Scaling to new heights in agriculture

How to scale? This question frequently comes up as projects look to expand and replicate results. In order to sustain enduring impacts for projects after their lifetime, agricultural programs are turning to scaling strategies. These strategies look beyond the numbers that are reached within a project and include sustainability and transformation beyond the project context. Methods and tools exist that help anticipate realistic and responsible scaling pathways.

The Scaling team at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), led by Lennart Woltering, drives the initiative to incorporate scaling principles into existing and developing projects to maximize impact.

Maria Boa recently joined the team as Scaling Coordinator. Last year, Boa and Woltering participated in regional meetings on scaling in Morocco, Tunisia and Vietnam, which highlighted the need for better dissemination of information on how to approach scaling, in addition to its benefits.

Participants of the Tunisia workshop collaborate on a group exercise.

According to Boa, one of the key messages highlighted throughout these events was that in order for scaling to take hold and be integrated into projects, “…there needs to be a shift in mindset to accept that change is complex and that most projects only address a fraction of the problem.” This is essential in using scaling to effectively support long-term results.

At a workshop in Tunisia organized by ICARDA, IFAD and CIMMYT in November 2018, many participants expressed interest in scaling strategy tools, but were puzzled on how to integrate them into their specific projects. Many determined that they were stuck developing scaling strategies in an outdated framework, or one that strictly focused on using technological innovations. One participant admitted that she was skeptical of scaling perspectives because many did not lie in her field of expertise.

The November 2018 CCAFS SEA Conference on Scaling in Vietnam provided a platform for the sharing and learning of experiences in the scaling world. Some of the key messages from the event included the importance of scaling agricultural innovations taking place in complex systems of agricultural transformation, and the necessity of joint cooperation from all involved stakeholders and their openness to taking on challenges as a way to support sustainable system change.

According to Boa, scaling is a process that heavily relies on strategic collaboration for lasting impact. “Projects often don’t take into account how they’re a part of a larger chain of potential change,” she says.

Already recognized as a sustainable leader within scaling, CIMMYT is looking to strengthen scaling efforts in order to foster a more enduring impact within CIMMYT projects and beyond.

Lennart Woltering presents at the CCAFS SEA Conference in Vietnam.

Currently, the Scaling team at CIMMYT is conducting research on the “science of scaling” as it continues to function as a “help desk,” providing support integrating scaling principles in proposals and projects. Its primary role is to consider a project’s scaling needs and guide the development of an informed strategy to leverage efforts and resources. Boa hopes that by integrating responsible scaling approaches early on, projects can better balance the trade-offs associated with change.

Success in scaling is measured by a project’s enduring impact. However, stakeholders need more experience and capacity to see programs through to their end and be willing to monitor them beyond that lifespan. CIMMYT is developing and collecting the tools to support stakeholders with these specific capacities.

Developing a scaling strategy can also bring additional benefits: a discussion about scaling opens the door for raising awareness and fostering actions among different stakeholders towards system change and sustainable impact.

University of Queensland honors student studies tan spot resistance in wheat at CIMMYT

This story, part of a series on the international agricultural research projects of recipients of the Crawford Fund’s International Agricultural Student Award, was originally posted on the Crawford Fund blog

In 2018, Tamaya Peressini, from The Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI), a research institute of the University of Queensland (UQ), travelled to CIMMYT in Mexico as part of her Honours thesis research focused on a disease called tan spot in wheat.

Tamaya performing disease evaluations 10 days post infection at CIMMYT’s glasshouse facilities

Tan spot is caused by the pathogen Pyrenophora triciti-repentis (Ptr), and her project aimed to evaluate the resistance of tan spot in wheat to global races to this pathogen.

“The germplasm I’m studying for my thesis carries what is known as adult plant resistance (or APR) to tan spot, which has demonstrated to be a durable source of resistance in other wheat pathosystems such as powdery mildew,” said Tamaya.

Symptoms of tan spot on wheat plants

Tan spot is prevalent worldwide, and in Australia causes the most yield loss out of the foliar wheat diseases. In Australia, there is only one identified pathogen race that is prevalent called Ptr Race 1. For Ptr Race 1, the susceptibility gene Tsn1 in wheat is the main factor that results in successful infection in Ptr strains that carry Toxin A. However, globally it is a more difficult problem, as there are seven other pathogen races that consist of different combinations of necrotrophic toxins. Hence, developing cultivars that are multi-race resistant to Ptr presents a significant challenge to breeders as multiple resistant genes would be required for resistance to other pathogens.

“At CIMMYT I evaluated the durability of APR I identified in plant material in Australia by inoculating with a local strain of Ptr and also with a pathogen that shares ToxA: Staganospora nodorum.”

“The benefit of studying this at CIMMYT was that I had access to different strains of the pathogen which carry different virulence factors of disease, I was exposed to international agricultural research, and importantly, I was able to create research collaborations that would allow the APR detected in this population to have the potential to reach developing countries to assist in developing durably resistant wheat cultivars for worldwide deployment,” explained Tamaya.

Recent work in Dr Lee Hickey’s laboratory in Queensland has identified several landraces from the Vavilov wheat collection that exhibited a novel resistance to tan spot known as adult plant resistance (APR). APR has proven to be a durable and broad-spectrum source of resistance in wheat crops; namely with the Lr34 gene which confers resistance to powdery mildew and leaf stem rust of wheat.

“My research is focussed on evaluating this type of resistance and identifying whether it is resistant to multiple pathogen species and other races of Ptr. This is important to the Queensland region, as the northern wheat belt is significantly affected by tan spot disease. Introducing durable resistance genes to varieties in this region would be an effective pre-breeding strategy because it would help develop crop varieties that would have enhanced resistance to tan spot should more strains reach Australia. Furthermore, it may provide durable resistance to other necrotrophic pathogens of wheat,” said Tamaya.

The plant material Tamaya studied in her honours thesis was a recombinant inbred line (RIL) population, with the parental lines being the APR landrace (carries Tsn1) and the susceptible Australian cultivar Banks (also carries Tsn1). To evaluate the durability of resistance in this population to other strains of Ptr, this material along with the parental lines of the population and additional land races from the Vavilov wheat collection were sent to CIMMYT for Tamaya to perform a disease assay.

“At CIMMYT I evaluated the durability of APR identified in plant material in Australia by inoculating with a local strain of Ptr and also with a pathogen that shares ToxA: Staganospora nodorum. After infection, my plant material was kept in 100 per cent humidity for 24 hours (12 hours light and 12 hours dark) and then transferred back to regular glasshouse conditions. At 10 days post infection I evaluated the resistance in the plant material.”

From the evaluation, the APR RIL line demonstrated significant resistance compared to the rest of the Australian plant material against both pathogens. The results are highly promising, as they demonstrate the durability of the APR for both pre-breeding and multi-pathogen resistance breeding. Furthermore, this plant material is now available for experimental purposes at CIMMYT where further trials can validate how durable the resistance is to other necrotrophic pathogens and also be deployed worldwide and be tested against even more strains of Ptr.
“During my visit at CIMMYT I was able to immerse myself in the Spanish language and take part in professional seminars, tours, lab work and field work around the site. A highlight for me was learning to prepare and perform toxin infiltrations for an experiment comparing the virulence of different strains of spot blotch.”

“I also formed valuable friendships and research partnerships from every corner of the globe and had valuable exposure to the important research underway at CIMMT and insight to the issues that are affecting maize and wheat growers globally. Of course, there was also the chance to travel on weekends; where I was able to experience the lively Mexican culture and historical sites – another fantastic highlight to the trip!”

Visiting the Sun and Moon temples of Teotihuacan

“I would like to thank CIMMYT and Dr Pawan Singh for hosting me and giving the opportunity to learn, grow and experience the fantastic research that is performed at CIMMYT and opportunities to experience parts of Mexico. The researchers and lab technicians were all so friendly and accommodating. I would also like to thank my supervisor Dr Lee Hickey for introducing this project collaboration with CIMMYT. Lastly, I would like to thank the Crawford Fund Queensland Committee for funding this visit; not only was I able to immerse myself in world class plant pathology research, I have been given valuable exposure to international agricultural research that will give my research career a boost in the right direction,” concluded Tamaya.

Pakistan wheat seed makeover: More productive, resilient varieties for thousands of farmers

Munfiat, a farmer from Nowshera district, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan, is happy to sow and share seed of the high-yielding, disease resistant Faisalabad-08 wheat variety. (Photo: CIMMYT/Ansaar Ahmad)

Munfiat, a farmer from Nowshera district, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan, is happy to sow and share seed of the high-yielding, disease resistant Faisalabad-08 wheat variety. (Photo: CIMMYT/Ansaar Ahmad)

Nearly 3,000 smallholder wheat farmers throughout Pakistan will begin to sow seed of newer, high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat varieties and spread the seed among their peers in 2019, through a dynamic initiative that is revitalizing the contribution of science-based innovation for national agriculture.

Some 73 tons of seed of 15 improved wheat varieties recently went out to farmers in the provinces of Baluchistan, Gilgit Baltistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh, as part of the Agricultural Innovation Program (AIP), an initiative led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) with funding from the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

“Our main goal is to help farmers replace outdated, disease-susceptible wheat varieties,” said Muhammad Imtiaz, CIMMYT scientist and country representative for Pakistan who leads the AIP. “Studies have shown that some Pakistan farmers grow the same variety for as long as 10 years, meaning they lose out on the superior qualities of newer varieties and their crops may fall victim to virulent, rapidly evolving wheat diseases.”

With support from CIMMYT and partners, participating farmers will not only enjoy as much as 20 percent higher harvests, but have agreed to produce and share surplus seed with neighbors, thus multiplying the new varieties’ reach and benefits, according to Imtiaz.

He said the new seed is part of AIP’s holistic focus on better cropping systems, including training farmers in improved management practices for wheat.

Wheat is Pakistan’s number-one food crop. Farmers there produce over 25 million tons of wheat each year — nearly as much as the entire annual wheat output of Africa or South America.

Annual per capita wheat consumption in Pakistan averages over 120 kilograms, among the highest in the world and providing over 60 percent of Pakistanis’ daily caloric intake.

The seed distributed includes varieties that offer enhanced levels of grain zinc content. The varieties were developed by CIMMYT in partnership with HarvestPlus, a CGIAR research program to study and deliver biofortified foods.

According to a 2011 nutrition survey, 39 percent of children in Pakistan and 48 percent of pregnant women suffer from zinc deficiency, leading to child stunting rates of more than 40 percent and high infant mortality.

The road to better food security and nutrition seems straighter for farmer Munsif Ullah and his family, with seed of a high-yielding, zinc-enhanced wheat variety. (Photo: CIMMYT/Ansaar Ahmad)

The road to better food security and nutrition seems straighter for farmer Munsif Ullah and his family, with seed of a high-yielding, zinc-enhanced wheat variety. (Photo: CIMMYT/Ansaar Ahmad)

“I am very excited to be part of Zincol-16 seed distribution, because its rich ingredients of nutrition will have a good impact on the health of my family,” said Munsif Ullah, a farmer from Swabi District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Other seed distributed includes that of the Pakistan-13 variety for rainfed areas of Punjab, Shahkar-13 for the mountainous Gilgit-Baltistan, Ehsan-16 for rainfed areas in general, and the Umeed-14 and Zardana varieties for Baluchistan.

All varieties feature improved resistance to wheat rust diseases caused by fungi whose strains are mutating and spreading quickly in South Asia.

CIMMYT and partners are training farmers in quality seed production and setting up demonstration plots in farmers’ fields to create awareness about new varieties and production technologies, as well as collecting data to monitor the varieties’ performance.

They are also promoting resource-conserving practices such as balanced applications of fertilizer based on infrared sensor readings, ridge planting, and zero tillage. These innovations can save water, fertilizer, and land preparation costs, not to mention increasing yields.

“CIMMYT’s main focus in Pakistan is work with national wheat researchers to develop and spread better wheat production systems,” Imtiaz explained. “This includes improved farming practices and wheat lines that offer higher yields, disease resistance, and resilience under higher temperatures and dry conditions, as well as good end-use quality.”

CIMMYT’s partners in AIP include the National Rural Support Program (NRSP), the Lok Sanjh Foundation, the Village Friends Organization (VFO), the Aga Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP), the National Agricultural Research Council (NARC) Wheat Program, the Wheat Research Institute (WRI) Faisalabad and Sakrand centers, AZRI-Umarkot, Kashmala Agro Seed Company, ARI-Quetta, BARDC-Quetta, and Model Farm Services Center, KP.

(Photo: CIMMYT/Ansaar Ahmad)

(Photo: CIMMYT/Ansaar Ahmad)

Global study paves the way for developing gender-transformative interventions

By Dina Najjar

Gender norms – a set of cultural or societal rules or ideas on how each gender should behave – matters deeply on whether people adopt and benefit from innovations. Gender norms are also fluid, as they respond to changes in society, yet many of us fail to catch up with the changing norms.

Example: As farming becomes less and less profitable, men leave rural areas for cities in search of jobs. This leaves women in charge of farms, especially in subsistence farming, but many policymakers mistakenly believe that women’s roles are still confined to the house. This then becomes a barrier for women to benefit equally from agricultural innovations as men do, which negatively affects agricultural production in the household and community, more broadly.

A breakthrough CGIAR global comparative research initiative “GENNOVATE” has paved the way for developing gender-transformative interventions.

Among many resources it offers is a unique, in-depth gender knowledge base, established following five years of painstaking research – undertaken by 11 CGIAR centers, including ICARDA, and gender specialists across the globe. The study’s vast data and analyses have enabled researchers to move beyond smaller, unconnected studies that have largely defined gender research.

In order to address the question of how gender norms influence men, women, and youth to adopt innovation in agriculture and natural resource management, GENNOVATE has engaged 7,500 participants from 137 rural communities in 26 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The qualitative comparative study employs a framework based on the understanding that for innovation to be effective, women and men on the ground must exercise “agency” and be active participants in adopting new technology or practice.

The findings cast light on hidden norms within rural farming societies, as well as biases that influence decision making, technology access, and adoption within these societies and in rural development programming.

GENNOVATE also provides tools and resources to help the integration of gender sensitivities into agricultural research for development projects. These evidence-based inputs and recommendations can facilitate the development of less-biased, customized interventions that meets the specific needs of target populations. They can also ensure that this is done in an inclusive, responsible manner in tune with local norms.

This means scientists, practitioners, and policymakers can more easily incorporate gender into their work on climate-smart agriculture, conservation agriculture, mechanization, and farmer-training events, just to name a few. In short, it optimizes the chances of adoption of agricultural and environmental innovation.

ICARDA and GENNOVATE

ICARDA has contributed 10 case studies to GENNOVATE. Three case studies from Morocco focused on linking gender norms and agency with innovations in agriculture, such as drip irrigation, and improved wheat and chickpeas varieties. Uzbekistan’s four case studies linked gender norms and agency with improved wheat varieties. Three cases in India’s Rajasthan studied the link of gender norms and agency with improved barley varieties, contract barley farming, and improved goat breeds.

ICARDA also contributed to three of the six studies featured in The Journal of Gender, Agriculture, and Food Security’s special issue dedicated to GENNOVATE.

The paper “What drives capacity to innovate? Insights from women and men small-scale farmers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America” demonstrated that gender norms and personality attributes influence men’s and women’s ability to try out, adopt, and benefit from agricultural innovations, as well as their ability to make decisions around them – this is an area that has been largely underreported in the innovation literature.

“Gendered aspiration and occupations among rural youth in agriculture and beyond” shows that youth and gender issues are inextricably intertwined, and as a result, they cannot be understood in isolation from each other. The study also shows that deeply-ingrained gender norms often dissuade young women from pursuing agriculture-related occupation.

“Community typology framed by normative climate for agricultural innovation, empowerment, and poverty reduction” made a case that inclusive norms can lead to gender equality and agricultural innovation, deepening the capacity to make decisions that can lead to escape from poverty.

ICARDA’s contribution to GENNOVATE has been made possible with support from CGIAR Research Program on Wheat and CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals.

Dina Najjar is a gender specialist at ICARDA.

Inspiring millennials to focus on food security: The power of mentorship

by Mike Listman, November 13, 2018

As part of their education, students worldwide learn about the formidable challenges their generation faces, including food shortages, climate change, and degrading soil health. Mentors and educators can either overwhelm them with reality or motivate them by real stories and showing them that they have a role to play. Every year the World Food Prize lives out the latter by introducing high school students to global food issues at the annual Borlaug Dialogue, giving them an opportunity to interact with “change agents” who address food security issues. The World Food Prize offers some students an opportunity to intern at an international research center through the Borlaug-Ruan International Internship program.
Tessa Mahmoudi

Tessa Mahmoudi, plant microbiologist and 2012 World Food Prize Borlaug-Ruan summer intern, credits the mentorship of CIMMYT researchers in Turkey with changing her outlook on the potential of science to improve food security and health. (Photo: University of Minnesota).

Plant Microbiologist Tessa Mahmoudi, a 2012 World Food Prize’s Borlaug-Ruan summer intern, says her experience working with CIMMYT researchers in Turkey when she was 16 years old profoundly changed her career and her life.

“For a summer I was welcomed to Turkey not as a child, but as a scientist,” says Mahmoudi, who grew up on a farm in southeast Minnesota, USA. “My hosts, Dr. Abdelfattah A. Dababat and Dr. Gül Erginbas-Orakci, who study soil-borne pathogens and the impact those organisms have on food supplies, showed me their challenges and, most importantly, their dedication.”

Mahmoudi explains she still finds the statistics regarding the global food insecurity to be daunting but saw CIMMYT researchers making real progress. “This helped me realize that I had a role to play and an opportunity to make positive impact.”

Among other things, Mahmoudi learned what it meant to be a plant pathologist and the value of that work. “I began to ask scientific questions that mattered,” she says. “And I went back home motivated to study — not just to get good grades, but to solve real problems.”

She says her outlook on the world dramatically broadened. “I realized we all live in unique realities, sheltered by climatic conditions that strongly influence our world views.”

According to Mahmoudi, her internship at CIMMYT empowered her to get out of her comfort zone and get involved in food security issues. She joined the “hunger fighters” at the University of Minnesota while pursuing a bachelor’s in Plant Science. “I was the president of the Project Food Security Club which focuses on bring awareness of global hunger issues and encouraging involvement in solutions.” She also did research on stem rust under Matthew Rouse, winner of the World Food Prize 2018  Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application.

Pursuing a master’s in plant pathology at Texas A&M University under the supervision of Betsy Pierson, she studied the effects of plant-microbe interactions on drought tolerance and, specifically, how plant-microbe symbiosis influences root architecture and wheat’s ability to recover after suffering water stress.

Mahmoudi incorporates interactive learning activities in her class (see her website, https://reachingroots.org/). Her vision is to increase access to plant science education and encourage innovation in agriculture.Currently, Mahmoudi is involved in international development and teaching. As a horticulture lecturer at Blinn College in Texas, she engages students in the innovative use of plants to improve food security and global health.

“As a teacher and mentor, I am committed to helping students broaden their exposure to real problems because I know how much that influenced me,” Mahmoudi says. “Our world has many challenges, but great teams and projects are making progress, such as the work by CIMMYT teams around the world. We all have a role to play and an idea that we can make a reality to improve global health.”

As an example, Mahmoudi is working with the non-profit Clean Challenge on a project to improve the waste system in Haiti. The initiative links with local teams in Haiti to develop a holistic system for handling trash, including composting organic waste to empower small holder farmers to improve their soil health and food security.

“Without my mentors, I would not have had the opportunity to be involved in these high impact initiatives. Wherever you are in your career make sure you are being mentored and also mentoring. I highly encourage students to find mentors and get involved in today’s greatest challenge, increasing food security.”

In addition to thanking the CIMMYT scientists who inspired her, Mahmoudi is deeply grateful for those who made her summer internship possible. “This would include the World Food Prize Foundation and especially Lisa Fleming, Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn, the Ruan Family,” she says. “Your commitment to this high-impact, experiential learning opportunity has had lasting impact on my life.”

New study confirms the nutritional and health benefits of zinc-biofortified wheat in India

A recent study by India and US scientists shows that when vulnerable young children in India consume foods with wheat-enriched zinc, the number of days they spend sick with pneumonia and vomiting significantly diminishes.

Velu Govindan (CIMMYT) inspects zinc-fortified wheat. Photo: CIMMYT files.

An estimated 26 percent of India’s population lacks adequate micronutrients in their diets. Developed through biofortification — the breeding of crop varieties whose grain features higher levels of micronutrients — high-zinc wheat can help address micronutrient deficiencies.

The results of the study, which took place over six months, confirm zinc-enhanced wheat’s potential to improve the diets and health of disadvantaged groups who consume wheat-based foods, but the authors conclude that longer-term studies are needed.

In partnership with HarvestPlus and partners in South Asia, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) has bred and fostered the release in the region of six zinc-enhanced varieties that are spreading among farmers and seed producers.

Click here to read the full study.

The 2017 annual report of the Wheat Initiative: Achievements and transformation

The 2017 annual report of the Wheat Initiative: Achievements and transformation

The Wheat Initiative 2017 annual report describes exciting outcomes from a major assessment of the organization’s first five years. Results include changes in executive leadership, new hosting arrangements, and a revised structure and operational plan.

Amid these transformations, achievements included the initiation of the Wheat Ten Genomes Project, the publication of two volumes entitled “Achieving Sustainable Wheat Production”, a call for new projects under the International Wheat Yield Partnership, creation of a reference germplasm collection for durum wheat, and diverse advances by Expert Working Groups.

Click here to view and download the report.

Created in 2011 following endorsement from the G20 Agriculture Ministries, the Wheat Initiative provides a framework for strategic research on wheat in developed and developing countries. It fosters communication between the research community, funders and global policy makers, aiming at efficient and long-term investments for research and development goals and seeking to enhance access to information, resources and technologies.

The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat is a founding member of the Wheat Initiative.

 

2018 Agricultural Innovation Program meeting: CIMMYT and partners’ achievements in Pakistan

Zero till wheat planting in Jaffarabad District.

By Kashif Syed, September 24

More than 70 agricultural professionals met in Islamabad, Pakistan, during September 4-5 to discuss agronomy and wheat activities under the Agricultural Innovation Program (AIP) for Pakistan. The event provided a platform for institutions involved in agronomy and the dissemination of agricultural technology and seed to share advances, discuss issues, and plan future undertakings.

“Crop productivity must be increased through research on innovative crop management techniques, varietal development and dissemination of better techniques and seed to farming communities,” said Dr. Yusuf Zafar, Chairman of PARC, addressing participants and touching upon a key theme of the event. He emphasized that precision agriculture, decision support systems, the use of drones, water productivity improvements and more widespread mechanization were on the horizon for Pakistani farmers, but that this would require active involvement of the public and private sectors.

Developments in zero tillage farming and ridge planting were highlighted in the two-day conference as conservation agriculture practices that are gaining traction in national wheat farming, according to Imtiaz Muhammad, CIMMYT representative and AIP project leader.

“In collaboration with a national network of 23 public and private partners, CIMMYT has reached more than 25,000 farmers through trainings on zero tillage, ridge planting, and direct seeded rice farming,” Imtiaz said, adding that support to farmers included nutrient management education the provision of seed planters. “These techniques are helping farmers to save water, avoid residue burning, and reduce their production costs.”

Collaboration with agricultural machinery manufacturers and other private sector actors is leading to local production of Zero Till Happy Seeders, which sow directly into unplowed fields and the residues of previous crops, according to Imtiaz. “Innovative approaches have also resulted in the production of 1,500 tons of wheat seed in 2018,” he explained.

Wheat seed production and farmers’ replacement of older varieties have progressed through local seed banks established by AIP in partnership with Pakistan’s National Rural Support Program (NRSP). Located in villages, the banks sell quality wheat seed for up to 12 percent less than local markets. “This is critical, because Pakistan’s wheat seed replacement is only 30 percent,” said Imtiaz, adding that there is a 50 percent gap between potential wheat yields and the national average yield for this crop.

The AIP will open more seed banks in remote areas of Pakistan, in conjunction with national partners. As well as producing and processing seed, the banks will provide farm machinery contract services and precision agriculture tools at subsidized rates.

Participants’ recommendations included adding straw spreaders to combine harvesters for rice, to facilitate the direct sowing of wheat after rice. They also suggested that agricultural service providers should help promote the direct seeding of rice and wheat with zero tillage implements. Participants observed that, in Baluchistan Province, support to farmers and service providers could increase the adoption of zero tillage for sowing wheat after rice and of precision land leveling, to improve irrigation efficiency and save water.

The AIP and partners will continue to promote water saving and nutrient management techniques, as well as building the capacity of farmers, national staff and agricultural service providers. Finally, those attending recommended that, for its second phase, AIP focus on the biofortification of wheat and rice, climate smart agriculture, decision support tools, women in farming, knowledge delivery, appropriate mechanization, nutrient management, weed management and water productivity.

AIP is the result of the combined efforts of the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC), the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the World Vegetable Center (AVRDC), the University of California at Davis, and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). It is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). With these national and international partners on board, AIP continues to improve Pakistan’s agricultural productivity and economy.

Researchers find “hotspot” regions in the wheat genome for high zinc content

The reported work by wheat scientists paves the way for expanded use of wild grass species, such as Aegilops tauschii (also known as goat grass; pictured here) as sources of new genes for higher grain zinc in wheat. (Photo: CIMMYT)

An international team of scientists applied genome-wide association analysis for the first time to study the genetics that underlie grain zinc concentrations in wheat, according to a report published in Nature Scientific Reports on 10 September.

Analyzing zinc concentrations in the grain of 330 bread wheat lines across diverse environments in India and Mexico, the researchers uncovered 39 new molecular markers associated with the trait, as well as 2 wheat genome segments that carry important genes for zinc uptake, translocation, and storage in wheat.

The findings promise greatly to ease development of wheat varieties with enhanced levels of zinc, a critical micronutrient lacking in the diets of many poor who depend on wheat-based food, according to Velu Govindan, wheat breeder at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and first author of the new report.

“A collaboration among research centers in India, Australia, the USA and Mexico, this work will expedite breeding for higher zinc through use of ‘hotspot’ genome regions and molecular markers,” said Govindan. “It also advances efforts to make selection for grain zinc a standard feature of CIMMYT wheat breeding. Because varieties derived from CIMMYT breeding are grown on nearly half the world’s wheat lands, ‘mainstreaming’ high zinc in breeding programs could improve the micronutrient nutrition of millions.”

More than 17 percent of humans, largely across Asia and Africa, lack zinc in their diets, a factor responsible for the deaths of more than 400,000 young children each year.

Often used in human disease research, the genome-wide association approach was applied in this study to zero in on genome segments — known as quantitative trait loci (QTLs) — that carry genes of interest for wheat grain zinc content, according to Govindan.

“The advantages of the genome-wide association method over traditional QTL mapping include better coverage of alleles and the ability to include landraces, elite cultivars, and advanced breeding lines in the analysis,” he explained. “Our study fully opens the door for the expanded use of wheat progenitor species as sources of alleles for high grain zinc, and the outcomes helped us to identify other candidate genes from wheat, barley, Brachypodium grasses, and rice.”
Farmers in South Asia are growing six zinc-enhanced wheat varieties developed using CIMMYT breeding lines and released in recent years according to Ravi Singh, head of the CIMMYT Bread Wheat Improvement Program.

Financial support for this study was provided by HarvestPlus (www.HarvestPlus.org), a global alliance of agriculture and nutrition research institutions working to increase the micronutrient density of staple food crops through biofortification. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of HarvestPlus. It was also supported by CGIAR Funders, through the Research Program on Wheat and the Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health. Research partners in India and Pakistan greatly contributed to this study by conducting high-quality field trials.

Mutating diseases drive wheat variety turnover in Ethiopia, new study shows

Yellow spores of the fungus Puccinia striiformis f.sp. tritici, which causes stripe rust disease in wheat. Photo: CIMMYT/Mike Listman.

By Mike Listman

Rapidly emerging and evolving races of wheat stem rust and stripe rust disease—the crop’s deadliest scourges worldwide—drove large-scale seed replacement by Ethiopia’s farmers during 2009-14, as the genetic resistance of widely-grown wheat varieties no longer proved effective against the novel pathogen strains, according to a new study by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

Based on two surveys conducted by CIMMYT and the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) and involving more than 2,000 Ethiopian wheat farmers, the study shows that farmers need access to a range of genetically diverse wheat varieties whose resistance is based on multiple genes.

After a severe outbreak in 2010-11 of a previously unseen stripe rust strain, 40 percent of the affected farm households quickly replaced popular but susceptible wheat varieties, according to Moti Jaleta, agricultural economist at CIMMYT and co-author of the publication.

“That epidemic hit about 600,000 hectares of wheat—30 percent of Ethiopia’s wheat lands—and farmers said it cut their yields in half,” Jaleta said. “In general, the rapid appearance and mutation of wheat rust races in Ethiopia has convinced farmers about the need to adopt newer, resistant varieties.”

The fourth most widely grown cereal after tef, maize, and sorghum, wheat in Ethiopia is produced largely by smallholder farmers under rainfed conditions. Wheat production and area under cultivation have increased significantly in the last decade and Ethiopia is among Africa’s top three wheat producers, but the country still imports on average 1.4 million tons of wheat per year to meet domestic demand.

National and international organizations such as EIAR, CIMMYT, and the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) are working intensely to identify and incorporate new sources of disease resistance into improved wheat varieties and to support the multiplication of more seed to meet farmer demand.

New wheat varieties have provided bigger harvests and incomes for Ethiopia farmers in the last decade, but swiftly mutating and spreading disease strains are endangering wheat’s future, according to Dave Hodson, CIMMYT expert in geographic information and decision support systems, co-author of the new study.

Ethiopian wheat farmers like Abebe Abora, of Doyogena, have benefitted from adopting high-yielding wheat varieties but face threats from fast mutating races of wheat rust disease pathogens. Photo: CIMMYT/Apollo Habtamu.

Ethiopian wheat farmers like Abebe Abora, of Doyogena, have benefitted from adopting high-yielding wheat varieties but face threats from fast mutating races of wheat rust disease pathogens. Photo: CIMMYT/Apollo Habtamu.

“In addition to stripe rust, highly-virulent new races of stem rust are ruining wheat harvests in eastern Africa,” he explained. “These include the deadly Ug99 race group, which has spread beyond the region, and, more recently, the stem rust race TKTTF.”

As an example, he mentioned the case of the wheat variety Digalu, which is resistant to stripe rust and was quickly adopted by farmers after the 2010-11 epidemic. But Digalu has recently shown susceptibility to TKTTF stem rust and must now be replaced.

“In rust-prone Ethiopia, the risks of over-reliance on a widely-sown variety that is protected by a single, major resistance gene—Digalu, for example—are clearly apparent,” he added. “CIMMYT and partners are working hard to replace it with a new variety whose resistance is genetically more complex and durable.”

Hodson said as well that continuous monitoring of the rust populations in Ethiopia and the surrounding region is essential to detect and respond to emerging threats, as well as to ensure that the key pathogen races are used to screen for resistance in wheat breeding programs.

Hodson and partners at the John Innes Centre, UK, and EIAR are leading development of a handheld tool that allows rapid identification of disease strains in the field, instead of having to send them to a laboratory and lose precious time awaiting the results.

CIMMYT and partners are also applying molecular tools to study wheat varietal use in Ethiopia. “There are indications that yields reported by farmers were much lower than official statistics, and farmer recollections of varietal names and other information are not always exact,” Hodson explained. “We are analyzing results now of a follow-up study that uses DNA fingerprinting to better document varietal use and turnover.”

The authors would like to acknowledge the Standing Panel for Impact Assessment (SPIA) for financing, the Diffusion and Impacts of Improved Varieties in Africa (DIIVA) project that supported the first survey in 2011, and Cornell Universitythe Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) through the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW, now called Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat) project for support for the second survey in 2014.