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.

Q&A with 2019 WIT awardee Carolina Rivera

Carolina Rivera shakes the hand of Maricelis Acevedo, Associate Director for Science for Cornell University’s Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat Project and WIT mentor, after the announcement of the WIT award winners.

As a native of Obregon, Mexico, Carolina Rivera has a unique connection to the heart of Norman Borlaug’s wheat fields. She is now carrying on Borlaug’s legacy and working with wheat as a wheat physiologist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and data coordinator with the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP).

Given her talents and passion for wheat research, it is no surprise that Rivera is among this year’s six recipients of the 2019 Jeanie Borlaug Laube Women in Triticum (WIT) Early Career Award. As a young scientist at CIMMYT, she has already worked to identify new traits associated with the optimization of plant morphology aiming to boost grain number and yield.

The Jeanie Borlaug Laube WIT Award provides professional development opportunities for women working in wheat. The review panel responsible for the selection of the candidates at the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI), was impressed by her commitment towards wheat research on an international level and her potential to mentor future women scientists.

Established in 2010, the award is named after Jeanie Borlaug Laube, wheat science advocate and mentor, and daughter of Nobel Laureate Dr. Norman E. Borlaug. As a winner, Rivera is invited to attend a training course at CIMMYT in Obregon, Mexico, in spring 2020 as well as the BGRI 2020 Technical Workshop, to be held in the UK in June 2020. Since the award’s founding, there are now 50 WIT award winners.

The 2019 winners were announced on March 20 during CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program Visitors’ Week in Obregon.

In the following interview, Rivera shares her thoughts about the relevance of the award and her career as a woman in wheat science.

Q: What does receiving the Jeanie Borlaug Laube WIT Award mean to you?

I feel very honored that I was considered for the WIT award, especially after having read the inspiring biographies of former WIT awardees. Receiving this award has encouraged me even more to continue doing what I love while standing strong as a woman in science.

It will is a great honor to receive the award named for Jeanie Borlaug, who is a very active advocate for wheat research. I am also very excited to attend the BGRI Technical Workshop next year, where lead breeders and scientists will update the global wheat community on wheat rust research. I expect to see a good amount of women at the meeting!

Q: When did you first become interested in agriculture?

My first real encounter with agriculture was in 2009 when I joined CIMMYT Obregon as an undergraduate student intern. I am originally from Obregon, so I remember knowing about the presence of CIMMYT, Campo Experimental Norman E. Borlaug (CENEB) and Instituto Nacional de Investigación Forestales Agrícolas y Pecuario (Inifap) in my city but not really understanding the real importance and impact of the research coming from those institutions. After a few months working at CIMMYT, I became very engrossed in my work and visualized myself as a wheat scientist.

Q: Why is it important to you that there is a strong community of women in agriculture?

We know women play a very important role in agriculture in rural communities, but in most cases they do not get the same rights and recognition as men. Therefore, policies — such as land rights — need to be changed and both women and men need to be educated in gender equity. I think the latter factor is more likely to strengthen communities of women, both new and existing, working in agriculture.

In addition, women should participate more in science to show that agricultural research is an area where various ideas and perspectives are necessary. To achieve this in the long run, policies need to look at current social and cultural practices holding back the advancement of women in their careers.

Q: What are you currently working on with CIMMYT and IWYP?

I am a post-doctoral fellow in CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program where I assist in collaborative projects to improve wheat yield potential funded by IWYP. I am also leading the implementation of IWYP’s international research database, helping to develop CIMMYT’s wheat databases in collaboration with the center’s Genetic Resources Program. Apart from research and data management, I am passionate about offering trainings to students and visitors on field phenotyping approaches.

Q: Where do you see yourself in the agriculture world in 10 years?

In 10 years, I see myself as an independent scientist, generating ideas that contribute to delivering wheat varieties with higher yield potential and better tolerance to heat and drought stresses. I also see myself establishing strategies to streamline capacity building for graduate students in Mexico. At that point, I would also like to be contributing to policy changes in education and funding for science in Mexico.

Support groups open women’s access to farm technologies in northeast India

by Dakshinamurthy Vedachalam, Sugandha Munshi / This article was originally published on the website of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center on March 12, 2019

In Odisha and Bihar, CSISA has leveraged the social capital of women’s self-help groups formed by the government and other civil society partners and which offer entry points for training and social mobilization, as well as access to credit. (Photo: CSISA)

Self-help groups in Bihar, India, are putting thousands of rural women in touch with agricultural innovations, including mechanization and sustainable intensification, that save time, money, and critical resources such as soil and water, benefiting households and the environment.

The Bihar Rural Livelihoods Promotion Society, locally known as Jeevika, has partnered with the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA), led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), to train women’s self-help groups and other stakeholders in practices such as zero tillage, early sowing of wheat, direct-seeded rice and community nurseries.

Through their efforts to date, more than 35,000 households are planting wheat earlier than was customary, with the advantage that the crop fully fills its grain before the hot weather of late spring. In addition, some 18,000 households are using zero tillage, in which they sow wheat directly into unplowed fields and residues, a practice that improves soil quality and saves water, among other benefits. As many as 5,000 households have tested non-flooded, direct-seeded rice cultivation during 2018-19, which also saves water and can reduce greenhouse gas emissions

An autonomous body under the Bihar Department of Rural Development, Jeevika is also helping women to obtain specialized equipment for zero tillage and for the mechanized transplanting of rice seedlings into paddies, which reduces women’s hard labor of hand transplanting.

“Mechanization is helping us manage our costs and judiciously use our time in farming,” says Rekha Devi, a woman farmer member of Jeevika Gulab self-help group of Beniwal Village, Jamui District. “We have learned many new techniques through our self-help group.”

With more than 100 million inhabitants and over 1,000 persons per square kilometer, Bihar is India’s most densely-populated state. Nearly 90 percent of its people live in rural areas and agriculture is the main occupation. Women in Bihar play key roles in agriculture, weeding, harvesting, threshing, and milling crops, in addition to their household chores and bearing and caring for children, but they often lack access to training, vital information, or strategic technology.

Like all farmers in South Asia, they also face risks from rising temperatures, variable rainfall, resource degradation, and financial constraints.

Jeevika has formed more than 700,000 self-help groups in Bihar, mobilizing nearly 8.4 million poor households, 25,000 village organizations, and 318 cluster-level federations in all 38 districts of Bihar.

The organization also fosters access for women to “custom-hiring” businesses, which own the specialized implement for practices such as zero tillage and will sow or perform other mechanized services for farmers at a cost. “Custom hiring centers help farmers save time in sowing, harvesting and threshing,” said Anil Kumar, Program Manager, Jeevika.

The staff training, knowledge and tools shared by CSISA have been immensely helpful in strengthening the capacity of women farmers, according to Dr. D. Balamurugan, CEO, Jeevika. “We aim to further strengthen our partnership with CSISA and accelerate our work with women farmers, improving their productivity while saving their time and costs,” Balamurugan said.

CSISA is implemented jointly by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). It is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

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.


New Publications: Identifying common genetic bases for yield, biomass and radiation use efficiency in spring wheat

This article was originally published on the website of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center on March 7, 2019.

For plant scientists, increasing wheat yield potential is one of the most prevalent challenges of their work. One key strategy for increasing yield is to improve the plant’s ability to produce biomass through optimizing the conversion of solar radiation into plant structures and grain, called radiation use efficiency (RUE). Currently, the process is 30-50% less efficient in wheat than in maize.

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) wheat physiologist Gemma Molero, in collaboration with Ryan Joynson and Anthony Hall of the Earlham Institute, has been studying the association of RUE related traits with molecular markers to identify specific genes associated with this trait.

In December 2018, her team published their results in the article “Elucidating the genetic basis of biomass accumulation and radiation use efficiency in spring wheat and its role in yield potential,” shedding light on some of the genetic bases of biomass accumulation and RUE in a specially designed panel of lines that included material with diverse expression of RUE over the wheat crop cycle.

Over the course of two years, Molero and fellow researchers evaluated a panel of 150 elite spring wheat genotypes for 31 traits, looking for marker traits associated with yield and other “sink”-related traits, such as, grain number, grain weight and harvest index, along with ‘’source’’-related traits, such as RUE and biomass at various growth stages. Many of the elite wheat lines that were tested encompass “exotic” material in their pedigree such as ancient wheat landraces and wheat wild relatives.

The scientists found that increases in both net rate of photosynthesis and RUE have the potential to make a large impact on wheat biomass, demonstrating that the use of exotic material is a valuable resource to help increase yield potential. This is the first time that a panel of elite wheat lines has been assembled using different sources of yield potential traits, and an important output from a large global endeavor to increase wheat yield, the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP).

“We identified common genetic bases for yield, biomass and RUE for the first time. This has important implications for wheat researchers, breeders, geneticists, plant scientists and biologists,” says Molero.

The identification of molecular markers associated with the studied traits is a valuable tool for wheat improvement. Broadly speaking, the study opens the door for a series of important biological questions about the role of RUE in yield potential and in the ability to increase grain biomass.

In order to accommodate worldwide population increases and shifts in diet, wheat yield needs to double by 2050 — and genetic gains in wheat, specifically, must increase at a rate of 2.4 percent annually. Increasing biomass through the optimization of RUE along the wheat crop cycle can be an important piece in the puzzle to help meet this demand.

Read the full study here.

International Women’s Day 2019 and the CGIAR system

In celebration of International Women’s Day 2019, Victor Kommerell, Program Manager of the CGIAR Research Programs on MAIZE and WHEAT at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, reflects about International Women’s Day and gender research at CGIAR in a conversation with CGIAR science leaders.

Victor encourages gender in agriculture specialists to “Get out of your comfort zone!”

See the full article, as well as with videos, interviews and publications from across the CGIAR system on gender research, here.

Victor Kommerell is Program Manager of the CGIAR Research Programs on MAIZE and WHEAT(photo credit: CIMMYT)

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.

A new beginning for CIMMYT’s Seed Health Unit

Courtney Brantley

February 27, 2019

Twenty years flew by for Monica Mezzalama, now former Pathologist and Head of the Seed Health Unit at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). At the end of January 2019, she made her way back to her hometown of Turin, Italy. Looking back at her tenure, Monica told us she felt “overwhelmed” by the opportunities that CIMMYT has given her.

Founded in 1988, the CIMMYT Seed Health Lab began with five employees, eventually expanding to eight people. With Mezzalama at the helm since 2001, the unit has become a crucial part of CIMMYT’s operation in conducting global and national germplasm exchanges. Some would say that seed distribution is the “lifeblood” of CIMMYT.

Around the world, CIMMYT is known as a reliable distributor of seeds. According to Mezzalama, this is crucial not only for farmers but for other researchers. Without proper regulatory precautions, one can jeopardize the work of others when handling pathogens that can affect seeds.

CIMMYT distributes seed in collaboration with more than 100 countries worldwide, many of which don’t receive support or seed from any other institution. According to Mezzalama, “CIMMYT’s reputation is on the line,” if healthy, quality seed is not delivered. Under Mezzalama’s watch there were never such problems with CIMMYT seeds.

According to Mezzalama, “CIMMYT’s reputation is on the line,” if healthy, quality seed is not delivered.

Seeds are judged on appearances, and must be good-looking as well as healthy. “Presentation standards are key because genetics aren’t immediately seen when the seeds are delivered,” Mezzalama states. If unattractive seed is discarded, then money is metaphorically being thrown away. Beyond saving money, quality seed control conducted by the Seed Health Unit helps keep data fresh and research up to date.

Good seed health depends on leadership like that from Mezzalama. Among the accomplishments of her two-decade tenure at CIMMYT, Monica formed and led a team that has responded quickly and effectively to emerging maize and wheat disease epidemics. In the midst of finding solutions to phytosanitary and biosafety challenges, she also took time to mentor young scientists and colleagues.

Monica Mezzalama will be moving on to the University of Turin in Italy to take on a new challenge in the academic world as a professor of Phytopathology. She expressed sadness at leaving CIMMYT, but gratitude at the opportunities CIMMYT has given her to grow professionally and the freedom to explore and experiment within her laboratory.

Mezzalama’s work and the team she leaves behind provide a strong base for continued safeguarding of CIMMYT’s international seed distribution efforts under her successor’s leadership. Down the road, Mezzalama hopes to maintain collaboration with CIMMYT in sustainable agricultural efforts.

Monica receives a plaque from Director General Martin Kropff recognizing her accomplishments at CIMMYT.

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.