Inspiring millennials to focus on food security: The power of mentorship

by Mike Listman, November 13, 2018

As part of their education, students worldwide learn about the formidable challenges their generation faces, including food shortages, climate change, and degrading soil health. Mentors and educators can either overwhelm them with reality or motivate them by real stories and showing them that they have a role to play. Every year the World Food Prize lives out the latter by introducing high school students to global food issues at the annual Borlaug Dialogue, giving them an opportunity to interact with “change agents” who address food security issues. The World Food Prize offers some students an opportunity to intern at an international research center through the Borlaug-Ruan International Internship program.
Tessa Mahmoudi

Tessa Mahmoudi, plant microbiologist and 2012 World Food Prize Borlaug-Ruan summer intern, credits the mentorship of CIMMYT researchers in Turkey with changing her outlook on the potential of science to improve food security and health. (Photo: University of Minnesota).

Plant Microbiologist Tessa Mahmoudi, a 2012 World Food Prize’s Borlaug-Ruan summer intern, says her experience working with CIMMYT researchers in Turkey when she was 16 years old profoundly changed her career and her life.

“For a summer I was welcomed to Turkey not as a child, but as a scientist,” says Mahmoudi, who grew up on a farm in southeast Minnesota, USA. “My hosts, Dr. Abdelfattah A. Dababat and Dr. Gül Erginbas-Orakci, who study soil-borne pathogens and the impact those organisms have on food supplies, showed me their challenges and, most importantly, their dedication.”

Mahmoudi explains she still finds the statistics regarding the global food insecurity to be daunting but saw CIMMYT researchers making real progress. “This helped me realize that I had a role to play and an opportunity to make positive impact.”

Among other things, Mahmoudi learned what it meant to be a plant pathologist and the value of that work. “I began to ask scientific questions that mattered,” she says. “And I went back home motivated to study — not just to get good grades, but to solve real problems.”

She says her outlook on the world dramatically broadened. “I realized we all live in unique realities, sheltered by climatic conditions that strongly influence our world views.”

According to Mahmoudi, her internship at CIMMYT empowered her to get out of her comfort zone and get involved in food security issues. She joined the “hunger fighters” at the University of Minnesota while pursuing a bachelor’s in Plant Science. “I was the president of the Project Food Security Club which focuses on bring awareness of global hunger issues and encouraging involvement in solutions.” She also did research on stem rust under Matthew Rouse, winner of the World Food Prize 2018  Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application.

Pursuing a master’s in plant pathology at Texas A&M University under the supervision of Betsy Pierson, she studied the effects of plant-microbe interactions on drought tolerance and, specifically, how plant-microbe symbiosis influences root architecture and wheat’s ability to recover after suffering water stress.

Mahmoudi incorporates interactive learning activities in her class (see her website, https://reachingroots.org/). Her vision is to increase access to plant science education and encourage innovation in agriculture.Currently, Mahmoudi is involved in international development and teaching. As a horticulture lecturer at Blinn College in Texas, she engages students in the innovative use of plants to improve food security and global health.

“As a teacher and mentor, I am committed to helping students broaden their exposure to real problems because I know how much that influenced me,” Mahmoudi says. “Our world has many challenges, but great teams and projects are making progress, such as the work by CIMMYT teams around the world. We all have a role to play and an idea that we can make a reality to improve global health.”

As an example, Mahmoudi is working with the non-profit Clean Challenge on a project to improve the waste system in Haiti. The initiative links with local teams in Haiti to develop a holistic system for handling trash, including composting organic waste to empower small holder farmers to improve their soil health and food security.

“Without my mentors, I would not have had the opportunity to be involved in these high impact initiatives. Wherever you are in your career make sure you are being mentored and also mentoring. I highly encourage students to find mentors and get involved in today’s greatest challenge, increasing food security.”

In addition to thanking the CIMMYT scientists who inspired her, Mahmoudi is deeply grateful for those who made her summer internship possible. “This would include the World Food Prize Foundation and especially Lisa Fleming, Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn, the Ruan Family,” she says. “Your commitment to this high-impact, experiential learning opportunity has had lasting impact on my life.”

New study confirms the nutritional and health benefits of zinc-biofortified wheat in India

A recent study by India and US scientists shows that when vulnerable young children in India consume foods with wheat-enriched zinc, the number of days they spend sick with pneumonia and vomiting significantly diminishes.

Velu Govindan (CIMMYT) inspects zinc-fortified wheat. Photo: CIMMYT files.

An estimated 26 percent of India’s population lacks adequate micronutrients in their diets. Developed through biofortification — the breeding of crop varieties whose grain features higher levels of micronutrients — high-zinc wheat can help address micronutrient deficiencies.

The results of the study, which took place over six months, confirm zinc-enhanced wheat’s potential to improve the diets and health of disadvantaged groups who consume wheat-based foods, but the authors conclude that longer-term studies are needed.

In partnership with HarvestPlus and partners in South Asia, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) has bred and fostered the release in the region of six zinc-enhanced varieties that are spreading among farmers and seed producers.

Click here to read the full study.

The 2017 annual report of the Wheat Initiative: Achievements and transformation

The 2017 annual report of the Wheat Initiative: Achievements and transformation

The Wheat Initiative 2017 annual report describes exciting outcomes from a major assessment of the organization’s first five years. Results include changes in executive leadership, new hosting arrangements, and a revised structure and operational plan.

Amid these transformations, achievements included the initiation of the Wheat Ten Genomes Project, the publication of two volumes entitled “Achieving Sustainable Wheat Production”, a call for new projects under the International Wheat Yield Partnership, creation of a reference germplasm collection for durum wheat, and diverse advances by Expert Working Groups.

Click here to view and download the report.

Created in 2011 following endorsement from the G20 Agriculture Ministries, the Wheat Initiative provides a framework for strategic research on wheat in developed and developing countries. It fosters communication between the research community, funders and global policy makers, aiming at efficient and long-term investments for research and development goals and seeking to enhance access to information, resources and technologies.

The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat is a founding member of the Wheat Initiative.

 

Available now: The 2017 WHEAT annual report

 

In a highly readable format, the 2017 annual report of the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat presents achievements and an overview of Program finances.

In 2017, national research agencies in 19 countries released 63 new wheat varieties, derived all or in part from the research of CIMMYT and its principal WHEAT partner, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).

We thank WHEAT’s numerous partners and funders for these and many other exciting achievements. In particular, stable CGIAR Window 1 and 2 funding enables WHEAT to react quickly to urgent needs, as well as to improve program level coordination and learning, ensuring impact. The following countries and organizations are Window 1 funders of CGIAR: Australia, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Canada, France, India, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the World Bank. Funding agencies of Australia, the United Kingdom (DFID), USA (USAID), and China contribute vital Window 2 funding.

To read the full report, please click here.

See also a detailed, technical report on 2017 WHEAT activities, finances and achievements submitted to CGIAR.

2018 Agricultural Innovation Program meeting: CIMMYT and partners’ achievements in Pakistan

Zero till wheat planting in Jaffarabad District.

By Kashif Syed, September 24

More than 70 agricultural professionals met in Islamabad, Pakistan, during September 4-5 to discuss agronomy and wheat activities under the Agricultural Innovation Program (AIP) for Pakistan. The event provided a platform for institutions involved in agronomy and the dissemination of agricultural technology and seed to share advances, discuss issues, and plan future undertakings.

“Crop productivity must be increased through research on innovative crop management techniques, varietal development and dissemination of better techniques and seed to farming communities,” said Dr. Yusuf Zafar, Chairman of PARC, addressing participants and touching upon a key theme of the event. He emphasized that precision agriculture, decision support systems, the use of drones, water productivity improvements and more widespread mechanization were on the horizon for Pakistani farmers, but that this would require active involvement of the public and private sectors.

Developments in zero tillage farming and ridge planting were highlighted in the two-day conference as conservation agriculture practices that are gaining traction in national wheat farming, according to Imtiaz Muhammad, CIMMYT representative and AIP project leader.

“In collaboration with a national network of 23 public and private partners, CIMMYT has reached more than 25,000 farmers through trainings on zero tillage, ridge planting, and direct seeded rice farming,” Imtiaz said, adding that support to farmers included nutrient management education the provision of seed planters. “These techniques are helping farmers to save water, avoid residue burning, and reduce their production costs.”

Collaboration with agricultural machinery manufacturers and other private sector actors is leading to local production of Zero Till Happy Seeders, which sow directly into unplowed fields and the residues of previous crops, according to Imtiaz. “Innovative approaches have also resulted in the production of 1,500 tons of wheat seed in 2018,” he explained.

Wheat seed production and farmers’ replacement of older varieties have progressed through local seed banks established by AIP in partnership with Pakistan’s National Rural Support Program (NRSP). Located in villages, the banks sell quality wheat seed for up to 12 percent less than local markets. “This is critical, because Pakistan’s wheat seed replacement is only 30 percent,” said Imtiaz, adding that there is a 50 percent gap between potential wheat yields and the national average yield for this crop.

The AIP will open more seed banks in remote areas of Pakistan, in conjunction with national partners. As well as producing and processing seed, the banks will provide farm machinery contract services and precision agriculture tools at subsidized rates.

Participants’ recommendations included adding straw spreaders to combine harvesters for rice, to facilitate the direct sowing of wheat after rice. They also suggested that agricultural service providers should help promote the direct seeding of rice and wheat with zero tillage implements. Participants observed that, in Baluchistan Province, support to farmers and service providers could increase the adoption of zero tillage for sowing wheat after rice and of precision land leveling, to improve irrigation efficiency and save water.

The AIP and partners will continue to promote water saving and nutrient management techniques, as well as building the capacity of farmers, national staff and agricultural service providers. Finally, those attending recommended that, for its second phase, AIP focus on the biofortification of wheat and rice, climate smart agriculture, decision support tools, women in farming, knowledge delivery, appropriate mechanization, nutrient management, weed management and water productivity.

AIP is the result of the combined efforts of the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC), the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the World Vegetable Center (AVRDC), the University of California at Davis, and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). It is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). With these national and international partners on board, AIP continues to improve Pakistan’s agricultural productivity and economy.

Researchers find “hotspot” regions in the wheat genome for high zinc content

The reported work by wheat scientists paves the way for expanded use of wild grass species, such as Aegilops tauschii (also known as goat grass; pictured here) as sources of new genes for higher grain zinc in wheat. (Photo: CIMMYT)

An international team of scientists applied genome-wide association analysis for the first time to study the genetics that underlie grain zinc concentrations in wheat, according to a report published in Nature Scientific Reports on 10 September.

Analyzing zinc concentrations in the grain of 330 bread wheat lines across diverse environments in India and Mexico, the researchers uncovered 39 new molecular markers associated with the trait, as well as 2 wheat genome segments that carry important genes for zinc uptake, translocation, and storage in wheat.

The findings promise greatly to ease development of wheat varieties with enhanced levels of zinc, a critical micronutrient lacking in the diets of many poor who depend on wheat-based food, according to Velu Govindan, wheat breeder at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and first author of the new report.

“A collaboration among research centers in India, Australia, the USA and Mexico, this work will expedite breeding for higher zinc through use of ‘hotspot’ genome regions and molecular markers,” said Govindan. “It also advances efforts to make selection for grain zinc a standard feature of CIMMYT wheat breeding. Because varieties derived from CIMMYT breeding are grown on nearly half the world’s wheat lands, ‘mainstreaming’ high zinc in breeding programs could improve the micronutrient nutrition of millions.”

More than 17 percent of humans, largely across Asia and Africa, lack zinc in their diets, a factor responsible for the deaths of more than 400,000 young children each year.

Often used in human disease research, the genome-wide association approach was applied in this study to zero in on genome segments — known as quantitative trait loci (QTLs) — that carry genes of interest for wheat grain zinc content, according to Govindan.

“The advantages of the genome-wide association method over traditional QTL mapping include better coverage of alleles and the ability to include landraces, elite cultivars, and advanced breeding lines in the analysis,” he explained. “Our study fully opens the door for the expanded use of wheat progenitor species as sources of alleles for high grain zinc, and the outcomes helped us to identify other candidate genes from wheat, barley, Brachypodium grasses, and rice.”
Farmers in South Asia are growing six zinc-enhanced wheat varieties developed using CIMMYT breeding lines and released in recent years according to Ravi Singh, head of the CIMMYT Bread Wheat Improvement Program.

Financial support for this study was provided by HarvestPlus (www.HarvestPlus.org), a global alliance of agriculture and nutrition research institutions working to increase the micronutrient density of staple food crops through biofortification. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of HarvestPlus. It was also supported by CGIAR Funders, through the Research Program on Wheat and the Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health. Research partners in India and Pakistan greatly contributed to this study by conducting high-quality field trials.

New wheat gene map will speed breeding and help secure grain supplies

In breakthrough science using recent advances in sequencing, the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium presents an annotated reference genome with a detailed analysis of gene content among subgenomes and the structural organization for all the chromosomes. To read article in Science, click here.

A BBC report on this momentous finding mentions CIMMYT as a leader in work to help meet the food demand of the 9.6 billion people expected to populate the earth by mid-century.

 

Mutating diseases drive wheat variety turnover in Ethiopia, new study shows

Yellow spores of the fungus Puccinia striiformis f.sp. tritici, which causes stripe rust disease in wheat. Photo: CIMMYT/Mike Listman.

By Mike Listman

Rapidly emerging and evolving races of wheat stem rust and stripe rust disease—the crop’s deadliest scourges worldwide—drove large-scale seed replacement by Ethiopia’s farmers during 2009-14, as the genetic resistance of widely-grown wheat varieties no longer proved effective against the novel pathogen strains, according to a new study by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

Based on two surveys conducted by CIMMYT and the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) and involving more than 2,000 Ethiopian wheat farmers, the study shows that farmers need access to a range of genetically diverse wheat varieties whose resistance is based on multiple genes.

After a severe outbreak in 2010-11 of a previously unseen stripe rust strain, 40 percent of the affected farm households quickly replaced popular but susceptible wheat varieties, according to Moti Jaleta, agricultural economist at CIMMYT and co-author of the publication.

“That epidemic hit about 600,000 hectares of wheat—30 percent of Ethiopia’s wheat lands—and farmers said it cut their yields in half,” Jaleta said. “In general, the rapid appearance and mutation of wheat rust races in Ethiopia has convinced farmers about the need to adopt newer, resistant varieties.”

The fourth most widely grown cereal after tef, maize, and sorghum, wheat in Ethiopia is produced largely by smallholder farmers under rainfed conditions. Wheat production and area under cultivation have increased significantly in the last decade and Ethiopia is among Africa’s top three wheat producers, but the country still imports on average 1.4 million tons of wheat per year to meet domestic demand.

National and international organizations such as EIAR, CIMMYT, and the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) are working intensely to identify and incorporate new sources of disease resistance into improved wheat varieties and to support the multiplication of more seed to meet farmer demand.

New wheat varieties have provided bigger harvests and incomes for Ethiopia farmers in the last decade, but swiftly mutating and spreading disease strains are endangering wheat’s future, according to Dave Hodson, CIMMYT expert in geographic information and decision support systems, co-author of the new study.

Ethiopian wheat farmers like Abebe Abora, of Doyogena, have benefitted from adopting high-yielding wheat varieties but face threats from fast mutating races of wheat rust disease pathogens. Photo: CIMMYT/Apollo Habtamu.

Ethiopian wheat farmers like Abebe Abora, of Doyogena, have benefitted from adopting high-yielding wheat varieties but face threats from fast mutating races of wheat rust disease pathogens. Photo: CIMMYT/Apollo Habtamu.

“In addition to stripe rust, highly-virulent new races of stem rust are ruining wheat harvests in eastern Africa,” he explained. “These include the deadly Ug99 race group, which has spread beyond the region, and, more recently, the stem rust race TKTTF.”

As an example, he mentioned the case of the wheat variety Digalu, which is resistant to stripe rust and was quickly adopted by farmers after the 2010-11 epidemic. But Digalu has recently shown susceptibility to TKTTF stem rust and must now be replaced.

“In rust-prone Ethiopia, the risks of over-reliance on a widely-sown variety that is protected by a single, major resistance gene—Digalu, for example—are clearly apparent,” he added. “CIMMYT and partners are working hard to replace it with a new variety whose resistance is genetically more complex and durable.”

Hodson said as well that continuous monitoring of the rust populations in Ethiopia and the surrounding region is essential to detect and respond to emerging threats, as well as to ensure that the key pathogen races are used to screen for resistance in wheat breeding programs.

Hodson and partners at the John Innes Centre, UK, and EIAR are leading development of a handheld tool that allows rapid identification of disease strains in the field, instead of having to send them to a laboratory and lose precious time awaiting the results.

CIMMYT and partners are also applying molecular tools to study wheat varietal use in Ethiopia. “There are indications that yields reported by farmers were much lower than official statistics, and farmer recollections of varietal names and other information are not always exact,” Hodson explained. “We are analyzing results now of a follow-up study that uses DNA fingerprinting to better document varietal use and turnover.”

The authors would like to acknowledge the Standing Panel for Impact Assessment (SPIA) for financing, the Diffusion and Impacts of Improved Varieties in Africa (DIIVA) project that supported the first survey in 2011, and Cornell Universitythe Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) through the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW, now called Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat) project for support for the second survey in 2014.

Wheat-rye crosses provide control for deadly sap-sucking aphid

Pictured are Martin Kropff, CIMMYT director general (left) and Mustapha El-Bouhssini, ICARDA entomologist, in that center’s lab at Rabat, Morocco.

In an excellent example of scientific collaboration spanning borders and generations, Mustapha El-Bouhssini, entomologist at the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), screened wheat breeding lines from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) under glasshouse infestations of Russian wheat aphid (Diuraphis noxia), a major global pest of wheat. At least one of the lines, which were developed through crosses of wheat with related crop and grass species, showed high levels of resistance.

Scientists at CIMMYT began research on sources of RWA resistance for wheat in the early 1990s. Good sources of resistance from rye were accessed via wide crosses that combined major portions of both crop’s chromosomes, in collaborative work led by Adam J. Lukaszewski, University of California, Riverside.

“In our experiments, we did an initial screening with one replication and then a replicated test with a Pavon line and the check,” said El-Bouhssini.

Pavon is a semi-dwarf wheat variety developed by Sanjaya Rajaram, former CIMMYT wheat director and 2014 World Food Prize laureate. The version of Pavon referred to by El-Bouhssini had been crossed with rye by Lukaszewski and entered CIMMYT’s wheat genetic resource collections; the check was a popular high-yielding variety with no resistance to Russian wheat aphid.

Pavon had been used by Lukaszewski and colleagues as a model variety for wide crosses to transfer pest and disease resistance to wheat from its distant relatives. More recently Leonardo Crespo-Herrera, CIMMYT wheat breeder, pursued this research for his doctoral studies. It was he who provided a selection of wide-cross lines to El-Bouhssini.

“Resistance to pests in wheat is a valuable trait for farmers and the environment,” said Crespo-Herrera. “It can protect yield for farmers who lack access to other control methods. For those with access to insecticides, it can minimize their use and cost, as well as negative impacts on the environment and human health.”

 

The resistant wheat line (center) is green while all others have perished under heavy infestation of Russian wheat aphid, in the ICARDA entomology lab at Rabat, Morocco.

Call for action on wheat blast threat in South Asia

This blast-infected wheat spike contains no grain, only chaff. Photo: CIMMYT files

By Gideon Kruseman and Mike Listman

A spatial mapping and ex ante study regarding the risk and potential spread in South Asia of wheat blast, a mysterious and deadly disease from the Americas that unexpectedly infected wheat in southwestern Bangladesh in 2016, identified 7 million hectares of wheat cropping areas in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan whose agro-climatic conditions resemble those of the Bangladesh outbreak zone.

The study shows that, under a conservative scenario of 5-10% wheat blast production damage in a single season in those areas, wheat grain losses would amount to from 0.89 to 1.77 million tons, worth between $180 and $350 million. This would strain the region’s already fragile food security and force up wheat imports and prices, according to Khondoker Abdul Mottaleb, first author of the study.

“Climate change and related changes in weather patterns, together with continuing globalization, expose wheat crops to increased risks from pathogens that are sometimes transported over long distances,” said Mottaleb.

Foresight research at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) has focused on new diseases and pests that have emerged or spread in recent decades, threatening global food safety and security. For wheat these include Ug99 and other new strains of stem rust, the movement of stripe rust into new areas, and the sudden appearance in Bangladesh of wheat blast, which had previously been limited to South America.

“As early as 2011, CIMMYT researchers had warned that wheat blast could spread to new areas, including South Asia,” said Kai Sonder, who manages CIMMYT’s geographic information systems lab and was a co-author on the current study, referring to a 2011 note published by the American Pathological Society. “Now that forecast has come true.”

CIMMYT has played a pivotal role in global efforts to study and control blast, with funding from the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT), the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR), and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

This has included the release by Bangladesh of the first blast resistant, biofortified wheat variety in 2017, using a CIMMYT wheat line, and numerous training events on blast for South Asia researchers.

Click here to read the article in PLOS-One: “Threat of wheat blast to South Asia’s food security: An ex-ante analysis.