WHEAT carries on in the “new normal” of COVID-19

A wheat field in Kazakhstan. Photo: V. Ganeyev/CIMMYT

The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat and its lead center, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), based in Mexico, are responding to the threat of COVID-19 and taking measures to ensure our worldwide staff is as safe as possible.  While we adjust to the “new normal” of social distancing, temperature checks and quarantines, we will continue to perform field and desk research as best we can, and share our progress and findings with you through our website, newsletter, and Facebook page.

At times such as this, we step back and remember the vision that brings us all here: a world free of poverty, hunger and environmental degradation. We would not be able pursue this vision without your support.

We hope you, your colleagues and loved ones stay safe and healthy. We are all in this together and we look forward to continuing our conversation.

Latest COVID-19 news:

OPINION: Africa’s devastating locust outbreak exposes need for crop science on all fronts

This op-ed by Dr. Nteranya Sanginga from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), featuring research by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), was originally published by Thomson Reuters Foundation News.

Ahmed Ibrahim, 30, an Ethiopian farmer attempts to fend off desert locusts as they fly in his khat farm on the outskirt of Jijiga in Somali region, Ethiopia January 12, 2020. Picture taken January 12, 2020. REUTERS/Giulia Paravicini

A perfect storm of conditions led to the locust attack currently tearing through East Africa and Pakistan, where countries are deploying pesticidesmilitary personnel and even ducks.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has given the ultimatum of March to bring Africa’s desert locust outbreak under control, calling for US$76 million to fund insecticide spraying.

But the ongoing outbreak is only the latest example of the devastation that crop pests can cause – there are tens of thousands more that farmers have to contend with, from diseases and fungi to weeds and insects.

And with such a variety of threats to harvests and yields, there is no silver bullet to protect against losses and damage. Rather, an integrated approach is needed that incorporates all available tools in the toolbox, from better forecasting and monitoring technologies to the controlled spraying of crops with biocontrol products, all supported by stronger partnerships.

Smallholder farmers are on the frontline when a pest outbreak takes hold. A small swarm of desert locusts can eat the equivalent food of 35,000 people per day, for example, while crop losses resulting from the spread of fall armyworm across sub-Saharan Africa are estimated to cost up to $6.1 billion a year.

Yet while their livelihoods are most at risk, smallholders can also play a significant part in tackling crop pests like the desert locust.

By giving farmers access to better surveillance technology that enables them to monitor pests and forecast potential outbreaks, infestations can be tracked and managed effectively.

A project in Bangladesh that helps farmers to deal with fall armyworm is one example of how this can be done effectively. Led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the initiative has trained hundreds of farmers and extension agents in identifying, monitoring and tackling infestations using combined approaches.

Yet effective pest management is not the responsibility of farmers alone – nor does it begin in the field. Behind every farmer dealing with a crop pest is a scientist who has supported them by developing better seeds, crop protection methods and scouting apps to identify weeds.

Using either conventional breeding or genetic modification, scientists can develop seeds that produce pest-resistant crops, for example.

CGIAR researchers from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) developed and released a modified cassava variety in Colombia, bred to be resistant against high whitefly, which outperformed regional varieties without the need for pesticides.

The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) has also developed maize varieties resistant to the stem borer insect for use in West and Central Africa.

And last year, the Nigerian Biosafety Management Agency approved the commercial release of genetically modified cowpea to farmers – a variety resistant to the maruca pod borer, a type of insect.

Better seeds and crop protection products are vital – but we need to do still more.

Some biocontrol pesticides such as Green Muscle and Novacrid have been highly effective in the past if used against locust hopper bands before they congregate into swarms. But they have limited impact once the swarms start to move as well as limited availability and regulatory approval, and a relatively short shelf-life.

Further research into crop protection methods will pave the way for new chemical and biological solutions, which can keep pest outbreaks under control – or prevent them altogether.

But we also need closer collaboration with governments, research institutions, universities, donors and investors, and – crucially – farmers to address the challenges of pest infestations, and lessen their impact on food systems.

Collaboration is central to IITA’s Biorisk Management Facility (BIMAF), a partnership established around the need for better coordination between researchers, civil society, farming communities, and non-governmental, public and private organisations.

There is no single, superior way to fight and control agricultural pests like the desert locust – battling them on all fronts is our best hope. Of course, prevention is the ultimate goal, and it is achievable. But stopping an outbreak in its tracks requires a huge amount of coordination and sustained financial support.

We must work together to develop new crop protection methods and get them into the hands of those who need them the most. The current locust outbreak – and future pest infestations – will only be defeated with a united front.

New publication: Breeder friendly Phenotyping

In crop research fields, it is now a common sight to see drones or other high-tech sensing tools collecting high-resolution data on a wide range of traits – from simple measurement of canopy temperature to complex 3D reconstruction of photosynthetic canopies.

This technological approach to collecting precise plant trait information, known as phenotyping, is becoming ubiquitous on research fields, but according to experts at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and other research institutions, breeders can profit much more from these tools, when used judiciously. 

Examples of different classes and applications of breeder friendly phenotyping. Image: M. Reynolds et al.

In a new article in the journal Plant Science, CIMMYT Wheat Physiologist Matthew Reynolds and colleagues explain the different ways that phenotyping can assist breeding — from simple to use, “handy” approaches for large scale screening, to detailed physiological characterization of key traits to identify new parental sources — and why this methodology is crucial for crop improvement. The authors make the case for breeders to invest in phenotyping, particularly in light of the imperative to breed crops for warmer and harsher climates.

Read the full article here.

This work was supported by the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP); the Sustainable Modernization of Traditional Agriculture (MasAgro) Project by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (SADER) of the Government of Mexico; and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT).

‘Sharing’ or ‘sparing’ land?

This blog written by Frédéric Baudron was originally posted on the CIMMYT website.

Any fifth grader is familiar with the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction, which saw dinosaurs — and three quarters of all species alive at that time — disappear from Earth, probably after it was struck by a very large asteroid. However, few people are aware the planet is currently going through a similar event of an equally large magnitude: a recent report from the World Wide Fund for Nature highlighted a 60% decline in the populations of over 4,000 vertebrate species monitored globally since 1970. This time, the culprit is not an asteroid, but human beings. The biggest threat we represent to other species is also the way we meet one of our most fundamental needs: food production.

As a response, scientists, particularly ecologists, have looked for strategies to minimize trade-offs between agriculture and biodiversity. One such strategy is “land sparing,” also known as the “Borlaug effect.” It seeks to segregate production and conservation and to maximize yield on areas as small as possible, sparing land for nature. Another strategy is “land sharing” or “wildlife-friendly farming,” which seeks to integrate production and conservation in the same land units and make farming as benign as possible to biodiversity. It minimizes the use of external inputs and retains unfarmed patches on farmland.

A heated debate between proponents of land sparing and proponents of land sharing has taken place over the past 15 years. Most studies, however, have found land sparing to lead to better outcomes than land sharing, in a range of contexts. With collaborators from CIFOR, UBC and other organizations, I hypothesized that this belief was biased because researchers assessed farming through a narrow lens, only looking at calories or crop yield.

Many more people today suffer from hidden hunger, or lack of vitamins and minerals in their diets, than lack of calories. Several studies have found more diverse and nutritious diets consumed by people living in or near areas with greater tree cover as trees are a key component of biodiversity. However, most of these studies have not looked at mechanisms explaining this positive association.

Forests for food

Studying seven tropical landscapes in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Nicaragua and Zambia, we found evidence that tree cover directly supports diets in four landscapes out of seven. This may be through the harvest of bushmeat, wild fruits, wild vegetables and other forest-sourced foods. The study further found evidence of an agroecological pathway — that forests and trees support diverse crop and livestock production through an array of ecosystem services, ultimately leading to improved diets — in five landscapes out of seven. These results clearly demonstrate that although land sparing may have the best outcomes for biodiversity, it would cut off rural households from forest products such as forest food, firewood and livestock feed. It would also cut off smallholder farms from ecosystem services provided by biodiversity, and smallholders in the tropics tend to depend more on ecosystem services than on external inputs.

In Ethiopia, previous research conducted by some of the same authors has demonstrated that multifunctional landscapes that do not qualify as land sparing nor as land sharing may host high biodiversity whilst being more productive than simpler landscapes. They are more sustainable and resilient, provide more diverse diets and produce cereals with higher nutritional content.

The debate on land sparing vs. sharing has largely remained confined to the circles of conservation ecologists and has seldom involved agricultural scientists. As a result, most studies on land sparing vs. sharing have focused on minimizing the negative impact of farming on biodiversity, instead of looking for the best compromises between agricultural production and biodiversity conservation.

To design landscapes that truly balance the needs of people and nature, it is urgent for agronomists, agricultural economists, rural sociologists and crop breeders to participate in the land sparing vs. sharing debate.

Read more:
Testing the Various Pathways Linking Forest Cover to Dietary Diversity in Tropical Landscapes

This study was made possible by funding from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through the project Agrarian Change in Tropical Landscapes, and by the CGIAR Research Programs on MAIZE and WHEAT.

Why to invest more in women and girls in science

This article was originally posted on the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) website.

11 February is celebrated worldwide every year as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This year’s theme is “Investment in Women and Girls in Science for Inclusive Green Growth”. The day serves to highlight the important role women and girls play in science and technology and the crucial contributions they make to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

As UN Secretary-General António Guterres aptly notes, the challenges of the 21st century require that everyone’s full potential is harnessed, which in turn means that gender stereotypes should be dismantled and the gender imbalance in science ended.

However, statistics show that women and girls are still largely underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) around the world as a result of wide-ranging factors. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), only about 30 percent of the women students in higher education globally choose STEM-related disciplines. What is more, women students’ enrollment in such fields as information and communications technology and natural science, mathematics and statistics stands at just 3 percent and 5 percent respectively.

World Bank report points out that the percentage of women students in STEM in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries is comparable to or in some cases higher than in more developed countries. This, nonetheless, does not necessarily translate into higher numbers of women in the STEM professions.

Empirical evidence also shows that there is a disproportionately low number of women in science. The average share of women scientists across the region stands at 17 percent, which is the lowest in the world.

Women also account for just 21 percent of the total labor force and contribute 18 percent to the region’s overall GDP. If the labor gender gap had been narrowed over the past decade, the GDP growth rate in the region could have doubled or increased by some 1 trillion USD in cumulative output. This is a huge missed economic opportunity.

There are also other implications of women’s underrepresentation in the labor force, especially in research and development. Many studies demonstrate that gender-balanced teams improve innovation and productivity and that women are critical to innovation. Science is also more likely to be breakthrough as a larger number of women researchers in teams facilitates greater creativity and innovative thinking.

Not only are women great innovators, but they are also excellent leaders. Research shows that the more women there are in senior management, the better organizations perform. This is particularly true of organizations that are focused on innovation.

Bringing more women into science and helping them realize their full potential is a sure way to boost research and innovation in the region, as well as social and economic development.

This is one of the reasons why the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) offers a wide range of opportunities to women and girls in science.

To date ICBA has implemented several initiatives to support women and girls in science in the MENA region. The latest one is the Arab Women Leaders in Agriculture (AWLA) program. Being the first of its kind in the region, AWLA is a leadership program aimed at empowering women researchers who can make a positive impact in their workplaces, communities and countries. The program is designed to bring together women researchers from different countries to spearhead positive changes in agriculture while addressing the challenges they face in their careers. AWLA is funded by the  Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat. The inaugural cohort of AWLA includes 22 women scientists from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia.

Another initiative is a research grant program implemented jointly with the CRDF Global. It helped four Arab women scientists to conduct advanced research in collaboration with leading US scientists.

The center also works to ensure women’s equal participation in training programs, fellowships and internships. In 2019, for example, 36 out of 53 interns and 104 out of 212 participants at training programs were women.

As women-led contributions to different sectors are becoming more and more evident, tapping their knowledge and potential today will set the world on course for a more sustainable and prosperous future.

As Ms. Michelle Bachelet, former Executive Director of UN Women, once said: “When women are empowered and can claim their rights and access to land, leadership, opportunities and choices, economies grow, food security is enhanced, and prospects are improved for current and future generations.”

CIMMYT scientists join fellow experts in San Diego for world’s largest plant and animal genomics conference

CIMMYT Principal Scientist Sarah Hearne presenting at this week’s PAG conference. Photo: CIMMYT

A number of scientists from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) presented this week at the International Plant and Animal Genome Conference (PAG) in San Diego, USA.

PAG is the largest agricultural genomics meeting in the world, bringing together over 3,000 leading genetic scientists and researchers from around the world to present their research and share the latest developments in plant and animal genome projects. It provides an important opportunity for CIMMYT scientists to highlight their work translating the latest molecular research developments into wheat and maize breeding solutions for better varieties. 

To meet global food demand by 2050, agricultural production must increase by 60% – while at the same time minimizing harm to the environment. This is the process of sustainable intensification, recommended by world organizations like the United Nations and the EAT Lancet Commission as a key strategy for transforming our struggling global food system.

Genomics is crucial to sustainable intensification. By studying a plant or animal’s genetic architecture, researchers can better understand what drives crop or livestock productivity, quality, climate-resilience and resistance to pests and diseases. With this information scientists can speed up efforts to develop better varieties and stay ahead of climate- and disease- related threats.

  • Wheat Scientist Philomin Juliana shared her findings on successfully identifying significant new chromosomal regions for wheat yield and disease resistance using the full wheat genome map. Juliana and her colleagues have created a freely-available collection of genetic information and markers for more than 40,000 wheat lines which will accelerate efforts to breed superior wheat varieties. She also discussed the value of genomic and high-throughput phenotyping tools for current breeding strategies adopted by CIMMYT to develop climate resilient wheat.  
Wheat Scientist Philomin Juliana at this week’s PAG conference. Photo: CIMMYT
  • Principal Scientist Sarah Hearne discussed the smarter exploration of germplasm banks for breeding. Genebanks are reserves of native plant variation representing the evolutionary history of the crops we eat. They are a vital source of genetic information, which can accelerate the development of better, more resilient crops. However, it is not easy for breeders and scientists to identify or access the genetic information they need. Using the whole genebank genotypic data, long-term climate data from the origins of the genebank seeds and novel analysis methods, Hearne and her colleagues were able to identify elite genetic breeding material for improved, climate resilient maize varieties. They are now extending this approach to test the value of these data to improve breeding programs and accelerate the development of improved crops.
Sarah Hearne presents on the smart use of genebanks to accelerate the development of better wheat and maize varieties. Photo: Francisco Gomez
  • Distinguished Scientist Jose Crossa discussed the latest models and methods for combining phenomic and genomic information to accelerate the development of climate-resilient crop varieties. He highlighted the use of the Artificial Neural Network — a model inspired by the human brain — to model the relationship between input signals and output signals in crops. He also discussed a phenotypic and genomic selection index which can improve response to selection and expected genetic gains for all of an individual plant’s genetic traits simultaneously.
CIMMYT Distinguished Scientist Jose Crossa presenting at this week’s PAG conference. Photo: Sarah Hearne/CIMMYT
  • Genomic Breeder Umesh Rosyara demonstrated the Genomic selection pipeline and other tools at a workshop on the genomic data management and marker application tool Galaxy. The software, developed by the Excellence in Breeding (EiB) platform, integrates a suite of bioinformatics analysis tools, R-packages – a free software environment for statistical computing and graphics –  and visualization tools to manage routine genomic selection (GS) and genome wide association studies (GWAS) analysis. This allows crop breeders and genomic scientists without a programming background to conduct these analyses and create crop-specific workflows.

“PAG is currently the main international meeting touching both crop and livestock genomics, so it’s an invaluable chance to connect and share insights with research and breeding colleagues around the world,” said Hearne. 

“It’s also an important forum to highlight how we are linking upstream and field, and help others do the same.”

New international partnership to identify and develop resistance to dangerous wheat disease

China-based CIMMYT-JAAS screening station aims for global impact in the fight against deadly Fusarium head blight

Photo: JAAS

The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT), led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the International Center for Agriculture in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), have announced a partnership with the Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences (JAAS) in China to open a new screening facility for the deadly and fast-spreading fungal wheat disease Fusarium head blight (FHB).

The new facility, based near JAAS headquarters in Nanjing, aims to capitalize on CIMMYT’s world-class collection of disease-resistant wheat materials and the diversity of the more than 150,000 wheat germplasm in its Wheat Germplasm Bank to identify and characterize genetics of sources of resistance to FHB and, ultimately, develop new, FHB-resistant wheat varieties that can be sown in vulnerable areas around the world.

“The participation of JAAS in the global FHB breeding network will significantly contribute to the development of elite germplasm with good FHB resistance,” said Pawan Singh, head of wheat pathology for CIMMYT.

“We expect that in 5 to 7 years, promising lines with FHB resistance will be available for deployment by both CIMMYT and China to vulnerable farmers, thanks to this new station.”

Fusariumhead blight is one of the most dangerous wheat diseases.  It can cause up to 50% yield loss, and produce severe mycotoxin contamination in food and feed – with impacts including increased health care and veterinary care costs, and reduced livestock production. 

Even consuming low to moderate amounts of Fusarium mycotoxins may impair intestinal health, immune function and/or fitness. Deoxynivalenol (DON), a mycotoxin the fungus inducing FHB produces, has been linked to symptoms including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. In livestock, Fusarium mycotoxin consumption exacerbates infections with parasites, bacteria and viruses  — such as occidiosis in poultry, salmonellosis in pigs and mice, colibacillosis in pigs, necrotic enteritis in poultry and swine respiratory disease.

In China, the world’s largest wheat producer, FHB is the most important biotic constraint to production.

The disease is extending quickly beyond its traditionally vulnerable wheat growing areas in East Asia, North America, the southern cone of South America, Europe and South Africa —  partly as a result of global warming, and partly due to otherwise beneficial, soil-conserving farming practices such as wheat-maize rotation and reduced tillage.

“Through CIMMYT’s connections with national agricultural research systems in developing countries, we can create a global impact for JAAS research, reaching the countries that are expected to be affected the expansion of FHB epidemic area,” said Xu Zhang, head of Triticeae crops research group at the Institute of Food Crops of the Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

The new collaborative effort will target FHB research initially but could potentially expand to research on other wheat diseases as well. Wheat blast, for example, is a devastating disease that spread from South America to Bangladesh in 2016. Considering the geographical closeness of Bangladesh and China, a collaboration with CIMMYT, as one of the leading institutes working on wheat blast, could have a strong impact.

Although the platform is new, the two institutions have a longstanding relationship.  The bilateral collaboration between JAAS and CIMMYT began in early 1980s with a shuttle breeding program between China and Mexico to speed up breeding for FHB resistance. The two institutions also conducted extensive germplasm exchanges in the 1980s and 1990s, which helped CIMMYT improve resistance to FHB, and helped JAAS improve wheat rust resistance.

Currently, JAAS and CIMMYT are working on FHB under a project funded by the National Natural Science Foundation China called “Elite and Durable Resistance to Wheat Fusarium Head Blight” that aims to deploy FHB resistance genes/QTL in Chinese and CIMMYT germplasm and for use in wheat breeding.

INTERVIEW OPPORTUNITIES:

Xinyao He, Wheat Pathologist and Geneticist, Global Wheat Program, CIMMYT. x.he@cgiar.org, +52 (55) 5804 2004 ext. 2218

FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT THE MEDIA TEAM:

Geneviève Renard, Head of Communications, CIMMYT. g.renard@cgiar.org, +52 (55) 5804 2004 ext. 2019.

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

ABOUT CGIAR RESEARCH PROGRAM ON WHEAT:
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).

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 the CGIAR System 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. For more information, visit www.cimmyt.org.

ABOUT Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences (JAAS):

Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences (JAAS), a comprehensive agricultural research institution since 1931, strives to make agriculture more productive and sustainable through technology innovation. JAAS endeavors to carry out the Plan for Rural Vitalization Strategy and our innovation serves agriculture, farmers and the rural areas. JAAS provide more than 80% of new varieties, products and techniques in Jiangsu Province, teach farmers not only to increase yield and quality, but also to challenge conventional practices in pursuit of original ideas in agro-environment protection. For more information, visit home.jaas.ac.cn/.

This research is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.

Supercharged MARPLE labs to be fastest rust surveillance system in Africa

This article was originally posted on the Alliance for Accelerated Crop Improvement in Africa (ACACIA) website.

A network of Ethiopian researchers across the country are championing a new mobile lab to provide near real-time, strain-level diagnostics during wheat rust outbreaks.

Since winning the international impact category of the BBSRC innovator of the year award the MARPLE (Mobile And Real-time PLant disEase) diagnostic platform is now being established in research hubs across the wheat growing areas of Ethiopia. This marks the next step for the platform after its first trial in country just over a year ago. The UK-Ethiopian partnership hopes to have these platforms fully operational in time for the next growing season in 2020.

“Wheat yellow rust continues to cause huge losses for Ethiopian farmers,” says Diane Saunders whose lab led the creation of MARPLE diagnostics, “finally we have a proven mobile pipeline that gives us information on precisely which strain is present in a farmer’s field in near real-time. This provides the time needed to plan informed defensive responses. Our goal is now to put this technology in the hands of the researcher hubs on the ground.”

Read the full article here.

What is wheat blast?

This article by Matthew O’ Leary was originally posted on the CIMMYT website.

Wheat blast is a fast-acting and devastating fungal disease that threatens food safety and security in tropical areas in South America and South Asia. Directly striking the wheat ear, wheat blast can shrivel and deform the grain in less than a week from the first symptoms, leaving farmers no time to act.

The disease, caused by the fungus Magnaporthe oryzae pathotype triticum (MoT), can spread through infected seeds and survives on crop residues, as well as by spores that can travel long distances in the air.

Magnaporthe oryzae can infect many grasses, including barley, lolium, rice, and wheat, but specific isolates of this pathogen generally infect limited species; that is, wheat isolates infect preferably wheat plants but can use several more cereal and grass species as alternate hosts. The Bangladesh wheat blast isolate is being studied to determine its host range. The Magnaporthe oryzae genome is well-studied but major gaps remain in knowledge about its epidemiology.

The pathogen can infect all aerial wheat plant parts, but maximum damage is done when it infects the wheat ear. It can shrivel and deform the grain in less than a week from first symptoms, leaving farmers no time to act.
The pathogen can infect all aerial wheat plant parts, but maximum damage is done when it infects the wheat ear. It can shrivel and deform the grain in less than a week from first symptoms, leaving farmers no time to act.

Where is wheat blast found?

First officially identified in Brazil in 1985, the disease is widespread in South American wheat fields, affecting as much as 3 million hectares in the early 1990s. It continues to seriously threaten the potential for wheat cropping in the region.

In 2016, wheat blast spread to Bangladesh, which suffered a severe outbreak. It has impacted around 15,000 hectares of land in eight districts, reducing yield on average by as much as 51% in the affected fields.

Wheat-producing countries and presence of wheat blast.
Wheat-producing countries and presence of wheat blast.

How does blast infect a wheat crop?

Wheat blast spreads through infected seeds, crop residues as well as by spores that can travel long distances in the air.

Blast appears sporadically on wheat and grows well on numerous other plants and crops, so rotations do not control it. The irregular frequency of outbreaks also makes it hard to understand or predict the precise conditions for disease development, or to methodically select resistant wheat lines.

At present blast requires concurrent heat and humidity to develop and is confined to areas with those conditions. However, crop fungi are known to mutate and adapt to new conditions, which should be considered in management efforts.

How can farmers prevent and manage wheat blast?

There are no widely available resistant varieties, and fungicides are expensive and provide only a partial defense. They are also often hard to obtain or use in the regions where blast occurs, and must be applied well before any symptoms appear — a prohibitive expense for many farmers.

The Magnaporthe oryzae fungus is physiologically and genetically complex, so even after more than three decades, scientists do not fully understand how it interacts with wheat or which genes in wheat confer durable resistance.

Researchers from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) are partnering with national researchers and meteorological agencies on ways to work towards solutions to mitigate the threat of wheat blast and increase the resilience of smallholder farmers in the region. Through the USAID-supported Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA) and Climate Services for Resilient Development (CSRD) projects, CIMMYT and its partners are developing agronomic methods and early warning systems so farmers can prepare for and reduce the impact of wheat blast.

Visiting scientist overcomes challenges to bring state of the art crop analysis to CIMMYT

Ajit Nehe with research assistant Ibrahim Ozturk, taking RGB images at early stage of wheat growth. Photo: CIMMYT

Visiting scientist and wheat physiology breeder Ajit Nehe recently completed a one and half year tenure at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

A native of India, Nehe joined CIMMYT as a visiting scientist in wheat physiology under the International Winter Wheat Improvement Program (IWWIP) based in Ankara, Turkey in August 2018. Under the supervision of IWWIP Head Alex Morgunov, Nehe, who has a PhD in wheat physiology, has been working on understanding drought tolerance in winter wheat and developing climate resilient varieties.

Growing up in a small village in the Maharashtra state of India, Nehe and his family depended on agriculture for their livelihoods. From a young age, Nehe noticed the unpredictability of the environment and agriculture, and became interested in the relationship between the environment and agriculture and the effect of agriculture on the soil. This childhood interest inspired him to study agricultural science.

Taking the academic path was not an easy one for Nehe, who faced his own personal challenges.

“Having dyslexia — not being able to read and write properly — and not knowing that I was dyslexic until I started my PhD in the UK, my life was never easy. But having the dyslexic advantage of logical and scientific thinking I always found the way during my difficult academic and professional life,” said Nehe. 

He hopes that his story will encourage other budding researchers who might face similar challenges. “I would like to inspire the young researchers who want to develop their careers despite their difficulties.”

At CIMMYT, Nehe has been working on experiments to study nitrogen use efficiency and grain quality in spring wheat at three research institutes in Turkey:  Adana, Adapazari, and Izmir. After a successful first year, Nehe’s colleagues will repeat the experiments next year, with his input, with a view to publishing their results in a high impact research paper.

He has also contributed to the development of a root phenotyping platform using shovelomic techniques – which involves excavating roots by shovel, washing the roots, taking images of the root system and using image analysis software to get data on root traits.

“Under this project, we have successfully identified the different root traits associated with yield improvement under drought conditions. We also found root traits that were associated with previously detected genetic markers for drought tolerance by doing a marker-traits association study,” explained Nehe.

Using high tech imagery to understand crop physiology 

Nehe trains researchers on the use of RGB cameras for crop analysis. Photo: CIMMYT

Nehe has trained numerous researchers from Turkish agricultural research institutes such as the Aegean Agricultural Research Institute, the Bahri Dagdas Winter Cereal International Research Institute and Transitional Zone Agricultural Research Institute — who are involved in collaborative research with CIMMYT – on new, low-cost, simple measurements of field phenotyping techniques for wheat physiological traits.

Most recently, he trained researchers on the use of RBG cameras and software for image analysis, drone image segmentation, and data extraction and analysis at a series of workshops held over the past year and a half at CIMMYT’s Izmir and Ankara offices in Turkey.


Nehe testing an RBG camera and remote control mobile app at an experimental plot at Bahri Dagdas International Agricultural Research Institute, Konya, Turkey. Photo: CIMMYT

“The University of Barcelona has developed expertise on this technique, which involves taking images of wheat plots from above using a remote control provided by a mobile app, and extracting data from this images using image analysis software,” explained Nehe.

The technique has shown promising results for throughput field phenotyping, which involves characterizing a plant’s physical and biological properties.

Despite leaving CIMMYT in October, Nehe hopes to continue collaborating with CIMMYT in the future. His current plans involve bridging the gap between international research institutes and local grassroots NGOs to solve the problems of smallholder farmers in rural India. He is planning to establish a project in collaboration with the Paani Foundation, a local NGO and international knowledge partners like the Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA) on the area of sweet sorghum biofuel production technology. The project will combine bio-economic modelling and GIS techniques to help in crop management.