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.

A breath of fresh air: New planting machinery offers solution to burning crisis in India

This article was originally posted on the CGIAR website.

When the rice harvest season arrives in northwest India, farmers have only ten to twenty days to prepare their fields for the next season’s crop, wheat. For several decades now, this has meant using the fastest, cheapest tool at their disposal – fire – with devastating effects for human and environmental health.

In recent years, burning rice crop residue to clear land for wheat has reached crisis proportions. In November 2016, haze from agricultural burning in India’s northwestern states compounded New Delhi’s pollution problem, making the city’s air quality the worst in the world, and prompting a national emergency.

Innovations in farm machinery now hope to provide a more sustainable solution. 

Where typical combine harvester machines leave behind narrow piles of dry residue that need to be cleared before planting can begin, innovative new machines and attachments can chop the leftover rice stalks, spread the residue evenly as mulch, and plant seeds into the soil – all without the need for clearing. 

The simple adjustment in technique has the potential to bring transformational benefits for farmers, city-dwellers, and the environment.

“Rice residue burning is responsible for 40 percent of the air pollution in Delhi during the winter months, posing health hazards for several million people, adversely affecting soil health and creating the need for more water for crop production,” says M.L. Jat, a principal scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), who leads the Center’s contributions to climate-smart villages in South Asia as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).

“Direct seeding of crops using the Happy Seeder helps reduce air pollution, improve soil health, and helps farmers adapt to weather risks, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, saving water and improving their income by US$ 100-150 per hectare per year.”

The approach has been tested and validated through a large number of trials over several years by the partnership as part of their research into climate-smart agriculture, with positive results. It has since been adopted by farmers over nearly 0.7 million hectares in northwest India. Efforts are now looking into even larger-scale adoption of the technology to cut out burning for good.

A burning question

Until recently, up to 84 percent of agricultural burning in India has happened in rotational rice-wheat fields, with farmers seeing it as the cheapest option for clearing between crops. But this ‘low-cost’ option bears many costs later down the track, including for farmers.

Burning is a major cause of air pollution, which poses serious public health risks, particularly for children and the elderly. Smoke from burning can stunt lung development in children, trigger chronic illnesses like asthma, and even cause cancer. India now has the highest rate of death from respiratory disease, at 159 deaths per 100,000 people.  

Soil health is also affected by burning. Clearing by fire depletes carbon stocks and nutrients in soil. It also dries the land and contributes to heat stress, which slows crop growth. The result is lower yields and a greater need for irrigation, among other costs for farmers.

Over the long term, burning is also contributing to global climate change, and posing a setback for India’s targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Burning one ton of rice residue can release up to 13 kilograms of particulate matter into the atmosphere. At the height of burning, up to 30 million tons of rice residue was being cleared by fire in India’s northwestern states every year.

“Burning crop residues, and especially rice, contributes significantly to India’s annual emissions of greenhouse gases like methane, carbon dioxide, carbon mono-oxide, nitrous oxide, sulpher dioxide and so on,” Jat says.

“Using the Happy Seeder instead of burning can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 79 percent.”

States like Haryana and Punjab are now taking action to stop burning, placing strict bans on the practice. But what are the alternatives for farmers, and how realistic are they?

Another way

Research shows that in their rush to remove rice residue from the field, farmers could be missing out on the use of a valuable resource

When collected, leftover rice stalks can be reused as animal feed, and research is ongoing into its potential as a source of biofuel. But even if farmers can’t afford to clear, collect and process the residue, there are yet more benefits to be had by simply leaving it on their fields.

Chopped rice residue can be used as mulch, preparing the soil for the next season’s wheat crop. Using mulch can help farmers better control weeds, prevent waterlogging, lock in important nutrients, and maintain soil moisture, reducing the need for at least one round of irrigation per year. There is also evidence to suggest that mulch assists in carbon sequestration, bringing benefits for efforts on climate change.

The Happy Seeder planter is able to at once chop rice straw, bore through the residue to open a slit, deposit wheat seed and cover the seed. A combine harvester equipped with the Super Straw Management System (Super SMS) attachment can then be used to spread the residue evenly as mulch.

The technology eliminates the need for plowing, giving farmers the option of planting and harvesting their wheat crops up to two weeks earlier, avoiding the pre-monsoon heat. Importantly, it also eliminates the need to clear residue, effectively removing the need for burning.

The latest version of the improved Happy Seeder costs $1,900, which is still beyond the means of many farmers. But the machines are available for hire, and the number of service providers are rapidly growing. 

In the northwestern states of Punjab and Haryana adoption of the machines has grown rapidly from 400 in use in 2015 to nearly 11,000 in 2018. In two years, the number of Happy Seeders in use in northwestern India is expected to grow to 35,000, bringing the practice of zero-tillage farming to around 2 million hectares of farmland.

As for the Super SMS attachment, there are now at least 100 manufacturers producing the essential piece, which is used on more than 5,000 combine harvesters. The attachment has been made mandatory for harvesters in Punjab and Haryana states, and is expected to be universally adopted over the next two years.

Looking ahead

By avoiding burning, assisting sequestration and keeping carbon stocks in the soil for longer, the new approach to rice-wheat rotations is a win for climate-smart agriculture – a priority for the Government of India. As India’s population continues to grow and global weather patterns change, climate-smart farming will be essential for meeting national targets on emissions reduction and food security. 

The principles of sustainable intensification – such as “minimal soil disturbance, permanent soil cover and crop rotation techniques” – as supported by the new approach, can help the Government reach its goals and build resilience among farmers against climate shocks. 

New publications: Special collection on wheat genetics and breeding

Researchers present highlights from 40 years of collaboration on wheat genomics, breeding for disease resistance and quality improvement.

This article by Emma Orchardson was originally posted on the CIMMYT website.

Wheat rust expert Bob McIntosh, of the Plant Breeding Institute, University of Sydney, Australia, examining rust symptoms on a wheat line in the field at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute’s (KARI) Njoro research station in Kenya. Photo: CIMMYT/Petr Kosina

Global wheat production is currently facing great challenges, from increasing climate variation to occurrence of various pests and diseases. These factors continue to limit wheat production in a number of countries, including China, where in 2018 unseasonably cold temperatures resulted in yield reduction of more than 10% in major wheat growing regions. Around the same time, Fusarium head blight spread from the Yangtze region to the Yellow and Huai Valleys, and northern China experienced a shortage of irrigated water.

In light of these ongoing challenges, international collaboration, as well as the development of new technologies and their integration with existing ones, has a key role to play in supporting sustainable wheat improvement, especially in developing countries. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) has been collaborating with China on wheat improvement for over 40 years, driving significant progress in a number of areas.

Notably, a standardized protocol for testing Chinese noodle quality has been established, as has a methodology for breeding adult-plant resistance to yellow rust, leaf rust and powdery mildew. More than 330 cultivars derived from CIMMYT germplasm have been released in the country and are currently grown over 9% of the Chinese wheat production area, while physiological approaches have been used to characterize yield potential and develop high-efficiency phenotyping platforms. The development of climate-resilient cultivars using new technology will be a priority area for future collaboration.

In a special issue of Frontiers of Agricultural Science and Engineering focused on wheat genetics and breeding, CIMMYT researchers present highlights from global progress in wheat genomics, breeding for disease resistance, as well as quality improvement, in a collection of nine review articles and one research article. They emphasize the significance of using new technology for genotyping and phenotyping when developing new cultivars, as well as the importance of global collaboration in responding to ongoing challenges.

In a paper on wheat stem rust, CIMMYT scientists Sridhar Bhavani, David Hodson, Julio Huerta-Espino, Mandeep Randawa and Ravi Singh discuss progress in breeding for resistance to Ug99 and other races of stem rust fungus, complex virulence combinations of which continue to pose a significant threat to global wheat production. The authors detail how effective gene stewardship and new generation breeding materials, complemented by active surveillance and monitoring, have helped to limit major epidemics and increase grain yield potential in key target environments.

In the same issue, an article by Caiyun Lui et al. discusses the application of spectral reflectance indices (SRIs) as proxies to screen for yield potential and heat stress, which is emerging in crop breeding programs. The results of a recent study, which evaluated 287 elite lines, highlight the utility of SRIs as proxies for grain yield. High heritability estimates and the identification of marker-trait associations indicate that SRIs are useful tools for understanding the genetic basis of agronomic and physiological traits.

Other papers by CIMMYT researchers discuss the history, activities and impact of the International Winter Wheat Improvement Program, as well as the ongoing work on the genetic improvement of wheat grain quality at CIMMYT.

Find the full collection of articles in Frontiers of Agricultural Science and Engineering, Volume 6, Issue 3, September 2019.

Keep wheat diseases at bay: 11th annual training on stem rust note taking and germplasm evaluation at KALRO Njoro, Kenya

by Jerome Bossuet

Scientists at this year’s annual training on stem rust note taking and germplasm evaluation. Photo: CIMMYT

As part of the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) project, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in collaboration with Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) and Cornell University recently trained 24 researchers (8 women & 16 men) from 9 countries across the world on wheat rust disease diagnosis and germplasm evaluation. The training took place on October 5-13, 2019 at the KALRO research station in Njoro, Kenya, where CIMMYT’s wheat breeding and rust screening facility is located.

Hands-on skills for efficient breeding and disease control

CIMMYT has held such hands-on trainings annually since 2009, benefitting over 220 scientists, mostly wheat breeders and pathologists from national programs of developing countries worldwide.

“These trainings aim at nurturing the next generation of wheat scientists in the different wheat growing areas, harmonizing cost-effective wheat breeding techniques and building a global community of practice, so important for our future food security,’’ said training coordinator, Mandeep Randhawa, Wheat Breeder and Wheat Rust Pathologist based at CIMMYT Kenya. Dr. Randhawa manages overall activities of the stem rust phenotyping platform Njoro.

The training focuses particularly on studying resistance to rapidly evolving fungal diseases like black (stem), yellow (stripe) and brown (leaf) rusts. CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program in Africa uses such trainings to establish new partnerships and continue efforts in wheat breeding and combating emerging challenges across the different farming regions.

The participants learned how to record stem rust field notes to identify different types and levels of resistance, and the interaction with  wheat experts helped them better understand how wheat rust pathogens keep evolving. Continuous breeding of wheat varieties with not-only high yield potential but with resistance to rust and non-rust diseases was emphasized.    

An important skill the trainees gained during the course was to visually identify and score stem rust symptoms accurately. The percentage of rust coverage on the stem is used to score plants’ susceptibility, e.g. moderately susceptible (MS) or moderately resistant (MR) host reactions to infection.

“Harmonizing the way wheat breeders score stem rust severity in different countries like Ethiopia or Bangladesh is very important, so we could compare research data in any global breeding program like DGGW and for disease surveillance systems,’’ explained Emeritus Professor Robert McIntosh, one of the trainers from the Plant Breeding Institute-Cobbitty, University of Sydney, Australia.

Despite its importance to the global food and nutrition security, wheat remains susceptible to very destructive rust diseases. Rusts can lead to total crop failure when the climate conditions are favorable for the fungus and varieties grown by farmers are susceptible. The wheat scientific community has to remain vigilant on rust outbreaks globally as these pathogens evolve quickly. The stem rust race Ug99, reported for the first time in Uganda in 1999, was able to overcome the stem rust resistance gene Sr31 present in many popular varieties planted by farmers in the region. In 2013-14, wheat variety Digalu in Ethiopia and Robin in Kenya became susceptible to a new stem rust race with virulence to gene Srtmp. By 2019, fourteen different races in Ug99 lineage have been identified across Eastern and Southern Africa.

“You can train someone for one year to score for rust resistance, but you learn all your life,’’ added McIntosh. “In the era of molecular breeding, it is remarkable to see that visual phenotyping recognition still plays a strong role in safeguarding one of the most important cereal.”

“This is the first time I am doing this rust scoring. This will be important for my job of certifying new rust resistant wheat varieties, to know how to rank one wheat variety from other popular check,’’ noted seed health inspector, Philip Chemeltorit from the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (KEPHIS) Nakuru. A durum wheat breeder, Ms. Divya Ambati from Indore, India learned how the rust symptoms vary between durum and bread wheat germplasm, while wheat scientists, Ms. Sourour Ayed and Ms. Rifka Hammami, from Tunisia were more interested in how to tackle Septoria, another fungal disease prevalent in their country.

“This training course is a great opportunity for national programs to have first-hand information on the performance of their varieties and advanced lines evaluated at the phenotyping platform from respective countries. It is important to understand the different types of resistance that can be used in breeding. Strategies of combining different race specific and adult plant resistance (APR) genes is important for researchers to develop varieties with durable resistance,” said Sridhar Bhavani, Head of Wheat Rust Pathology at CIMMYT Mexico.

Back to the breeder’s equation

Developing and distributing rust resistant wheat varieties is regarded as the most cost-effective and eco-friendly control measure, especially in developing countries, where the majority are resource-poor smallholder farmers with limited access to fungicides to control the disease.

Ravi Singh, Head of Wheat Improvement at CIMMYT Mexico explained the new wheat breeding priorities, where breeders should focus on cost-effectiveness:

‘’Wheat scientists must go back to the blackboard how to increase genetic gains in a cost-effective way. What new methods and tools would increase the number of lines screened (intensity), with good accuracy and shorter breeding cycles?’’

CIMMYT Mexico for instance has just invested in a new large field greenhouse in Toluca research station to produce four generations of wheat annually, instead of two currently. The global wheat program will be more responsive to new pests and disease like the recent wheat blast outbreak that affected Bangladesh.

‘’But not all is about speed breeding,’’ warned Singh. “The wheat research should remain holistic and continue asking the right questions to well capture farmers and wheat processors’ needs when defining future breeding targets or product profiles. Wheat yield potential remain very important, but you have to ‘package other traits like water-use efficiency, disease resistance, nutrition, profitability etc.’’’

Godwin Macharia, Centre Director and Wheat Breeder of the KALRO- Njoro Centre discussed progress in wheat improvement through CIMMYT-KALRO partnership:

 “Wheat varieties Kenya Kasuku and Kenya Jacana with significant yield advantage over current commercial varieties and moderate levels of resistance to stem rust were released by KEPHIS in 2019. Moreover, several high-yielding rust resistant wheat lines are in the national performance testing towards identification and release of suitable varieties for commercialization in Kenya growing environments. Seed multiplication is in process with enough volumes of breeder seed of the new varieties available for further bulking and distribution to growers for cultivation in the 2020 season.’’

“Pilots never fail, pilots never scale:” Why the global development community needs a more realistic approach to reaching billions

This article by Lennart Woltering  was originally posted on NextBillion.net as part of the series “Scaling Up Without Selling Out.” The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) is a funder of this work.

Wheat plots under trial at CIMMYT’s Norman E. Borlaug Experiment Station, Ciudad Obregon. Photo credit: CIMMYT.

We live in an era that calls for large-scale social and environmental transformation. But society has taken only meager steps towards producing the unprecedented changes needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Those of us working on sustainable rural development understand that we face enormous challenges: from ending hunger and improving nutrition, to preserving vital ecosystems, tackling climate change, empowering women and ending poverty. But we are still caught up in a 20th century paradigm that sees the world as a logical, linear, technology-centric system. This approach has hardly worked in the past, and it will certainly fail in the future. We need to change the underlying system. We need a new way of working.

In a new paper, my colleagues and I at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) joined up with development experts to argue that agricultural development projects should stop focusing narrowly on changing farming conditions within a specific project context. For too long, the dominant approach has been to develop new agricultural practices and technologies, prove that they work, spread them to a few hundred farmers through controlled pilot projects, and then hope this is enough to convince governments, industry and millions of smallholder farmers to do things differently. This is akin to inventing the mobile phone but ignoring the need for electricity, cellular towers, network providers, or any of the other supporting elements that enable the use of the phone.

Instead, we argue that projects should be seen as vehicles for changing the underlying system that enables a technology to be successfully used by millions. This means acknowledging and engaging with the complex array of real-world elements that comprise these systems, such as infrastructure, market forces, politics, people and power relationships. We do not suggest that project implementers become experts in all of these things, but rather that they need to take them into account when developing scalable solutions, by studying the best scaling process for a particular context, and positioning their contributions within that wider context.

We need to change course and embrace new attitudes, new skills and new ways of collaborating if we want to produce sustainable systems change at scale. And one important part of this process involves reconsidering our approach to pilot programs.

Pilots never fail, pilots never scale
Most pilots test whether an innovation works in a particular context. We liken this to building a greenhouse (a controlled environment) within a landscape (the real world). Pilot projects rely heavily on external resources and expertise, and are shielded from real world challenges like politics, regulations, market forces and finance. A crucial feature of pilot programs, and a key limitation, is that they don’t face the same pressure as actual programs to reach as many people as possible within a limited timeframe. That means they aren’t generating important lessons about the conditions needed to enable sustainable long-term adoption.

As a result, when the time comes to scale up a successful pilot project, we generally take one of two paths:

One path involves building a bigger greenhouse, which means expanding the controlled environment by doing more of the same with more money. But this approach is expensive, and unlikely to produce lasting change. The expanded project may indeed reach an impressive number of households, but this is no guarantee that they can and will continue to use a technology after the project ends. And this also doesn’t guarantee that adoption will spread.

The other conventional approach to scaling a pilot program is to simply remove the greenhouse and assume the innovation is so good that it will spontaneously scale itself. But as any gardener knows, a plant will not easily survive under real conditions once a greenhouse is removed. Likewise, farming communities are unlikely to continue using a new practice or technology if the surrounding system remains unchanged, since it is this very system that shaped their conventional way of farming.

Steps for achieving large scale – and lasting – change
So what would a more effective approach to scale look like? We reviewed decades of experience and insights from a number of sectors, including agriculture, health, education, nutrition and urban planning. We identified the following strategies that can help rural development projects change their approach towards achieving impact:

  1. Adopt a new mindset: Understand that overlapping economic social, technical and political systems shape peoples’ choices and behaviors. Recognize the stakeholder dynamics that determine the present situation. You need to understand the key players and rules of the game in order to engage with – and influence – them.
  2. Design for scale from the start: Asking “Does the pilot project work?” is not enough. Start by asking “What happens beyond the pilot project, if it works?” Then work with strategic local partners that are willing and able to provide public/private funding and leadership to sustain the initiative once the pilot project ends. But keep in mind: This also means considering – and planning for – the unintended consequences that come along with big change initiatives.
  3. Clarify your role: Scaling means intervening into a range of elements within a system, and implementing institutions need to recognize their strengths and limitations in doing so. If they find that they lack any key capabilities that could reduce a program’s effectiveness, they should collaborate strategically with others to better influence the many different parts of the system.
  4. See pilots as building blocks: Rather than viewing pilot projects as distinct entities, see them as part of a bigger ecology of initiatives to achieve long-term change – for example, as elements of a sector or country development strategy, or of other emerging market-led initiatives.

The global agricultural development community is starting to come to grips with this new mindset and way of working. For instance, in Zimbabwe, CIMMYT and its partners are taking a fresh approach to encouraging small-scale farm mechanization. We are working on strengthening a wide range of functions that are needed to support a market for two-wheeled tractors. This includes creating demand for machinery among local smallholders through farmer-to-farmer demonstrations, field days and ICT solutions. The initiative also offers technical and business development training to service providers, mechanics, artisans and manufacturers, and develops the capacity of existing vocational training centers to provide ongoing machinery trainings. Private sector partners can access valuable insights and intelligence on the performance of different machines and their costs and benefits, and can also access profiles of potential customers, thus spurring demand. And aspiring service providers are connected to financial institutions that can provide loans for machinery purchase. This approach goes far beyond the typical technology-oriented pilot project, and shows the positive steps being taken to engage with, and ultimately disrupt, the different elements of the underlying system.

Pilot projects last 2-4 years, but scaling a successful pilot to national application can take 15 years. While we are seeing more initiatives move away from the technology transfer mindset focused only on products, end users and numbers, and towards a more systems-focused approach, critical mass is a long way off. Agricultural development organizations and their funders need to urgently change course and position themselves as key players in changing the system at scale, rather than pushing an innovation into the rigid, incumbent system. This requires linking up with the right partners on the ground, who can help make this broader approach to sustainable development into the “new normal.”

Acknowledgments: This work was funded by the CGIAR Research Programs MAIZE (www.maize.org) and WHEAT (www.wheat.org) coordinated by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico. The authors worked in collaboration with Management Systems International (MSI) and the PPPLab (supported by the Directorate General for International Cooperation (DGIS) and SNV Netherlands Development Organization). The German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) supported the work through the Integrated Expert program of Gesellschaft fuer Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH. Any opinions, findings, conclusion, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of CRP MAIZE, CRP WHEAT, GIZ, DGIS or SNV.

Why cereals matter: the cereals imperative of future food systems

The world urgently needs a transformation of the global food system, leading to healthier diets for all and a drastic reduction in agriculture’s environmental impact. The major cereal grains must play a central role in this new revolution for the benefit of the world’s poorest people.

This op-ed piece by Martin Kropff and Matthew Morell was originally posted on CIMMYT.org

Pioneering research on our three most important cereal grains — maize, rice, and wheat — has contributed enormously to global food security over the last half century, chiefly by boosting the yields of these crops and by making them more resilient in the face of drought, flood, pests and diseases. But with more than 800 million people still living in chronic hunger and many more suffering from inadequate diets, much remains to be done. The challenges are complicated by climate change, rampant degradation of the ecosystems that sustain food production, rapid population growth and unequal access to resources that are vital for improved livelihoods.

In recent years, a consensus has emerged among agricultural researchers and development experts around the need to transform global food systems, so they can provide healthy diets while drastically reducing negative environmental impacts. Certainly, this is a central aim of CGIAR — the world’s largest global agricultural research network — which views enhanced nutrition and sustainability as essential for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. CGIAR scientists and their many partners contribute by developing technological and social innovations for the world’s key crop production systems, with a sharp focus on reducing hunger and poverty in low- and middle-income countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The importance of transforming food systems is also the message of the influential EAT-Lancet Commission report, launched in early 2019. Based on the views of 37 leading experts from diverse research disciplines, the report defines specific actions to achieve a “planetary health diet,” which enhances human nutrition and keeps the resource use of food systems within planetary boundaries. While including all food groups — grains, roots and tubers, pulses, vegetables, fruits, tree nuts, meat, fish, and dairy products — this diet reflects important shifts in their consumption. The major cereals, for example, would supply about one-third of the required calories but with increased emphasis on whole grains to curb the negative health effects of cheap and abundant supplies of refined cereals.

This proportion of calories corresponds roughly to the proportion of its funding that CGIAR currently invests in the major cereals. These crops are already vital in diets, cultures, and economies across the developing world, and the way they are produced, processed and consumed must be a central focus of global efforts to transform food systems. There are four main reasons for this imperative.

Aneli Zárate Vásquez (left), in Mexico's state of Oaxaca, sells maize tortillas for a living. (Photo: P. Lowe/CIMMYT)
Aneli Zárate Vásquez (left), in Mexico’s state of Oaxaca, sells maize tortillas for a living. (Photo: P. Lowe/CIMMYT)

1. Scale and economic importance

The sheer extent of major cereal production and its enormous value, especially for the poor, account in large part for the critical importance of these crops in global food systems. According to 2017 figures, maize is grown on 197 million hectares and rice on more than 167 million hectares, mainly in Asia and Africa. Wheat covers 218 million hectares, an area larger than France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK combined. The total annual harvest of these crops amounts to about 2.5 billion tons of grain.

Worldwide production had an estimated annual value averaging more than $500 billion in 2014-2016. The prices of the major cereals are especially important for poor consumers. In recent years, the rising cost of bread in North Africa and tortillas in Mexico, as well as the rice price crisis in Southeast Asia, imposed great hardship on urban populations in particular, triggering major demonstrations and social unrest. To avoid such troubles by reducing dependence on cereal imports, many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America have made staple crop self-sufficiency a central element of national agriculture policy.

Women make roti, an unleavened flatbread made with wheat flour and eaten as a staple food, at their home in the Dinajpur district, Bangladesh. (Photo: S. Mojumder/Drik/CIMMYT)
Women make roti, an unleavened flatbread made with wheat flour and eaten as a staple food, at their home in the Dinajpur district, Bangladesh. (Photo: S. Mojumder/Drik/CIMMYT)

2. Critical role in human diets

Cereals have a significant role to play in food system transformation because of their vital importance in human diets. In developing countries, maize, rice, and wheat together provide 48% of the total calories and 42% of the total protein. In every developing region except Latin America, cereals provide people with more protein than meat, fish, milk and eggs combined, making them an important protein source for over half the world’s population.

Yellow maize, a key source of livestock feed, also contributes indirectly to more protein-rich diets, as does animal fodder derived from cereal crop residues. As consumption of meat, fish and dairy products continues to expand in the developing world, demand for cereals for food and feed must rise, increasing the pressure to optimize cereal production.

In addition to supplying starch and protein, the cereals serve as a rich source of dietary fiber and nutrients. CGIAR research has documented the important contribution of wheat to healthy diets, linking the crop to reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and colorectal cancer. The nutritional value of brown rice compared to white rice is also well known. Moreover, the recent discovery of certain genetic traits in milled rice has created the opportunity to breed varieties that show a low glycemic index without compromising grain quality.

Golden Rice grain (left) compared to white rice grain. Golden Rice is unique because it contains beta carotene, giving it a golden color. (Photo: IRRI)
Golden Rice grain (left) compared to white rice grain. Golden Rice is unique because it contains beta carotene, giving it a golden color. (Photo: IRRI)

3. Encouraging progress toward better nutritional quality

The major cereals have undergone further improvement in nutritional quality during recent years through a crop breeding approach called “biofortification,” which boosts the content of essential vitamins or micronutrients. Dietary deficiencies of this kind harm children’s physical and cognitive development, and leave them more vulnerable to disease. Sometimes called “hidden hunger,” this condition is believed to cause about one-third of the 3.1 million annual child deaths attributed to malnutrition. Diverse diets are the preferred remedy, but the world’s poorest consumers often cannot afford more nutritious foods. The problem is especially acute for women and adolescent girls, who have unequal access to food, healthcare and resources.

It will take many years of focused effort before diverse diets become a reality in the lives of the people who need them most. Diversified farming systems such as rice-fish rotations that improve nutritional value, livelihoods and resilience are a step in that direction. In the meantime, “biofortified” cereal and other crop varieties developed by CGIAR help address hidden hunger by providing higher levels of zinc, iron and provitamin A carotenoids as well as better protein quality. Farmers in many developing countries are already growing these varieties.

A 2018 study in India found that young children who ate zinc-biofortified wheat in flatbread or porridge became ill less frequently. Other studies have shown that consumption of provitamin A maize improves the body’s total stores of this vitamin as effectively as vitamin supplementation. Biofortified crop varieties are not a substitute for food fortification (adding micronutrients and vitamins during industrial food processing). But these varieties can offer an immediate solution to hidden hunger for the many subsistence farmers and other rural consumers who depend on locally produced foods and lack access to fortified products.

Ruth Andrea (left) and Maliamu Joni harvest cobs of drought-tolerant maize in Idakumbi, Mbeya, Tanzania. (Photo: Peter Lowe/CIMMYT)
Ruth Andrea (left) and Maliamu Joni harvest cobs of drought-tolerant maize in Idakumbi, Mbeya, Tanzania. (Photo: Peter Lowe/CIMMYT)

4. Wide scope for more sustainable production

Cereal crops show much potential not only for enhancing human heath but that of the environment as well. Compared to other crops, the production of cereals has relatively low environmental impact, as noted in the EAT-Lancet report. Still, it is both necessary and feasible to further enhance the sustainability of cereal cropping systems. Many new practices have a proven ability to conserve water as well as soil and land, and to use purchased inputs (pesticides and fertilizers) far more efficiently. With innovations already available, the amount of water used in current rice cultivation techniques, for example, can be significantly reduced from its present high level.

Irrigation scheduling, laser land leveling, drip irrigation, conservation tillage, precision nitrogen fertilization, and cereal varieties tolerant to drought, flooding and heat are among the most promising options. In northwest India, scientists recently determined that optimal practices can reduce water use by 40%, while maintaining yields in rice-wheat rotations. There and in many other places, the adoption of new practices to improve cereal production in the wet season not only leads to more efficient resource use but also creates opportunities to diversify crop production in the dry season. Improvements to increase cereal crop yields also reduces their environmental footprint; using less land, enhancing carbon sequestration and biodiversity and, for rice, reducing methane emissions per kilo of rice produced. Given the enormous extent of cereals cultivation, any improvement in resource use efficiency will have major impact, while also freeing up vast amounts of land for other crops or natural vegetation.

A major challenge now is to improve access to the knowledge and inputs that will enable millions of farmers to adopt new techniques, making it possible both to diversify production and grow more with less. Another key requirement consists of clear signals from policymakers, especially where land and water are limited, about the priority use of these resources — for example, irrigating low-value cereals to bolster food security versus applying the water to higher value crops and importing staple cereals.

Morning dew on a wheat spike. (Photo: Vadim Ganeyev/CIMMYT)
Morning dew on a wheat spike. (Photo: Vadim Ganeyev/CIMMYT)

Toward a sustainable dietary revolution

Future-proofing the global food system requires bold steps. Policy and research need to support a double transformation, centered on nutrition and sustainability.

CGIAR works toward nutritional transformation of our food system through numerous global partnerships. We give high priority to improving cereal crop systems and food products, because of their crucial importance for a growing world population. Recognizing that this alone will not suffice for healthy diets, we also strongly promote greater dietary diversity through our research on various staple crops and production systems and by raising public awareness of more balanced and nutritious diets.

To help achieve a sustainability transformation, CGIAR researchers and partners have developed a wide array of techniques that use resources more efficiently, enhance the resilience of food production in the face of climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while achieving sustainable increases in crop yields. At the same time, we are generating new evidence on which techniques work best under what conditions to target the implementation of these solutions more effectively.

The ultimate impact of our work depends crucially on the growing resolve of developing countries to promote better diets and more sustainable food production through strong policies and programs. CGIAR is well prepared to help strengthen these measures through research for development, and we are confident that our work on cereals, with continued donor support, will have high relevance, generating a wealth of innovations that help drive the transformation of global food systems.

Martin Kropff is the Director General of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

Matthew Morell is the Director General of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).