Preserving the legacy of biodiversity

This story by Alfonso CortésRodrigo Ordóñez and Silvia Rico was originally published on the CIMMYT website.

A NordGen staff member brings a box of seed into the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway. (Photo: Thomas Sonne/Common Ground Media for NordGen)

Seed security is the first step towards food security. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) preserves 28,000 unique seed samples of maize and 150,000 of wheat at its genebank in Mexico.

The Global Seed Vault in Svalbard opened in 2008. Since then, CIMMYT has duplicated and deposited 50 million seeds — 170,000 samples of maize and wheat — at Svalbard.

This year, CIMMYT sent 24 boxes of seed, with 332 samples of maize and 15,231 samples of wheat.

Join these seeds on a journey, as they travel more than 8,000 km from CIMMYT’s genebank in Mexico to the Global Seed Vault in the Arctic.

A supermarket, rather than a museum

This treasure, kept in the global network of genebanks, is key to ensuring sustainable, nutritious agricultural systems for future generations.

The purpose of genebanks is not just to preserve seed, but to use its biodiversity to address the needs of the future — and the needs of today.

Climate change is already impacting resource-poor farmers and consumers in low- and middle-income countries. Researchers and breeders at CIMMYT are rolling out solutions to these challenges, based on the diverse genetic resources kept in the genebank. As a result, farmers can use new varieties that yield more, need less inputs, and are more tolerant to drought or heat.

Our internal estimates show that about 30% of maize and more than 50% of wheat grown worldwide can be traced to CIMMYT germplasm.

Humanity’s legacy

Maize and wheat originated about 10,000 years ago. Since then, it’s survived war, drought, diseases, migration, birds, low yields — and the hard choice between feeding children or planting again.

Keepers of genebanks around the world are only the depositors of this legacy, which belongs to all humanity. CIMMYT will continue to preserve these seeds and to make their biodiversity available to researchers and famers, to solve today’s and tomorrow’s most pressing issues.

The value of research on plant resistance to insects

This article and video were originally published on the CIMMYT website.

Crop pest outbreaks are a serious threat to food security worldwide. Swarms of locusts continue to form in the Horn of Africa, threatening food security and farmer livelihoods ahead of a new cropping season. The devastating fall armyworm continues cause extensive damage in Africa and South Asia.

With almost 40% of food crops lost annually due to pests and diseases, plants resistance to insects is more important than ever. Last month, a group of wheat breeders and entomologists came together for the 2

4th Biannual International Plant Resistance to Insects (IPRI) Workshop, held at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) global headquarters outside Mexico City.

Watch Mike Smith, entomologist and distinguished professor emeritus at Kansas State University explain the importance of working with economists to document the value of plant insect resistance research, and why communication is crucial for raising awareness of the threat of crop pests and insect resistance solutions.

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Concerned experts ask world leaders to head off a global food security crisis from COVID-19

This story by Mike Listman was originally posted on the CIMMYT website.

Alarmed by the risk of global and regional food shortages triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, a coalition of businesses, farmers’ groups, industry, non-governmental organizations, and academia has called on world leaders urgently to maintain open trade of their surplus food products.

Published by the Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU) on April 9, 2020, and signed by 60 experts, the call to action urges world leaders to keep food supplies flowing, specially support vulnerable people, and finance sustainable, resilient food systems.

Covered by major world media, the declaration encourages governments to treat food production, processing, and distribution as an essential sector — similar to public health care — and thus to support continued, safe, and healthy activities by farmers and others who contribute to the sector, according to Martin Kropff, director general of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and a signatory of the call to action.

“Consumers in low-income countries face the greatest threat of food insecurity,” said Kropff. “Their tenuous access to nutritious food is jeopardized when surplus food-producing nations choose to close trade as a defensive measure.”

Kropff added that many households in low-income countries depend on agriculture or related activities for their food and livelihoods. Their productivity and food security are compromised by illness or restrictions on movement or working.

“The call to action resonates with the findings of a landmark 2015 study by Lloyd’s of London,” he explained. “That work highlighted the fragility of global food systems in the event of coinciding shocks, an outcome that seems entirely possible now, given the health, cultural, and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

At the same time, the work of CIMMYT, other CGIAR centers, and their partners worldwide helps to stabilize food systems, according to Kropff.

“Our research outputs include high-yielding, climate-resilient crop varieties and more productive, profitable and sustainable farming methods,” he said. “These give farmers — and especially smallholders — the ingredients for more efficient and effective farming. They are grounded in reality through feedback from farmers and local partners, as well as socioeconomic studies on markets and value chains for food production, processing, and distribution.”

Conservation agriculture key in meeting UN Sustainable Development Goals

This story by Alison Doody was originally published on the CIMMYT website.

An international team of scientists has provided a sweeping new analysis of the benefits of conservation agriculture for crop performance, water use efficiency, farmers’ incomes and climate action across a variety of cropping systems and environments in South Asia.

The analysis, published today in Nature Sustainability, is the first of its kind to synthesize existing studies on conservation agriculture in South Asia and allows policy makers to prioritize where and which cropping systems to deploy conservation agriculture techniques. The study uses data from over 9,500 site-year comparisons across South Asia.

According to M.L. Jat, a principal scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and first author of the study, conservation agriculture also offers positive contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals of no poverty, zero hunger, good health and wellbeing, climate action and clean water.

“Conservation agriculture is going to be key to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals,” echoed JK Ladha, adjunct professor at the University of California, Davis, and co-author of the study.

Scientists from CIMMYT, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the University of California, Davis, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and Cornell University looked at a variety of agricultural, economic and environmental performance indicators — including crop yields, water use efficiency, economic return, greenhouse gas emissions and global warming potential — and compared how they correlated with conservation agriculture conditions in smallholder farms and field stations across South Asia.

Results and impact on policy

Researchers found that many conservation agriculture practices had significant benefits for agricultural, economic and environmental performance indicators, whether implemented separately or together. Zero tillage with residue retention, for example, had a mean yield advantage of around 6%, provided farmers almost 25% more income, and increased water use efficiency by about 13% compared to conventional agricultural practices. This combination of practices also was shown to cut global warming potential by up to 33%.

This comes as good news for national governments in South Asia, which have been actively promoting conservation agriculture to increase crop productivity while conserving natural resources. South Asian agriculture is known as a global “hotspot” for climate vulnerability.

“Smallholder farmers in South Asia will be impacted most by climate change and natural resource degradation,” said Trilochan Mohapatra, Director General of ICAR and Secretary of India’s Department of Agricultural Research and Education (DARE). “Protecting our natural resources for future generations while producing enough quality food to feed everyone is our top priority.”

“ICAR, in collaboration with CIMMYT and other stakeholders, has been working intensively over the past decades to develop and deploy conservation agriculture in India. The country has been very successful in addressing residue burning and air pollution issues using conservation agriculture principles,” he added.

With the region’s population expected to rise to 2.4 billion, demand for cereals is expected to grow by about 43% between 2010 and 2050. This presents a major challenge for food producers who need to produce more while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and damage to the environment and other natural resources.

“The collaborative effort behind this study epitomizes how researchers, policy-makers, and development practitioners can and should work together to find solutions to the many challenges facing agricultural development, not only in South Asia but worldwide,” said Jon Hellin, leader of the Sustainable Impact Platform at IRRI.

ICARDA’s Mustapha El-Bouhssini explains how crop pests are moving in a warming world

This article and video were originally published on the CIMMYT website.

Insect resistance in plants is needed now more than ever. The UN, which has named 2020 as the International Year of Plant Health, estimates that almost 40% of food crops are lost annually due to plant pests and diseases.

Earlier this month, a group of wheat breeders and entomologists came together for the 24th Biannual International Plant Resistance to Insects (IPRI) Workshop, held at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

We caught up with Mustapha El-Bouhssini, principal scientist at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) to discuss insect pests and climate change. He explains how pests such as the Hessian fly — a destructive wheat pest which resembles a mosquito — and the chickpea pod borer are extending their geographical ranges in response to rising temperatures.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carolina Rivera explains wheat physiology in new video

This article and video were originally posted on the CIMMYT website.

Wheat provides, on average, 20% of the calories and protein for more than 4.5 billion people in 94 developing countries. To feed a growing population, we need both better agronomic practices and to grow wheat varieties that can withstand the effects of climate change and resist various pests and diseases.

Watch CIMMYT Wheat Physiologist Carolina Rivera discuss — in just one minute — choosing and breeding desirable wheat traits with higher tolerance to stresses.

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.”

Video: Heat and Drought Wheat Improvement Consortium

This week, the world’s eyes are upon global leaders gathered in Madrid for COP25 to negotiate collective action to slow the devastating impacts of climate change.

According to the UN, the world is heading for a 3.2 degrees Celsius global temperature rise over pre-industrial levels, leading to a host of destructive climate impacts including hotter and drier environments and more extreme weather events. Under these more extreme conditions, the world’s staple food crops are under threat.

A new video highlights the work of the Heat and Drought Wheat Improvement Network (HeDWIC), a global research and capacity building network under the Wheat Initiative, that harnesses the latest technologies in crop physiology, genetics and breeding to help create new climate-resilient wheat varieties. With the help of collaborators and supporters from around the world,  HeDWIC takes wheat research from the theoretical to the practical by incorporating the best science into real-life breeding scenarios.

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.