As we recognize the 50th year of Earth Day, the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) looks back on recent impactful research to increase crop productivity while conserving natural resources.
WHEAT and its lead research partner, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), are proud of our research to move the needle on improving the environmental sustainability of farming and food production.
Plant resistance to insects
The 24th biannual session of the International Plant Resistance to Insects (IPRI) workshop, held at CIMMYT headquarters this year, featured innovative insect resistance solutions to the global threat of crop pests. Their goal: to reduce the use of pesticides.
Research by WHEAT scientist Tek Sapkota has identified the optimum rates of nitrogen fertilizer application for rice and wheat in the Indo-Gangetic Plains of India — minimizing dangerous greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining crop productivity.
Reducing residue burning
A study by a global team including WHEAT scientist ML Jat shows that replacing rice residue burning with no-till farming practices raises farmers’ profits, cuts farm-related greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 78%, and lowers the choking air pollution that plagues the region each winter. These findings support Indian government policies including a US$166 million subsidy to promote mechanization such as the Happy Seeder.
Earth Day 1970 gave a voice to an emerging public consciousness about the state of our planet. With the same consciousness, we at WHEAT continue to work on research solutions to sustainably increase the production of nutritious wheat for improved livelihoods throughout the world.
This story by Alison Doody was originally published on the CIMMYT website.
An international team of scientists has provided a sweeping new analysis of the benefits of conservation agriculture for crop performance, water use efficiency, farmers’ incomes and climate action across a variety of cropping systems and environments in South Asia.
The analysis, published today in Nature Sustainability, is the first of its kind to synthesize existing studies on conservation agriculture in South Asia and allows policy makers to prioritize where and which cropping systems to deploy conservation agriculture techniques. The study uses data from over 9,500 site-year comparisons across South Asia.
According to M.L. Jat, a principal scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and first author of the study, conservation agriculture also offers positive contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals of no poverty, zero hunger, good health and wellbeing, climate action and clean water.
“Conservation agriculture is going to be key to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals,” echoed JK Ladha, adjunct professor at the University of California, Davis, and co-author of the study.
Scientists from CIMMYT, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the University of California, Davis, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and Cornell University looked at a variety of agricultural, economic and environmental performance indicators — including crop yields, water use efficiency, economic return, greenhouse gas emissions and global warming potential — and compared how they correlated with conservation agriculture conditions in smallholder farms and field stations across South Asia.
Results and impact on policy
Researchers found that many conservation agriculture practices had significant benefits for agricultural, economic and environmental performance indicators, whether implemented separately or together. Zero tillage with residue retention, for example, had a mean yield advantage of around 6%, provided farmers almost 25% more income, and increased water use efficiency by about 13% compared to conventional agricultural practices. This combination of practices also was shown to cut global warming potential by up to 33%.
This comes as good news for national governments in South Asia, which have been actively promoting conservation agriculture to increase crop productivity while conserving natural resources. South Asian agriculture is known as a global “hotspot” for climate vulnerability.
“Smallholder farmers in South Asia will be impacted most by climate change and natural resource degradation,” said Trilochan Mohapatra, Director General of ICAR and Secretary of India’s Department of Agricultural Research and Education (DARE). “Protecting our natural resources for future generations while producing enough quality food to feed everyone is our top priority.”
“ICAR, in collaboration with CIMMYT and other stakeholders, has been working intensively over the past decades to develop and deploy conservation agriculture in India. The country has been very successful in addressing residue burning and air pollution issues using conservation agriculture principles,” he added.
With the region’s population expected to rise to 2.4 billion, demand for cereals is expected to grow by about 43% between 2010 and 2050. This presents a major challenge for food producers who need to produce more while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and damage to the environment and other natural resources.
“The collaborative effort behind this study epitomizes how researchers, policy-makers, and development practitioners can and should work together to find solutions to the many challenges facing agricultural development, not only in South Asia but worldwide,” said Jon Hellin, leader of the Sustainable Impact Platform at IRRI.
This op-ed by Martin Kropff, Director General of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, was originally published by SciDevNet.
Last year, droughts devastated staple food crops across the developing world, cutting production by about half in some countries. A stream of reports from Central America, Eastern and Southern Africa as well as the Asia-Pacific region painted a grim picture of suffering and upheaval.
Poor harvests subjected tens of millions to chronic hunger, prompting various governments to declare states of emergency. In Central America, survey results, including some from the US government, cited climate-induced food shortages as the main reason for emigration from drought-hit areas.
Extreme weather, with its appalling consequences, demands an extraordinary response. Redoubled efforts must focus on building resilience into the developing world´s major food systems.
Fortunately, agricultural science has already provided a wide range of solutions and continues to generate more.
Conservation agriculture and drought-tolerant crops
New technologies from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) suggest how developing countries can work toward a better future.
Drought-tolerant cereals show promise for helping stabilise maize and wheat production. Through many years of conventional plant breeding, researchers have developed more than 160 maize varieties for sub-Saharan Africa that yield 25-30 percent more than farmers’ standard varieties under drought, while performing at least equal to these under normal rainfall.
According to a study in Zimbabwe, farmers growing the drought-tolerant maize harvested up to 600 kilograms more grain per hectare in drought years – enough to feed a family of six for nine months. The improved varieties are already grown on 2.5 million hectares, benefitting around 54 million people. Researchers are also poised to develop wheat lines with tolerance to drought and heat, having identified genes for these traits though cutting-edge collaborative science.
“Extreme weather, with its appalling consequences, demands an extraordinary response. Fortunately, agricultural science has already provided a wide range of solutions and continues to generate more.”
Martin Kropff, director general, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center
To provide maximum benefits, drought-tolerant crop varieties need to form part of smart farming systems that capture and conserve moisture. One such system – conservation agriculture – combines diverse crops with reduced or no ploughing, and the practice of leaving stalks and other crop residues on the ground after harvest. Already widely applied in South America´s Southern Cone, this system has also made inroads in the predominant rice-wheat system of South Asia´s Indo-Gangetic Plain, a major breadbasket for the region. Conservation agriculture is being widely promoted in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, Mexico and elsewhere.
Globally, around 80 per cent of food production depends on increasingly erratic rainfall. To ensure better water supplies, many farmers have purchased their own small pumps for irrigation, often using water from aquifers underground. One drawback to this practice is that it can lead to groundwater depletion, which is already a serious problem in Northwest India, for example. In searching for solutions, researchers there have recently shown how farmers can grow just as much rice and wheat using only about half the water normally needed, through conservation agriculture combined with the use of a drip irrigation system that delivers just the right amount of water, plus fertiliser to crop roots through underground pipes.
Scaling-up drought solutions
The challenge now is to mainstream the growing portfolio of drought solutions – a task demanding not only technical acumen, but institutional vision. Partnerships between private seed companies and public crop breeding programs, for example, played a vital role in getting drought-tolerant maize into farmers’ fields. But the people benefitting from this innovation today still constitute only a fraction of the 300 million Africans whose diets depend on maize. Clearly, such partnerships must be expanded.
Innovation platforms are rapidly becoming the tool of choice for refining and scaling out more complicated innovations, such as conservation agriculture. Transitioning to new production practices can be a daunting experience for farmers, especially smallholders. By bringing together networks of farmers, extension specialists, researchers, private companies and policymakers, innovation platforms offer the knowledge, services and products needed for change.
In order for improved technologies to have the desired effect, government and partner organisations must get their policies and decisions right. Recent research in Bangladesh, for example, has identified new policy measures for enhancing the efficiency of irrigation services. In addition, organisations must base their decisions and planning before and during droughts on information from new systems that use remote sensing and climate data analysis for drought monitoring and early warning.
Science-based climate projections tell us that drought will become even worse in the decades ahead. Only by implementing drought solutions on an unprecedented scale, will countries be able to avoid a future that leaves millions of people at the mercy of a hostile climate.
Researchers demonstrate that CIMMYT’s
durum wheat lines can be grown, bred, and selected under zero tillage or
conventional tillage conditions without negatively affecting yield
New research published in Field Crops Research by scientists at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) responds to the question of whether wheat varieties need to be adapted to zero tillage conditions.
With 33% of global soils already degraded, agricultural techniques like zero tillage – growing crops without disturbing the soil with activities like plowing – in combination with crop residue retention, are being considered to help protect soils and prevent further degradation. Research has shown that zero tillage with crop residue retention can reduce soil erosion and improve soil structure and water retention, leading to increased water use efficiency of the system. Zero tillage has also been shown to be the most environmentally friendly among different tillage techniques.
While CIMMYT promotes conservation agriculture, of which
zero tillage is a component, many farmers who use CIMMYT wheat varieties still
use some form of tillage. As farmers adopt conservation agriculture principles in
their production systems, we need to be sure that the improved varieties
breeders develop and release to farmers can perform equally well in zero tillage
as in conventional tillage environments.
The aim of the study was to find out whether breeding wheat
lines in a conservation agriculture environment had an effect on their
adaptability to one tillage system or another, and whether separate breading
streams would be required for each tillage system.
The scientists conducted parallel early generation selection
in sixteen populations from the breeding program. The best plants were selected
in parallel under conventional and zero-till conditions, until 234 and 250 fixed
lines, were obtained. They then grew all
484 wheat lines over the course of three seasons near Ciudad Obregon, Sonora,
Mexico, under three different environments, — zero tillage, conventional
tillage, and conventional tillage with reduced irrigation – and tested them for
yield and growth traits.
The authors found that yields were better under zero tillage
than conventional tillage for all wheat lines, regardless of how they had been
bred and selected, as this condition provided longer water availability between
irrigations and mitigated inter-irrigation water stress.
The main result was that selection environment, zero-till
versus conventional till, did not produce lines with specific adaptation to
either conditions, nor did it negatively impact the results of the breeding
program for traits such as plant height, tolerance to lodging and earliness.
One trait which was slightly affected by selection under
zero-till was early vigor – the speed at which crops grow during the earliest stage
of growth. Early vigor is a useful adaptive trait in conservation agriculture
because it allows the crop to cope with high crop residue loads – materials
left on the ground such as leaves, stems and seed pods – and can improve yield
through rapid development of maximum leaf area in dry environments. Results
showed that varieties selected under zero tillage showed slightly increased
early vigor which means that selection under zero tillage may drive a breeding
program towards the generalization of this useful attribute.
The findings demonstrate that CIMMYT’s durum wheat lines,
traditionally bred for wide-adaptation, can be grown, bred, and selected under
either tillage conditions without negatively affecting yield performance. This
is yet another clear demonstration that breeding for wide adaptation, a decades-long
tradition within CIMMYT’s wheat improvement effort, is a suitable strategy to
produce varieties that are competitive in a wide range of production systems. The
findings represent a major result for wheat breeders at CIMMYT and beyond, with
the authors concluding that it is not necessary to have separate breeding
programs to address the varietal needs of either tillage systems.
This work was
implemented by CIMMYT as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT).
Read more results and recommendations in the study, “Durum wheat selection under zero tillage increases early vigor and is neutral to yield” in Field Crops Research, November 2019.