Posts Tagged ‘CGIAR Research Program on Wheat’

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A “track record of delivering local solutions with a global perspective:” Review confirms impact and importance of WHEAT research

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Wheat trainees and CIMMYT staff examine wheat plants in the field at the experimental station in Toluca, Mexico. Credit: CIMMYT / Alfonso Cortés

The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) has “a track record of delivering local solutions with a global perspective — and is well positioned to continue this trajectory in the next decade.”

This was a key finding of a recent review of the program aimed to assess WHEAT’s 2017-2019 delivery of quality science and effectiveness, as well as to provide insights and lessons to inform the program’s future.

“Wheat as a crop is bound to be central to global food security in the foreseeable future,” the reviewers stated.

The crop currently contributes 20% of the world population’s calories and protein—and global demand is estimated to increase by 44% between 2005-07 and 2050.

WHEAT — led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) with the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) as a key research partner —has two pillars that are essential to meeting this demand: raising potential yield through breeding and closing the yield gap through sustainable intensification at field, farm and landscape scales.

Key recommendations included supporting strategic investment in research partner network development and maintenance, and continuing WHEAT’s trajectory towards modernizing breeding processes and integrating sustainable intensification approaches, including mechanization.

The reviewers warned of challenges for the way ahead, pointing out that partnerships — and WHEAT’s reputation as a reliable partner — are vulnerable to funding volatility. The review also raised concerns about the potential fragmentation of the global breeding program, restrictions to the international exchange of germplasm and ideas, “misguided” emphasis on minor crops, and CGIAR’s “focus on process at the expense of results.”

“This review cuts to the core of what’s so critical—and at risk – not only with our program but wheat research in general,” said Hans Braun, director of the CIMMYT Global Wheat Program and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat. “Global collaboration and the exchange of improved seeds, data, and especially information.”

“The reviewers rightly point out that limited resources will lead to competition and dampen this collaboration—even between scientists in the same program. We must address this potential risk to improve integration and continue our life saving work.” 

“In most of the developing world, the alliance of public sector and CGIAR wheat breeding programs, as well as some national public breeding programs on their own, will remain dominant providers of wheat varieties, until either functioning seed royalty collection systems are established and/or hybrid wheat becomes a reality,” he added.

WHEAT’s strength is its robust global network of research for development partners and scientists linked to global breeding in a ‘wide adaptation’ approach,” said Victor Kommerell, program manager for the CGIAR Research Programs on Wheat and Maize.

“This review underscores that breaking up the breeding program could cause lasting damage to this network.”

More key findings include:

  • WHEAT is effective and well-managed: In 2017- 2019, WHEAT mainly achieved its planned outputs and outcomes, and in addition achieved unplanned outcomes. For the three years reviewed, WHEAT did not drop any research line.
  • WHEAT’s strength is its partnerships: WHEAT has catalyzed a global network of research and development (R&D) that has delivered and continues to deliver a disproportionate wealth of outputs in relation to investment.
  • WHEAT creates, and thrives on, collaboration: The predominantly public nature of wheat R&D (In the period 1994–2014, the public sector accounted for 63% of global wheat varietal releases and more than 95% of releases in developing countries) favors collaboration, compared with other industries.
  • WHEAT facilitates shared success: The long history of collaboration between CIMMYT, ICARDA and national partners has fostered a sense of belonging to the International Wheat Improvement Network that permits free exchange of information and germplasm, allowing the best varieties to be released, irrespective of origin. International nursery testing delivers elite lines for national program use; data shared by national programs informs WHEAT’s next crossing cycle.

Read more in a 2-page brief summarizing key findings, conclusions and recommendations or on the CGIAR Advisory Services page.

WHEAT Launches 2019 Annual Report

The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) is proud to release our 2019 Annual Report, celebrating shared achievements through partnerships around the world for the 7th year of the program.

In this year’s report, we highlight cutting edge work by researchers and partners — particularly our primary research partner, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) — to help farmers grow wheat that is nutritious, resilient, and high-yielding—while decreasing environmental impact.

DNA fingerprinting, a smartphone-powered warning system, no-till innovations and the joint release of 50 new CGIAR-derived wheat varieties are just a few markers of success in a busy, challenging, and exciting year.

The threat of the current global pandemic highlights the crucial role wheat plays in the health and livelihoods of millions. We look forward to continued productive collaborations as we transition with our partners into an integrated, inclusive “One CGIAR” designed to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Read more in the full SPARK, web-based annual report here.

Alison Bentley to be new CIMMYT Global Wheat Program and WHEAT director

The new director of the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat brings many years of experience in wheat genetics, wheat genetic resources and wheat pre-breeding.

This story by Marta Millere was originally published on the CIMMYT website.

Alison Bentley (right) and Martin Jones of the University of Cambridge inspect wheat in a glasshouse. (Photo: Toby Smith/Gloknos)

In November 2020, Alison Bentley will be joining the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) as the new director of the Global Wheat Program and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT). She will be succeeding Hans Braun, who has steered CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program for the last 16 years, and has led the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat since its establishment in 2014.

Bentley expressed that she is thrilled to join CIMMYT and excited about the opportunity to harness science and breeding to improve livelihoods. She believes in a collective vision for equitable food supply and in science-led solutions to deliver impact.

“It really is an exciting time for wheat research: the international community has worked together to produce sequence and genomic resources, new biological and physiological insights, a wealth of germplasm and tools for accelerating breeding. This provides an unparalleled foundation for accelerating genetic gains and connecting ideas to determine how we can practically apply these tools and technologies with partners to deliver value-added outputs,” she said.

Bentley has worked on wheat — wheat genetics, wheat genetic resources and wheat pre-breeding — her entire career. She is the UK’s representative on the International Wheat Initiative Scientific Committee, and is a committee member for the Genetics Society, the UK Plant Sciences Federation, the Society of Experimental Botany, and the Editorial Board of Heredity.

Bentley obtained her PhD from the University of Sydney, Australia, in 2007. She then joined the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) in the UK, where she progressed from Senior Research Scientist (2007) to Program Leader for Trait Genetics (2013), and Director of Genetics and Breeding (since 2016).

Currently, Bentley is involved in international research projects in Ethiopia, The Gambia, Ghana, India and Pakistan. She leads a number of UK-India projects with partners including Punjab Agricultural University, the Indian National Institute of Plant Genome Research and the University of Cambridge, studying variation and developing wheat and other cereal germplasm with enhanced resource use efficiency.

WHEAT carries on in the “new normal” of COVID-19

A wheat field in Kazakhstan. Photo: V. Ganeyev/CIMMYT

The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat and its lead center, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), based in Mexico, are responding to the threat of COVID-19 and taking measures to ensure our worldwide staff is as safe as possible.  While we adjust to the “new normal” of social distancing, temperature checks and quarantines, we will continue to perform field and desk research as best we can, and share our progress and findings with you through our website, newsletter, and Facebook page.

At times such as this, we step back and remember the vision that brings us all here: a world free of poverty, hunger and environmental degradation. We would not be able pursue this vision without your support.

We hope you, your colleagues and loved ones stay safe and healthy. We are all in this together and we look forward to continuing our conversation.

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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

New publication: Breeder friendly Phenotyping

In crop research fields, it is now a common sight to see drones or other high-tech sensing tools collecting high-resolution data on a wide range of traits – from simple measurement of canopy temperature to complex 3D reconstruction of photosynthetic canopies.

This technological approach to collecting precise plant trait information, known as phenotyping, is becoming ubiquitous on research fields, but according to experts at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and other research institutions, breeders can profit much more from these tools, when used judiciously. 

Examples of different classes and applications of breeder friendly phenotyping. Image: M. Reynolds et al.

In a new article in the journal Plant Science, CIMMYT Wheat Physiologist Matthew Reynolds and colleagues explain the different ways that phenotyping can assist breeding — from simple to use, “handy” approaches for large scale screening, to detailed physiological characterization of key traits to identify new parental sources — and why this methodology is crucial for crop improvement. The authors make the case for breeders to invest in phenotyping, particularly in light of the imperative to breed crops for warmer and harsher climates.

Read the full article here.

This work was supported by the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP); the Sustainable Modernization of Traditional Agriculture (MasAgro) Project by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (SADER) of the Government of Mexico; and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT).

Bottlenecks between basic and applied plant science jeopardize life-saving crop improvements

International collaboration and a visionary approach by both researchers and funders are urgently needed to translate primary plant research results into real impact in the fields, argue crop improvement experts.

Visitors at the CIMMYT’s experimental station in Obregon, Mexico, where elite wheat lines are tested for new traits.

For a number of reasons – including limited interdisciplinary collaboration and a dearth of funding, revolutionary new plant research findings are not being used to improve crops.

 “Translational research” — efforts to convert basic research knowledge about plants into practical applications in crop improvement – represents a necessary link between the world of fundamental discovery and farmers’ fields.  This kind of research is often seen as more complicated and time consuming than basic research and less sexy than working at the “cutting edge” where research is typically divorced from agricultural realities in order to achieve faster and cleaner results; however, modern tools — such as genomics, marker-assisted breeding, high throughput phenotyping of crop traits using drones, and speed breeding techniques – are making it both faster and cost-effective.

In a new article in Crop Breeding, Genetics, and Genomics, wheat physiologist Matthew Reynolds of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and co-authors make the case for increasing not only funding for translational research, but the underlying prerequisites: international and interdisciplinary collaboration towards focused objectives and a visionary approach by funding organizations. 

“It’s ironic,” said Reynolds. “Many breeding programs have invested in the exact technologies — such as phenomics, genomics and informatics — that can be powerful tools for translational research to make real improvements in yield and adaptation to climate, disease and pest stresses.  But funding to integrate these tools in front-line breeding is quite scarce, so they aren’t reaching their potential value for crop improvement.” 

Many research findings are tested for their implications for wheat improvement by the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP) at the IWYP Hub — a centralized technical platform for evaluating innovations and building them into elite wheat varieties, co-managed by CIMMYT at its experimental station in Obregon, Mexico.

IWYP has its roots with the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT), which in 2010 formalized the need to boost both wheat yield potential as well as its adaptation to heat and drought stress. The network specializes in translational research, harnessing scientific findings from around the world to boost genetic gains in wheat, and capitalizing on the research and pre-breeding outputs of WHEAT and the testing networks of the International Wheat Improvement Network (IWIN). These efforts also led to the establishment of the Heat and Drought Wheat Improvement Consortium (HeDWIC).

Members of the International Wheat Yield Partnership which focuses on translational research to boost wheat yields.

“We’ve made extraordinary advances in understanding the genetic basis of important traits,“ said IWYP’s Richard Flavell, a co-author of the article.  “But if they aren’t translated into crop production, their societal value is lost.”

 The authors — all of whom have proven track records in both science and practical crop improvement — offer examples where exactly this combination of factors led to the impactful application of innovative research findings.

  • Improving the Vitamin A content of maize: A variety of maize with high Vitamin A content has the potential to reduce a deficiency that can cause blindness and a compromised immune system. This development happened as a result of many translational research efforts, including marker-assisted selection for a favorable allele, using DNA extracted from seed of numerous segregating breeding crosses prior to planting, and even findings from gerbil, piglet and chicken models  — as well as long-term, community-based, placebo-controlled trials with children — that helped establish that Vitamin A maize is bioavailable and bioefficacious.
  • Flood-tolerant rice: Weather variability due to climate change effects is predicted to include both droughts and floods. Developing rice varieties that can withstand submergence in water due to flooding is an important outcome of translational research which has resulted in important gains for rice agriculture.  In this case, the genetic trait for flood tolerance was recognized, but it took a long time to incorporate the trait into elite germplasm breeding programs. In fact, the development of flooding tolerant rice based on a specific SUB 1A allele took over 50 years at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines (1960–2010), together with expert molecular analyses by others. The translation program to achieve efficient incorporation into elite high yielding cultivars also required detailed research using molecular marker technologies that were not available at the time when trait introgression started.

Other successes include new approaches for improving the yield potential of spring wheat and the discovery of traits that increase the climate resilience of maize and sorghum. 

One way researchers apply academic research to field impact is through phenotyping. Involving the use of cutting edge technologies and tools to measure detailed and hard to recognize plant traits, this area of research has undergone a revolution in the past decade, thanks to more affordable digital measuring tools such as cameras and sensors and more powerful and accessible computing power and accessibility.

An Australian Pine on CIMMYT’s El Batan Experimental Station commemorates the 4th Symposium of the International Plant Phenotyping Network.

Scientists are now able to identify at a detailed scale plant traits that show how efficiently a plant is using the sun’s radiation for growth, how deep its roots are growing to collect water, and more — helping breeders select the best lines to cross and develop.

Phenotyping is key to understanding the physiological and genetic bases of plant growth and adaptation and has wide application in crop improvement programs.  Recording trait data through sophisticated non-invasive imaging, spectroscopy, image analysis, robotics, high-performance computing facilities and phenomics databases allows scientists to collect information about traits such as plant development, architecture, plant photosynthesis, growth or biomass productivity from hundreds to thousands of plants in a single day. This revolution was the subject of discussion at a 2016 gathering of more than 200 participants at the International Plant Phenotyping Symposium hosted by CIMMYT in Mexico and documented in a special issue of Plant Science.

There is currently an explosion in plant science. Scientists have uncovered the genetic basis of many traits, identified genetic markers to track them and developed ways to measure them in breeding programs. But most of these new findings and ideas have yet to be tested and used in breeding programs – wasting their potentially enormous societal value.

Establishing systems for generating and testing new hypotheses in agriculturally relevant systems must become a priority, Reynolds states in the article. However, for success, this will require interdisciplinary, and often international, collaboration to enable established breeding programs to retool.  Most importantly, scientists and funding organizations alike must factor in the long-term benefits as well as the risks of not taking timely action. Translating a research finding into an improved crop that can save lives takes time and commitment. With these two prerequisites, basic plant research can and should positively impact food security.

Authors would like to acknowledge the following funding organizations for their commitment to translational research.

The International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP) is supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) in the UK; the U. S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in the USA; and the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture (SFSA) in Switzerland.

The Heat and Drought Wheat Improvement Consortium (HeDWIC) is supported by the Sustainable Modernization of Traditional Agriculture (MasAgro) Project by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (SADER) of the Government of Mexico; previous projects that underpinned HeDWIC were supported by Australia’s Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC).

The Queensland Government’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries in collaboration with The Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) have provided long-term investment for the public sector sorghum pre-breeding program in Australia, including research on the stay-green trait. More recently, this translational research has been led by the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) within The University of Queensland.

ASI validation work and ASI translation and extension components with support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, respectively.

Financial support for the maize proVA work was partially provided by HarvestPlus (www.HarvestPlus.org), a global alliance of agriculture and nutrition research institutions working to increase the micronutrient density of staple food crops through biofortification. The CGIAR Research Program MAIZE (CRP-MAIZE) also supported this research.

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).

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.