Bearish headlines overstate the extent of available global wheat stocks, analysts say

By Mike Listman

MEXICO CITY, 5 April 2018–Declining area sown to wheat worldwide, together with stockpiling by China, is masking significant risk in global wheat markets, experts at the United Kingdom’s Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) caution.

“Less area sown means a higher dependence on yield to meet demand and thus a greater reliance on good weather, which is out of our control,” said Amandeep Kaur Purewal, a Senior Analyst in AHDB’s Market Intelligence Cereals and Oilseeds team, speaking in a recent interview with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

“If there is a production issue—say, drought or a serious pest or disease outbreak in a key wheat growing country—then wheat stocks may not be as accessible as recent, bearish headlines suggest,” Kaur Purewal added. “Bear in mind that the world’s number-one wheat producer, China, is not exporting surplus wheat at the moment, so China’s wheat won’t really be available for the markets.”

Established in 2008 and funded by farmers , growers and others in the supply chain, AHDB provides independent information to improve decisions and performance in UK agriculture.

In “Global wheat: The risks behind the records,” a report published by AHDB in February 2018, Kaur Purewal and colleagues suggest that, despite an unprecedented run of surplus global wheat production in the last four years, there is a relatively small cushion for large-scale importers to fall back upon, if imports become harder to obtain.

“Likely linked to China’s efforts to become self-sufficient in wheat, since 2007/08 the country has increased its stockpile by 225 percent, giving it a 64 percent share of the 138 million ton increase in global wheat stocks over this period,” Kaur Purewal observed. “This and the recent, huge global harvests for maize have saturated grain markets and pressured prices, driving the price of wheat futures to historic lows.”

According to the AHDB report, prices for wheat futures have been relatively stable, but if yields fall and production declines, greater price volatility may return.

“It’s important to remain aware of the market forces and read the news,” she said, “but in the case of the wheat stocks-to-use ratio, which measures how much stock is left after demand has been accounted for, the headlines may not be providing a true reflection.”

Hans-Joachim Braun, director of CIMMYT’s global wheat program, called the AHDB report an “eye opener.”

“This resonates with the cautionary message of the landmark 2015 study by Lloyd’s of London, which showed that the global food system is actually under significant pressure from potential, coinciding shocks, such as bad weather combined with crop disease outbreaks,” Braun said.

“Price spikes in basic food staples sorely affect the poor, who spend much of their income simply to eat each day,” Braun added. “CIMMYT and its partners cannot let up in our mission to develop and share high-yielding and nutritious maize and wheat varieties, supported by climate-smart farming practices. In an uncertain world, these help foster resilience and stability for food systems and consumers.”

Francisco Barro, developer of gluten-free wheat, to deliver keynote address at BGRI Technical Workshop

By Samantha Hautea
Thursday, March 29, 2018
(Courtesy of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative)

A few years ago, the idea of gluten-free wheat was more theoretical than real. But last year, Francisco Barro, a plant scientist at the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in Spain, made headlines with a gene editing technique called CRISPR-Cas9 that significantly reduced the amount of reaction-causing proteins in wheat.

Barro led the team that conducted the research leading to this remarkable achievement and was one of the authors of a paper that described engineering wheat using CRISPR.

Francisco Barro, photo provided.

As the keynote speaker for the 2018 Borlaug Global Rust Initiative Technical Workshop, in Morocco, April 14-17, Barro will talk about CRISPR-Cas9 technology, gluten-free wheat and the future of plant breeding.

“I am interested in the development of wheat lines suitable for celiac people, and obviously I am excited to carry out this project. For me, the elimination of the toxic gliadins and the maintenance of the bread making quality of wheat is the most exciting,” Barro said. “However, I realize that one of the most important targets for CRISPR is the resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses, in particular drought and salinity resistances, since this will allow sowing in soils not currently suitable for wheat cultivation, especially in developing countries.”

Born in Córdoba, Spain, Barro received his PhD in Biology at the University of Córdoba. After a postdoc of two-and-a-half years at Rothamsted Research in the UK, where he first worked on the genetic engineering of cereals, he returned to Spain to begin the research to obtain wheat lines for celiacs.

“The idea of obtaining wheat lines safe for celiac people came in 2002 when I was preparing a project to over-express gliadin genes in wheat, with the aim to extend wheat functionality,” Barro explained. “I changed the target of my research when I realized that people suffering celiac disease do not need more gliadins but the opposite instead. Therefore, I reorganized the project towards the elimination of gliadins by RNAi, which was a cutting edge technology by that time. We succeeded several years later with the development of wheat lines containing until 95 percent less gliadins than the standard wheat.”

Gliadins, a class of proteins found in gluten, are what cause immune reactions in people with celiac disease. The only known treatment for the disease is a strict gluten-free diet. While Barro’s research has not eliminated gliadins entirely from wheat, he is optimistic.

“More recently, we have applied the new gene editing technologies to introduce mutations in the alpha-gliadin regions of bread and durum wheat. The main advantage of these editing technologies is that the product does not contain transgenes and, therefore general consumers could more readily accept it. “

Barro said he was not surprised that there was such interest in his research from the popular press and the wheat science community.

“First, this a very hot topic, a very nice example of using biotechnology to help people. Everyone knows celiac people, and celiacs know that bread is a very difficult product, that gluten-free bread is not as good as other gluten-free products. I think that for a celiac to enjoy good bread, made of wheat, with the taste of wheat, the aroma of wheat, it would be something really amazing, and we are getting closer. Second, most papers report the use of gene editing technologies being limited to only a few genes. In our work, we report the simultaneous mutation of at least 35 different genes in bread wheat, and this is something really outstanding.”

One of the challenges with current gluten-free products is that they have a different flavor and texture. Barro’s team has collaborated with a baker in Spain to use their low-gliadin RNAi line of wheat to create bread with flavor and aroma indistinguishable from standard wheat bread. Celiac patients have been able to eat this bread and report on its quality.

Barro said his team has already designed new sgRNAs to target other gliadin groups in wheat, like gamma and omega gliadins. A number of companies have expressed interest in the technology and in using the material as it is or incorporating it into their breeding programs.

Is CRISPR the future of plant breeding?

From Barro’s perspective, it is unlikely that gene editing technologies will completely replace conventional plant breeding methods.

“Targets for CRISPR will be the same as those for classical breeding technologies, i.e., technologies are changing but the problems are the same: increasing yield, biotic and abiotic stresses resistant, better quality, etc. CRISPR technology provides breeders with more precise control of some features, but CRISPR technology will not replace classical breeding — they will work together.”

Speaking about future applications of CRISPR and other genome editing technologies in agriculture, Barro added that it is likely we will see some trends in applications.

“In the short-term, introducing mutations in key genes will be the most wide application of this technology, where the aim is to kill DNA, avoiding the expression of toxic proteins, or introducing mutations in genes to make crops more resistant to diseases, or genes which limit crop adaptability, and to develop androsterile plants for hybrid production. In the medium-term, CRISPR technology will be useful not for killing DNA but for real DNA editing: for gene replacement, or to modify specific amino acids and provide new functionalities to existent genes, and for transcriptional activation of repression of genes, modulating their expression levels.”

The 2018 BGRI Technical Workshop will be held in Marrakech, Morocco, from 14-17 April 2018. Click here to view the full program for the workshop at the BGRI website.

Young women scientists who will galvanize global wheat research

By Laura Strugnell and Mike Listman

Winners of the Jeanie Borlaug Laube Women in Triticum (WIT) Early Career Award pose in front of the statue of the late Nobel Peace laureate, Dr. Norman E. Borlaug. Included in the photo are Amor Yahyaoui, CIMMYT wheat training coordinator (far left), Jeanie Borlaug Laube (center, blue blouse), and Maricelis Acevedo, Associate Director for Science, the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat Project (to the right of Jeanie Borlaug Laube). Photo: CIMMYT/Mike Listman

CIUDAD OBREGÓN, Mexico (CIMMYT) – As more than 200 wheat science and food specialists from 34 countries gathered in northwestern Mexico to address threats to global nutrition and food security, 9 outstanding young women wheat scientists among them showed that this effort will be strengthened by diversity.

Winners of the Jeanie Borlaug Laube Women in Triticum (WIT) Early Career Award joined an on-going wheat research training course organized by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), 21-23 March.

“As my father used to say, you are the future,” said Jeanie Borlaug Laube, daughter of the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, and mentor of many young agricultural scientists. Speaking to the WIT recipients, she said, “You are ahead of the game compared to other scientists your age.”

Established in 2010 as part of the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) project led by Cornell University, the WIT program has provided professional development opportunities for 44 young women researchers in wheat from more than 20 countries.

The award is given annually to as many as five early science-career women, ranging from advanced undergraduates to recent doctoral graduates and postdoctoral fellows. Selection is based on a scientific abstract and statement of intent, along with evidence of commitment to agricultural development and leadership potential.

Women who will change their professions and the world

Weizhen Liu. Photo: WIT files

Weizhen Liu, a 2017 WIT recipient and postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University, is applying genome-wide association mapping and DNA marker technology to enhance genetic resistance in tetraploid and bread wheat to stripe rust, a major global disease of wheat that is quickly spreading and becoming more virulent.

“I am eager to join and devote myself to improving wheat yields by fighting wheat rusts,” said Liu, who received her bachelors in biotechnology from Nanjing Agricultural University, China, in 2011, and a doctorate from Washington State University in 2016. “Through WIT, I can share my research with other scientists, receive professional feedback, and build international collaboration.”

Mitaly Bansal, a 2016 WIT award winner, currently works as a Research Associate at Punjab Agricultural University, India. She did her PhD research in a collaborative project involving Punjab Agricultural University and the John Innes Centre, UK, to deploy stripe and leaf rust resistance genes from non-progenitor wild wheat in commercial cultivars.

Mitaly Bansal. Photo: WIT files

“I would like to work someday in a position of public policy in India,” said Bansal, who received the Monsanto Beachell-Borlaug scholarship in 2013. “That is where I could have the influence to change things that needed changing.”

Networking in the cradle of wheat’s “Green Revolution”

In addition to joining CIMMYT training for a week, WIT recipients will attend the annual Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) technical workshop, to be held this year in Marrakech, Morocco, from 14 to 17 April, and where the 2018 WIT winners will be announced.

The CIMMYT training sessions took place at the Norman Borlaug Experiment Station (CENEB), an irrigated desert location in Sonora State, northwestern Mexico, and coincided with CIMMYT’s 2018 “Visitors’ Week,” which took place from 19 to 23 March.

An annual gathering organized by the CIMMYT global wheat program at CENEB, Visitors’ Week typically draws hundreds of experts from the worldwide wheat research and development community. Participants share innovations and news on critical issues, such as the rising threat of the rust diseases or changing climates in key wheat farmlands.

Through her interaction with Visitors’ Week peers, Liu said she was impressed by the extensive partnering among experts from so many countries. “I realized that one of the most important things to fight world hunger is collaboration; no one can solve food insecurity, malnutrition, and climate change issues all by himself.”

A strong proponent and practitioner of collaboration, Norman E. Borlaug worked with Sonora farmers in the 1940-50s as part of a joint Rockefeller Foundation-Mexican government program that, among other outputs, generated high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat varieties. After bringing wheat self-sufficiency to Mexico, the varieties were adopted in South Asia and beyond in the 1960-70s, dramatically boosting yields and allowing famine-prone countries to feed their rapidly-expanding populations.

This became known as the Green Revolution and, in 1970, Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his contributions. Borlaug subsequently led CIMMYT wheat research until his retirement in 1979 and served afterwards as a special consultant to the Center.

When a new, highly virulent race of wheat stem rust, Ug99, emerged in eastern Africa in the early 2000s, Borlaug sounded the alarm and championed a global response that grew into the BGRI and associated initiatives such as DGGW.

“This is just a beginning for you, but it doesn’t end here,” said Maricelis Acevedo, a former WIT recipient who went on to become the leader of DGGW. Speaking during the training course, she observed that many WIT awardees come from settings where women often lack access to higher education or the freedom to pursue a career.

“Through WIT activities, including training courses like this and events such as Visitors’ Week and the BGRI workshop,” Acevedo added, “you’ll gain essential knowledge and skills but you’ll also learn leadership and the personal confidence to speak out, as well as the ability to interact one-on-one with leaders in your field and to ask the right questions.”

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 generous support from national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies.

Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) under UK aid, the DGGW project aims to strengthen the delivery pipeline for new, disease resistant, climate-resilient wheat varieties and to increase the yields of smallholder wheat farmers.

 

Global grain research and food industry experts meet to address rising malnutrition

The world’s quickly-rising population needs not only more food but healthier, more nutritious food, according to Julie Miller Jones, Professor Emerita at St. Catherine University, and Carlos Guzmán, who leads wheat quality research at CIMMYT. Photo: CIMMYT/ Mike Listman

MEXICO CITY (CIMMYT) — Malnutrition is rising again and becoming more complex, according to the director-general of the world’s leading public maize and wheat research center.

“After declining for nearly a decade to around 770 million, the number of hungry people has increased in the last two years to more than 850 million,” said Martin Kropff, director general of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), in the opening address of the 4th Latin American Cereals Conference.

“Those people suffer from calorie malnutrition and go to bed hungry at night, which is a terrible thing,” Kropff added. “But the diets of 2 billion persons worldwide lack essential micronutrients — Vitamin A, iron, or zinc — and this especially affects the health and development of children under 5 years old.”

Kropff noted that some 650 million people are obese, and the number is increasing. “All these nutrition issues are interconnected, and are driven by rising population, global conflicts, and — for obesity — increasing prosperity, in developed and emerging economies.”

“The solution? Good, healthy diets,” said Kropff, “which in turn depend on having enough food available, but also diverse crops and food types and consumer education on healthy eating.”

Held in Mexico City during 11-14 March and co-organized by CIMMYT and the International Association for Cereal Science and Technology (ICC), the 4th Latin American Cereals Conference has drawn more than 220 participants from 46 countries, including professionals in agricultural science and production, the food industry, regulatory agencies, and trade associations.

“We are dedicated to spreading information about cereal science and technology, processing, and the health benefits of cereals,” said Hamit Köksel, president of the ICC and professor at Hacettepe University, Turkey, to open the event. “Regarding the latter, we should increase our whole grain consumption.”

Köksel added that ICC has more than 10,000 subscribers in 85 countries.

New zinc biofortified maize variety BIO-MZN01, recently released in Colombia. Photo: CIMMYT archives

New zinc biofortified maize variety BIO-MZN01,
recently released in Colombia. Photo: CIMMYT archives

Breeding micronutrient-dense cereals

One way to improve the nutrition and health of the poor who cannot afford dietary supplements or diverse foods is through “biofortification” of the staple crops that comprise much of their diets.

Drawing upon landraces and diverse other sources in maize and wheat’s genetic pools and applying innovative breeding, CIMMYT has developed high-yielding maize and wheat lines and varieties that feature enhanced levels of grain zinc and are being used in breeding programs worldwide.

“In the last four years, the national research programs of Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan have released six zinc-biofortified wheat varieties derived from CIMMYT research,” said Hans Braun, director of the center’s global wheat program. “Zinc-Shakthi, an early-maturing wheat variety released in India in 2014 whose grain features 40 percent more zinc than conventional varieties, is already grown by more than 50,000 smallholder farmers in the Northeastern Gangetic Plains of India.”

CIMMYT is focusing on enhancing the levels of provitamin A and zinc in the maize germplasm adapted to sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Improved quality protein maize (QPM) varieties, whose grain features enhanced levels of two essential amino acids, lysine and tryptophan,  is another major biofortified maize that is grown worldwide, according to Prasanna Boddupalli, director of CIMMYT’s global maize program.

“Quality protein maize varieties are grown by farmers on 1.2 million hectares in Africa, Asia, and Latin America,” said Prasanna, in his presentation, adding that provitamin-A-enriched maize varieties have also been released in several countries in Africa, besides Asia.

A major partner in these efforts is HarvestPlus, part of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH), which supports the development and promotion of the biofortified crop varieties and related research.

“Biofortified crops have been released in 60 countries,” said Wolfgang Pfeiffer, HarvestPlus global director for product development and commercialization, speaking at the conference. “The pressing need now is to ‘mainstream’ biofortification, making it a standard component of breeding programs and food systems.”

Whole grains are good for you

A central issue on the conference agenda is promoting awareness about the importance of healthy diets and the role of whole grains.

“Participants will discuss the large body of published studies showing that whole grain foods, including processed ones, are associated with a significantly reduced risk of chronic diseases and obesity,” said Carlos Guzmán, who leads wheat quality research at CIMMYT and helped organize the conference. “There is a global movement to promote the consumption of whole grains and the food industry worldwide is responding to rising consumer demand for whole grain products.”

Guzmán also thanked the conference sponsors: Bimbo, Bastak Instruments, Brabender, Foss, Chopin Technologies, Perten, Stable Micro Systems Scientific Instruments, Cereal Partners Worldwide Nestlé and General Mills, Stern Ingredients-Mexico, World Grain, the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat, and Megazyme.

Goat grass gives wheat breeders an edge

31 January 2018
by Laura Strugnell

A commentary published on 30 January in the leading science journal Nature Plants highlights the importance of an ancient grass species for wheat breeding. The commentary was sparked by the recent publication of a reference genome from Aegilops tauschii, also called goat grass.

Bread wheat was created some 10,000 years ago by a natural cross of more simple, primitive wheats with a sub-species of goat grass. As such, goat grass genes constitute a major component of the very large wheat genome. The sequencing of goat grass DNA opens the way for wheat breeders to apply a number of advanced approaches to improve the speed and precision of wheat breeding for important traits that may be found in the goat grass segment of the wheat genome.

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) have produced many wheat x grass crosses, recreating the original, natural cross but using other goat grass species and thus greatly expanding wheat’s diversity. Wheat lines derived from those crosses have since been used in breeding programs worldwide and have helped farmers to boost yields by up to 20 percent. Goat grass is known for being highly adaptable and disease tolerant, so the crosses endow wheat with similar qualities. Varieties from these crosses make up over 30 percent of international seed stores.

Researchers expect that the sequencing of this grass species’ DNA will facilitate advanced approaches such as “speed breeding” – a technique that uses controlled variables to achieve up to seven rounds of wheat crops in one year. This will help allow wheat breeding to keep up with the rising global demand for the crop and to address the challenges of new, virulent diseases and more extreme weather.

Read the Nature Plants article: The goat grass genome’s role in wheat improvement. 2018. Rasheed, A., Ogbonnaya, F.C., Lagudah, E., Appels, R., He, Z. In: Nature Plants.

John R. Porter becomes chairperson of the Independent Steering Committee for global wheat research

EL BATAN, Mexico (8 November 2017) – Professor Dr. John R. Porter, from the Agropolis/Montpellier Supagro/INRA/CIRAD conglomeration in Montpellier, France, has been elected as Chair of the Independent Steering Committee that advises the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (known as WHEAT) on research strategy, priorities and program management. In this appointment, Porter succeeds Dr Tony Fischer, Honorary Research Fellow, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia.

An internationally recognized researcher and teacher in crop ecology and physiology, biological modelling, and agricultural ecology, Porter’s contributions have focused on climate change, agronomy, and ecosystem services.

“I am very proud and pleased to be elected as chair of the WHEAT Steering Committee. This CGIAR research program connects over 300 partners into a global alliance for climate-resilient and profitable wheat agri-food systems,” Porter said.

“Accounting for a fifth of the world’s food, wheat is the main source of protein in the developing world and is second only to rice as a source of calories for consumers there,” Porter explained. “The challenge for WHEAT is no less than to raise the crop’s productivity and keep wheat affordable for today’s 2.5 billion resource-poor consumers in 89 countries and for a world population that will surpass 9 billion around mid-century.”

Porter observed that this must be done while cutting greenhouse gas emissions and improving soil health, in wheat-based cropping systems. “As WHEAT moves into its 2nd Phase,” he said, “I would like the Independent Steering Committee to continue the work pioneered by my predecessor Tony Fischer and look at some new areas, such as human capacity development and innovation in wheat-based food production systems.”

Meeting wheat demand, protecting food and farming from worsening climate impacts
According to Porter, WHEAT is actively catalyzing the efforts of CGIAR and partner institution scientists, farmers, governments and private companies in lower and middle-income countries, to develop and share climate-smart innovations that increase farm resilience and productivity, while reducing the climate footprint.

Technology such as high-yielding wheat varieties that tolerate drought and high temperatures, as well as resisting new or modified strains of deadly crop diseases spawned in rapidly warming environments, are the outputs from WHEAT research that lead to positive outcomes for farmers and consumers.

Developing such technologies requires that WHEAT also invest in human capacity development.
“Varieties derived from WHEAT breeding lines are already sown on nearly half of the world’s wheat lands and which bring economic benefits of about $3.1 billion each year,” Porter said, citing a 2016 analysis of WHEAT impacts.

Resource-conserving cropping practices from WHEAT, such as more targeted use of nitrogen fertilizers or sowing wheat into untilled soils and crop residues, can raise wheat farmers’ incomes while curbing greenhouse gas emissions, if widely adopted, he added. “Zero tillage is already being used to sow wheat on 1.8 million hectares in South Asia’s extensive rice-wheat rotations, and state government officials in India are implementing policies to support more widespread adoption.”

Personal information
A member of the WHEAT Independent Steering Committee since 2014, Porter has published more than 140 papers in reviewed journals, won four international prizes for research and teaching, and served as president of the European Society for Agronomy and was Chief Editor of the European Journal of Agronomy for many years. He led the writing of the chapter on food production and security for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 5th Assessment. Porter was elected as both a Fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy for Agriculture and Forestry and the European Academy of Sciences in 2014 and was knighted by the French government via the Order of Agriculture Merit in March 2016. Porter is an emeritus professor at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark and the Natural Resources Institute at the University of Greenwich UK and an honorary professor at Lincoln University, New Zealand. He is a member of the Scientific Council of the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) and currently consulting professor at Montpellier SupAgro, France on a project for Capacity Building in Crop Modelling financed by the Agropolis Foundation and Labex Agro.

For more information or interviews:
Mike Listman | Communications officer
CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (https://wheat.org)
tel: +52 (55) 5804 7537
skype: mikeltexcoco
cel: +52 (1595) 114 9743

First blast resistant, biofortified wheat variety released in Bangladesh

Scientists inspecting plants for wheat blast infection, at a workshop in Bangladesh in February 2017. Photo: Chris Knight-Cornell.

DHAKA, Bangladesh (CIMMYT) — As wheat farmers in Bangladesh struggle to recover from a 2016 outbreak of a mysterious disease called “wheat blast,” the country’s National Seed Board (NSB) released a new, high-yielding, blast-resistant wheat variety, according to a communication from the Wheat Research Centre (WRC) in Bangladesh.

Called “BARI Gom 33,” the variety was developed by WRC using a breeding line from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), a Mexico-based organization that has collaborated with Bangladeshi research organizations for decades, according to Naresh C. Deb Barma, Director of WRC, who said the variety had passed extensive field and laboratory testing. “Gom” means “wheat grain” in Bangla, the Bengali language used in Bangladesh.

“This represents an incredibly rapid response to blast, which struck in a surprise outbreak on 15,000 hectares of wheat in southwestern Bangladesh just last year, devastating the crop and greatly affecting farmers’ food security and livelihoods, not to mention their confidence in sowing wheat,” Barma said.

Caused by the fungus Magnaporthe oryzae pathotype triticum, wheat blast was first identified in Brazil in 1985 and has constrained wheat farming in South America for decades. Little is known about the genetics or interactions of the fungus with wheat or other hosts. Few resistant varieties have been released in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, the countries most affected by wheat blast.

The Bangladesh outbreak was its first appearance in South Asia, a region where rice-wheat cropping rotations cover 13 million hectares and over a billion inhabitants eat wheat as main staple.

Many blast fungal strains are impervious to fungicides, according to Pawan Singh, a CIMMYT wheat pathologist. “The Bangladesh variant is still sensitive to fungicides, but this may not last forever, so we’re rushing to develop and spread new, blast-resistant wheat varieties for South Asia,” Singh explained.

The urgent global response to blast received a big boost in June from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), which funded an initial four-year research project to breed blast resistant wheat varieties and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), which also provided grant to kick-start the work in South Asia. Led by CIMMYT, the initiative involves researchers from nearly a dozen institutions worldwide.

Chemical controls are costly and potentially harmful to human and environmental health, so protecting crops like wheat with inherent resistance is the smart alternative, but resistance must be genetically complex, combining several genes, to withstand new mutations of the pathogen over time.

Key partners in the new project are the agricultural research organizations of Bangladesh, including the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), and the Instituto Nacional de Innovación Agropecuaria y Forestal in Bolivia, which will assist with large-scale field experiments to select wheat lines under artificial and natural infections of wheat blast.

Other partners include national and provincial research organizations in India, Nepal and Pakistan, as well as Kansas State University (KSU) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Services (USDA-ARS). The U.S. Agency for International Agricultural Development (USAID) has also supported efforts to kick-start blast control measures, partnerships and upscaling the breeding, testing and seed multiplication of new, high-yielding, disease resistant varieties through its Feed the Future project.

BARI Gom 33 was tested for resistance to wheat blast in field trials in Bolivia and Bangladesh and in greenhouse tests by the USDA-ARS laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland. International partnerships are critical for a fast response to wheat blast, according to Hans-Joachim Braun, director of CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program.

“Worldwide, we’re in the middle of efforts that include blast surveillance and forecasting, studies on the pathogen’s genetics and biology, integrated disease management and seed systems, as well as raising awareness about the disease and training for researchers, extension workers, and farmers,” said Braun.

With over 160 million people, Bangladesh is among the world’s most densely populated countries. Wheat is Bangladesh’s second most important staple food, after rice. The country grows more than 1.3 million tons each year but consumes 4.5 million tons, meaning that imports whose costs exceed $0.7 billion each year comprise more than two-thirds of domestic wheat grain use.

WRC will produce tons of breeder’s seed of BARI Gom 33 each year. This will be used by the Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation (BADC) and diverse non-governmental organizations and private companies to produce certified seed for farmers.

“This year WRC will provide seed to BADC for multiplication and the Department of Agricultural Extension will establish on-farm demonstrations of the new variety in blast prone districts during 2017-18,” said Barma.

As an added benefit for the nutrition of wheat consuming households, BARI Gom 33 grain features 30 percent higher levels of zinc than conventional wheat. Zinc is a critical micronutrient missing in the diets of many of the poor throughout South Asia and whose lack particularly harms the health of pregnant women and children under 5 years old.

With funding from HarvestPlus and the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition, CIMMYT is leading global efforts to breed biofortified wheat with better agronomic and nutritional quality traits. The wheat line used in BARI Gom 33 was developed at CIMMYT, Mexico, through traditional cross-breeding and shared with Bangladesh and other cooperators in South Asia through the Center’s International Wheat Improvement Network, which celebrates 50 years in 2018.

Stable window 1 and 2 (W1W2) funding from CGIAR enabled CIMMYT and partners to react quickly and screen breeding lines in Bolivia, as well as working with KSU to identify sources of wheat blast resistance. The following W1 funders have made wheat blast resistance breeding possible: Australia, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Canada, France, India, Japan, Korea, New Zeland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the World Bank. The following funders also contributed vital W2 funding: Australia, China, the United Kingdom (DFID) and USAID.

Improved wheat helps reduce women’s workload in rural Afghanistan

Afghan women from wheat farming villages in focus-group interviews as part of Gennovate, a global study on gender and agricultural innovation. Photo: CIMMYT archives

by Katelyn Roett, Mike Listman / October 12, 2017

New research shows improved wheat raises the quality of life for men and women across rural communities in Afghanistan.

recent report from Gennovate, a major study about gender and innovation processes in developing country agriculture, found that improved wheat varieties emerged overwhelmingly among the agricultural technologies most favored by both men and women.

In one striking example from Afghanistan, introducing better wheat varieties alone reduced women’s work burden, showing how the uptake of technology – whether seeds or machinery – can improve the quality of life.

“Local varieties are tall and prone to falling, difficult to thresh, and more susceptible to diseases, including smuts and bunts, which requires special cleaning measures, a task normally done by women,” said Rajiv Sharma, a senior wheat scientist at International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and country liaison officer for CIMMYT in Afghanistan. “Such varieties may comprise mixes of several seed types, including seed of weeds. They also give small harvests for which threshing is typically manual, with wooden rollers and animals, picking up sticks, stones, and even animal excrement that greatly complicates cleaning the grain.”

Both women and men spoke favorably about how improved wheat varieties have eased women’s wheat cleaning work.  “Improved seeds can provide clean wheat,” said an 18-year old woman from one of the study’s youth focus groups in Panali, Afghanistan. “Before, we were washing wheat grains and we exposed it to the sun until it dried. Machineries have [also] eased women’s tasks.”

Finally, Sharma noted that bountiful harvests from improved varieties often lead farmers to use mechanical threshing, which further reduces work and ensures cleaner grain for household foods.

Gennovate: A large-scale, qualitative, comparative snapshot

Conceived as a “bottom-up” idea by a small gender research team of CGIAR in 2013, Gennovate involves 11 past and current CGIAR Research Programs. The project collected data from focus groups and interviews involving more than 7,500 rural men and women in 26 countries during 2014-16.

Some 2,500 women and men from 43 rural villages in 8 wheat-producing countries of Africa and Asia participated in community case studies, as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat.

“Across wheat farm settings, both men and women reported a sense of gradual progress,” said Lone Badstue, gender specialist at the CIMMYT and Gennovate project leader. “But women still face huge challenges to access information and resources or have a voice in decision making, even about their own lives.”

According to estimates of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), if women farmers, who comprise 43 per cent of the farm labor force in developing countries, had the same access to resources as men, agricultural output in 34 developing countries would rise by an estimated average of as high as 4 percent.

“Gender-related restrictions such as limitations on physical mobility or social interactions, as well as reproductive work burden, also constitute key constraints on rural women’s capacity to innovate in agriculture,” Badstue explained.

Gender equity drives innovation

The Gennovate-wheat report identified six “positive outlier communities” where norms are shifting towards more equitable gender relations and helping to foster inclusiveness and agricultural innovation. In those communities, men and women from all economic scales reported significantly higher empowerment and poverty reductions than in the 37 other locations. Greater acceptance of women’s freedom of action, economic activity, and civic and educational participation appears to be a key element.

“In contexts where gender norms are more fluid, new agricultural technologies and practices can become game-changing, increasing economic agency for women and men and rapidly lowering local poverty,” Badstue said.

The contributions and presence of CIMMYT in Afghanistan, which include support for breeding research and training for local scientists, date back several decades. In the last five years, the Agricultural Research Institute of Afghanistan (ARIA) of the country’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation & Livestock (MAIL) has used CIMMYT breeding lines to develop and make available to farmers seed of 15 high-yielding, disease resistant wheat varieties.

Read the full report “Gender and Innovation Processes in Wheat-Based Systems” here.

GENNOVATE has been supported by generous funding from the World Bank; the CGIAR Gender & Agricultural Research Network; the government of Mexico through MasAgro; Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ); numerous CGIAR Research Programs; and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

 

Afghanistan scientists assess achievements of Australia-funded wheat research

Scientists take readings of rust disease incidence on experimental wheat lines at the Shishambagh research station, Nangarhar, of the Agricultural Research Institute of Afghanistan. Photo: Raqib

With generous funding from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) over the last 15 years, Afghanistan research organizations and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) have helped supply Afghan farmers with improved varieties and farming practices to boost production of maize and wheat.

“As of 2012, the start of the most recent phase of ACIAR-funded work, Afghanistan partners have developed and released 12 high-yielding and disease resistant bread wheat varieties, as well as 3 varieties of durum wheat, 2 of barley and 3 of maize,” said Rajiv Sharma, a senior wheat scientist at CIMMYT and country liaison officer for CIMMYT in Afghanistan.

Sharma spoke at a workshop, which took place on August 28, with partners from the Agricultural Research Institute of Afghanistan (ARIA) of the country’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation & Livestock (MAIL). The event was organized to review accomplishments and facilitate MAIL’s takeover of all activities, when the project ends in October 2018.

“The pedigrees of all new varieties feature contributions from the breeding research of CIMMYT and the International Winter Wheat Improvement Programme based in Turkey, both responsible for introducing more than 9,000 new wheat and maize lines into the country since 2012,” Sharma added. The International Winter Wheat Improvement Programme (IWWIP) is operated by Turkey, CIMMYT, and ICARDA (the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas).

Sharma noted that CIMMYT’s presence in Afghanistan, which includes support for breeding research and training for local scientists, dates back several decades and that the latest achievements with ARIA and other partners and ACIAR support include:

  • The delineation of wheat agro-climatic zones.
  • Forecasting climate change impacts on the Afghan wheat crop.
  • Strategizing to raise wheat production.
  • Characterization of Afghanistan’s wheat genetic resource collection.
  • Training abroad for 64 Afghan researchers and in-country for 4,000.
  • Launching research on wheat hybridization.
  • In direct partnership with farmers, more than 1,800 farmer field demonstrations, 80 field days, and introduced machinery like seed drills and mobile seed cleaners.
  • Shared research on and promotion of conservation agriculture, genomic selection, wheat bio-fortification, quality protein maize, climate change, crop insurance and wheat blast resistance and control.

In good years Afghan farmers harvest upwards of 5 million tons of wheat, the country’s number-one food crop, but in some years annual wheat imports exceed 1 million tons to satisfy domestic demand, which exceeds 5.8 million tons.

Multiple partners map avenues to fortify cereal farming

The workshop attracted 45 participants representing ARIA, MAIL, ICARDA, CIMMYT, Michigan State University, ACIAR, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Embassy of Australia, and several provincial Directorates of Agriculture, Irrigation & Livestock (DAIL) of Afghanistan.

Among other participants, Mahboobullah Nang, Director of Seed Certification, and Akbar Waziri, Director of the Cereal Department, both from MAIL, offered the Ministry’s support for the continuation of CIMMYT’s longstanding efforts in Afghanistan, particularly in breeding and varietal testing and promotion.

Representing ACIAR, Syed Mousawi commended capacity development activities organized by CIMMYT since the 1970s, which have raised the quality of crop research in Afghanistan and provided a vital link to the global science community over the years.

Participants also recommended extending CIMMYT outreach work, offering training in extension, introducing advanced technologies, and support for and training in varietal maintenance, conservation agriculture, experimental designs, research farm management, data analysis and data management.

Yemen identified as “stepping stone” to wheat stem rust’s global spread

September 26, 2017

A new study reports Yemen as a particular tipping point for stem rust’s global spread. Photo: Petr Kosina/ CIMMYT

 

EL BATAN, Mexico (CIMMYT) – New research reveals the most likely routes for the spread of new wheat stem rust strains, identifying Yemen as a critical transmission area for the disease’s global spread.

In the Nature Plants study, scientists from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the University of Cambridge and the UK Met Office adapted modeling systems previously used to forecast ash dispersal from erupting volcanoes and radiation from nuclear accidents to predict the spread of stem rust strains.

The study quantifies for the first time the circumstances – routes, timings and outbreak sizes –  under which dangerous strains of stem rust pose a threat, detailing potential scenarios of the disease spreading from Africa through the Middle East and beyond.

Yemen is highlighted as a particular tipping point for stem rust’s global spread, with one scenario estimating a 30 percent chance for transmission to occur in Pakistan or India – home to some of the world’s most critical “breadbasket” regions – if the disease spreads to eastern Yemen.

“From our work, we now believe that if we start to see Ug99 or other new wheat rust strains take hold in Yemen in early spring then action must be taken immediately to mitigate the risk of further spread,” according to the study’s senior author Chris Gilligan, professor at Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences.

However, the researchers found that the airborne transmission of the disease from East Africa directly to South Asia is highly unlikely, with transmission events possible only on less than one day a year.

The modelling framework created in the study can also be used to analyze any potential new disease strains that might emerge in other geographic areas. The study’s researchers are currently developing an Early Warning System to forecast rust risk in Ethiopia, East Africa’s largest wheat producing country.

Read the full study “Quantifying airborne dispersal routes of pathogens over continents to safeguard global wheat supply” here.

 

Learn more about wheat stem rust and its impact on food security below:

Likely scenarios for global spread of devastating crop disease

CIMMYT scientist cautions against new threats from wheat rust diseases

RustTracker.org | A Global Wheat Rust Monitoring System