Community celebrates nearly 50 years of achievements; highlights ways to meet future challenges
It was 1974. In the
United States, the environmental movement was in full swing, with the first
celebration of Earth Day, the establishment of the Environmental Protection
Agency, and the publication of Rachel Carson’s revolutionary book, Silent Spring. Around the world, the
public was gaining awareness of the danger of overuse of pesticides, as a small
group of crop breeders and entomologists decided to get together in what would
become the first International Plant Resistance to Insects (IPRI) workshop.
Today, the need for insect resistance is even greater. The UN,
which has named 2020 as the International Year of
Plant Health, estimates that almost 40% of food crops are lost
annually due to plant pests and diseases. The losses due to insects total up to
$1billion a year for wheat alone. Climate
change is another factor affecting the population and geographical
distribution of pests.
Last week, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement
Center (CIMMYT) hosted IPRI’s 24th biannual session, convening
entomologists, pathologists, breeders and nematologists to validate past work and
highlight innovative solutions. To name
South Africa’s Agricultural Research Council has
developed 43 new cultivars of wheat that are resistant to Russian Wheat Aphid.
CIMMYT precision scientists are using high-tech
cameras on drones or planes to measure individual plants for signs of biotic
stress, to allow farmers advance notice of infestation.
North Dakota State University’s mapping of the
Hessian Fly H26 gene has revealed two clear phenotypic responses to Hessian fly
attacks, bringing breeders a step closer towards developing resistant wheat
CIMMYT-designed Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
packages are helping farmers from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds
and cropping systems effectively fight the devastating maize pest fall armyworm
through a combination of best management practices.
A recurring theme was the importance of collaboration
between entomologists and breeders to ensure breakthroughs in resistance genes
are taken up to develop new varieties that reach farmers.
“There is a disconnect between screening and breeding,” CIMMYT
Global Wheat Program Director Hans Braun told attendees. “We need more and better collaboration between
disciplines, to move from screening to breeding faster.”
Communicating to farmers is crucial. Pesticides are
expensive, harmful to both human health and the environment, and can lead to crop
resistance. However, they can appear to
be the quick and easy solution. “IPM also means ‘integrating people’s
mindsets,’” said B.M. Prasanna, director of CIMMYT’s Global Maize Program.
National policies instituting strict quarantines pose
another serious barrier to the exchange of seeds required for testing and
To mark the workshop’s 24th anniversary, Michael
Smith, entomologist at Kansas State University and longtime IPRI participant, offered
a brief history of the event and the field—from the first insect-resistant
wheat developed in the early 1920s to the wake-up call of pesticide abuse in
“We’ve grown, we’ve made enormous technological changes, but
‘talking to people’ is still what we’re here for,” he stated. He added a
challenge for his colleagues: “We need
to tell a better story of the economic benefits of our science. We need to get
to the table in an even more assertive way.”
He also shared some lighter memories, such as the sight of
imminent plant scientists relaxing in leisure suits at the 1978 session. A traditional
mariachi serenade and traditional Mexican cuisine ensured that more memories
were made in 2020.
Leonardo Crespo-Herrera, CIMMYT wheat breeder
and workshop moderator closed with encouraging and provocative words for the
“The ultimate objective is to reduce the use of pesticides,” he said, adding: “How do we get this research out of the lab and into the field?”
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.
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.
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).
“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.
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.
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).
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
validation work and ASI translation and extension components with support from
the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Bill and Melinda Gates
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).
WHEAT media sponsorship connects scientists and reporters at international wheat conference
by Marcia MacNeil
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.”
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
“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.”
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
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.
“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.”
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
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.
The sponsored journalists are:
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,
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A global alliance of countries and research institutions committed to sharing plant genetic material , including the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and Cornell University, has secured food access for billions of people, but a patchwork of legal restrictions threatens humanity’s ability to feed a growing global population.
That jeopardizes decades of hard-won food security gains, according to Ronnie Coffman, international professor of plant breeding and director of International Programs in the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (IP-CALS).
“Global food security depends on the free movement and open sharing of plant genetic resources,” Coffman said July 23 at the International Wheat Congress in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. “Without a strong commitment to scientific exchange in support of global plant breeding efforts, we risk our ability to respond to current food crises and to protect future generations.”
Effective plant breeding programs depend on the exchange of seeds, pathogens, and plant genetic material – known as germplasm – between and among countries. Coordination among plant pathologists and breeders forms a symbiotic partnership as plant and disease specimens collected in countries around the world are sent to research institutions to be analyzed and tested. Those findings in turn inform the breeding of improved, location-specific crop varieties that are resistant to disease and adapted to increasingly unpredictable environmental conditions.
The Convention on Biological Diversity gives countries sovereign rights over their own biological resources. The multilateral treaty, signed in 1993, allows each state to draw up its own regulations. An update known as the Nagoya Protocol, ratified in 2014, has subjected plant breeders and the seed industry to increased legal wrangling. Some countries are particularly draconian in their enforcement, and without a universal legal framework, the uneven standards threaten to undermine scientific exchange, Coffman said.
He argued that current regulations bring international lawyers, accountants and bankers with little to no background in plant breeding onto the playing field of crop improvement to act as referees. The patchwork of laws and norms, which have grown increasingly complicated in recent years, hampers scientific advancement and ultimately harms the farmers who depend on improved crops.
Coffman called for an overhaul of international laws that regulate the sharing of plant genetic resources, and for plant scientists to advocate to protect the unimpeded exchange of material and knowledge.
“It takes an international community of scientists and genetic resources to fight pathogens like stem rust that do not respect international boundaries,” he said. “Stringent regulations and country-specific control are stifling the germplasm exchanges critical to agriculture and horticulture.”
The CGIAR system — and CIMMYT and ICARDA (International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas) in particular — are the conservators of enormous gene banks of germplasm. Those resources have been essential in improving many crops to fight biotic and abiotic stresses.
“Germplasm exchange and information sharing is paramount for global wheat improvement as they are the basis for much of the progress made,” said Hans Braun, director of CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat. “Going forward, we must protect open access and exchange because the value of germplasm resources in national and international gene banks can only be realized when they are shared and used.”
Hunger and malnutrition cause 9 million deaths globally per year, a number that could skyrocket without an international effort to respond in unison. Annual global losses to crops like wheat could be devastating in the absence of germplasm and effective breeding programs.
Since 2008, the Cornell-led Borlaug Global Rust Initiative has spearheaded efforts to combat threats to global wheat production. There are now approximately 215 million hectares of wheat under cultivation worldwide, most of it genetically susceptible to one or more races of newly identified stem rust and yellow rust pathogens. Highly virulent races of rust pathogens can easily reduce yields by 10% or more. The 1953 rust epidemic in North America resulted in average yield losses of 40% across U.S. and Canadian spring wheat growing areas.
As one part of its efforts to reduce the world’s vulnerability to wheat diseases, the Cornell-led Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) project – funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UK Aid from the British people – collects samples of plant pathogens such as stem rust and yellow rust from 40 countries and analyzes them in biosafety testing labs in Minnesota, Denmark, Canada, Turkey, Ethiopia, Kenya and India.
Exchanging germplasm has allowed the DGGW project to take multiple approaches to achieving long-lasting resilience, from conventional breeding, to marker assisted selection and high-end basic science explorations. DGGW and its forerunner, the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project, have, since 2008, released more than 169 wheat varieties with increased yields and improved disease resistance in 11 at-risk countries, helping to improve smallholder farmers’ food security and livelihoods.
The DGGW relies on exchanges of germplasm and rust samples across international borders, and the project has encountered increased regulation in recent years, said Maricelis Acevedo, associate director of science for the DGGW and adjunct associate professor of plant pathology at Cornell.
“It takes an international community of scientists and genetic resources to fight pathogens like stem rust that know no international boundaries,” Acevedo said. “We must continue to protect — and use — those resources in our quest for global food security.”
Based on a rigorous large-scale study spanning five decades
of wheat breeding progress under cropping systems with low, medium and high
fertilizer and chemical plant protection usage, the authors conclude that
modern wheat breeding practices aimed at high-input farming systems have
promoted genetic gains and yield stability across a wide range of environments
and management conditions.
In other words, wheat breeding benefits not only large-scale
and high-input farmers but also resource-poor, smallholder farmers who do not
use large amounts of fertilizer, fungicide, and other inputs.
This finding underscores the efficiency of a centralized
breeding effort to improve livelihoods across the globe – the philosophy behind
the breeding programs of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center
(CIMMYT) over the past 50 years.
It also contradicts a commonly held belief that breeding for
intensive systems is detrimental to performance under more marginal growing
environments, and refutes an argument by Green Revolution critics that breeding
should be targeted to resource-poor farmers.
“Given that wheat is the most widely grown crop in the
world, sown annually on around 220 million ha and providing approximately 20%
of human calories and protein, the social and economic implications are large,“
Among other implications,
The study found that modern breeding has reduced
groups of genes (haplotypes) with negative or neutral effects – a finding which
will help breeders combine positive haplotypes in the future, including for
The study demonstrates the benefits of breeding
for overall yield potential, which — given that wheat is grown over a wider
range of environments, altitudes and latitudes than any other crop, with widely
ranging agronomic inputs – has significant cost-saving implications.
Braun and Reynolds acknowledge that the longstanding beliefs
challenged by this study have a range of influences, from concern about rural
livelihoods, to the role of corporate agribusiness and the capacity of Earth’s
natural resources to sustain 10 billion people.
While they welcome the conclusions as a validation of their
work, they warn against seeing the study as “a rubber stamp for all things
‘high-input’” and encourage openness to new ideas as the need arises.
“If the climate worsens, as it seems destined to, we must
certainly be open to new ways of doing business in crop improvement, while
having the common sense to embrace proven technologies, ” they conclude.
Mechanization could boost Ethiopian wheat production and provide youth with new job opportunities. (Photo: Gerardo Mejía/CIMMYT)
This blog by Jérôme Bousset was originally posted on CIMMYT.org.
The Ethiopian government announced recently that the country should become wheat self-sufficient over the next four years. Why is boosting domestic wheat production important for this country in the Horn of Africa, and could wheat self-sufficiency be attained in the next four years? The Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research (EIAR), with the support of International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), gathered agriculture and food experts from the government, research and private sectors on November 23, 2018, to draw the first outlines of this new Ethiopian wheat initiative.
The low-tech domestic wheat farming and price support issue
Despite a record harvest of 4.6 million metric tons in 2017, Ethiopia imported 1.5 million tons of wheat the same year, costing US$600 million. Population growth, continuous economic growth and urbanization over the last decade has led to a rapid change in Ethiopian diets, and the wheat sector cannot keep up with the growing demand for pasta, dabo, ambasha and other Ethiopian breads.
The majority of Ethiopia’s 4.2 million wheat farmers cultivate this cereal on an average of 1.2-hectare holdings, with three quarters produced in Arsi, Bale and Shewa regions. Most prepare the land and sow with draft animal power equipment and few inputs, dependent on erratic rainfall without complementary irrigation. Yields have doubled over the last 15 years and reached 2.7 tons per hectare according to the latest agricultural statistics, but are still far from the yield potential.
According to data from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), wheat is preferred by wealthier, urban families, who consume 33 percent more wheat than rural households. Ethiopia needs to rethink its wheat price support system, which does not incentivize farmers and benefits mostly the wealthier, urban consumers. Wheat price support subsidies could, for instance, target bakeries located in poor neighborhoods.
Ethiopia’s Minister of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Eyasu Abraha, welcomes conference participants. (Photo: Jérôme Bossuet/CIMMYT)
Where to start to boost wheat productivity?
Ethiopia, especially in the highlands, has an optimum environment to grow wheat. But to make significant gains, the wheat sector needs to identify what limiting factors to address first. The Wheat initiative, led by Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), has targeted 2,000 progressive farmers across 41 woredas (districts) between 2013 and 2018, to promote the use of improved and recommended inputs and better cropping techniques within their communities. A recent IFPRI impact study showed a 14 percent yield increase, almost enough to substitute wheat imports if scaled up across the country. It is, however, far from the doubling of yields expected initially. The study shows that innovations like row planting were not widely adopted because of the additional labor required.
Hans Braun, WHEAT CGIAR research program and CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program director, believes Ethiopian farmers can achieve self-sufficiency if they have the right seeds, the right agronomy and the right policy support.
One priority is to increase support for wheat improvement research to make wheat farmers more resilient to new diseases and climate shocks. Drought and heat tolerance, rust resistance and high yields even in low-fertility soils are some of the factors sought by wheat farmers.
International collaboration in durum wheat breeding is urgently needed as the area under durum wheat is declining in Ethiopia due to climate change, diseases and farmers switching to more productive and resilient bread wheat varieties. Braun advises that Ethiopia set up a shuttle breeding program with CIMMYT in Mexico, as Kenya did for bread wheat, to develop high-yielding and stress-resistant varieties. Such a shuttle breeding program between Ethiopia and Mexico would quickly benefit Ethiopian durum wheat farmers, aiming at raising their yields similar to those of Mexican farmers in the state of Sonora, who harvest more than 7 tons per hectare under irrigation. This would require a policy reform to facilitate the exchange of durum germplasm between Ethiopia and Mexico, as it is not possible at the moment.
Ethiopia also needs to be equipped to respond quickly to emerging pests and diseases. Five years ago, a new stem rust (TKTTF, also called Digalu race) damaged more than 20,000 hectares of wheat in Arsi and Bale, as Digalu — the popular variety used by local farmers — was sensitive to this new strain. The MARPLE portable rust testing lab, a fast and cost-effective rust surveillance system, is now helping Ethiopian plant health authorities quickly identify new rust strains and take preventive actions to stop new outbreaks.
CIMMYT’s representative in Ethiopia, Bekele Abeyo, gives an interview for Ethiopian media during the conference. (Photo: Jérôme Bossuet/CIMMYT)
Invest in soil health, mechanization and gender
In addition to better access to improved seeds and recommended inputs, better agronomic practices are needed. Scaling the use of irrigation would certainly increase wheat yields, but experts warn not to dismiss adequate agronomic research — knowing the optimal water needs of the crop for each agroecological zone — and the underlying drainage system. Otherwise, farmers are at risk of losing their soils forever due to an accumulation of salt.
‘’2.5 billion tons of topsoil are lost forever every year due to erosion. A long-term plan to address soil erosion and low soil fertility should be a priority,” highlights Marco Quinones, adviser at ATA. For instance, large-scale lime application can solve the important issue of acid soils, where wheat does not perform well. But it requires several years before the soil can be reclaimed and visible yield effects can be seen.
Mechanization could also boost Ethiopian wheat production and provide youth with new job opportunities. Recent research showed smallholder farmers can benefit from six promising two-wheel tractor (2WT) technologies. Identifying the right business models and setting up adapted training programs and financial support will help the establishment of viable machinery service providers across the country.
Better gender equity will also contribute significantly to Ethiopia becoming self-sufficient in wheat production. Women farmers, especially female-headed households, do not have the same access to trainings, credit, inputs or opportunities to experiment with new techniques or seed varieties because of gender norms. Gender transformative methodologies, like community conversations, can help identify collective ways to address such inequalities, which cost over one percent of GDP every year.
‘’With one third better seeds, one third good agronomy and one third good policies, Ethiopia will be able to be wheat self-sufficient,” concluded Braun. A National Wheat Taskforce led by EIAR will start implementing a roadmap in the coming days, with the first effects expected for the next planting season in early 2019.