Thursday, November 19 marks the International Whole Grain Day, and no one is more excited to celebrate it than your friends at the the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center (CIMMYT)! Alongside our partners at CIMMYT, the CGIAR Research Programs on Wheat and Maize we have put together a tasting platter of our best work on whole grains—from explainers and research highlights to a crowd-sourced cookbook. Check out a few excerpts on wheat, and then head over to the CIMMYT 2020 Whole Grains Day Campaign for the full scoop!
The Cereal Serial, Episode 1
In the first installment of The Cereal Serial, CIMMYT’s maize and wheat quality experts Dr. Natalia Palacios and Dr. Itria Ibba explain what whole grains are and why they are an important part of a healthy diet. For a deeper dive into the subject, check out our whole grain explainer.
Wheat around the world
Take a virtual journey around the world to see the popular ways in which whole grains are eaten from Asia to the Americas. For the full photo story, check out the CIMMYT Photo Series.
Researchers used DNA fingerprinting to track adoption in Ethiopia. Investments and innovative policy decisions are increasing farmer incomes and national wheat productivity. Varieties originating from CIMMYT have made a significant contribution.
Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), November 9, 2020.
A state-of-the-art study of plant DNA provides strong evidence that farmers in Ethiopia have widely adopted new, improved rust-resistant bread wheat varieties since 2014.
The results obtained from 4,000 plots, published in Nature Scientific Reports, found that nearly half (47%) of the area sampled was grown to varieties 10 years old or younger and the majority (61%) of these were released after 2005.
Four of the top varieties sown were recently-released rust-resistant varieties developed through the breeding programs of the Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research (EIAR) and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).
This is the first nationally representative, large-scale wheat DNA fingerprinting study undertaken in Ethiopia. The study was led by scientists at CIMMYT in partnership with the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR), the Ethiopian Central Statistical Agency (CSA) and Diversity Array Technologies (DArT).
“These results validate years of international investment and national policies that have worked to promote, distribute and fast-track the release of wheat varieties with the traits that farmers have asked for — particularly resistance to crop-destroying wheat rust disease,” said CIMMYT Principal Scientist Dave Hodson, the lead author of the study.
Ethiopia is the largest wheat producer in sub-Saharan Africa. The Ethiopian government recently announced a goal to become self-sufficient in wheat, and increasing domestic wheat production is a national priority.
Widespread adoption of these improved varieties, demonstrated by DNA fingerprinting, has clearly had a positive impact on both economic returns and national wheat production gains. Initial estimates show that farmers gained an additional 225,500 ton of extra production – valued at $50 million — by using varieties released after 2005.
The results validate investments in wheat improvement made by international donor agencies, notably the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO, formerly DFID), the World Bank, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Ethiopian government. Their success in speeding up variety release and seed multiplication in Ethiopia is considered a model for other countries.
“This is good news for Ethiopian farmers, who are seeing better incomes from higher yielding, disease-resistant wheat, and for the Ethiopian government, which has put a high national priority on increasing domestic wheat production and reducing dependence on imports,” said EIAR Deputy Director General Chilot Yirga.
This study also confirmed the substantial contribution of CGIAR to national breeding efforts, with 90% of the area sampled containing wheat varieties released by Ethiopian wheat breeding programs derived from CIMMYT and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) germplasm.
Varieties developed using germplasm received from CIMMYT covered 87% of the wheat area surveyed.
Adoption studies provide a fundamental measure of the success and effectiveness of agricultural research and investment. However, obtaining accurate information on the diffusion of crop varieties remains a challenging endeavor.
DNA fingerprinting enables researchers to identify the variety present in samples or plots, based on a comprehensive reference library of the genotypes of known varieties. In Ethiopia, over 94% of plots could be matched with known varieties. This provides data that is vastly more accurate than traditional farmer-recall surveys.
“When we compared DNA fingerprinting results with the results from a survey of farmers’ memory of the same plots, we saw that only 28% of farmers correctly named wheat varieties grown,” explained Hodson.
The resulting data helps national breeding programs adjust their seed production to meet demand, and national extension agents focus on areas that need better access to seed. It also helps scientists, policymakers, donors and organizations such as CIMMYT track their impact and prioritize funding, support, and the direction of future research.
“This research demonstrates that DNA fingerprinting can be applied at scale, and is likely to transform future crop varietal adoption studies. Additional DNA fingerprinting studies are now also well advanced for maize in Ethiopia” concluded CIMMYT Senior Scientist Kindie Tesfaye, co-author of the study and lead of the associated BMGF funded project.
The study authors greatly acknowledge the support of partnering institutions and financial support from the Mainstreaming the use and application of DNA Fingerprinting in Ethiopia for tracking crop varieties project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Grant number OPP1118996).
Chilot Yirga – Deputy Director General, Ethiopia Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR), email@example.com
The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) is the global leader in publicly-funded maize and wheat research and related farming systems. Headquartered near Mexico City, CIMMYT works with hundreds of partners throughout the developing world to sustainably increase the productivity of maize and wheat cropping systems, thus improving global food security and reducing poverty. CIMMYT is a member of the CGIAR System and leads the CGIAR Research Programs on Maize and Wheat and the Excellence in Breeding Platform. The Center receives support from national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies. For more information, visit www.cimmyt.org.
As a national research institute, the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) aspires to see improved livelihood of all Ethiopians engaged in agriculture, agro-pastoralism, and pastoralism through market-competitive agricultural technologies.
This research is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and CGIAR Fund Donors.
Building on a wealth of existing investment in UK wheat research and development, including the UK Research and Innovation BBSRC-funded Designing Future Wheat programme (DFW), the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP) has formed a new European Winter Wheat Hub that will accelerate research discoveries from the UK and globally into commercial plant breeding.
A public-private partnership, the IWYP-European Winter Wheat Hub will combine novel traits discovered by collaborative international teams into a range of high performing European winter wheat genetic backgrounds for assessment and use in winter wheat breeding programs.
The global agriculture companies BASF, KWS, RAGT and Syngenta, in collaboration with the UK National Institute for Agricultural Botany (NIAB), will provide a translational pipeline supporting European winter wheat improvement. In partnership with IWYP, commercial breeders will select key genetic discoveries of potential value for the European wheat community from global IWYP research projects. NIAB will then use its expertise in pre-breeding to produce genetic material for the validation and development of selected IWYP research outputs.
Joining the wider existing IWYP Hub Network of large translational pipelines operating on spring wheat at CIMMYT (the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre) in Mexico and the recently established NIFA-IWYP Winter Wheat Breeding Innovation Hub at Kansas State University, USA, the IWYP-European Winter Wheat Hub will ensure that cutting-edge discoveries are rapidly available to both the participating wheat breeders and to the global wheat breeding community.
“This is another excellent example of how public-private partnerships (such as the DFW, the Wheat Initiative and IWYP) can work well at both the international and national level,” said Dr. Chris Tapsell from KWS, who is leading the IWYP-European Winter Wheat Hub development.
“And this hub will help ensure that the hard work of the IWYP researchers around the world will deliver impacts that address the twin challenges of increasing wheat production for food security whilst protecting the environment.”
Jeff Gwyn, who leads the IWYP program said, “The addition of this new hub further strengthens the IWYP Hub Network and enables the development of our innovations to reach a wider industry base more rapidly. It is critical for IWYP to have its research outputs taken up and utilized for the public good. Public-private partnerships such as this further demonstrate that the IWYP initiative is filling a significant gap and creating value.”
Tina Barsby, CEO of NIAB commented, “NIAB has a strong track record in pre-breeding of wheat and particularly in working closely with commercial breeders to bring new variability to the market. We are really looking forward to helping to advance IWYP project traits into breeding programs.”
For further information about the IWYP-European Winter Wheat Hub please contact Chris Tapsell (KWS): firstname.lastname@example.org.
For further information about IWYP please contact Jeff Gwyn (IWYP): email@example.com.
The IWYP program is based on an innovative model for public funding and international scientific collaboration to address the global grand challenge of food, nutritional and economic security for the future. The model employs public-private partnerships to scale and drive its research innovations for impact. Operations require active coordination of the international research and development teams whose discovery research focuses on complementary and overlapping sets of potentially high impact novel trait targets deemed likely to underpin yield increases, such as the regulation of photosynthesis, optimal plant architecture, plant biomass distribution, and grain number and size. As the results emerge, it is possible to envisage how to combine them and therefore simultaneously remove multiple constraints affecting yields in farmers’ fields. https://iwyp.org/
NIAB is an independent plant biosciences organisation working to translate fundamental research into innovative solutions and products for the agricultural sector. The IWYP-European Winter Wheat Hub will leverage established expertise in wheat genetics and breeding at NIAB, including newly developed glasshouse and molecular laboratory facilities. https://www.niab.com/
BASF, KWS, RAGT and Syngenta are innovation-led leaders in the wheat breeding industry, developing varieties that deliver consistent year-on-year genetics gain for the benefit of wheat growers throughout Europe and North America. All companies are active members of IWYP and launched this initiative to speed up and ensure the effective utilisation of deliverables from IWYP research projects, which are funded by partners across the globe including the BBSRC in the UK. www.kws.com www.ragt.fr www.basf.com www.syngenta.com
CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) is a non-profit international agricultural research and training organization focusing on two of the world’s most important cereal grains: maize and wheat, and related cropping systems and livelihoods. www.cimmyt.org
Dave Hodson, principal scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), examined over a decade of progress from global partners in the battle to detect and respond to global wheat rust diseases at a keynote address at the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) Technical Workshop in early October.
Rust response in the 2000s: sounding the alarm
When the first signs of Ug99 – a deadly strain of wheat stem rust – were noticed in Uganda in 1998, farmers and researchers did not understand the full threat of this disease, or where it would travel next. After Nobel Prize-winning breeder Norman Borlaug sounded the alarm to world leaders, the BGRI was formed and stakeholders from around the world came together to discuss this quickly growing problem. They realized that first, they must develop effective monitoring and surveillance systems to track the pathogen.
Starting in 2008, the initial vision for the global rust monitoring system was developed and the first steps taken to build the global rust surveillance community. Expanding surveillance networks requires a strong database, increased capacity development and well-established national focal points. With standardized surveillance protocols, training and GPS units distributed to over 29 countries, data began to flow more efficiently into the system. This, combined with a preliminary study of the influence of wind and rainfall patterns, improved scientists’ ability to predict areas of higher risk. Furthermore, the group knew that it would be key to integrate race analysis data, expand access to information and eventually expand the system to include other rusts as well.
“Fast forward to today, and we’re now looking at one of the world’s largest international crop disease monitoring systems. We have over 39,000 geo-referenced survey records from >40 countries in the database now, and 9500+ rust isolate records,” said Hodson.
Implementation of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) and Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) projects – predecessors to Accelerating Genetic Gains in Maize and Wheat for Improved Livelihoods (AGG) – and other key projects advanced this surveillance system, providing early warnings of potential rust epidemics to scientists and farmers.
An important part of this success comes from the Global Rust Reference Center in Denmark, where scientists have put together a state-of-the-art data management system, known as the “Wheat Rust Toolbox,”; providing a flexible centralized database, rapid data input from mobile devices, data export and a suite of database-driven display tools. The system is flexible enough to handle multiple crops and multiple diseases, including all three wheat rusts.
A united front
Another critical element to this surveillance system is a global network of rust pathotyping labs around the world.
“We currently have good surveillance coverage across the world, especially the developing country wheat-growing areas,” says Hodson. “Coupling sampling from that survey network to these labs have enabled us to track the pathogen.”
This is particularly important in the face of a rapidly mutating pathogen. Not only are new variants of Ug99 appearing and spreading, but also other important new races of stem rust are being detected and spreading in places as far-flung as Sicily, Sweden, Siberia, Ecuador, Ethiopia and Georgia. In many regions, we are seeing a re-emergence of stem rust as a disease of concern.
“We now know there are 14 races of Ug99 confirmed across 13 countries. We have seen increased virulence of the pathogen, it is mutating and migrating, and [has] spread over large distances.”
Furthermore, yellow rust has emerged as a disease of major global importance. The spread of yellow rust and appearance of highly virulent new races seems to be increasing over time. Several regions are now experiencing large-scale outbreaks as a result of the incursion of new races. For example, in South America, causing one of the largest outbreaks in 30 years.
Major breakthroughs in prediction and surveillance
Despite the increased spread and virulence of wheat rusts, the global community of partners has made serious advances in prediction, tracking and treatment of pathogens.
The future of wheat research and disease management
“Clearly, we’re going to need more multidisciplinary approaches to combat these increasing threats from transboundary diseases,” he says, though very optimistic for the future of wheat rust disease forecasting, early warning systems and diagnostics.
Thanks to a “truly fantastic” global community of partners and donors, the global scientific community has built one of the world’s largest crop disease monitoring systems to track and combat aggressive, rapidly spreading wheat rust diseases. Its continued success will depend on embracing state of the art technology – from molecular diagnostics to artificial intelligence – and developing a plan for long-term sustainability.
Sustainable cropping system intensification – for example, planting legumes in the off season – is a well-documented conservation agriculture (CA) agronomic practice in wheat-rice cropping systems. While the benefits of this practice for environmentally sustainable production are clear – including providing near-permanent soil cover and improving soil quality while yielding an additional protein-rich crop for consumption or sale – the implications for individual smallholder farmers have been less well examined.
Scientists from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Wageningen University & Research (WUR) and partner organizations recently studied how rearranging cropping patterns would affect five different types of smallholder farmers in the rural state of Bihar, in the Indo-Gangetic Plains of India.
The Indo-Gangetic Plains are an important agricultural area for cereal production in India, with rice-wheat cropping systems covering around 10.3 million hectares. However, continuous intensive cultivation of these crops has led to soil degradation and over-use of limited freshwater resources. Farmers in the rural state of Bihar are particularly vulnerable to climate change-related heat, drought and flood risks, and face a growing challenge to maintain their crop productivity while protecting natural resources.
The study authors, including CIMMYT scientists ML Jat and Santiago Lopez-Ridaura, chose 5 Bihar farmer types to evaluate: the Farm Manager, with the largest farm and most family members to provide labor; the Wealthy Farmer, with large land and livestock holdings; the Arable Farmer with no livestock and a mango orchard as a main source of income; the Small Farmer, with less than 1 hectare of land, 3 animals and 4 family members, and the Marginal Farmer with only 1/3 hectare of land, completely cultivated with wheat and rice, and 10 family members.
“Using an optimization model, we measured the trade-offs between the environmental benefits and the profitability of intercropping with mung bean for these different types of farmers,” said Lopez-Ridaura. “We found that these trade-offs can be extensive.”
On the positive side, the study authors found that intercropping with mung bean had allowed all five farmers to save water, increase soil organic matter content and decrease nitrogen losses on their farms.
“The environmental benefits of intercropping are undeniable,” said WUR’s Jeroen Groot, co-author of the study. “However, we found that making the switch to sustainable cropping intensification was not equally financially beneficial for all farm types.”
The Farm Manager and Wealthy Farmer had more options to favorably rearrange their farms, resulting in the best outcome on multiple objectives. The Arable Farmer, Small Farmer and Marginal Farmer showed considerably smaller potential to improve the overall performance of the farm.for m
“In practical terms, our results suggest that policies and programs for sustainable intensification of cereal-based cropping systems in Bihar should use strategies that are targeted by farm type,” said Jat.
“A participatory approach to developing these strategies, including input from farmers, will improve understanding of the challenges and opportunities in targeting investments for sustainable farming practices.”
This research was conducted by CIMMYT, Wageningen University & Research, the Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA) and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). The research is a product of CIMMYT Academy through a student research project with Wageningen University and supported by the CGIAR Research Programs on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and Wheat Agri-food Systems (WHEAT); the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR); and all donors who supported this research through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.
Wheat blast, a fast-acting and devastating fungal disease, has been reported for the first time on the African continent, according to a new article published by scientists from the Zambian Agricultural Research Institute (ZARI), the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the US Department of Agriculture – Foreign Disease Weed Science Research Unit (USDA-ARS) in the scientific journal PLoS One.
Symptoms of wheat blast first appeared in Zambia during the 2018 rainy season in experimental plots and small-scale farms in the Mpika district, Muchinga province.
Wheat blast poses a serious threat to rain-fed wheat production in Zambia and raises the alarm for surrounding regions and countries on the African continent with similar environmental conditions. Worldwide, 2.5 billion consumers depend on wheat as a staple food, and in recent years, several African countries have been actively working towards reducing dependence on wheat imports.
“This presents yet another challenging biotic constraint to rain-fed wheat production in Zambia,” said Batiseba Tembo, wheat breeder at ZARI and lead scientist on the study.
A difficult diagnosis
“The first occurrence of the disease was very distressing. This happened at the spike stage, and caused significant losses,” said Tembo. “Nothing of this nature has happened before in Zambia.”
Researchers were initially confused when symptoms of the disease in the Mpika fields were first reported. Zambia has unique agro-climatic conditions, particularly in the rainfed wheat production system, and diseases such as spot blotch and Fusarium head blight are common.
“The crop had silvery white spikes and a green canopy, resulting in shriveled grains or no grains at all…Within the span of 7 days, a whole field can be attacked,” said Tembo. Samples were collected and analyzed in the ZARI laboratory, and suspicions grew among researchers that this may be a new disease entirely.
A history of devastation
Wheat blast, caused by Magnaporthe oryzae pathotype Triticum (MoT), was initially discovered in Brazil in 1985, and within decades had affected around 3 million hectares of wheat in South America alone. The disease made its first intercontinental jump to Asia in 2016, causing a severe outbreak in Bangladesh, reducing yield on average by as much as 51% in the affected fields.
The disease has now become endemic to Bangladesh, and has potential to expand to similar warm, humid and wet environments in nearby India and Pakistan, as well as other regions of favorable disease conditions.
Wheat blast spreads through infected seeds and crop residues as well as by spores that can travel long distances in the air. The spread of blast within Zambia is indicated by both mechanisms of expansion.
Developing expert opinions
Tembo participated in the Basic Wheat Improvement Course at CIMMYT in Mexico, where she discussed the new disease with Pawan Singh, head of Wheat Pathology at CIMMYT. Singh worked with Tembo to provide guidance and the molecular markers needed for the sample analysis in Zambia, and coordinated the analysis of the wheat disease samples at the USDA-ARS facility in Fort Detrick, Maryland.
All experiments confirmed the presence of Magnaporthe oryzae pathotype Triticum (MoT).
“This is a disaster which needs immediate attention,” said Tembo. “Otherwise, wheat blast has the potential to marginalize the growth of rain-fed wheat production in Zambia and may threaten wheat production in neighboring countries as well.”
A cause for innovation and collaboration
CIMMYT and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) are taking action on several fronts to combat wheat blast. Trainings, such as an international course led by the Bangladesh Wheat and Maize Research Institute (BWMRI) in collaboration with CIMMYT, WHEAT and others, invite international participants to gain new technical skills in blast diagnostics and treatment and understand different strategies being developed to mitigate the wheat blast threat. WHEAT scientists and partners are also working quickly to study genetic factors that increase resistance to the disease and develop early warning systems, among other research interventions.
“A set of research outcomes, including the development of resistant varieties, identification of effective fungicides, agronomic measures, and new findings in the epidemiology of disease development will be helpful in mitigating wheat blast in Zambia,” said Singh.
Tembo concluded, “It is imperative that the regional and global scientific community join hands to determine effective measures to halt further spread of this worrisome disease in Zambia and beyond.”
Financial support for this research was provided by the Zambia Agriculture Research Institute (ZARI), the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT), the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), and the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS).
The Basic Wheat Training Program and Wheat Blast Training is made possible by support from investors including ACIAR, 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).
About Accelerating Genetic Gains in Maize and Wheat for Improved Livelihoods
Accelerating Genetic Gains in Maize and Wheat for Improved Livelihoods (AGG) is a 5-year project that brings together partners in the global science community and in national agricultural research and extension systems to accelerate the development of higher-yielding varieties of maize and wheat — two of the world’s most important staple crops. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), AGG fuses innovative methods that improve breeding efficiency and precision to produce and deliver high-yielding varieties that are climate-resilient, pest- and disease-resistant, highly nutritious, and targeted to farmers’ specific needs.
The International Maize and What Improvement Center (CIMMYT) is the global leader in publicly-funded maize and wheat research and related farming systems. Headquartered near Mexico City, CIMMYT works with hundreds of partners throughout the developing world to sustainably increase the productivity of maize and wheat cropping systems, thus improving global food security and reducing poverty. CIMMYT is a member of the CGIAR System and leads the CGIAR programs on Maize and Wheat and the Excellence in Breeding Platform. The Center receives support from national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies. For more information visit www.cimmyt.org.
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.
In 2019, CIMMYT continued to perform groundbreaking crop research and forge powerful partnerships to combat hunger and climate change, preserve maize and wheat biodiversity, and respond to emerging pests and diseases.
Bill Gates spoke about the “essential role of CGIAR research centers in feeding our future” and together with other stakeholders urged us to “do even better.” In his Gates Notes blog, he highlighted the great example of CIMMYT’s drought-tolerant maize, which helps resource-poor farmers withstand increasing climate risks.
Over the course of the year, we supported our national partners to release 82 maize and 50 wheat varieties. More than 14,000 farmers, scientists, and technical workers across the world took part in over 900 training and capacity development activities. CIMMYT researchers published 386 peer-reviewed journal articles.
In 2019, CIMMYT also marked the end of a decade of achievements in seed security. CIMMYT celebrated being the largest depositor at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault with 173,779 accessions from 131 countries. The most recent deposit included 15,231 samples of wheat and 332 samples of maize.
Innovative solutions like DNA fingerprinting – a method used to identify individual plants by looking at unique patterns in their genome – brought state of the art research into farmer’s fields, providing valuable insights into the diversity of wheat varieties grown in Afghanistan and Ethiopia.
CIMMYT also continued to play a key role in the battle against fall armyworm, coordinating a global research-for–development consortium to build an evidence-based response against the pest in both Africa and Asia.
The year 2019 showed us that while CIMMYT’s work may begin with seeds, our innovations support farmers at all stages of the value chain. The year ahead will be a challenging one as we continue to adjust to the “new normal” of life under COVID-19. We hope you enjoy this Annual Report as we look back on the exciting year that was 2019.
Experts share their insights on the link between biodiversity loss and emerging infectious diseases.
This story by Alison Doody was originally posted on the website of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of CIMMYT.
While the world’s attention is focused on controlling COVID-19, evidence points at the biodiversity crisis as a leading factor in its emergence. At first glance, the two issues might seem unrelated, but disease outbreaks and degraded ecosystems are deeply connected. Frédéric Baudron, systems agronomist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and Florian Liégeois, virologist at the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) share their insights on the current COVID-19 crisis and the link between biodiversity loss and emerging infectious diseases.
What trends are we seeing with infectious diseases like COVID-19?
We see that outbreaks of infectious diseases are becoming more frequent, even when we account for the so-called “reporting bias::” surveillance of such events becoming better with time and surveillance being better funded in the North than in the South.
60% of infectious diseases are zoonotic, meaning that they are spread from animals to humans and 72% of these zoonoses originate from wildlife. COVID-19 is just the last in a long list of zoonoses originating from wildlife. Other recent outbreaks include SARS, Ebola, avian influenza and swine influenza. As human activities continue to disturb ecosystems worldwide, we are likely to see more pathogens crossing from wildlife to humans in the future. This should serve as a call to better manage our relationship with nature in general, and wildlife in particular.
Why are we seeing more cases of diseases crossing from animals to humans? Where are they coming from?
Evidence points to bushmeat trade and consumption as the likely driver for the emergence of COVID-19. The emergence of SARS and Ebola was also driven by bushmeat consumption and trade. However, when looking at past outbreaks of zoonoses caused by a pathogen with a wildlife origin, land use changes, generally due to changes in agricultural practices, has been the leading driver.
Pathogens tends to emerge in well known “disease hotspots,” which tend to be areas where high wildlife biodiversity overlaps with high population density. These hotspots also tend to be at lower latitude. Interestingly, many of these are located in regions where CIMMYT’s activities are concentrated: Central America, East Africa and South Asia. This, in addition to the fact that agricultural changes are a major driver of the emergence of zoonoses, means that CIMMYT researchers may have a role to play in preventing the next global pandemic.
How exactly does biodiversity loss and land use change cause an increase in zoonotic diseases?
There are at least three mechanisms at play. First, increased contact between wildlife and humans and their livestock because of encroachment in ecosystems. Second, selection of wildlife species most able to infect humans and/or their livestock — often rodents and bats — because they thrive in human-dominated landscapes. Third, more pathogens being carried by these surviving wildlife species in simplified ecosystems. Pathogens tend to be “diluted” in complex, undisturbed, ecosystems.
The fast increase in the population of humans and their livestock means that they are interacting more and more frequently with wildlife species and the pathogens they carry. Today, 7.8 billion humans exploit almost each and every ecosystem of the planet. Livestock have followed humans in most of these ecosystems and are now far more numerous than wild vertebrates: there are 4.7 billion cattle, pigs, sheep and goats and 23.7 billion chickens on Earth! We live on an increasingly “cultivated planet,” with new species assemblages and new opportunities for pathogens to move from one species to another.
Wildlife trade and bushmeat consumption have received a lot of attention as primary causes of the spread of these viruses. Why has there been so little discussion on the connection with biodiversity loss?
The problem of biodiversity loss as a driver of the emergence of zoonoses is a complex one: it doesn’t have a simple solution, such as banning wet markets in China. It’s difficult to communicate this issue effectively to the public. It’s easy to find support for ending bushmeat trade and consumption because it’s easy for the public to understand how these can lead to the emergence of zoonoses, and sources of bushmeat include emblematic species with public appeal, like apes and pangolins. Bushmeat trafficking and consumption also gives the public an easy way to shift the blame: this is a local, rather than global, issue and for most of us, a distant one.
There is an inconvenient truth in the biodiversity crisis: we all drive it through our consumption patterns. Think of your annual consumption of coffee, tea, chocolate, sugar, textiles, fish, etc. But the biodiversity crisis is often not perceived as a global issue, nor as a pressing one. Media coverage for the biodiversity crisis is eight times lower than for the climate crisis.
Agriculture is a major cause of land use change and biodiversity loss. What can farmers do to preserve biodiversity, without losing out on crop yields?
Farming practices that reduce the impact of agriculture on biodiversity are well known and form the foundation of sustainable intensification, for which CIMMYT has an entire program. A better question might be what we can do collectively to support them in doing so. Supportive policies, like replacing subsidies by incentives that promote sustainable intensification, and supportive markets, for example using certification and labeling, are part of the solution.
But these measures are likely to be insufficient alone, as a large share of the global food doesn’t enter the market, but is rather consumed by the small-scale family farmers who produce it.
Reducing the negative impact of food production on biodiversity is likely to require a global, concerted effort similar to the Paris Agreements for climate. As the COVID-19 pandemic is shocking the world, strong measures are likely to be taken globally to avoid the next pandemic. There is a risk that some of these measures will go too far and end up threatening rural livelihoods, especially the most vulnerable ones. For example, recommending “land sparing” — segregating human activities from nature by maximizing yield on areas as small as possible — is tempting to reduce the possibility of pathogen spillover from wildlife species to humans and livestock. But food production depends on ecosystem services supported by biodiversity, like soil fertility maintenance, pest control and pollination. These services are particularly important for small-scale family farmers who tend to use few external inputs.
How can we prevent pandemics like COVID-19 from happening again in the future?
There is little doubt that new pathogens will emerge. First and foremost, we need to be able to control emerging infectious diseases as early as possible. This requires increased investment in disease surveillance and in the health systems of the countries where the next infectious disease is most likely to emerge. In parallel, we also need to reduce the frequency of these outbreaks by conserving and restoring biodiversity globally, most crucially in disease hotspots.
Farming tends to be a major driver of biodiversity loss in these areas but is also a main source of livelihoods. The burden of reducing the impact of agriculture on biodiversity in disease hotspots cannot be left to local farmers, who tend to be poor small-scale farmers: it will have to be shared with the rest of us.
This story by Emma Orchardson was originally published on the CIMMYT website.
International agricultural research has come a long way since the Green Revolution of the 1970s – from a tight focus on crop improvement to a wider quest for sustainable food systems. Our original objective, as the founders of International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and other CGIAR Research Centers were fond of saying, was to increase the pile of grain. Now, we strive to achieve food and nutritional security in ways that also enhance rural livelihoods, reduce environmental degradation, and boost agriculture´s resilience.
In 2009, state governments in Northwest India implemented a policy designed to reduce groundwater extraction by prohibiting the usual practice of planting rice in May and moving it to June, nearer the start of monsoon rains.
Although the policy did succeed in alleviating pressure on groundwater, it also had the unexpected effect of worsening already severe air pollution. The reason for this, according to a recent study published in Nature Sustainability, is that the delay in rice planting narrowed the window between rice harvest and sowing of the subsequent crop — mainly wheat — leaving farmers little time to remove rice straw from the field and compelling them to burn it instead.
Even though burning crop residues is prohibited in India, uncertainty about the implementation of government policy and a perceived lack of alternatives have perpetuated the practice in Haryana and Punjab states, near the nation’s capital, New Delhi, where air pollution poses a major health threat.
Decades of research for development have enabled researchers at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and other partners to identify potential solutions to this problem.
One particularly viable option focuses on the practice of zero tillage, in which wheat seed is sown immediately after rice harvest through the rice straw directly into untilled soil with a single tractor pass.