive working cultures and creating platforms to showcase their intellect, capability and contribution. Awla’s first cohort will help establish the first R&D forum in the MENA to address pressing regional agricultural challenges and take part in the region’s first networking platform for women researchers across agricultural disciplines.

The call for applications will lead to the selection of a group of 20 to 30 researchers from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine and Tunisia. The program will be delivered from two regional hubs – Jordan and Tunisia – over a 10-month period, starting from 1st June 2019.

Dr. Ismahane Elouafi, Director General of ICBA, said: “Women-led contributions to agriculture, both on the farm and in the lab, are essential components of global food security. And our program is designed to address structural causes of gender inequality and encourage women to take an active role in future scientific developments and innovation. Tapping women’s knowledge and potential today will set the world on course for a more sustainable and food-secure future.”

H.E. Dr. Bandar Hajjar, President of the IsDB, said: “We are delighted to be partnering in launching this new program, which is a solid step in making sure no one is left behind. At the IsDB, we are focused on putting in place the next steps to help achieve gender parity and the Awla fellowship program is a welcome addition to the number of high-profile projects we have launched and designed to promote women and women’s empowerment, along with our IsDB Prize for Women’s Contribution to Development”.

Mr. Hassan Damluji, Deputy Director – Global Policy & Advocacy and Head of Middle East Relations at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said: “This year’s call to action for International Women’s Day is to build a gender-balanced world – and that’s precisely what Awla aims to do for regional agricultural research and development. By providing female researchers with the resources needed to build their skills and networks and a platform to be heard, the program aims to address the gender gap in agricultural R&D and create a more balanced playing field for women and men. This will improve the quality and impact of agricultural research in MENA overall, resulting in more solutions to the region’s most pressing challenges.

“We’re delighted to partner with ICBA and the IsDB on a fellowship program that will produce a wave of skilled, empowered and well-connected female researchers. This first cohort will play a key role in the success and sustainability of the program, and we encourage all candidates from across the focus countries to apply.”  

Mr. Victor Kommerell, Program Manager for the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat, remarked: “We are excited to work together with Awla. We have the same interest – building female science power in the MENA region. Naturally, WHEAT’s focus is on social or natural sciences research connected to wheat-based systems. Awla is the larger program and WHEAT can fit right in. Together, we can build critical mass in a few years’ time.”

Empirical evidence indicates that a disproportionately low number of women work in senior research and leadership positions in the region. The average share of women researchers across the region stands at 17% – the lowest in the world. This gap is most visible in the staffing of agricultural research and extension organizations, despite women making up more than 40% of the labor force in the sector. This means that policy and investment measures in agriculture might not be as effective as they could be because they do not fully reflect gender perspectives.

ICBA developed Awla in 2016 with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the IsDB. The program aims to contribute to the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on gender equality and women’s empowerment by building and enhancing the capacities of a new generation of Arab women researchers and leaders. By doing so, Awla aspires to have a positive impact on the SDGs on Climate Action; Life on Land; and Partnerships for the Goals.

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About ICBA
The International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) is a unique applied agricultural research center in the world with a focus on marginal areas where an estimated 1.7 billion people live. It identifies, tests and introduces resource-efficient, climate-smart crops and technologies that are best suited to different regions affected by salinity, water scarcity and drought. Through its work, ICBA helps to improve food security and livelihoods for some of the poorest rural communities around the world.
www.biosaline.org

About the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Guided by the belief that every life has equal value, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy and productive lives. Through collaboration and partnership, the foundation helps fund research and programs to benefit those living in poverty all around the globe. The foundation works with partners in the Middle East to address the needs of the most vulnerable people through investments in disease eradication, emergency relief and agricultural research, as well as providing support to the philanthropic and development aid sectors.
https://www.gatesfoundation.org/

About IsDB
The Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) Group is one of the world’s largest multilateral development banks that has been working for over 40 years to improve the lives of the communities that it serves by delivering impact at scale.
The Bank brings together 57-member countries across four continents touching the lives of 1 in every 5 of the world’s population.
Rated AAA by the three major rating agencies of the world, the IsDB Mission is to equip people to drive their own economic and social progress at scale, putting the infrastructure in place to enable them to fulfil their potential.
The IsDB builds collaborative partnerships among communities and nations, and work towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by harnessing the power of science, technology and innovation and fostering ethical and sustainable solutions to the world’s greatest development challenges.
Over the years, the Islamic Development Bank has evolved from a single entity into a group (IsDB Group) comprising five entities: Islamic Development Bank (IsDB), the Islamic Research and Training Institute (IRTI), the Islamic Corporation for the Development of the Private Sector (ICD), the Islamic Corporation for the Insurance of Investment and Export Credit (ICIEC), and the International Islamic Trade Finance Corporation (ITFC).
www.isdb.org

About CGIAR Research Program on Wheat
Joining advanced science with field-level research and extension in lower- and middle-income countries, the
Agri-Food Systems CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) works with public and private organizations worldwide to raise the productivity, production and affordable availability of wheat for 2.5 billion resource-poor producers and consumers who depend on the crop as a staple food. 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 for WHEAT comes from CGIAR and national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies, in particular the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). www.wheat.org

Press enquiries:
ICBA
Mr. Showkat Nabi Rather, ICBA, Dubai, UAE: s.rather@biosaline.org.ae, or +971 55 137 8653

IsDB
Mr. Muhammad Jameel Yusha’U, IsDB, Jeddah, KSA: myushau@isdb.org, or +966126466421


Applications now open for journalist training at International Wheat Congress

Aerial photo of Saskatoon. Photo credit: IWC

The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) is sponsoring 10 journalists based in developing countries — with travel, registration and accommodation— to attend the International Wheat Congress, the premiere international gathering of scientists working on wheat research, taking place July 21-26, 2019 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

The 10 journalists will be selected based on the following criteria:

  • writing experience and skills
  • interest in the topic
  • established media credentials
  • recommendation by the editor of a publication for which they have written
  • plans to publish future articles on wheat research.

Selected journalists will travel to Saskatchewan to attend the conference proceedings and participate in exclusive training, mentoring and networking activities aimed at building working relationships between journalists and researchers in developing countries, and facilitating greater awareness and enhanced media coverage of wheat science, agricultural innovations and food security.

Journalists will have the opportunity to learn about cutting-edge scientific projects and achievements in wheat, and to network and learn from communicators, researchers and fellow journalists working on the topic of food security. 

Wheat provides 20 percent of the calories and protein people consume globally, and livelihoods for an estimated 80 million farmers in the developing world. Demand for wheat is growing rapidly — by 2050 it is predicted to increase by 70 percent – while crop production is challenged by pests, diseases and climate change-related heat and drought.  

Wheat scientists are working on cutting-edge solutions to build farmers’ resilience to these challenges, including developing disease-resistant, nutritious and climate-resilient wheat varieties, sharing sustainable farming practices and conserving biodiversity.

The media play an important role in raising awareness of the challenges facing farmers — and the importance of research that helps them. 

The International Wheat Congress will bring an expected 1000 attendees to participate in sessions with more than 100 speakers from the wheat research community, covering issues from wheat growing areas throughout the world. Topics will include wheat diversity and genetic resources; genomics; breeding, physiology and technologies; environmental sustainability and management of production systems; resistance to stresses; and nutrition, safety and health.

Applications should be submitted online through this online form by Friday, March 22, 2019 (deadline extended.)

https://cimmyt.formstack.com/forms/iwc_journalist_application_form

For any questions or issues, contact wheatcrp@cgiar.org.

Joining advanced science with field-level research and extension in lower- and middle-income countries, the Agri-Food Systems CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) works with public and private organizations worldwide to raise the productivity, production and affordable availability of wheat for 2.5 billion resource-poor producers and consumers who depend on the crop as a staple food.  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 for WHEAT comes from CGIAR and national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies, in particular the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR),  the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). www.wheat.org

The Benefits of U.S. Investment in Global Wheat Research Collaboration

This article by Elizabeth Westendorf, Assistant Director of Policy at U.S. Wheat Associates, was originally posted on USWheat.org 

Photo: U.S. Wheat Associates

Seventy-five years ago, the seeds of the Green Revolution were planted when Norman Borlaug began his work on wheat breeding in Mexico. The success of that effort, which was a partnership between the Mexican government and the Rockefeller Foundation, led to the eventual founding of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

In 1971, CGIAR was established as an umbrella organization to create an international consortium of research centers. CIMMYT was one of the first research centers supported through the CGIAR, which today includes 15 centers around the world with a local presence in 70 countries. Each center focuses on unique challenges, but they are all driven by three broad strategic goals: to reduce poverty; to improve food and nutrition security; and to improve natural resources and ecosystem services.

For 50 years, wheat has been one of the core crops of CGIAR’s focus. CGIAR receives annual funding of about $30 million for wheat, and the economic benefits of that wheat breeding research range from $2.2 to $3.1 billion. This is a benefit-cost ratio of at least 73 to 1 — for every $1 spent in CGIAR wheat research funding, there is more than $73 in economic benefits to global wheat farmers. CIMMYT’s international wheat improvement programs generate $500 million per year in economic benefits. Globally, nearly half of the wheat varieties planted are CGIAR-related; in South, Central and West Asia and North Africa, that number rises to 70 to 80 percent of wheat varieties. When wheat supplies 20 percent of protein and calories in diets worldwide, CGIAR wheat research can have a major impact on the livelihoods of the world’s most poor people.

CGIAR Research Centers have also led to significant benefits for U.S. farmers as well. Approximately 60 percent of the wheat acreage planted in the U.S. uses CGIAR-related wheat varieties. CIMMYT wheat improvement spillovers in the United States repay the total U.S. contribution to CIMMYT’s wheat improvement research budget by a rate of up to 40 to 1. Another partner, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), has delivered innovations that protect U.S. farmers from crop losses due to destructive pests, and has also partnered with CIMMYT to develop the One Global Wheat Program under CGIAR.

One aspect of the CGIAR success story in the United States is about partnership. Public U.S. universities around the country have partnered with CGIAR on agricultural research, to the benefit of U.S. farmers and farmers worldwide. This partnership allows for knowledge transfer and idea-sharing on a global scale. USW is proud that many of our member states have universities that have partnered with CGIAR on wheat projects.

The news is not all good, however. As we anticipate world population growing to 10 billion in 2050, the demand for wheat is expected to increase by 50 percent. To meet that demand, wheat yields must increase by 1.6 percent annually. Currently they are increasing by less than 1 percent annually. There is plenty of work to do to continue Borlaug’s mission of achieving food security. CGIAR Research Centers will continue to play a critical role in that effort.

The United States’ investment in CGIAR Research Programs makes a vital contribution to agricultural improvements and fosters partnerships with U.S. public research universities, international research centers, private sector partnerships and others. Partnerships with CGIAR make it possible to do the win-win collaborative wheat research that helps meet global food needs, brings tremendous economic benefits to U.S. agriculture and leverages U.S. research dollars.

We invite our stakeholders and overseas customers to learn more about this important partnership and the benefits of CGIAR wheat research in part through a fact sheet posted here on the USW website.

Assessing the effectiveness of a “wheat holiday” for preventing blast

Policy to encourage alternative crops for wheat farmers in South Asia a short-term solution at best, say CIMMYT researchers

The grain in this blast-blighted wheat head has been turned to chaff.
Photo: CKnight/ DGGW/ Cornell University

Wheat blast — one of the world’s most devastating wheat diseases — is moving swiftly into new territory in South Asia.

In an attempt to curb the spread of this disease, policymakers in the region are considering a “wheat holiday” policy: banning wheat cultivation for a few years in targeted areas. Since wheat blast’s Magnaporthe oryzae pathotype triticum (MoT) fungus can survive on seeds for up to 22 months, the idea is to replace wheat with other crops, temporarily, to cause the spores to die. In India, which shares a border of more than 4,000 km with Bangladesh, the West Bengal state government has already instituted a two-year ban on wheat cultivation in two districts, as well as all border areas. In Bangladesh, the government is implementing the policy indirectly by discouraging wheat cultivation in the severely blast affected districts.

CIMMYT researchers recently published in two ex-ante studies to identify economically feasible alternative crops in Bangladesh and the bordering Indian state of West Bengal.

Alternate crops

The first step to ensuring that a ban does not threaten the food security and livelihoods of smallholder farmers, the authors assert, is to supply farmers with economically feasible alternative crops.

In Bangladesh, the authors examined the economic feasibility of seven crops as an alternative to wheat, first in the entire country, then in 42 districts vulnerable to blast, and finally in ten districts affected by wheat blast. Considering the cost of production and revenue per hectare, the study ruled out boro rice, chickpeas and potatoes as feasible alternatives to wheat due to their negative net return. In contrast, they found that cultivation of maize, lentils, onions, and garlic could be profitable.

The study in India looked at ten crops grown under similar conditions as wheat in the state of West Bengal, examining the economic viability of each. The authors conclude that growing maize, lentils, legumes such aschickpeas and urad bean, rapeseed, mustard and potatoes in place of wheat appears to be profitable, although they warn that more rigorous research and data are needed to confirm and support this transition.

Selecting alternative crops is no easy task. Crops offered to farmers to replace wheat must be appropriate for the agroecological zone and should not require additional investments for irrigation, inputs or storage facilities. Also, the extra production of labor-intensive and export-oriented crops, such as maize in India and potatoes in Bangladesh, may add costs or require new markets for export.

There is also the added worry that the MoT fungus could survive on one of these alternative crops, thus completely negating any benefit of the “wheat holiday.” The authors point out that the fungus has been reported to survive on maize.

A short-term solution?

In both studies, the authors discourage a “wheat holiday” policy as a holistic solution. However, they leave room for governments to pursue it on an interim and short-term basis.

In the case of Bangladesh, the researchers assert that a “wheat holiday” would increase the country’s reliance on imports, especially in the face of rapidly increasing wheat demand and urbanization. A policy that results in complete dependence on wheat imports, they point out, may not be politically attractive or feasible. Also, the policy would be logistically challenging to implement. Finally, since the disease can potentially survive on other host plants, such as weeds and maize—it may not even work in the long run.

In the interim, the government of Bangladesh may still need to rely on the “wheat holiday” policy in the severely blast-affected districts. In these areas, they should encourage farmers to cultivate lentils, onions and garlic. In addition, in the short term, the government should make generic fungicides widely available at affordable prices and provide an early warning system as well as adequate information to help farmers effectively combat the disease and minimize its consequences.

In the case of West Bengal, India, similar implications apply – although the authors conclude that the “wheat holiday” policy could only work if Bangladesh has the same policy in its blast-affected border districts, which would involve potentially difficult and costly inter-country collaboration, coordination and logistics.

Actions for long-term success

The CIMMYT researchers urge the governments of India and Bangladesh, their counterparts in the region and international stakeholders to pursue long-term solutions, including developing a convenient diagnostic tool for wheat blast surveillance and a platform for open data and science to combat the fungus.

A promising development is the blast-resistant (and zinc-enriched) wheat variety BARI Gom 33 which the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) released in 2017 with support from CIMMYT.However, it will take at least three to five years before it will be available to farmers throughout Bangladesh. The authors urged international donor agencies to speed up the multiplication process of this variety.

CIMMYT scientists in both studies close with an urgent plea for international financial and technical support for collaborative research on disease epidemiology and forecasting, and the development and dissemination of new wheat blast-tolerant and resistant varieties and complementary management practices – crucial steps to ensuring food security for more than a billion people in South Asia.

Read the full articles on Averting Wheat Blast by Implementing a ‘Wheat Holiday’: In Search of Alternative Crops in West Bengal, India and Alternative use of wheat land to implement a potential wheat holiday as wheat blast control: In search of feasible crops in Bangladesh

Wheat Blast Impacts

First officially reported in Brazil in 1985, where it eventually spread to 3 million hectares in South America and became the primary reason for limited wheat production in the region, wheat blast moved to Bangladesh in 2016. There it affected nearly 15,000 hectares of land in eight districts, reducing yield by as much as 51 percent in the affected fields.

Blast is devilish: directly striking the wheat ear, it can shrivel and deform the grain in less than a week from the first symptoms, leaving farmers no time to act. There are no widely available resistant varieties, and fungicides are expensive and provide only a partial defense. The disease, caused by the fungus Magnaporthe oryzae pathotype triticum (MoT), can spread through infected seeds as well as by spores that can travel long distances in the air.

South Asia has a long tradition of wheat consumption, especially in northwest India and Pakistan, and demand has been increasing rapidly across South Asia. It is the second major staple in Bangladesh and India and the principal staple food in Pakistan. Research indicates 17 percent of wheat area in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan — representing nearly 7 million hectares – is vulnerable to the disease, threatening the food security of more than a billion people.

CIMMYT and its partners work to mitigate wheat blast through projects supported by U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), the CGIAR Research Program on WHEAT, and the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture.

Women’s equality crucial for Ethiopia’s agricultural productivity and wheat self-sufficiency goals

This op-ed by CIMMYT researchers Kristie Drucza and Mulunesh Tsegaye  was originally published in the Ethiopian newspaper The Reporter .

A farmer stacking harvested wheat Dodola district, Ethiopia. Photo: CIMMYT/P. Lowe

The Government of Ethiopia recently announced an ambitious goal to reach wheat self-sufficiency by 2022, eliminating expensive wheat imports and increasing food security.

However, a new report based on a four-year research project on gender and productivity in Ethiopia’s wheat sector indicates that a lack of technical gender research capacity, a shortage of gender researchers and low implementation of gender-focused policies is hampering these efforts.

Gender equality is crucial for agricultural productivity. Women head a quarter of rural households in Ethiopia. However, faced with low or no wages, limited access to credit and constrained access to land and other resources, they produce 23 percent less per hectare than men. Women in male-headed households have even more limitations, as gender norms often exclude them from community power structures, extension services and technical programs. According to the World Bank, a failure to recognize the roles, differences and inequities between men and women poses a serious threat to the effectiveness of Ethiopia’s agricultural development agenda.

The good news is the Government of Ethiopia has taken positive steps towards encouraging gender equality, with agriculture leading the way. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed signaled his commitment to strengthening Ethiopia’s gender equality by appointing women to 50 percent of his cabinet and appointing the country’s first female president, defense minister and chief justice. The government’s Gender Equality Strategy for Ethiopia’s Agriculture Sector is a welcome improvement on past agriculture policies, and its latest Wheat Sector Development Strategy focuses on promoting women´s participation in extension and training programs. Under the leadership of Director General Mandefro Nigussie, the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) has drafted a strategy for gender mainstreaming, developed gender guidelines and recruited 100 new female scientists, constituting the highest percentage of women researchers in its history.

However, according to our research, there is a clear gap between policies and actions. Women living in male-headed households face different constraints from those in female-headed households, yet very little data exists on them. Ethiopia’s wheat strategy and other policies do not have sex-disaggregated indicators and targets. Women are seen as a homogeneous category in policy, meaning that certain groups of women miss out on assistance.

To strengthen women’s role in the agriculture sector, more internal reflection on gender and learning is required across institutions and organizations. Our new report offers a full list of recommendations for the research, policy and donor communities. Among other suggestions, we recommend that:
• the research sector move beyond surveying household heads and use diverse research methods to understand systems within farming households;
• the education ministry develop a Gender in Agriculture specialization at a national university to make progress filling the existing gaps in expertise and that
• donors invest more in gender-related agriculture research.

Ethiopia has taken great strides towards recognizing the important role of women in agricultural productivity. If it wants to become self-sufficient in wheat—and meet the sustainable development goals (SDGs)—it must make the extra effort to follow through with these efforts. At this critical time, the country cannot afford to ignore women’s needs.

The “Understanding Gender in Wheat-based Livelihoods for Enhanced WHEAT R4D Impact” project ran from 2014 to 2018 and sought to improve the focus on gender and social equity in wheat-related research and development in Ethiopia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Ethiopia, the project included analysis of literature and gender policies, a stakeholder analysis of government and non-government actors, qualitative research with 275 male and female farmers and a gender audit and capacity assessment of EIAR. 

This research was made possible by the generous financial support of BMZ — the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, Germany. 

Smallholder wheat production can cut Africa’s costly grain imports

This blog by Mike Listman was originally posted on CIMMYT.org.

International scientists are working with regional and national partners in sub-Saharan Africa to catalyze local wheat farming and help meet the rapidly rising regional demand for this crop.

The specialists are focusing on smallholder farmers in Rwanda and Zambia, offering them technical and institutional support, better links to markets, and the sharing of successful practices across regions and borders, as part of the project “Enhancing smallholder wheat productivity through sustainable intensification of wheat-based farming systems in Rwanda and Zambia.”

“Work started in 2016 and has included varietal selection, seed multiplication, and sharing of high-yielding, locally adapted, disease-resistant wheat varieties,” said Moti Jaleta, a socioeconomist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) who leads the project. “Our knowledge and successes in smallholder wheat production and marketing will also be applicable in Madagascar, Mozambique, and Tanzania.”

Harvesting wheat at Gataraga, Northern Province, Rwanda.

Maize is by far the number-one food crop in sub-Saharan Africa but wheat consumption is increasing fast, driven in part by rapid urbanization and life-style changes. The region annually imports more than 15 million tons of wheat grain, worth some US$ 3.6 billion at current prices. Only Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Africa grow significant amounts of wheat and they are still net importers of the grain.

“Growing more wheat where it makes sense to do so can help safeguard food security for people who prefer wheat and reduce dependence on risky wheat grain markets,” Jaleta explained. “We’re working in areas where there’s biophysical potential for the crop in rain-fed farming, to increase domestic wheat production and productivity through use of improved varieties and cropping practices.”

In addition to the above, participants are supporting the region’s wheat production in diverse ways:

  • Recommendations to fine-tune smallholder wheat value chains and better serve diverse farmers.
  • Testing of yield-enhancing farming practices, such as bed-and-furrow systems that facilitate efficient sowing and better weed control.
  • Testing and promotion of small-scale mechanization, such as power tillers, to save labor and improve sowing and crop establishment.
  • Exploring use of hand-held light sensors to precisely calibrate nitrogen fertilizer dosages throughout the cropping season.

Innocent Habarurema, wheat breeder in the Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Development Board (RAB), cited recent successes in the release of improved, disease resistant wheat varieties, as well as engaging smallholder farmers in seed multiplication and marketing to improve their access to quality seed of those varieties.

“The main challenge in wheat production is the short window of time between wheat seasons, which doesn’t allow complete drying of harvested plants for proper threshing, Habarurema explained. “Suitable machinery to dry and thresh the wheat would remove the drudgery of hand threshing and improve the quality of the grain, so that it fetches better prices in markets.”

Millers, like this one in Rwanda, play a key role in wheat value chains.

Critical wheat diseases in Zambia include spot blotch, a leaf disease caused by the fungus Cochliobolus sativus, and head blight caused by Fusarium spp., which can leave carcinogenic toxins in the grain, according to Batiseba Tembo, wheat breeder at the Zambian Agricultural Research Institute (ZARI).

“Developing and disseminating varieties resistant to these diseases is a priority in the wheat breeding program at Mt. Makulu Agricultural Research Center,” said Tembo. “We’re also promoting appropriate mechanization for smallholder farmers, to improve wheat production and reduce the enormous drudgery of preparing the soil with hand hoes.”

Participants in the project, which runs to 2020, met at Musanze, in Rwanda’s Northern Province, during February 5-7 to review progress and plan remaining activities, which include more widespread sharing of seed, improved practices, and other useful outcomes.

“There was interest in trying smallholder winter wheat production under irrigation in Zambia to reduce the disease effects normally experienced in rainfed cropping,” said Jaleta, adding that the costs and benefits of irrigation, which is rarely used in the region, need to be assessed.

Project participants may also include in selection trials wheat varieties that have been bred to contain enhanced grain levels of zinc, a key micronutrient missing in the diets of many rural Africa households.

“The project will also push for the fast-track release and seed multiplication of the best varieties, to get them into farmers’ hands as quickly as possible,” Jaleta said.

In addition to CIMMYT, RAB, and ZARI, implementing partners include the Center for Coordination of Agricultural Research and Development for Southern Africa (CCARDESA). Generous funding for the work comes from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat.