Discovering the value of “lost” wheat landraces

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Efforts to preserve wheat biodiversity help crops, farmers and consumers

For more than 8000 years in an area that now includes Turkey and Afghanistan hundreds of local varieties — or landraces— evolved to be uniquely adapted to their environment and ideally suited for local production and consumption.  Over the years, for economic reasons, many farmers have adopted higher-yielding modern varieties, with only small subsistence farmers in remote areas still growing ancient landraces.  In Turkey, for example, a 2009 study showed the share of local landraces was under 1 percent of the total wheat production area.

Finding, identifying and conserving these local varieties not only safeguards the great biodiversity of wheat in the world, but also helps state of the art efforts to develop resistance to pests and disease, tolerance to environmental stresses and more nutritious wheat.

A selection of ancient wheat landraces found in Turkey. Photo: FAO

In a 5-year project supported by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture Benefit-Sharing Fund, wheat researchers from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), such as winter wheat breeder and head of the Turkey-based International Winter Wheat Improvement Program Alex Morgunov, combed the countryside of Turkey for ancient wheat varieties.  Between 2009 and 2014 they identified around 162 local landraces in Turkey alone. 

Now a new project, Wheat Landraces, supported by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture,  has expanded to more countries in this region, where wheat plays an important role in food security and landraces continue to be cultivated.  Researchers from CIMMYT and Turkey’s Bahri Dagdas International Agricultural Research Institute are selecting the most promising wheat landraces collected from farmers in those remote regions and using them to develop new, more resilient wheat germplasm for breeding and research.

To complete the cycle, they plan to distribute the seeds of these improved landraces to farming communities in the target provinces and offer training on sustainably cultivating their unique landraces to maintain biodiversity in their fields.  

“These landraces are very important to small farmers in remote mountainous regions,” said Morgunov.  “And they are rich source of genetic traits to fight future threats to wheat production.”

“We are honored to help farmers keep these varieties alive in their fields.”

Transporting harvested local wheat landraces in Turkey. Photo: Alex Morgunov, CIMMYT

Diversity is beneficial for not only wheat health, but human health as well. A conference this fall in Istanbul will bring wheat researchers and the health community together to share progress and discuss strategies for improving the health benefits of wheat using diverse genetic resources.


The Wheat Landraces project is led by CIMMYT and supported by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture Benefit-Sharing Fund.  

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