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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Marcia MacNeil, Wheat Communications Officer, CIMMYT
M.MacNeil@cgiar.org, +52 (55) 5804 2004, ext. 2070

Rodrigo Ordóñez, Communications Manager, CIMMYT
r.ordonez@cgiar.org, +52 (55) 5804 2004, ext. 1167

About CIMMYT
The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) is the global leader in publicly funded maize and wheat research and related farming systems. Headquartered near Mexico City, CIMMYT works with hundreds of partners throughout the developing world to sustainably increase the productivity of maize and wheat cropping systems, thus improving global food security and reducing poverty. CIMMYT is a member of CGIAR and leads the CGIAR Research Programs on Maize and Wheat, and the Excellence in Breeding Platform. The center receives support from national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A burning issue

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

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

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

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

Win-win

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the full study in Science

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

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

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


Cranking, a thing of the past

In Bangladesh, a newly available device takes the hassle out of starting the engine of two-wheel tractors, particularly for women entrepreneurs.

This post was originally published on cimmyt.org on July 10, 2019 by M. Shahidul Haque Khan and Sultana Jahan.

Halima Begum wanted to increase her income by providing mechanization services to other farmers in Bangladesh’s Chuadanga district, but she was limited by the level of physical effort required. Starting the engine of her tractor was difficult and embarrassing — cranking it required a lot of strength and she had to rely on others to do it for her. She was also afraid she would get injured, like other local service providers.

Women in rural areas of Bangladesh are often hesitant to work in the fields. Social norms, limited mobility, physical exertion, lack of time and other constraints can cause aspiring female entrepreneurs to step back, despite the prospect of higher income. The few women like Halima who do step out of their comfort zone and follow their dreams often have to overcome the physical effort required to operate these machines.

Starting the tractor is a daunting task on its own and the possibility of having to do it multiple times a day adds to the reluctance of ownership.

To make manual cranking a thing of the past for Bangladeshi women entrepreneurs, and to encourage others, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), through the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia-Mechanization and Irrigation (CSISA-MI), is supporting small businesses who manufacture and sell affordable mechanical self-starter attachments for two-wheel tractors.

The self-starter is a simple spring-loaded device mounted over the old crank handle socket, which allows users to start the engine with the flick of a lever.

Halima Begum operates her two-wheel tractor, equipped with a self-starter device. (Photo: Mostafa Kamrul Hasan/CIMMYT)

For women like Begum, manually starting a tractor was a difficult task that is now gone forever.

“I used to struggle quite a lot before, but now I can easily start the machine, thanks to this highly convenient self-starter,” Begum said.

The self-starter reduces the risk of accidents and coaxes hesitant youth and women to become entrepreneurs in the agricultural mechanization service industry.

CIMMYT is supporting businesses like Janata Engineering, which imports self-starter devices and markets them among local service providers in the district of Sorojgonj, Chuadanga district. The project team worked with the owner, Md. Ole Ullah, to organize field demonstrations for local service providers, showing how to use and maintain the self-starter device.

The Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia-Mechanization and Irrigation (CSISA-MI) is led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The project focuses on upstream market interventions in Bangladesh, ensuring technologies are reliably available in local markets and supported by an extensive value chain.

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.   

Biofortified maize and wheat can improve diets and health, new study shows

New varieties deliver essential micronutrients to those who lack diverse diets

This article was originally posted on June 3, 2019 by Mike LISTMAN on cimmyt.org

TEXCOCO, Mexico (CIMMYT) — More nutritious crop varieties developed and spread through a unique global science partnership are offering enhanced nutrition for hundreds of millions of people whose diets depend heavily on staple crops such as maize and wheat, according to a new study in the science journal Cereal Foods World.

From work begun in the late 1990s and supported by numerous national research organizations and scaling partners, more than 60 maize and wheat varieties whose grain features enhanced levels of zinc or provitamin A have been released to farmers and consumers in 19 countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America over the last 7 years. All were developed using conventional cross-breeding.

Farmer and consumer interest has grown for some 60 maize and wheat varieties whose grain features enhanced levels of the essential micronutrients zinc and provitamin A, developed and promoted through collaborations of CIMMYT, HarvestPlus, and partners in 19 countries (Map: Sam Storr/CIMMYT).

“The varieties are spreading among smallholder farmers and households in areas where diets often lack these essential micronutrients, because people cannot afford diverse foods and depend heavily on dishes made from staple crops,” said Natalia Palacios, maize nutrition quality specialist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and co-author of the study.

More than 2 billion people worldwide suffer from “hidden hunger,” wherein they fail to obtain enough of such micronutrients from the foods they eat and suffer serious ailments including poor vision, vomiting, and diarrhea, especially in children, according to Wolfgang Pfeiffer, co-author of the study and head of research, development, delivery, and commercialization of biofortified crops at the CGIAR program known as “HarvestPlus.”

“Biofortification — the development of micronutrient-dense staple crops using traditional breeding and modern biotechnology — is a promising approach to improve nutrition, as part of an integrated, food systems strategy,” said Pfeiffer, noting that HarvestPlus, CIMMYT, and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) are catalyzing the creation and global spread of biofortified maize and wheat.

“Eating provitamin A maize has been shown to be as effective as taking Vitamin A supplements,” he explained, “and a 2018 study in India found that using zinc-biofortified wheat to prepare traditional foods can significantly improve children’s health.”

Six biofortified wheat varieties released in India and Pakistan feature grain with 6–12 parts per million more zinc than is found traditional wheat, as well as drought tolerance and resistance to locally important wheat diseases, said Velu Govindan, a breeder who leads CIMMYT’s work on biofortified wheat and co-authored the study.

“Through dozens of public–private partnerships and farmer participatory trials, we’re testing and promoting high-zinc wheat varieties in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Nepal, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe,” Govindan said. “CIMMYT is also seeking funding to make high-zinc grain a core trait in all its breeding lines.”

Pfeiffer said that partners in this effort are promoting the full integration of biofortified maize and wheat varieties into research, policy, and food value chains. “Communications and raising awareness about biofortified crops are key to our work.”

For more information or interviews, contact:

Mike Listman

Communications Consultant

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT)  

m.listman@cgiar.org, +52 (1595) 957 3490

Space data applications for wheat and maize research

By Marcia MacNeil

Weather satellite image (Photo: Bernardino Campos, Flickr)

How can space technology help improve maize and wheat production? CIMMYT joined a group of international data users in a recent project to find out.

In 2017, a call for proposals from Copernicus Climate Change Service Sectoral Information Systems led the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT to collaborate with Wageningen University, the European Space Agency (ESA), and other research and meteorological organizations to develop practical applications in agricultural and food security for satellite-sourced weather data.

The project, which recently ended, opened the door to a wide variety of potential uses for this highly detailed data.

ESA collects extremely granular data on weather, churned out at an hourly rate. CIMMYT researchers, including Foresight Specialist Gideon Kruseman, reviewed this data stream, which generates 22 variables of daily and sub-daily weather data at a 30-kilometerlevel of accuracy, and evaluated how it could help generate agriculture-specific weather and climate data sets.

 “For most people, the reaction would be, ‘What do we do with this?’ Kruseman said. “For us, this is a gold mine.”

For example, wind speed — an important variable collected by ESA satellites — is key for analyzing plant evaporation rates, and thus their drought tolerance. In addition, to date, information is available on ideal ago-climatic zones for various crop varieties, but there is no data on the actual weather conditions during a particular growing season for most sites.

By incorporating the information from the data sets into field trial data, CIMMYT researchers can specifically analyze maize and wheat cropping systems on a larger scale and create crop models with higher precision, meaning that much more accurate information can be generated from the trials of different crop varieties.

The currently available historic daily and sub-daily data, dating back to 1979, will allow CIMMYT and its partners to conduct “genotype by environment (GxE)” interaction analysis in much higher detail. For example, it will allow researchers to detect side effects related to droughts and heat waves and the tolerance of maize and wheat lines to those stresses. This will help breeders create specific crop varieties for farmers in environments where the impact of climate change is predicted to be more apparent in the near future.

“The data from this project has great potential fix this gap in information so that farmers can eventually receive more targeted assistance,” said Kruseman.

These ideas are just the beginning of the agricultural research and food security potential of the ESA data. For example, Kruseman would like to link the data to household surveys to review the relationship between the weather farmers experience and the farming decisions they make.

By the end of 2019, the data will live on an open access, user-friendly database. Eventually, space agency-sourced weather data from as far back as 1951 to as recent as five days ago will be available to researchers and weather enthusiasts alike.

Already CIMMYT scientists are using this data to understand the potential of a promising wheat line, for seasonal forecasting, to analyze gene-bank accessions and for a statistical analysis of maize trials, with many more high-impact applications expected in the future.

Rebuttal letter sets the record straight on crop breeding for climate change resilience

Crop scientists refute the flawed findings of a study questioning climate resilience in modern wheat breeding.

This article by Marcia MacNeil was originally posted on May 28, 2019 on cimmyt.org.

CIMMYT field workers working on wheat crossing as part of the breeding process. (Photo: CIMMYT)

In early 2019, an article published by European climate researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) journal questioned the climate resilience of modern wheat varieties. The article suggested that modern wheat varieties showed reduced climate resilience as a direct result of modern breeding methods and practices, a claim that researchers at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) vehemently rebuke

In a rebuttal letter published in the June issue of PNAS a group of scientists, including CIMMYT’s Susanne Dreisigacker and Sarah Hearne, strongly contradict the finding that breeding has reduced climate resilience in European wheat, citing significant flaws in the authors’ methodology, data analyses and interpretation.

“This article discredits European plant breeders and wheat breeders in general, who have been working over many decades to produce a wide range of regionally adapted, stable varieties which perform well under a broad range of climate change conditions,” said CIMMYT wheat molecular geneticist Susanne Dreisigacker.

Among other flaws, they found a number of omissions and inconsistencies.

  • The article shows a lack of understanding of commonly used terms and principles of breeding theory, criticizing newer wheat varieties for demonstrating a decrease in “climatic response diversity.” Less diversity in wheat response — that is, more stable yields despite the influence of climate change — is a benefit, not a threat, to farmers.
  • The article authors contradict the common knowledge among farmers and plant breeders that new elite wheat varieties are generally more productive than older varieties; new cultivars are only approved if they show added value in direct comparison to existing varieties.
  • The article’s claim of long-term losses of climate resilience in “European wheat” is unsubstantiated. The authors extensively used data from three small countries — the Czech Republic, Denmark and Slovakia — which contribute less than five percent of Europe’s wheat supply. Three of the five most important wheat producers in Europe — Russia, Ukraine and the United Kingdom — were not accounted for in the analysis.
  • The authors failed to report the actual wheat yields in their study, neglected to publish the underlying data with the manuscript and have up to now declined requests to make the data available.

Europe is one of the world’s major wheat producers and threats to its wheat production due to climate change would have serious consequences for world’s food security. Luckily, say the scientists who published the rebuttal letter, this fear is unfounded.

“Wheat producers and bread consumers around the world will be relieved to learn that breeders have not ignored climate change after all,” said letter lead-author Rod Snowdon, from the Department of Plant Breeding at Justus Liebig University of Giessen, Germany.

The full rebuttal letter by 19 international plant breeders, agronomists and scientists, is available on the PNAS site and reprinted in its entirety below.

Reduced response diversity does not negatively impact wheat climate resilience

Kahiluoto et al. (1) assert that climate resilience in European wheat has declined due to current breeding practices. To support this alarming claim, the authors report yield variance data indicating increasingly homogeneous responses to climatic fluctuations in modern wheat cultivars. They evaluated “response diversity,” a measure of responses to environmental change among different species jointly contributing to ecosystem functions (2). We question the suitability of this measure to describe agronomic fitness in single-cultivar wheat cropping systems. Conclusions are made about “long-term trends,” which in fact span data from barely a decade, corresponding to the duration of a single wheat breeding cycle. The authors furthermore acknowledge increasing climate variability during the study period, confounding their analysis of climate response in the same time span.

The underlying data are not published with the manuscript. Thus, the assertion that there is “no inherent trade-off between yield potential and diversity in weather responses” (1) cannot be verified. Inexplicably, the analysis and conclusions ignore absolute yields, which increase over time through breeding (3–6). Furthermore, incompatible data from completely different ecogeographical forms and species of wheat are apparently considered together, and the dataset is strongly biased toward a few small countries with minimal wheat production and narrow agroclimatic gradients.

The study assumes that increased response diversity among different cultivars is associated with yield stability. In contrast, the common, agronomic definition of yield stability refers to the ability of a single cultivar to stably perform well in diverse environments, without excessive responses to fluctuating conditions. Response diversity measures that ignore absolute yield do not support statements about food security or financial returns to farmers.

Cultivar yield potential, stability, and adaptation are enhanced by multienvironment selection over long breeding time frames, encompassing climate fluctuations and a multitude of other relevant environmental variables. Translation to on-farm productivity is promoted by national registration trials and extensive, postregistration regional variety trials in diverse environments. The unsurprising conclusion that planting multiple cultivars enhances overall production stability mirrors longstanding farming recommendations and practice (7). The availability of robust performance data from a broad range of high-performing cultivars enables European farmers to manage their production and income risks.

Kahiluoto et al. (1) speculate about “genetic erosion” of modern cultivars due to a “lack of incentives for breeders to introduce divergent material.” To substantiate these claims, the authors cite inadequate genetic data from non-European durum wheat (8), while explicitly dismissing clearly opposing findings about genetic diversity in European bread wheat (9). Short-term reductions in response diversity in five countries were misleadingly reported as a “long-term decline” in climate resilience in “most European countries,” although six out of seven countries with sufficient data showed no long-term decline. The article from Kahiluoto et al. and the misrepresentation of its results distorts decades of rigorous, successful breeding for yield potential and stability in European wheat and misleads farmers with pronouncements that are not supported by relevant data.

References:

1 H. Kahiluoto et al., Decline in climate resilience of European wheat. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 116, 123–128 (2019).

2 T. Elmqvist et al., Response diversity, ecosystem change, and resilience. Front. Ecol. Environ. 1, 488–494 (2003).

3 S. De Schepper, M. De Loose, E. Van Bockstaele, P. Debergh, Ploidy analysis of azalea flower colour sports. Meded. Rijksuniv. Gent. Fak. Landbouwkd. Toegep. Biol. Wet. 66, 447–449 (2001).

4 I. Mackay et al., Reanalyses of the historical series of UK variety trials to quantify the contributions of genetic and environmental factors to trends and variability in yield over time. Theor. Appl. Genet. 122, 225–238 (2011).

5 F. Laidig et al., Breeding progress, environmental variation and correlation of winter wheat yield and quality traits in German official variety trials and on-farm during 1983-2014. Theor. Appl. Genet. 130, 223–245 (2017).

6 T. Würschum, W. L. Leiser, S. M. Langer, M. R. Tucker, C. F. H. Longin, Phenotypic and genetic analysis of spike and kernel characteristics in wheat reveals long-term genetic trends of grain yield components. Theor. Appl. Genet. 131, 2071–2084 (2018).

7 P. Annicchiarico, “Genotype x environment interactions: Challenges and opportunities for plant breeding and cultivar recommendations.” (Food and Agriculture 201 Organisation of the United Nations, Rome, Italy, 2002), FAO Plant Production and Protection Paper 174.

8 F. Henkrar et al., Genetic diversity reduction in improved durum wheat cultivars of Morocco as revealed by microsatellite markers. Sci. Agric. 73, 134–141 (2016).

9 M. van de Wouw, T. van Hintum, C. Kik, R. van Treuren, B. Visser, Genetic diversity trends in twentieth century crop cultivars: A meta analysis. Theor. Appl. Genet. 120, 1241–1252 (2010).

Innovative irrigation promises “more crop per drop” for India’s water-stressed cereals

A pioneering study demonstrates how rice and wheat can be grown using 40 percent less water, through an innovative combination of existing irrigation and cropping techniques. (Photo: Naveen Gupta/CIMMYT)

This article by Vanessa Meadu was originally posted on March 21, 2019 on cimmyt.org.

On World Water day, researchers show how India’s farmers can beat water shortages and grow rice and wheat with 40 percent less water

India’s northwest region is the most important production area for two staple cereals: rice and wheat. But a growing population and demand for food, inefficient flood-based irrigation, and climate change are putting enormous stress on the region’s groundwater supplies. Science has now confronted this challenge: a “breakthrough” study demonstrates how rice and wheat can be grown using 40 percent less water, through an innovative combination of existing irrigation and cropping techniques. The study’s authors, from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA), Punjab Agricultural University and Thapar University, claim farmers can grow similar or better yields than conventional growing methods, and still make a profit.

The researchers tested a range of existing solutions to determine the optimal mix of approaches that will help farmers save water and money. They found that rice and wheat grown using a “sub-surface drip fertigation system” combined with conservation agriculture approaches used at least 40 percent less water and needed 20 percent less Nitrogen-based fertilizer, for the same amount of yields under flood irrigation, and still be cost-effective for farmers. Sub-surface drip fertigation systems involve belowground pipes that deliver precise doses of water and fertilizer directly to the plant’s root zone, avoiding evaporation from the soil. The proposed system can work for both rice and wheat crops without the need to adjust pipes between rotations, saving money and labor. But a transition to more efficient approaches will require new policies and incentives, say the authors.

During the study, researchers used a sub-surface drip fertigation system, combined with conservation agriculture approaches, on wheat fields. (Photo: Naveen Gupta/CIMMYT)

Read the full story:

Innovative irrigation system could future-proof India’s major cereals. Thomsom Reuters Foundation News, 20 March 2019.

Read the study:

Sidhu HS, Jat ML, Singh Y, Sidhu RK, Gupta N, Singh P, Singh P, Jat HS, Gerard B. 2019. Sub-surface drip fertigation with conservation agriculture in a rice-wheat system: A breakthrough for addressing water and nitrogen use efficiency. Agricultural Water Management. 216:1 (273-283). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agwat.2019.02.019

The study received funding from the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the Government of Punjab. The authors acknowledge the contributions of the field staff at BISA and CIMMYT based at Ludhiana, Punjab state.