Empowering the next generation of wheat breeders

by Emma Orchardson

​In May 2020, two PhD students from India – Rathan ND and Kuldeep Yadav – completed a three-month training program for wheat breeders, which took place at CIMMYT campuses in Mexico.

Both were supervised by Velu Govindan, Itria Ibba and Susanne Dreisigacker, and received financial support from the World Bank-funded NAHEP-CAAST Fellowship Program, which supports training programs outside of India.

“This is a great opportunity for young PhD students,” says Govindan. “There are new advances in wheat breeding, especially in terms of modern genomics tools and technologies, but the crop breeder should be empowered with scientific acumen to decide which tools to use and integrate in their crop improvement program to accelerate development and delivery of climate-resilient nutritious crops.”

The training program – Application of classical breeding and molecular tools for improving wheat quality and yield determining traits – helps to collate and adopt modern-day tools such as genomics and high-throughput phenotyping methods to accelerate the rate of genetic gains and address the issue of food and nutrition security. During their placement the students were exposed to both field-based breeding at CIMMYT’s Obregon site and wheat quality and molecular breeding at the main campus at El Batán.

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Rathan is completing a PhD in Genetics and Plant Breeding at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in New Delhi and hopes to work in the Indian Agricultural Research Service or a CGIAR Center following his degree.

The highlight of his time at CIMMYT was being able to carry out fieldwork in Obregon, where he particularly enjoyed working on individual plant selection. “I also really enjoyed interacting with scientists and technicians who are very knowledgeable, helpful and friendly. The working environment and research facilities at CIMMYT helped me to learn research methodologies without any stress or difficulties.”

The only major challenge he faced was returning home at the end of his placement. “My stay was scheduled for three months but because of the COVID-19 situation I ended up staying for four and a half months. Fortunately, I got a special flight to Mumbai and reached home safely,” he explains. “CIMMYT’s support for my whole journey from the date I started my training program till sending me back is highly appreciable and I am very thankful to CIMMYT and my research advisors.”

Combating wheat blast in Bangladesh and beyond

Researchers trained as part of global response to the threat of wheat blast.

The Bangladesh Wheat and Maize Research Institute (BWMRI), in collaboration with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), recently trained 25 scientists from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Zambia and Afghanistan on germplasm screening and field surveillance of wheat blast.

The training course took place on March 1-10 at Bangladesh’s Regional Agricultural Research Station in Jashore.

Wheat blast, a fearsome fungal disease first reported in Bangladesh in 2016, is a huge threat to food safety and security in South America and South Asia. Directly striking the wheat spike, wheat blast can shrivel and deform the grain in less than a week from the first symptoms, leaving farmers no time to act.

To mitigate the threat of wheat blast, a Precision Phenotyping Platform (PPP) was established in Jashore in 2018 to screen wheat germplasm for the disease. The platform has been a reliable source of screening for wheat lines around the world and has proven a great success towards taming the wheat blast disease. Currently around 5,000 wheat lines from Bangladesh, China, India, Japan, Mexico, Nepal and Pakistan, are being tested under natural and artificial inoculated conditions.

Participants of the training course gained hands-on experience in disease scoring and evaluation at the facility. Field visits were also arranged to nearby wheat blast hotspots, including wheat blast affected fields in Meherpur, to see how resistant and susceptible cultivars perform under natural epidemic conditions.

“Bangladesh is our neighboring country and wheat blast is a very concerning issue for us. I am very lucky that I have been nominated for this training. Now I am very clear about wheat blast symptoms as well as other confounding diseases in the field,” said Dr. Deepshikha, a wheat pathologist from Govind Ballabh Pant University of Agriculture and Technology (GBPUA&T), Pantnagar, India during the field visit in Meherpur.

Participants also visited Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Agricultural University (BSMRAU), in Gazipur where Dr. Tofazzal Islam, Department of Biotechnology Professor, is leading independent wheat blast research activities including mutation breeding and the use of nano technology and probiotic bacteria in controlling wheat blast.

Since day one, the Government of Bangladesh has been very proactive in combatting wheat blast. Government initiatives include declaring “wheat holidays”—or temporarily banning cultivation in target areas — building awareness, collaborating with international donors and research organizations, and fast tracking the release of resistant varieties.

Despite the progress made in wheat blast monitoring research, scientists are still struggling to figure out the right epidemiological criteria for managing this disease. While disease pressure in Bangladesh has been low in the last three years, wheat blast has been observed in newer districts, signifying the expansion of the pathogen in the country.

Participants at this year’s wheat blast training course. Photo: Md. Babul Anwar, BWMRI

The knowledge gained in the training course will allow participants to refine blast research in their respective countries. They will also be able to raise awareness back home concerning the threat of blast and alert farmers based on the experience Bangladesh has adopted in the last four years. 

The training was made possible by support from investors including the Australian Centre for International Agriculture Research (ACIAR), the CGIAR Research Program on WHEAT (CRP WHEAT), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), Krishi Gobeshona Foundation (KGF), the Swedish Research Council (SRC) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Q&A with Fatima Camarillo Castillo, CIMMYT Global Wheat Program Training Coordinator

This story by Janet Lewis was originally posted on the website of the Borlaug Training Foundation.

On February 3rd of 2020, the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT) launched its annual Basic Wheat Improvement Course (BWIC).  The Borlaug Training Foundation’s Janet Lewis had a chat with Fatima Camarillo Castillo, CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program Training Coordinator, to discuss the course and her role as coordinator.

2020 CIMMYT BWIC Trainee Group.
The 2020 CIMMYT BWIC Trainee Group at CIMMYT headquarters. Photo: CIMMYT

Janet Lewis: “Can you give our audience a brief description of the Basic Wheat Improvement Course?”

Fatima Camarillo Castillo: “The wheat improvement courses at CIMMYT are short-term programs designed to train breeders working on national agricultural programs from countries where wheat is a major staple crop. During the basic training program, we provide participants an overview of the breeding pipeline and review breeding methodologies utilized in the Global Wheat Program for developing superior wheat germplasm. We also review core concepts on support disciplines for breeding such as genetics, statistics, plant pathology, and physiology. A set of practical and hands-on exercises follow where trainees collaborate directly with scientists and technicians on breeding activities of the program.”

A group of 2019 Basic Wheat Improvement Course trainees in the field.
Photo: F. Caramillo Castillo/CIMMYT

JL: “What is your main role as the Training Coordinator?”

FCC: “I organize the content of the programs and communicate with the scientists to conduct the course. I also contribute to the training by lecturing on basic statistics, programming and genetics. During the training course, participants submit reports and prepare an oral and poster presentation. I support them by providing feedback on these activities. With the assistance of the training team, we also facilitate all the accommodations and arrangements for the participant’s trips and lodging in Mexico.”

JL: “What sparked your interest in being the training coordinator at CIMMYT?”

FCC: “As an alumnus, I personally understand the value of being part of this course. My goal as the current coordinator is to contribute to ensuring food security worldwide through training and capacity building on wheat research!”

A group of 2019 trainees pose in front of the statue of Norman Borlaug at CIMMYT’s Centro Experimental Norman E. Borlaug in Ciudad Obregon, Sonora.
Photo: F. Caramillo Castillo/CIMMYT

JL: “2019 was your first year as the training coordinator. What experiences captivated you the most from 2019?”

FCC: “My greatest experience last year was that, as a coordinator, you do not expect to learn. The class of 2019 was a wonderful group of bright researchers that challenged me to keep working to become a better teacher and scientist. Some of them already excel in specific disciplines, so they provide me invaluable support to cover the academic content of the program.”

2019 CIMMYT BWIC Trainee Group in the field.
2019 CIMMYT BWIC Trainee Group in the field. Photo: F. Caramillo Castillo/CIMMYT

JL: “The 2020 class started on February 4th. Do you have any special expectations this year? The Women in Triticum group is participating this year, yes?”

FCC: “We will spend a couple of weeks at the CIMMYT research station at El Batan and move to Ciudad, Obregón to complete the training. We hope that trainees will interact with current scientists already established in Obregón. In the past, trainees were assigned to specific research groups in the middle of the course, but this year trainees will be integrated into the breeding activities starting the first day of their arrival in Obregon! We expect this will expose and familiarize the trainees with the breeding pipeline on a larger scale.

This year we will also have the recipients of the Women in Triticum Early Career Award. All our young scientists that have dedicated their scientific career to wheat research from Ethiopia, Uruguay, Germany, India, China, Mexico, and Pakistan.”


If you’d like to learn more about the Basic Wheat Improvement Course or any programs offered at CIMMYT, you can find them at https://www.cimmyt.org/events/

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.”


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

by Jerome Bossuet

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

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

Hands-on skills for efficient breeding and disease control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the breeder’s equation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fellowship for women agricultural researchers in MENA sets future leaders on the path to success

The first cohort of Fellows in the Arab Women Leaders in Agriculture fellowship program.

In May of this year, 22 women from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region won a competitive fellowship in agricultural research, sponsored by the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) and the  CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT).

 The Arab Women Leaders in Agriculture (Awla) fellowship program, the first of its kind, is designed to develop a cadre of aspiring Arab women researchers who are equipped with the knowledge and skills to make a positive difference in agriculture sustainability, in their countries in particular and the Arab region as a whole.

The cornerstones of the Awla fellowship are team-based capstone projects designed to put the skills, tools and knowledge gained during the program to practical use. Diverse teams of Fellows from varying nationalities and backgrounds are expected to produce a solution to a key challenge to women in agriculture, guided by the mentors, the Awla Steering Committee and selected stakeholders nominated by the Fellows. Fellows can choose from a variety of interdisciplinary topics as well as agriculture specific, as long as their topic of choice has a convincing value proposition. At the end of the fellowship program, the teams will present their capstone projects to relevant stakeholders to seek funding.

The first cohort of Awla Fellows — which includes researchers from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia – met from June 30 to July 7 in Tunisia for an introductory workshop to kick off their 10-month fellowship. WHEAT is funding two students in this cohort.

The Awla Fellows are a highly successful group of agricultural engineers, professors, wheat breeders and working researchers in agronomy, biotechnology, soil sciences and other technical agricultural fields.  The orientation workshop gave them the opportunity to get to know each other and their selected mentors, participate in trainings designed to build their leadership and project management capacity, and gain an understanding of the online coursework and assignments that will make up their training.

Leadership and guidance
The workshop began with 6 days of training in positive psychology applications in leadership – a course that covered how to integrate concepts of resilience, creativity, finding meaning and purpose and more into both their interpersonal relationships and their organization management.

Next came a 3-day course to introduce the concepts of design thinking, a process for creative problem solving that encourages organizations to focus on the human needs of the people for whom they are creating. The Awla Fellows were encouraged to use these concepts to brainstorm notes for their team-based capstone projects, which involved addressing a key challenge faced by women in agriculture.

Mentorships
An important objective of the Tunisia workshop was to clarify roles and set expectations for the Fellows’ relationships with their mentors. Awla mentors, nearly all of whom joined their mentees in Tunisia, ranged from laboratory directors, lead professors, and government officials.  A 2-day mentoring orientation helped to establish the semi-structured mentoring relationship, whereby mentors will share their knowledge, skills and experience with the Fellows to help their development during the course of the Awla program and beyond.

Coursework
The Awla Fellowship consists of a series of online courses ranging from project planning to science writing, research methods and data management. Awla administrators ensured each Fellow had full access to the customized set of courses.  Senior Fellows who complete the Awla program will have access to more than 3000 other courses across domains.

Support
Throughout the program, Awla administrators will continue to support the Fellows both virtually, by following up their on-line courses and capstone projects and seeking funding for conference participation, and in person during an upcoming workshop in Tunis from October 28 to November 4, 2019.  A final closing workshop, hosted by the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture in the United Arab Emirates, will take place in February 2020.  The Awla funders will then plan another cycle of the program, with a new cohort of Fellows.

The MENA region faces critical and urgent agricultural challenges related to improved food security and nutrition, a better research and development landscape, and economic and social benefits of a narrowed gender gap that will require both innovative and inclusive solutions.  With this strong foundation, the Awla Fellows are poised to become leaders that can take on these challenges.

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The Arab Women Leaders in Agriculture fellowship is hosted by the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) Group and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat

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

Reigning in the blast epidemic

Dr. J.M.C. Fernandes from Brazil explaining the working of spore trap to trainees

To build resilience against the threat of wheat blast, training sessions were held in Bangladesh to increase the reach of research findings and possible solutions as well as to educate the stakeholders involved. Since 2017, hands-on training on disease screening and surveillance of wheat blast have been organized every year in Bangladesh, with participation of national and international scientists. The third of its kind was jointly organized by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Wheat and Maize Research Institute (BWMRI), and the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) Bangladesh during 19-28 February, 2019 at Regional Agricultural Research Station, Jashore with financial support from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the Krishi Gobeshona Foundation (KGF) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The objective of the training was to learn the basic techniques of pathogen identification and its culturing, field inoculation and disease scoring and share experiences regarding combating the disease and its progress among the participants from home and abroad. Thirty five wheat scientists from China, India and Nepal as well as from BWMRI, DAE and CIMMYT in Bangladesh participated in the training.

The training was inaugurated by Kamala Ranjan Das, Additional Secretary (Research), Ministry of Agriculture, Bangladesh. The Director General of BWMRI, Dr. Naresh C. D. Barma was the Chair and Dr. T. P. Tiwari, Country Representative, CIMMYT Bangladesh and Additional Director of Jashore region of DAE were the special guests in the inaugural session. In addition to Bangladeshi experts, Dr. José Maurício C. Fernandes from Brazil, Dr. Pawan K. Singh from CIMMYT, Mexico and Dr. Timothy J. Krupnik from CIMMYT, Bangladesh presented the updates on the techniques for mitigating the disease. Dr. M. Akhteruzzaman, Deputy Director of DAE, Meherpur, who has been working very closely with wheat blast research and extension, spoke on the history and present status of wheat blast in Bangladesh. It was a unique opportunity for the trainees to listen from grass root level experience based on the real situation in the farmers’ fields.

Group photo of trainees at the precision phenotypic platform (PPP) for wheat blast at Regional Agricultural Research Station, Jashore, Bangladesh.

Wheat is especially susceptible to blast infection during warm and humid weather conditions. While the fungus infects all above ground parts of the crop, infection in spikes is most critical and responsible for yield loss. Hence, to determine whether blast is endemic to the specific region and also to assess the epidemic potential in unaffected regions, Dr. Fernandes developed a wheat blast forecasting model with support from CIMMYT Bangladesh. To collect data on the presence of wheat blast spores in the air, CIMMYT, in collaboration with BWMRI, installed four spore traps in four different wheat fields in Meherpur, Faridpur, Rajshahi and Dinajpur districts of Bangladesh. The results from these spore traps and weather parameters will help validate the wheat blast forecasting model. After final validation, the recommendation message will be sent to farmers and DAE personnel through mobile app. This will help farmers decide the perfect time for spraying fungicide to control blast effectively.

During the training participants received the hands-on experience of activities in the precision phenotypic platform (PPP) for wheat blast, where 4500 germplasm from different countries of the world and CIMMYT Mexico are being tested under artificial inoculated conditions. To keep the environment sufficiently humid, the trial is kept under mist irrigation to facilitate proper disease development. Trainees learned identification of leaf and spike symptoms of wheat blast, identification and isolation of conidia under microscope, inoculum preparation, tagging selected plants in the fields for inoculation, field inoculation of germplasms being tested at the PPP and more.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), wheat consumption in Bangladesh is 7.7 million tons as of 2018 while only 1.25 million tons are supplied domestically. Since the majority of wheat is imported, it will adversely affect the economy if the comparatively smaller amount the country produces decreases due to blast. So the impact of wheat blast is not limited to food production but affects the economy as a whole, and steps to help mitigate the disease are crucial in ensuring healthy growth of wheat yield.

Wheat blast, caused by Magnaporthe oryzae pathotype Triticum (MoT), was first discovered in Brazil in 1985 and then surprisingly appeared in the wheat fields of Bangladesh in 2016, causing 25-30% yield loss in 15,000 ha. As an immediate response to this crisis, CIMMYT and the government of Bangladesh have worked together to mitigate the disease, most notably by distributing factsheets to farmers, conducting routine follow-ups followed by the development and rapid release of blast resistant wheat variety BARI Gom 33 and tolerant varieties (BARI Gom 30 and 32) and strengthening research on blast.


Arab Women Leaders in Agriculture (Awla) fellowship program opens call for applications

This press release was originally posted on the website of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA). The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat is a program sponsor.

  • Awla fellowship program aims to help women researchers in agriculture secure leadership roles by encouraging gender-responsive working cultures and creating platforms that showcase their intellect, capability and contribution.
  • Applications can be made through www.awlafellowships.org and close on 15th April 2019.
Photo Credit: International Center for Biosaline Agriculture

Dubai, UAE, March 7, 2019 – On the eve of International Women’s Day, the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) and CGIAR Research Program on Wheat launched a call for applications for the first edition of the Arab Women Leaders in Agriculture (Awla) fellowship program for women researchers in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

The Awla fellowship program aims to help women researchers in agriculture to secure leadership roles by encouraging gender-responsive working cultures and creating platforms to showcase their intellect, capability and contribution. Awla’s first cohort will help establish the first R&D forum in the MENA to address pressing regional agricultural challenges and take part in the region’s first networking platform for women researchers across agricultural disciplines.

The call for applications will lead to the selection of a group of 20 to 30 researchers from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine and Tunisia. The program will be delivered from two regional hubs – Jordan and Tunisia – over a 10-month period, starting from 1st June 2019.

Dr. Ismahane Elouafi, Director General of ICBA, said: “Women-led contributions to agriculture, both on the farm and in the lab, are essential components of global food security. And our program is designed to address structural causes of gender inequality and encourage women to take an active role in future scientific developments and innovation. Tapping women’s knowledge and potential today will set the world on course for a more sustainable and food-secure future.”

H.E. Dr. Bandar Hajjar, President of the IsDB, said: “We are delighted to be partnering in launching this new program, which is a solid step in making sure no one is left behind. At the IsDB, we are focused on putting in place the next steps to help achieve gender parity and the Awla fellowship program is a welcome addition to the number of high-profile projects we have launched and designed to promote women and women’s empowerment, along with our IsDB Prize for Women’s Contribution to Development”.

Mr. Hassan Damluji, Deputy Director – Global Policy & Advocacy and Head of Middle East Relations at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said: “This year’s call to action for International Women’s Day is to build a gender-balanced world – and that’s precisely what Awla aims to do for regional agricultural research and development. By providing female researchers with the resources needed to build their skills and networks and a platform to be heard, the program aims to address the gender gap in agricultural R&D and create a more balanced playing field for women and men. This will improve the quality and impact of agricultural research in MENA overall, resulting in more solutions to the region’s most pressing challenges.

“We’re delighted to partner with ICBA and the IsDB on a fellowship program that will produce a wave of skilled, empowered and well-connected female researchers. This first cohort will play a key role in the success and sustainability of the program, and we encourage all candidates from across the focus countries to apply.”  

Mr. Victor Kommerell, Program Manager for the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat, remarked: “We are excited to work together with Awla. We have the same interest – building female science power in the MENA region. Naturally, WHEAT’s focus is on social or natural sciences research connected to wheat-based systems. Awla is the larger program and WHEAT can fit right in. Together, we can build critical mass in a few years’ time.”

Empirical evidence indicates that a disproportionately low number of women work in senior research and leadership positions in the region. The average share of women researchers across the region stands at 17% – the lowest in the world. This gap is most visible in the staffing of agricultural research and extension organizations, despite women making up more than 40% of the labor force in the sector. This means that policy and investment measures in agriculture might not be as effective as they could be because they do not fully reflect gender perspectives.

ICBA developed Awla in 2016 with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the IsDB. The program aims to contribute to the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on gender equality and women’s empowerment by building and enhancing the capacities of a new generation of Arab women researchers and leaders. By doing so, Awla aspires to have a positive impact on the SDGs on Climate Action; Life on Land; and Partnerships for the Goals.

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About ICBA
The International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) is a unique applied agricultural research center in the world with a focus on marginal areas where an estimated 1.7 billion people live. It identifies, tests and introduces resource-efficient, climate-smart crops and technologies that are best suited to different regions affected by salinity, water scarcity and drought. Through its work, ICBA helps to improve food security and livelihoods for some of the poorest rural communities around the world.
www.biosaline.org

About the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Guided by the belief that every life has equal value, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy and productive lives. Through collaboration and partnership, the foundation helps fund research and programs to benefit those living in poverty all around the globe. The foundation works with partners in the Middle East to address the needs of the most vulnerable people through investments in disease eradication, emergency relief and agricultural research, as well as providing support to the philanthropic and development aid sectors.
https://www.gatesfoundation.org/

About IsDB
The Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) Group is one of the world’s largest multilateral development banks that has been working for over 40 years to improve the lives of the communities that it serves by delivering impact at scale.
The Bank brings together 57-member countries across four continents touching the lives of 1 in every 5 of the world’s population.
Rated AAA by the three major rating agencies of the world, the IsDB Mission is to equip people to drive their own economic and social progress at scale, putting the infrastructure in place to enable them to fulfil their potential.
The IsDB builds collaborative partnerships among communities and nations, and work towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by harnessing the power of science, technology and innovation and fostering ethical and sustainable solutions to the world’s greatest development challenges.
Over the years, the Islamic Development Bank has evolved from a single entity into a group (IsDB Group) comprising five entities: Islamic Development Bank (IsDB), the Islamic Research and Training Institute (IRTI), the Islamic Corporation for the Development of the Private Sector (ICD), the Islamic Corporation for the Insurance of Investment and Export Credit (ICIEC), and the International Islamic Trade Finance Corporation (ITFC).
www.isdb.org

About CGIAR Research Program on Wheat
Joining advanced science with field-level research and extension in lower- and middle-income countries, the
Agri-Food Systems CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) works with public and private organizations worldwide to raise the productivity, production and affordable availability of wheat for 2.5 billion resource-poor producers and consumers who depend on the crop as a staple food. 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 for WHEAT comes from CGIAR and national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies, in particular the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). www.wheat.org

Press enquiries:
ICBA
Mr. Showkat Nabi Rather, ICBA, Dubai, UAE: s.rather@biosaline.org.ae, or +971 55 137 8653

IsDB
Mr. Muhammad Jameel Yusha’U, IsDB, Jeddah, KSA: myushau@isdb.org, or +966126466421


Applications now open for journalist training at International Wheat Congress

Aerial photo of Saskatoon. Photo credit: IWC

The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) is sponsoring 10 journalists based in developing countries — with travel, registration and accommodation— to attend the International Wheat Congress, the premiere international gathering of scientists working on wheat research, taking place July 21-26, 2019 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

The 10 journalists will be selected based on the following criteria:

  • writing experience and skills
  • interest in the topic
  • established media credentials
  • recommendation by the editor of a publication for which they have written
  • plans to publish future articles on wheat research.

Selected journalists will travel to Saskatchewan to attend the conference proceedings and participate in exclusive training, mentoring and networking activities aimed at building working relationships between journalists and researchers in developing countries, and facilitating greater awareness and enhanced media coverage of wheat science, agricultural innovations and food security.

Journalists will have the opportunity to learn about cutting-edge scientific projects and achievements in wheat, and to network and learn from communicators, researchers and fellow journalists working on the topic of food security. 

Wheat provides 20 percent of the calories and protein people consume globally, and livelihoods for an estimated 80 million farmers in the developing world. Demand for wheat is growing rapidly — by 2050 it is predicted to increase by 70 percent – while crop production is challenged by pests, diseases and climate change-related heat and drought.  

Wheat scientists are working on cutting-edge solutions to build farmers’ resilience to these challenges, including developing disease-resistant, nutritious and climate-resilient wheat varieties, sharing sustainable farming practices and conserving biodiversity.

The media play an important role in raising awareness of the challenges facing farmers — and the importance of research that helps them. 

The International Wheat Congress will bring an expected 1000 attendees to participate in sessions with more than 100 speakers from the wheat research community, covering issues from wheat growing areas throughout the world. Topics will include wheat diversity and genetic resources; genomics; breeding, physiology and technologies; environmental sustainability and management of production systems; resistance to stresses; and nutrition, safety and health.

Applications should be submitted online through this online form by Friday, March 22, 2019 (deadline extended.)

https://cimmyt.formstack.com/forms/iwc_journalist_application_form

For any questions or issues, contact wheatcrp@cgiar.org.

Joining advanced science with field-level research and extension in lower- and middle-income countries, the Agri-Food Systems CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) works with public and private organizations worldwide to raise the productivity, production and affordable availability of wheat for 2.5 billion resource-poor producers and consumers who depend on the crop as a staple food.  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 for WHEAT comes from CGIAR and national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies, in particular the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR),  the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). www.wheat.org