Insect resistance workshop focuses on legacy, importance of collaboration

Community celebrates nearly 50 years of achievements; highlights ways to meet future challenges

Workshop participants pose in front of CIMMYT Headquarters in Texcoco, Mexico. Photo: Alfonso Cortes/CIMMYT

It was 1974.  In the United States, the environmental movement was in full swing, with the first celebration of Earth Day, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the publication of Rachel Carson’s revolutionary book, Silent Spring. Around the world, the public was gaining awareness of the danger of overuse of pesticides, as a small group of crop breeders and entomologists decided to get together in what would become the first International Plant Resistance to Insects (IPRI) workshop.

Today, the need for insect resistance is even greater. 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. The losses due to insects total up to $1billion a year for wheat alone.  Climate change is another factor affecting the population and geographical distribution of pests.

Last week, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) hosted IPRI’s 24th biannual session, convening entomologists, pathologists, breeders and nematologists to validate past work and highlight innovative solutions.  To name a few:

  • South Africa’s Agricultural Research Council has developed 43 new cultivars of wheat that are resistant to Russian Wheat Aphid.
  • CIMMYT precision scientists are using high-tech cameras on drones or planes to measure individual plants for signs of biotic stress, to allow farmers advance notice of infestation.
  • North Dakota State University’s mapping of the Hessian Fly H26 gene has revealed two clear phenotypic responses to Hessian fly attacks, bringing breeders a step closer towards developing resistant wheat varieties.
  • CIMMYT-designed Integrated Pest Management (IPM) packages are helping farmers from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds and cropping systems effectively fight the devastating maize pest fall armyworm through a combination of best management practices.

A recurring theme was the importance of collaboration between entomologists and breeders to ensure breakthroughs in resistance genes are taken up to develop new varieties that reach farmers.

“There is a disconnect between screening and breeding,” CIMMYT Global Wheat Program Director Hans Braun told attendees.  “We need more and better collaboration between disciplines, to move from screening to breeding faster.”

Communicating to farmers is crucial. Pesticides are expensive, harmful to both human health and the environment, and can lead to crop resistance.  However, they can appear to be the quick and easy solution. “IPM also means ‘integrating people’s mindsets,’” said B.M. Prasanna, director of CIMMYT’s Global Maize Program.

B. M. Prasanna describes the Integrated Pest Management toolbox of solutions for fall armyworm. Photo: Alfonso Cortes/CIMMYT.

National policies instituting strict quarantines pose another serious barrier to the exchange of seeds required for testing and research.

To mark the workshop’s 24th anniversary, Michael Smith, entomologist at Kansas State University and longtime IPRI participant, offered a brief history of the event and the field—from the first insect-resistant wheat developed in the early 1920s to the wake-up call of pesticide abuse in the 1960s.

Michael Smith, Kansas State University, U.S.

“We’ve grown, we’ve made enormous technological changes, but ‘talking to people’ is still what we’re here for,” he stated. He added a challenge for his colleagues:  “We need to tell a better story of the economic benefits of our science. We need to get to the table in an even more assertive way.”

He also shared some lighter memories, such as the sight of imminent plant scientists relaxing in leisure suits at the 1978 session. A traditional mariachi serenade and traditional Mexican cuisine ensured that more memories were made in 2020.

Leonardo Crespo-Herrera, CIMMYT wheat breeder and workshop moderator closed with encouraging and provocative words for the group.

 “The ultimate objective is to reduce the use of pesticides,” he said, adding: “How do we get this research out of the lab and into the field?”

Leonardo Crespo, CIMMYT wheat breeder and workshop moderator. Photo: Alfonso Cortes/CIMMYT.
Workshop participants toured CIMMYT’s Germplasm Bank. Photo: Alfonso Cortes/CIMMYT.
CIMMYT Global Maize Director B.M. Prasanna and CIMMYT Global Wheat Director Hans Braun. Photo: Alfonso Cortes/CIMMYT
The workshop also included a demonstration by CIMMYT Wheat Chemistry, Quality and Nutrition Laboratory Head Maria Itria Ibba. Photo: Alfonso Cortes/CIMMYT.

First cohort of Arab Women Leaders in Agriculture graduates

This press release was originally posted on the website of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA)

  The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat joined the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture for the graduation of the first cohort of fellows of the Arab Women Leaders in Agriculture (AWLA) program.

In celebration of International Women’s Day the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) hosted today a graduation ceremony for the first cohort of fellows of the Arab Women Leaders in Agriculture (AWLA) program.

Funded by the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and CGIAR Research Program on Wheat, AWLA supports women scientists from the Middle East and North Africa.

Being the first of its kind, the program is managed by ICBA and is designed to empower women researchers to spearhead positive changes in agriculture and food security while addressing the challenges they face in their careers.

The first cohort included 22 women scientists from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia. They completed a 10-month program from 2019 to 2020, which was delivered through 12 online R&D modules and face-to-face workshops in Tunisia and the UAE.

Her Excellency Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, Managing Director of the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD) and Chairperson of ICBA’s Board of Directors. Photo: ICBA

Speaking at the graduation ceremony, Her Excellency Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, Managing Director of the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD) and Chairperson of ICBA’s Board of Directors, said: “International Women’s Day is an important occasion when we celebrate women and girls around the world and showcase their invaluable contributions to different fields, including science. Unfortunately, women are still underrepresented in research and development around the world, but more so in the Middle East and North Africa. This is despite research showing that gender-balanced teams improve innovation and productivity and that women are critical to innovation. That is why it is great to see how programs like AWLA are creating opportunities for women scientists from across the Middle East and North Africa and equipping them with skills and tools to grow in their careers and make greater contributions in their communities and countries.”

For her part, Dr. Ismahane Elouafi, Director General of ICBA, said: “We are delighted to see the inaugural cohort of AWLA fellows graduating on such a special occasion – International Women’s Day. The AWLA fellowship program was able to open a door of opportunities for 22 Arab women scientists by providing them with soft skills to positively impact their communities and countries.”

Dr. Ismahane Elouafi, Director General of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA). Photo: ICBA

“I want to thank the Islamic Development Bank, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat, and the International Atomic Energy Agency, for their exceptional support for the program. I would also like to thank the Council for Australian-Arab Relations for supporting the study tour of two AWLA fellows,” Dr. Ismahane Elouafi added.

Dr. Tarifa Alzaabi, Deputy Director General of ICBA, remarked: “As we are celebrating International Women’s Day, it gives me a great pleasure to congratulate all AWLA fellows and commend them for the exceptional dedication they demonstrated during their AWLA journey. AWLA is a unique program that significantly contributed to our efforts to empower women in science and agriculture. AWLA extends the right skills and opportunities to fellows to boost their intellectual collaboration by exchanging ideas, good practices, and stories on how women can make a difference in agriculture. Moreover, the program offers new perspectives on research and leadership to make a positive difference not only in the professional lives of fellows but also towards the prosperity of agriculture across the nations and regions they represent.”

Cake-cutting at the graduation ceremony. Photo: ICBA

Ms. May Ali Babiker Eltahir, Manager at the Women and Youth Empowerment Division, the Islamic Development Bank, commented: “AWLA, through empowering young Arab women working on food, nutrition and water security issues, has contributed to the pillars of the IsDB Women’s Empowerment Policy, namely improving women’s access to services and resources and promoting women’s agency and participation.”

Mr. Hassan Damluji, Deputy Director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said: “Empowering women to take up leadership positions in all fields, particularly critical sectors like agriculture and science, is an essential lever towards achieving gender equality globally. AWLA is a wonderful example of partners coming together to deliver concrete solutions that help break down barriers for Arab women researchers”.

“Women make up an important part of the agricultural labor force in MENA, and any solution to the region’s critical food security challenges should ideally be evidence-based and innovative, making use of all talent by being gender-inclusive and by greatly improving cross-border collaboration,” said Mr. Victor Kommerell, Program Manager for the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (CIMMYTICARDA, and partners). 

“I am confident this cohort of AWLA graduates from 6 countries will have a powerful impact on the future of agriculture in the region,” Mr. Victor Kommerell added.

Dr. Farah Baroudy Mikati, an AWLA fellow from Lebanon, who works as an agricultural engineer at the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute, said: “The spirit of AWLA reminded me about my ambitions and strength, especially after seeing that things like research for impact exist and can succeed. Before AWLA, I used to give less importance to some managerial knowledge, but now I consider it as a priority. In addition, I started learning project proposal writing skills through this program. In general, AWLA made me aim for more even in harsh conditions!”

“During the program, the fellows got the opportunity to learn through interactive online and classroom training, coaching and mentoring, and continuous assessment. The fellows worked on a variety of individual assignments in addition to four team-based capstone projects that connect and translate their learning and impact as the golden thread,” Mr. Ghazi Jawad Al-Jabri, Capacity Building Specialist at ICBA and AWLA Coordinator, said.

AWLA’s long-term goal is to improve food security and nutrition in the region through empowering women researchers and helping them realize their full potential. The program contributes to the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals on Gender Equality (SDG 5), Climate Action (SDG 13), Life on Land (SDG 15), and Partnerships for the Goals (SDG 17).

a wheat-themed place setting at the AWLA graduation ceremony. Photo: Victor Kommerell/CIMMYT

Q&A: Wheat breeding experts help CIMMYT reach ambitious improvement goals

“This will make us one of the world’s best breeding programs,” says visiting scientist

Wheat seeds shoot out of harvester at CIMMYT’s Centro Experimental Norman E. Borlaug in Obregon, Mexico. Photo: Peter Lowe/CIMMYT

A select group of plant breeders, quantitative geneticists, pathologists, statisticians, mathematicians, and other scientific and technical experts from the public and private wheat breeding sectors spent three days at the headquarters of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) last week debating ways to improve CIMMYT’s wheat breeding program.

The group, who traveled from as far as away as Canada, India and China, challenged each other to come up with a set of recommendations to move CIMMYT’s wheat breeding program to two ambitious goals: to increase the rate of genetic gain in wheat yields and to mainstream high zinc levels into all new improved wheat lines.

We caught up with a few of these visiting scientists to understand why they came and how they saw their role in this renewed push for food security through wheat research.

Gary Atlin, Senior Program Officer, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Q: There is a sense of urgency in this meeting. Why is it important to raise genetic gain – and nutrition — in wheat now?

A: The urgency is generally around increasing the effectiveness of breeding in the face of climate change and intensifying cropping systems in the target countries that we serve.  There is also an increasing recognition that micronutrient deficiencies are a major health problem in many areas where a lot of protein and calories come from wheat.

Donors are looking at breeding investments and realizing that although programs like CIMMYT are extremely effective they could probably be more efficient and effective.

It’s an ambitious goal: to increase the rate of genetic gain — and move the needle on zinc — within the context of an agronomic breeding program that’s already very effective. This will make us one of the world’s best breeding programs.

Q: Do we have what it takes?

A: Absolutely. The engine already works very well. But there are lots of new tools, new ways of organizing breeding being tried out in the public and private sectors that we can use. CIMMYT has an excellent skill set here and very experienced people. It’s all there — but it’s a complex problem.

Q: How do you see the role of wheat research in the move to transform the many CGIAR centers into OneCGIAR?

A: Well, along with rice, wheat is among the top two in terms of area and contribution to total calories worldwide. So OneCGIAR will have a wheat research program as the core of its wheat offering. One CGIAR will hopefully do away with dysfunctional separations and boundaries between programs so it should be easier and we won’t have to duplicate programmatic leadership and administrative structures.

Wheat will be just as important. The idea of OneCGIAR is to provide a better platform for the research programs. I’m very optimistic that it’s going to help.

Valentin Wimmer, Head of Cereals Breeding Technologies, KWS SAAT SE & Co. KGaA, Germany

Q: Why did you decide to come help CIMMYT’s wheat breeding program?

A: I would have regretted it if I hadn’t come. The exchange, the process of disclosing a program, having an in-depth discussion and coming up with a proposal  — that is something that rarely happens.

I was also interested because I thought I could also learn. There are many other smart people here. It’s a give and take.

Q: What is your reaction to CIMMYT’s wheat breeding plan? Do you think we can do it?

A: I think it’s very ambitious but I was positively surprised by the output.  Given the limited amount of time, we really made good progress.

Q: How do you see your role in this consultation and in the future with this effort?

A:  My background is in breeding technologies, statistical modeling and simulation and breeding scheme modeling—all areas of discussion here.  I also have expertise in a corporate environment – so I can provide input on logistics and time constraints.

 I will be available to offer additional feedback and answer questions – or if the program wants to send someone to us for training- I could imagine that, too.

Curtis Pozniak, Professor and Ministry of Agriculture Strategic Research Program Chair in Durum and High-Yield Wheat Breeding and Genetics, University of Saskatchewan, Canada

Q: How has your experience been at this workshop?

A:  I work closely with the CIMMYT wheat breeders in exchanging germplasm, particularly on the durum wheat side.  To be able to visit CIMMYT and help move the program forward was quite an honor for me, particularly given the excellent relationships I’ve had with CIMMYT scientists. It’s been a fantastic experience.

Q: How do you see your role as a research partner and your involvement as this effort moves forward?

A: It’s clear that CIMMYT has extensive breeding capability capacity, structure, people, and know-how. They’re doing an excellent job. Our role at this workshop is to review how decisions are made and think about how CIMMYT wheat programs  apply new technologies to improve the rate of genetic gain in wheat. It is nice to see that the program is starting to embrace a data driven selection system.

One of the things we were talking about here is the importance of germplasm exchange, and how to fit that into not only the CIMMYT program but the international programs both in developed and developing countries.   I use CIMMYT germplasm in my own crossing program, and we exchange genetic mapping populations and genotypic information amongst our programs to make better sense of the data in the context of our own germplasm, relative to our specific environments. I am happy to give back.

Kudos to CIMMYT for reaching out and really doing an excellent job presenting their program and asking a whole range of experts to provide feedback on their wheat program and listen to our collective experiences on how we might improve not only the breeding program at CIMMYT, but national programs as well.  I don’t see this as a “one-off” but the first step to building a much stronger relationship, and something that will continue.

 “Change can be painful and can take us out of our comfort zone,” said CIMMYT Director of Genetic Resources Kevin Pixley, who co-moderated the workshop, “but a constant pursuit of improvement is what differentiates exceptional from good, and the challenges facing wheat farmers in coming decades will require the best that science can offer.”

Wrapping up the technical expert meeting, Gary Atlin put these efforts into perspective. “Genetic gains mean income for farmers,” he reminded the group. “That’s what drives me, and I know that’s what drives you too.”


CIMMYT scientists join fellow experts in San Diego for world’s largest plant and animal genomics conference

CIMMYT Principal Scientist Sarah Hearne presenting at this week’s PAG conference. Photo: CIMMYT

A number of scientists from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) presented this week at the International Plant and Animal Genome Conference (PAG) in San Diego, USA.

PAG is the largest agricultural genomics meeting in the world, bringing together over 3,000 leading genetic scientists and researchers from around the world to present their research and share the latest developments in plant and animal genome projects. It provides an important opportunity for CIMMYT scientists to highlight their work translating the latest molecular research developments into wheat and maize breeding solutions for better varieties. 

To meet global food demand by 2050, agricultural production must increase by 60% – while at the same time minimizing harm to the environment. This is the process of sustainable intensification, recommended by world organizations like the United Nations and the EAT Lancet Commission as a key strategy for transforming our struggling global food system.

Genomics is crucial to sustainable intensification. By studying a plant or animal’s genetic architecture, researchers can better understand what drives crop or livestock productivity, quality, climate-resilience and resistance to pests and diseases. With this information scientists can speed up efforts to develop better varieties and stay ahead of climate- and disease- related threats.

  • Wheat Scientist Philomin Juliana shared her findings on successfully identifying significant new chromosomal regions for wheat yield and disease resistance using the full wheat genome map. Juliana and her colleagues have created a freely-available collection of genetic information and markers for more than 40,000 wheat lines which will accelerate efforts to breed superior wheat varieties. She also discussed the value of genomic and high-throughput phenotyping tools for current breeding strategies adopted by CIMMYT to develop climate resilient wheat.  
Wheat Scientist Philomin Juliana at this week’s PAG conference. Photo: CIMMYT
  • Principal Scientist Sarah Hearne discussed the smarter exploration of germplasm banks for breeding. Genebanks are reserves of native plant variation representing the evolutionary history of the crops we eat. They are a vital source of genetic information, which can accelerate the development of better, more resilient crops. However, it is not easy for breeders and scientists to identify or access the genetic information they need. Using the whole genebank genotypic data, long-term climate data from the origins of the genebank seeds and novel analysis methods, Hearne and her colleagues were able to identify elite genetic breeding material for improved, climate resilient maize varieties. They are now extending this approach to test the value of these data to improve breeding programs and accelerate the development of improved crops.
Sarah Hearne presents on the smart use of genebanks to accelerate the development of better wheat and maize varieties. Photo: Francisco Gomez
  • Distinguished Scientist Jose Crossa discussed the latest models and methods for combining phenomic and genomic information to accelerate the development of climate-resilient crop varieties. He highlighted the use of the Artificial Neural Network — a model inspired by the human brain — to model the relationship between input signals and output signals in crops. He also discussed a phenotypic and genomic selection index which can improve response to selection and expected genetic gains for all of an individual plant’s genetic traits simultaneously.
CIMMYT Distinguished Scientist Jose Crossa presenting at this week’s PAG conference. Photo: Sarah Hearne/CIMMYT
  • Genomic Breeder Umesh Rosyara demonstrated the Genomic selection pipeline and other tools at a workshop on the genomic data management and marker application tool Galaxy. The software, developed by the Excellence in Breeding (EiB) platform, integrates a suite of bioinformatics analysis tools, R-packages – a free software environment for statistical computing and graphics –  and visualization tools to manage routine genomic selection (GS) and genome wide association studies (GWAS) analysis. This allows crop breeders and genomic scientists without a programming background to conduct these analyses and create crop-specific workflows.

“PAG is currently the main international meeting touching both crop and livestock genomics, so it’s an invaluable chance to connect and share insights with research and breeding colleagues around the world,” said Hearne. 

“It’s also an important forum to highlight how we are linking upstream and field, and help others do the same.”

New international partnership to identify and develop resistance to dangerous wheat disease

China-based CIMMYT-JAAS screening station aims for global impact in the fight against deadly Fusarium head blight

Photo: JAAS

The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT), led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the International Center for Agriculture in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), have announced a partnership with the Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences (JAAS) in China to open a new screening facility for the deadly and fast-spreading fungal wheat disease Fusarium head blight (FHB).

The new facility, based near JAAS headquarters in Nanjing, aims to capitalize on CIMMYT’s world-class collection of disease-resistant wheat materials and the diversity of the more than 150,000 wheat germplasm in its Wheat Germplasm Bank to identify and characterize genetics of sources of resistance to FHB and, ultimately, develop new, FHB-resistant wheat varieties that can be sown in vulnerable areas around the world.

“The participation of JAAS in the global FHB breeding network will significantly contribute to the development of elite germplasm with good FHB resistance,” said Pawan Singh, head of wheat pathology for CIMMYT.

“We expect that in 5 to 7 years, promising lines with FHB resistance will be available for deployment by both CIMMYT and China to vulnerable farmers, thanks to this new station.”

Fusariumhead blight is one of the most dangerous wheat diseases.  It can cause up to 50% yield loss, and produce severe mycotoxin contamination in food and feed – with impacts including increased health care and veterinary care costs, and reduced livestock production. 

Even consuming low to moderate amounts of Fusarium mycotoxins may impair intestinal health, immune function and/or fitness. Deoxynivalenol (DON), a mycotoxin the fungus inducing FHB produces, has been linked to symptoms including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. In livestock, Fusarium mycotoxin consumption exacerbates infections with parasites, bacteria and viruses  — such as occidiosis in poultry, salmonellosis in pigs and mice, colibacillosis in pigs, necrotic enteritis in poultry and swine respiratory disease.

In China, the world’s largest wheat producer, FHB is the most important biotic constraint to production.

The disease is extending quickly beyond its traditionally vulnerable wheat growing areas in East Asia, North America, the southern cone of South America, Europe and South Africa —  partly as a result of global warming, and partly due to otherwise beneficial, soil-conserving farming practices such as wheat-maize rotation and reduced tillage.

“Through CIMMYT’s connections with national agricultural research systems in developing countries, we can create a global impact for JAAS research, reaching the countries that are expected to be affected the expansion of FHB epidemic area,” said Xu Zhang, head of Triticeae crops research group at the Institute of Food Crops of the Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

The new collaborative effort will target FHB research initially but could potentially expand to research on other wheat diseases as well. Wheat blast, for example, is a devastating disease that spread from South America to Bangladesh in 2016. Considering the geographical closeness of Bangladesh and China, a collaboration with CIMMYT, as one of the leading institutes working on wheat blast, could have a strong impact.

Although the platform is new, the two institutions have a longstanding relationship.  The bilateral collaboration between JAAS and CIMMYT began in early 1980s with a shuttle breeding program between China and Mexico to speed up breeding for FHB resistance. The two institutions also conducted extensive germplasm exchanges in the 1980s and 1990s, which helped CIMMYT improve resistance to FHB, and helped JAAS improve wheat rust resistance.

Currently, JAAS and CIMMYT are working on FHB under a project funded by the National Natural Science Foundation China called “Elite and Durable Resistance to Wheat Fusarium Head Blight” that aims to deploy FHB resistance genes/QTL in Chinese and CIMMYT germplasm and for use in wheat breeding.

INTERVIEW OPPORTUNITIES:

Xinyao He, Wheat Pathologist and Geneticist, Global Wheat Program, CIMMYT. x.he@cgiar.org, +52 (55) 5804 2004 ext. 2218

FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT THE MEDIA TEAM:

Geneviève Renard, Head of Communications, CIMMYT. g.renard@cgiar.org, +52 (55) 5804 2004 ext. 2019.

Rodrigo Ordóñez, Communications Manager, CIMMYT. r.ordonez@cgiar.org, +52 (55) 5804 2004 ext. 1167.

ABOUT CGIAR RESEARCH PROGRAM ON WHEAT:
The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) is led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), with the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) as a primary research partner. Funding comes from CGIAR, national governments, foundations, development banks and other agencies, including the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR),  the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

ABOUT CIMMYT:
The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) is the global leader in publicly-funded maize and wheat research and related farming systems. Headquartered near Mexico City, CIMMYT works with hundreds of partners throughout the developing world to sustainably increase the productivity of maize and wheat cropping systems, thus improving global food security and reducing poverty. CIMMYT is a member of the CGIAR System and leads the CGIAR Research Programs on Maize and Wheat and the Excellence in Breeding Platform. The Center receives support from national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies. For more information, visit www.cimmyt.org.

ABOUT Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences (JAAS):

Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences (JAAS), a comprehensive agricultural research institution since 1931, strives to make agriculture more productive and sustainable through technology innovation. JAAS endeavors to carry out the Plan for Rural Vitalization Strategy and our innovation serves agriculture, farmers and the rural areas. JAAS provide more than 80% of new varieties, products and techniques in Jiangsu Province, teach farmers not only to increase yield and quality, but also to challenge conventional practices in pursuit of original ideas in agro-environment protection. For more information, visit home.jaas.ac.cn/.

This research is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.

7th International Cereal Nematodes Symposium at New Delhi, India to combat nematode problems in cereal crops

Uma Rao, Tushar K. Dutta, Vishal S. Somvanshi and Abdelfattah A. Dababat contributed to this story.

Participants of the 7th International Cereal Nematodes Symposium at New Delhi, India, November 3-6, 2019

Fifty delegates from across the globe recently gathered at the 7th International Cereal Nematode Symposium in New Delhi, India to discuss the spread of cereal nematodes, strategies to lessen their impact on crops and ways to boost international collaboration on research.

Nematodes, microscopic plant parasites that include the Heterodera species of cereal cyst nematode and the Pratylenchus species of root lesion nematodes, are widespread in wheat production systems throughout West Asia, North Africa, parts of Central Asia, northern India, and China, and pose a grave economic problem for wheat production systems globally.

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the Turkish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry have been working over the last 12 years —  in collaboration with the International Center for Agriculture in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), national program partners, and research institutions in Australia and Europe – to understand the importance and distribution of these species of cereal nematodes, as part of the ICARDA-CIMMYT Wheat Improvement Program (ICWIP).  

“Because cereals are the staple food for the majority of the world’s population, cereal nematodes pose an enormous threat to global food security,” said Abdelfattah Dababat, leader of CIMMYT’s Soil Borne Pathogens Program.

“The symposium allows scientists from around the world to share their findings, lessons and strategies to combat this threat.”

The symposium, organized by ICWIP and hosted by the Division of Nematology at the ICAR- Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), was held November 3-6 at New Delhi’s National Agricultural Science Complex. The conference was inaugurated by Dr. Trilochan Mohapatra, Director General of ICAR & Secretary DARE, Government of India. It included sessions on the global status and distribution of cereal nematodes, their economic importance and population dynamics, management strategies both with and without using host resistance, the genomes and parasitism genes of cereal nematodes, and the use of molecular tools for cereal nematode research.

Among the notable global developments shared, highlights included the following.

  • Scientists from Turkey, Syria, Iran and Israel described the distribution and management status of Heterodera spp. in their region.
  • Hendrika Fourie from South Africa’s North West University, and colleagues, discussed the nematode problems in South Africa.
  • Rebecca Zwart and Senior Research Scientist Grant Hollaway, from the University of Southern Queensland, Australia, presented findings on the Pratylenchus menace in wheat in Australia.
  • Uma Rao, a co-organizer of the symposium from IARI, and colleagues, discussed the deployment of molecular tools to manage the problem of the Meloidogyne graminicola nematode in rice-wheat cropping systems.   
  • Richard Sikora, from the University of Bonn, Germany, summarized the current challenges in nematology, especially pertaining to wheat and maize, and reiterated the need for new technologies and management approaches for the small- and medium-sized farms of the future. He also highlighted the role of remote sensing in detecting nematode diseases.
  • A.K. Singh, Joint Director of Research at IARI gave a formal presentation on molecular breeding of Basmati rice.

Trilochan Mohapatra, Director General of ICAR & Secretary Dare, and Arun K. Joshi from CIMMYT’s India office were among the other distinguished speakers. 

Following the symposium, participants observed nematode-related research work underway at IARI’s Division of Nematology, the largest nematology center in India. They also visited the IARI museum and the institute’s Division of Entomology.

Symposium supporters include CIMMYT, the CGIAR Research Program On Wheat, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA), the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), the Republic of Turkey’s Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock, Corteva, Syngenta, and the Plant Breeders Union of Turkey (BISAB). Previous symposiums have been held in Turkey, Austria, China and Morocco.

Release of the Abstract book during 7th International Cereal Nematodes Symposium at New Delhi, India, November 3-6, 2019

Experts gather in Turkey to share findings on the diversity and health benefits of wheat

Highlights from the International Conference on Wheat Diversity and Human Health which took place in Istanbul this week

Durum wheat spikes, Ciudad Obregon, Mexico. Photo credit: CIMMYT/Alfonso Cortés

Istanbul hosted a milestone conference this week convening experts from the region and the globe to examine the link between wheat and human health.  Although wheat is the second most popular food crop in the world, and a vital source of food and nutrition for humans dating from the earliest days of agriculture, its reputation as a health food has taken a hit in western popular culture in recent times.

The International Conference on Wheat Diversity and Human Health, makes a strong, scientifically supported case for a range of health benefits from wheat and its countless varieties, relatives and the foods made from them.

Beyond the well-publicized benefits of consuming fiber from whole grain wheat products – including lower risk of coronary disease, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and colon cancer – scientists at the conference affirmed that wheat also contains compounds such as phenolics, flavonoids and carotenoids that:

  • have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties,
  • control obesity,
  • reduce the risk of cancer and chronic diseases,
  • have a beneficial effect on the working memory,
  • can prevent neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases,
  • can delay aging and
  • can prevent Vitamin A deficiency, among many other attributes.


As remarkable as these benefits may be, wheat’s potential for improving nutrition and health worldwide is even greater.   

A number of wheat scientists from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) presented evidence this week on new paths to further increase and promote these traits in wheat.

Velu Govindan speaking about his research on biofortification at this week’s conference. Photo credit: Fatih Özdemir
  • CIMMYT senior scientist and wheat breeder Velu Govindan explained the progress and potential of breeding wheat with enhanced levels of grain zinc and iron as a cost-effective, sustainable solution to malnutrition.   To date, more than 12 biofortified high zinc wheat varieties have been released, reaching close to 1 million households in target countries such as India and Pakistan. With the help of advanced genomics and speed breeding these varieties have the potential to become the standard for farmers, particularly in developing countries.
  • CIMMYT cropping systems agronomist ML Jat and his co-authors demonstrated how farming techniques that improve soil health, diversify production and enhance growing environments also increase the nutritional quality of wheat – critical in the face of climate change and higher CO2 concentrations that are projected to reduce the protein content of rice and wheat by almost 8% by 2050.
  • Maria Itria Ibba, head of CIMMYT’s wheat quality lab, shared an idea for helping improve global dietary fiber consumption without radically changing eating habits: develop wheat with increased Arabinoxylans (AX) — fiber components associated with reduced risk of diabetes, cholesterol, cardiovascular disease and colon cancer located in the endosperm, the part of the grain most often used in refined flour. Her preliminary findings suggest that AX content is controlled by a relatively small number of genes, which could be identified through molecular markers to effectively select for this trait in the breeding process.
Maria Itria Ibba speaking about her research on improving dietary fiber consumption. Photo credit: Fatih Özdemir

Protecting and promoting wheat diversity

Many presenters discussed ways to protect and promote wheat’s wide diversity – from modern varieties, traditional landraces, ancient grains, colored wheat and different species – all of which have huge potential to enrich our diet.

  • Alex Morgunov, leader of the International Winter Wheat Improvement Program and a conference organizer, described his research in Afghanistan – where wheat is the life-sustaining food grain and no meal is complete without a slice of wheat bread — to protect, improve, and distribute its rare and numerous valuable wheat landraces. These ancient varieties bring diversity, distinct baking characteristics and nutrition from farmer fields to bakeries and to research stations, where they are employed in breeding efforts to capture their unique desirable traits.

As Tom Payne, head of CIMMYT’s Wheat Germplasm Collections pointed out, diversity is a crucial element to health, and genebanks such as CIMMYT’s safeguard some of the largest and most widely used collections of crop diversity in the world, critical to ending hunger and improving food and nutrition security.

Hans-Joachim Braun, director of CIMMYT’s global wheat program and co-chair of the event concluded the conference with remarks on future perspectives for wheat diversity and human health. He highlighted how 830 million people in the world – 11% of the population- still do not have enough to eat.

Hans Braun gives his concluding remarks. Photo credit: Fatih Özdemir

The International Conference on Wheat Diversity and Human Health took place from Oct 22 – 24 in Istanbul, Turkey.

Global group of journalists find wheat research, comradery in Canada

WHEAT media sponsorship connects scientists and reporters at international wheat conference

by Marcia MacNeil

WHEAT Sponsored journalists with farmer Merle Rugg, Elstow, Saskatchewan. Photo: Amit Bhattacharya

A diverse group of agriculture, food security, environment and science journalists gathered in Saskatoon, Canada recently for an intensive course in innovative wheat research, interviews with top international scientists and networking with peers.

The occasion was the International Wheat Congress (IWC), which convened more than 900 wheat scientists and researchers in Saskatoon, in Canada’s biggest wheat-growing province, Saskatchewan, to discuss their latest work to boost wheat productivity, resilience and nutrition.

The seven journalists were part of a group of 11 who won a competitive sponsorship offered by the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT).  Seven journalists attended the conference, while another four followed the proceedings and activities from home.  The 10-day immersive training included multiple daily press briefings with top scientists in climate change modeling and resilience testing, innovative breeding techniques, analysis and protection of wheat diversity and many more topics, on top of a full schedule of scientific presentations. 

“The scientists were so eager to talk to us, and patient with our many questions,” said Nkechi Isaac from the Leadership newspaper group in Nigeria. “Even the director general of CIMMYT spoke with us for almost an hour.”

“It was a pleasant surprise for me.”

Martin Kropff, director general of CIMMYT, and Hans Braun, director of the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat, speak to the sponsored journalists. Photo: Marcia MacNeil/CIMMYT

The journalists, who come from regions as diverse as sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia,  offered support and encouragement from their travel preparations though their time in Saskatoon and beyond – sharing story ideas, interview and site visit opportunities, news clips and photos through a What’sApp group.

 “It is really helpful to be connected to colleagues around the world,” said Amit Bhattacharya of the Times of India. “I know we will continue to be a resource and network for each other through our careers.”

Linda McCandless of Cornell University and David Hodson of CIMMYT were among panelists sharing tips on wheat news coverage at the IWC journalist round table. Photo: Matt Hayes/Cornell

The week wasn’t all interviews and note-taking. The journalists were able to experience Saskatchewan culture, from a tour of a wheat quality lab and a First Nations dance performance to a visit to a local wheat farm, and even an opportunity to see Saskatoon’s newest modern art gallery.

The media sponsorship at IWC aimed to encourage informed coverage of the importance of wheat research, especially for farmers and consumers in the Global South, where wheat is the main source of protein and a critical source of life for 2.5 billion people who live on less than $2 a day.

The group also spoke with members of the many coalitions that facilitate the collaboration that makes innovative wheat research possible, including the International Wheat Yield Partnership, the Heat and Drought Wheat Improvement Consortium and the G20-organized Wheat Initiative.

“This is the first time we’ve invested this heavily in journalist training,” said WHEAT program director Hans Braun. “We think the benefits – for the journalists, who gained a greater understanding of wheat research issues, and for developing country audiences, who will be more aware of the importance of improving wheat –– are worth it.”

Tom Payne from CIMMYT and Maricelis Acevedo from Cornell University discuss conserving wheat diversity. Photo: Marcia MacNeil/CIMMYT

A roundtable discussion with peers from Canadian news organizations and seasoned science communications professionals and a networking breakfast with CIMMYT scientists provided platforms for a candid exchange on the challenges and opportunities in communicating wheat science in the media.

A common refrain was the importance of building relationships between scientists and media professionals – because wheat science offers dramatic stories for news audiences, and an informed and interested public can in turn lead to greater public investment in wheat science.  The journalists and scientists in Saskatoon have laid a solid foundation for these relationships.

Lominda Afedraru from Uganda’s Daily Monitor shares her experience covering science with participants at the journalist round table. Photo: Marcia MacNeil/CIMMYT

The sponsored journalists are:

Amit Bhattacharya: Senior Editor at The Times of India, New Delhi, and a member of the team that produces the front page of India’s largest English daily. He writes on Indian agriculture, climate change, the monsoon, weather, wildlife and science. A 26-year professional journalist in India, he is a Jefferson Fellow on climate change at the East-West Center, Hawaii.

Emmanuelle Landais: Freelance journalist based in Dakar, Senegal, currently reporting for Deutsche Welle’s radio service in English and French on the environment, technology, development and youth in Africa. A former line producer for France 24 in Paris and senior environment reporter for the daily national English newspaper Gulf News in Dubai, she also reports on current affairs for the Africalink news program, contributes to Radio France International’s (RFI) English service, and serves as news producer for the Dakar-based West Africa Democracy Radio. 

Julien Chongwang: Deputy Editor, SciDev.Net French edition. He is based in Douala, Cameroon, where he has been a journalist since 2002. Formerly the editor of the The Daily Economy, he worked on the French edition of Voice of America and Morocco economic daily LES ECO, and writes for Forbes Africa, the French edition of Forbes in the United States.

Lominda Afedraru: Science correspondent at the Daily Monitor newspaper, Uganda, part of the Nation Media Group.  A journalist since 2004, she also freelances for publications in the United States, UK, Kenya and Nigeria among others and has received fellowships at the World Federation of Science Journalists, Biosciences for Farming in Africa courtesy of University of Cambridge UK and Environmental Journalism Reporting at Sauti University, Tanzania.

Muhammad Amin Ahmed: Senior Correspondent, Daily Dawn in Islamabad, Pakistan. He has been a journalist for more than 40 years. Past experience includes working at the United Nations in New York and Pakistan Press International. He received a UN-21 Award from former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan (2003).

Muhammad Irtaza: Special Correspondent with Pakistan’s English daily The Nation at Multan. A 10-year veteran journalist and an alumnus of the Reuters Foundation, he also worked as a reporter with the Evansville Courier and Press in Indiana, United States. He is an ICFJ-WHO Safety 2018 Fellow (Bangkok), Asia Europe Foundation Fellow (Brussels), and a U.S.-Pakistan Professional Partnership in Journalism Program Fellow (Washington). He teaches mass communications at Bahauddin Zakariya University Multan.

Nkechi Isaac: Deputy Editor, Leadership Friday in Nigeria. She is also the head, Science and Technology Desk of the Leadership Group Limited, publishers of LEADERSHIP newspapers headquartered in Abuja, Nigeria. She is a Fellow of Cornell University’s Alliance for Science.

Reaz Ahmad: Executive Editor of the Dhaka Tribune, Bangladesh’s national English newspaper. A journalist for 30 years, he is a Cochran Fellow of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and an adjunct professor of University of Dhaka (DU) and Independent University, Bangladesh.

Rehab Abdalmohsen: Freelance science journalist based in Cairo, Egypt who has covered science, health and environment for 10 years for such websites as the Arabic version of Scientific American, SciDev.net, and The Niles.

Tan Yihong: Executive Deputy Editor-in-Chief, High-Tech & Commercialization Magazine, China. Since 2008, she has written about science particularly agriculture innovation and wheat science. She has attended several Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) Technical Workshops. In Beijing, she helped organize a BGRI communication workshop and media outreach.

Tony Iyare: Senior Correspondent, Nigerian Democratic Report.  For more than 30 years, he has covered environment, international relations, gender, media and public communication. He has worked as a stringer for The New York Times since 1992, and freelanced for the Paris-based magazine, The African Report and the U.N. Development Programme publication Choices. He was columnist at The Punch and co-authored a book: The 11-Day Siege: Gains and Challenges of Women’s Non-Violent Struggles in Niger Delta.

Journalist Nkechi Isaac from Nigeria tours a Saskatchewan wheat farm. Photo: Julie Mollins

Warmer night temperatures reduce wheat yields in Mexico, scientists say

International gathering highlights cutting edge efforts to improve yields, nutrition, and climate change resilience of a globally vital staple food 

by Julie Mollins

A view from the Norman E. Borlaug Experiment Station, Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, Mexico. Photo: M. Ellis/CIMMYT.

As many regions worldwide baked under some of the most persistent heatwaves on record, scientists at a major conference in Canada shared data on the impact of spiraling temperatures on wheat.

In the Sonora desert in northwestern Mexico, nighttime temperatures varied 4.4 degrees Celsius between 1981 and 2018, research from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) shows. Across the world in Siberia, nighttime temperatures rose 2 degrees Celsius between 1988 and 2015, according to Vladimir Shamanin, a professor at Russia’s Omsk State Agrarian University who conducts research with the Kazakhstan-Siberia Network on Spring Wheat Improvement.

“Although field trials across some of the hottest wheat growing environments worldwide have demonstrated that yield losses are in general associated with an increase in average temperatures, minimum temperatures at night – not maximum daytime temperatures –are actually determining the yield loss,” said Gemma Molero, the wheat physiologist at CIMMYT who conducted the research in Sonora, in collaboration with colleague Ivan Ortiz-Monasterio.

“Of the water taken up by the roots, 95% is lost from leaves via transpiration and from this, an average of 12% of the water is lost during the night. One focus of genetic improvement for yield and water-use efficiency for the plant should be to identify traits for adaptation to higher night temperatures,” Molero said, adding that nocturnal transpiration may lead to reductions of up to 50% of available soil moisture in some regions.

Climate challenge

Saskatchewan farmer Brian Rugg in his wheat fields. Photo: Marcia MacNeil/CIMMYT

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in October that temperatures may become an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer in the next 11 years. A new IPCC analysis on climate change and land use due for release this week, urges a shift toward reducing meat in diets to help reduce agriculture-related emissions from livestock. Diets could be built around coarse grains, pulses, nuts and seeds instead.

Scientists attending the International Wheat Congress in Saskatoon, the city at the heart of Canada’s western wheat growing province of Saskatchewan, agreed that a major challenge is to develop more nutritious wheat varieties that can produce bigger yields in hotter temperatures.

As a staple crop, wheat provides 20% of all human calories consumed worldwide. It is the main source of protein for 2.5 billion people in the Global South. Crop system modeler Senthold Asseng, a professor at the University of Florida and a member of the International Wheat Yield Partnership, was involved in an extensive study  in China, India, France, Russia and the United States, which demonstrated that for each degree Celsius in temperature increase, yields decline by 6%, putting food security at risk.

Wheat yields in South Asia could be cut in half due to chronically high temperatures, Molero said. Research conducted by the University of New South Wales, published in Environmental Research Letters also demonstrates that changes in climate accounted for 20 to 49% of yield fluctuations in various crops, including spring wheat. Hot and cold temperature extremes, drought and heavy precipitation accounted for 18 to 4% of the variations.

CIMMYT wheat physiologist Gemma Molero shares her findings with IWC attendees. Photo: Marcia MacNeil/CIMMYT

At CIMMYT, wheat breeders advocate a comprehensive approach that combines conventional, physiological and molecular breeding techniques, as well as good crop management practices that can ameliorate heat shocks. New breeding technologies are making use of wheat landraces and wild grass relatives to add stress adaptive traits into modern wheat – innovative approaches that have led to new heat tolerant varieties being grown by farmers in warmer regions of Pakistan, for example.

Collaborative effort

Matthew Reynolds, a distinguished scientist at CIMMYT, is joint founder of the Heat and Drought Wheat Improvement Consortium (HeDWIC), a coalition of hundreds of scientists and stakeholders from over 30 countries.

“HeDWIC is a pre-breeding program that aims to deliver genetically diverse advanced lines through use of shared germplasm and other technologies,” Reynolds said in Saskatoon. “It’s a knowledge-sharing and training mechanism, and a platform to deliver proofs of concept related to new technologies for adapting wheat to a range of heat and drought stress profiles.”

Aims include reaching agreement across borders and institutions on the most promising research areas to achieve climate resilience, arranging trait research into a rational framework, facilitating translational research and developing a bioinformatics cyber-infrastructure, he said, adding that attracting multi-year funding for international collaborations remains a challenge.

Nitrogen traits

Another area of climate research at CIMMYT involves the development of an affordable alternative to the use of nitrogen fertilizers to reduce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. In certain plants, a trait known as biological nitrification inhibition (BNI) allows them to suppress the loss of nitrogen from the soil, improving the efficiency of nitrogen uptake and use by themselves and other plants.

Victor Kommerell, program manager for the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat and Tim Searchinger, senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, answer media questions. Photo: Marcia MacNeil/CIMMYT

Scientists with the BNI research consortium, which includes Japan’s International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences (JIRCAS), propose transferring the BNI trait from those plants to critical food and feed crops, such as wheat, sorghum and Brachiaria range grasses.

“Every year, nearly a fifth of the world’s fertilizer is used to grow wheat, yet the crop only uses about 30% of the nitrogen applied, in terms of biomass and harvested grains,” said Victor Kommerell, program manager for the multi-partner CGIAR Research Programs (CRP) on Wheat and Maize led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.

“BNI has the potential to turn wheat into a highly nitrogen-efficient crop: farmers could save money on fertilizers, and nitrous oxide emissions from wheat farming could be reduced by 30%.”

Excluding changes in land use such as deforestation, annual greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture each year are equivalent to 11% of all emissions from human activities. About 70% of nitrogen applied to crops in fertilizers is either washed away or becomes nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to Guntur Subbarao, a principal scientist with JIRCAS.

Although ruminant livestock are responsible for generating roughly half of all agricultural production emissions, BNI offers potential for reducing overall emissions, said Tim Searchinger, senior fellow at the World Resources Institute and technical director of a new report titled “Creating a Sustainable Food Future: A Menu of Solutions to Feed Nearly 10 Billion People by 2050.”

To exploit this roots-based characteristic, breeders would have to breed this trait into plants, said Searchinger, who presented key findings of the report in Saskatoon, adding that governments and research agencies should increase research funding.

CGIAR Research Program on Wheat Director Hans Braun (Photo: Marcia MacNeil/CIMMYT)

Other climate change mitigation efforts must include revitalizing degraded soils, which affect about a quarter of the planet’s cropland, to help boost crop yields. Conservation agriculture techniques involve retaining crop residues on fields instead of burning and clearing. Direct seeding into soil-with-residue and agroforestry also can play a key role.

Wheat expert calls for global unity to avert future hunger crises

Adapted from original blog by Matt Hayes on the website of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI)

Maricelis Acevedo (left), associate director of science for Delivering Genetic Gains in Wheat and Ronnie Coffman (right), international professor of plant breeding and director of International Programs in the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. (Photo: L. McCandless/Cornell) 

A global alliance of countries and research institutions committed to sharing plant genetic material , including the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and Cornell University, has secured food access for billions of people, but a patchwork of legal restrictions threatens humanity’s ability to feed a growing global population.

That jeopardizes decades of hard-won food security gains, according to Ronnie Coffman, international professor of plant breeding and director of International Programs in the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (IP-CALS).

“Global food security depends on the free movement and open sharing of plant genetic resources,” Coffman said July 23 at the International Wheat Congress in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. “Without a strong commitment to scientific exchange in support of global plant breeding efforts, we risk our ability to respond to current food crises and to protect future generations.”

Effective plant breeding programs depend on the exchange of seeds, pathogens, and plant genetic material – known as germplasm – between and among countries. Coordination among plant pathologists and breeders forms a symbiotic partnership as plant and disease specimens collected in countries around the world are sent to research institutions to be analyzed and tested. Those findings in turn inform the breeding of improved, location-specific crop varieties that are resistant to disease and adapted to increasingly unpredictable environmental conditions.

The Convention on Biological Diversity gives countries sovereign rights over their own biological resources. The multilateral treaty, signed in 1993, allows each state to draw up its own regulations. An update known as the Nagoya Protocol, ratified in 2014, has subjected plant breeders and the seed industry to increased legal wrangling. Some countries are particularly draconian in their enforcement, and without a universal legal framework, the uneven standards threaten to undermine scientific exchange, Coffman said.

He argued that current regulations bring international lawyers, accountants and bankers with little to no background in plant breeding onto the playing field of crop improvement to act as referees. The patchwork of laws and norms, which have grown increasingly complicated in recent years, hampers scientific advancement and ultimately harms the farmers who depend on improved crops.

Coffman called for an overhaul of international laws that regulate the sharing of plant genetic resources, and for plant scientists to advocate to protect the unimpeded exchange of material and knowledge.

“It takes an international community of scientists and genetic resources to fight pathogens like stem rust that do not respect international boundaries,” he said. “Stringent regulations and country-specific control are stifling the germplasm exchanges critical to agriculture and horticulture.”

The CGIAR system — and CIMMYT and ICARDA (International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas) in particular — are the conservators of enormous gene banks of germplasm. Those resources have been essential in improving many crops to fight biotic and abiotic stresses.

“Germplasm exchange and information sharing is paramount for global wheat improvement as they are the basis for much of the progress made,” said Hans Braun, director of CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat. “Going forward, we must protect open access and exchange because the value of germplasm resources in national and international gene banks can only be realized when they are shared and used.”

Hunger and malnutrition cause 9 million deaths globally per year, a number that could skyrocket without an international effort to respond in unison. Annual global losses to crops like wheat could be devastating in the absence of germplasm and effective breeding programs.

Since 2008, the Cornell-led Borlaug Global Rust Initiative has spearheaded efforts to combat threats to global wheat production. There are now approximately 215 million hectares of wheat under cultivation worldwide, most of it genetically susceptible to one or more races of newly identified stem rust and yellow rust pathogens. Highly virulent races of rust pathogens can easily reduce yields by 10% or more. The 1953 rust epidemic in North America resulted in average yield losses of 40% across U.S. and Canadian spring wheat growing areas.  

As one part of its efforts to reduce the world’s vulnerability to wheat diseases, the Cornell-led Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) project – funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UK Aid from the British people – collects samples of plant pathogens such as stem rust and yellow rust from 40 countries and analyzes them in biosafety testing labs in Minnesota, Denmark, Canada, Turkey, Ethiopia, Kenya and India.

Exchanging germplasm has allowed the DGGW project to take multiple approaches to achieving long-lasting resilience, from conventional breeding, to marker assisted selection and high-end basic science explorations. DGGW and its forerunner, the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project, have, since 2008, released more than 169 wheat varieties with increased yields and improved disease resistance in 11 at-risk countries, helping to improve smallholder farmers’ food security and livelihoods.

The DGGW relies on exchanges of germplasm and rust samples across international borders, and the project has encountered increased regulation in recent years, said Maricelis Acevedo, associate director of science for the DGGW and adjunct associate professor of plant pathology at Cornell.

“It takes an international community of scientists and genetic resources to fight pathogens like stem rust that know no international boundaries,” Acevedo said. “We must continue to protect — and use — those resources in our quest for global food security.”