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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smallholder wheat production can cut Africa’s costly grain imports

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

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

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

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

Harvesting wheat at Gataraga, Northern Province, Rwanda.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New infographics illustrate impact of wheat blast

Wheat blast is a fast-acting and devastating fungal disease that threatens food safety and security in the Americas and South Asia.

First officially identified in Brazil in 1984, the disease is widespread in South American wheat fields, affecting as much as 3 million hectares in the early 1990s.

 In 2016, it crossed the Atlantic Ocean, and Bangladesh suffered a severe outbreak. Bangladesh released a blast-resistant wheat variety—developed with breeding lines from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT)—in 2017, but the country and region remain extremely vulnerable.

The continued spread of blast in South Asia—where more than 100 million tons of wheat are consumed each year—could be devastating.

Researchers with the CIMMYT-led and USAID-supported Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA) and Climate Services for Resilient Development (CSRD) projects partner 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. These include agronomic methods and early warning systems so farmers can prepare for and reduce the impact of wheat blast.

This series of infographics shows how wheat blast spreads, its potential effect on wheat production in South Asia and ways farmers can manage it.   

This work is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). CSISA partners include CIMMYT, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

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), CGIAR Research Program on WHEAT, and the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture.

See more on wheat blast here: https://www.cimmyt.org/wheat-blast/