Posts Tagged ‘Europe’

Rebuttal letter sets the record straight on crop breeding for climate change resilience

Crop scientists refute the flawed findings of a study questioning climate resilience in modern wheat breeding.

This article by Marcia MacNeil was originally posted on May 28, 2019 on

CIMMYT field workers working on wheat crossing as part of the breeding process. (Photo: CIMMYT)

In early 2019, an article published by European climate researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) journal questioned the climate resilience of modern wheat varieties. The article suggested that modern wheat varieties showed reduced climate resilience as a direct result of modern breeding methods and practices, a claim that researchers at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) vehemently rebuke

In a rebuttal letter published in the June issue of PNAS a group of scientists, including CIMMYT’s Susanne Dreisigacker and Sarah Hearne, strongly contradict the finding that breeding has reduced climate resilience in European wheat, citing significant flaws in the authors’ methodology, data analyses and interpretation.

“This article discredits European plant breeders and wheat breeders in general, who have been working over many decades to produce a wide range of regionally adapted, stable varieties which perform well under a broad range of climate change conditions,” said CIMMYT wheat molecular geneticist Susanne Dreisigacker.

Among other flaws, they found a number of omissions and inconsistencies.

  • The article shows a lack of understanding of commonly used terms and principles of breeding theory, criticizing newer wheat varieties for demonstrating a decrease in “climatic response diversity.” Less diversity in wheat response — that is, more stable yields despite the influence of climate change — is a benefit, not a threat, to farmers.
  • The article authors contradict the common knowledge among farmers and plant breeders that new elite wheat varieties are generally more productive than older varieties; new cultivars are only approved if they show added value in direct comparison to existing varieties.
  • The article’s claim of long-term losses of climate resilience in “European wheat” is unsubstantiated. The authors extensively used data from three small countries — the Czech Republic, Denmark and Slovakia — which contribute less than five percent of Europe’s wheat supply. Three of the five most important wheat producers in Europe — Russia, Ukraine and the United Kingdom — were not accounted for in the analysis.
  • The authors failed to report the actual wheat yields in their study, neglected to publish the underlying data with the manuscript and have up to now declined requests to make the data available.

Europe is one of the world’s major wheat producers and threats to its wheat production due to climate change would have serious consequences for world’s food security. Luckily, say the scientists who published the rebuttal letter, this fear is unfounded.

“Wheat producers and bread consumers around the world will be relieved to learn that breeders have not ignored climate change after all,” said letter lead-author Rod Snowdon, from the Department of Plant Breeding at Justus Liebig University of Giessen, Germany.

The full rebuttal letter by 19 international plant breeders, agronomists and scientists, is available on the PNAS site and reprinted in its entirety below.

Reduced response diversity does not negatively impact wheat climate resilience

Kahiluoto et al. (1) assert that climate resilience in European wheat has declined due to current breeding practices. To support this alarming claim, the authors report yield variance data indicating increasingly homogeneous responses to climatic fluctuations in modern wheat cultivars. They evaluated “response diversity,” a measure of responses to environmental change among different species jointly contributing to ecosystem functions (2). We question the suitability of this measure to describe agronomic fitness in single-cultivar wheat cropping systems. Conclusions are made about “long-term trends,” which in fact span data from barely a decade, corresponding to the duration of a single wheat breeding cycle. The authors furthermore acknowledge increasing climate variability during the study period, confounding their analysis of climate response in the same time span.

The underlying data are not published with the manuscript. Thus, the assertion that there is “no inherent trade-off between yield potential and diversity in weather responses” (1) cannot be verified. Inexplicably, the analysis and conclusions ignore absolute yields, which increase over time through breeding (3–6). Furthermore, incompatible data from completely different ecogeographical forms and species of wheat are apparently considered together, and the dataset is strongly biased toward a few small countries with minimal wheat production and narrow agroclimatic gradients.

The study assumes that increased response diversity among different cultivars is associated with yield stability. In contrast, the common, agronomic definition of yield stability refers to the ability of a single cultivar to stably perform well in diverse environments, without excessive responses to fluctuating conditions. Response diversity measures that ignore absolute yield do not support statements about food security or financial returns to farmers.

Cultivar yield potential, stability, and adaptation are enhanced by multienvironment selection over long breeding time frames, encompassing climate fluctuations and a multitude of other relevant environmental variables. Translation to on-farm productivity is promoted by national registration trials and extensive, postregistration regional variety trials in diverse environments. The unsurprising conclusion that planting multiple cultivars enhances overall production stability mirrors longstanding farming recommendations and practice (7). The availability of robust performance data from a broad range of high-performing cultivars enables European farmers to manage their production and income risks.

Kahiluoto et al. (1) speculate about “genetic erosion” of modern cultivars due to a “lack of incentives for breeders to introduce divergent material.” To substantiate these claims, the authors cite inadequate genetic data from non-European durum wheat (8), while explicitly dismissing clearly opposing findings about genetic diversity in European bread wheat (9). Short-term reductions in response diversity in five countries were misleadingly reported as a “long-term decline” in climate resilience in “most European countries,” although six out of seven countries with sufficient data showed no long-term decline. The article from Kahiluoto et al. and the misrepresentation of its results distorts decades of rigorous, successful breeding for yield potential and stability in European wheat and misleads farmers with pronouncements that are not supported by relevant data.


1 H. Kahiluoto et al., Decline in climate resilience of European wheat. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 116, 123–128 (2019).

2 T. Elmqvist et al., Response diversity, ecosystem change, and resilience. Front. Ecol. Environ. 1, 488–494 (2003).

3 S. De Schepper, M. De Loose, E. Van Bockstaele, P. Debergh, Ploidy analysis of azalea flower colour sports. Meded. Rijksuniv. Gent. Fak. Landbouwkd. Toegep. Biol. Wet. 66, 447–449 (2001).

4 I. Mackay et al., Reanalyses of the historical series of UK variety trials to quantify the contributions of genetic and environmental factors to trends and variability in yield over time. Theor. Appl. Genet. 122, 225–238 (2011).

5 F. Laidig et al., Breeding progress, environmental variation and correlation of winter wheat yield and quality traits in German official variety trials and on-farm during 1983-2014. Theor. Appl. Genet. 130, 223–245 (2017).

6 T. Würschum, W. L. Leiser, S. M. Langer, M. R. Tucker, C. F. H. Longin, Phenotypic and genetic analysis of spike and kernel characteristics in wheat reveals long-term genetic trends of grain yield components. Theor. Appl. Genet. 131, 2071–2084 (2018).

7 P. Annicchiarico, “Genotype x environment interactions: Challenges and opportunities for plant breeding and cultivar recommendations.” (Food and Agriculture 201 Organisation of the United Nations, Rome, Italy, 2002), FAO Plant Production and Protection Paper 174.

8 F. Henkrar et al., Genetic diversity reduction in improved durum wheat cultivars of Morocco as revealed by microsatellite markers. Sci. Agric. 73, 134–141 (2016).

9 M. van de Wouw, T. van Hintum, C. Kik, R. van Treuren, B. Visser, Genetic diversity trends in twentieth century crop cultivars: A meta analysis. Theor. Appl. Genet. 120, 1241–1252 (2010).

Deadly strain of wheat stem rust disease surfaces in Europe

Scientists have shown that the first appearance of wheat stem rust disease in the U.K. in nearly 60 years, which occurred in 2013, was caused by the same virulent fungal strain responsible for recent wheat stem rust outbreaks in Ethiopia, Denmark, Germany, and Sweden.

Wheat stem rust was reported by the Greeks and Romans, and the latter sacrificed to the gods to avoid disease outbreaks on their wheat crops. Photo: CIMMYT/Petr Kosina

Wheat stem rust was reported by the Greeks and Romans, and the latter sacrificed
to the gods to avoid disease outbreaks on their wheat crops.
Photo: CIMMYT/Petr Kosina

As reported today in Communications Biology, an international team of researchers led by the John Innes Centre, U.K., found that 80 percent of U.K. wheat varieties are susceptible to the deadly stem rust strain. The group also confirmed for the first time in many decades that the stem rust fungus was growing on barberry bush, the pathogen’s alternate host, in the UK.

“This signals the rising threat of stem rust disease for wheat and barley production in Europe,” said Dave Hodson, senior scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and co-author on the study.

A scourge of wheat since biblical times, stem rust caused major losses to North American wheat crops in the early 20th century. Stem rust disease was controlled for decades through the use of resistant wheat varieties bred in the 1950s by scientist Norman Borlaug and his colleagues. Widespread adoption of those varieties sparked the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 70s.

In 1999 a new, highly-virulent strain of the stem rust fungus emerged in eastern Africa. Spores of that strain and variants have spread rapidly and are threatening or overcoming the genetic resistance of many currently sown wheat varieties. Scientists worldwide joined forces in the early 2000s to develop new, resistant varieties and to monitor and control outbreaks of stem rust and yellow rust, as part of collaborations such as the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative led by Cornell University.

Barberry is a shrub found throughout the temperate and subtropical regions. Photo: CIMMYT archives

Barberry is a shrub found throughout
the temperate and subtropical regions.
Photo: John Innes Centre

The Communications Biology study shows that 2013 U.K. stem rust strain is related to TKTTF, a fungal race first detected in Turkey that spread across the Middle East and recently into Europe. It was the dominant race in the 2013 stem rust outbreak in Germany and infected 10,000 hectares of wheat in Ethiopia’s breadbasket the same year.

Because disease organisms mutate quickly to overcome crop resistance controlled by single genes, researchers are rushing to identify new resistance genes and to incorporate multiple genes into high-yielding varieties, according to Ravi Singh, CIMMYT wheat scientist who participated in the reported study.

“The greatest hope for achieving durable resistance to rust diseases is to make wheat’s resistance genetically complex, combining several genes and resistance mechanisms,” Singh explained.

Barberry, which serves as a spawning ground for the stem rust fungus, was largely eradicated from the U.K. and U.S. last century, greatly reducing the spread and genetic diversification of rust disease races. Now barberry is being grown again in the U.K. over the last decade, according to Diane G.O. Saunders, John Innes Centre scientist and co-author of the study.

“The late Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug said that the greatest ally of the pathogen is our short memory,” Saunders stated. “We recommend continued, intensive resistance breeding. We would also welcome work with conservationists of endangered, barberry-dependent insect species to ensure that planting of common barberry occurs away from arable land, thus safeguarding European cereals from a large-scale re-emergence of wheat stem rust.”

Click here to read the John Innes Centre media release about the Communications Biology report and view the report.