Posts Tagged ‘landrace’

A view from Afghanistan

Rajiv Kumar Sharma on insecurity, rural isolation and challenge of supporting crop production in a conflict zone.

by Emma Orchardson

Farmers inspect wheat in Balkh, Afghanistan. Credit: USAID Afghanistan

In September 2002, looters raided the storage facilities housing Afghanistan’s largest collection of crop genetic material. In the towns of Ghazni and Jalalabad, hundreds of samples of the country’s rich agricultural heritage were lost as wheat, barley, pistachio and pomegranate seeds were ripped from the plastic containers designed to preserve them. The incident was described as a tragic loss, with representatives from the United Nations lamenting the fact that these lost varieties were essential genetic resources for sustaining future food production in a country where farmers struggle to withstand harsh climatic conditions such as recurrent drought.

Nearly two decades later, these climatic challenges have been further compounded by demographic ones, as rising population and income levels fuel consumption of some of the country’s most important cereal crops, including wheat – which makes up around 60% of the nation’s daily caloric intake – and maize. Failure to meet domestic demand could have devasting consequences in a country whose growth and economy are dominated by agriculture.

Some of Afghanistan’s obstacles to crop production are not unique. Poor market support, limited mechanization and inadequate storage stifle growing and processing activities from Latin America to South Asia. Others – such as rain dependent wheat and grossly deficient extension services – are more specific to a country in the midst of ongoing and widespread conflict. As anti-government forces continue to target transport infrastructure and police road travel between provinces, links between the nation’s pockets of relative urban security and the 70% of Afghans who live and work in rural areas are drastically reduced.

Farmers beyond reach

“Insecurity is by far the biggest hurdle in communication with and reaching out to farmers,” says Rajiv Kumar Sharma, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center’s (CIMMYT) Country Representative for Afghanistan.

The organization has been operating in the country since 2002, supporting national agricultural research systems through the provision of germplasm, support for data collection and analysis, and working to release high-yielding, disease resistant crop varieties into the Afghan seed system and farmers’ fields. While capacity development for local research partners has been extremely successful, connecting directly with farmers remains practically impossible in many areas.

Sharma points to the results of a 2016 survey on the adoption of new improved maize and wheat varieties and crop management practices under local conditions, which found much higher adoption rates among farmers who had received some form of training or who had access to markets and a main road. “However, because even the most basic transport facilities are missing in most places, during our field visits or meetings it was not unusual to hear from farmers that it was the first time they had ever met their extension workers.”

“It’s a very complicated situation,” he explains. “We cannot look at any one factor in isolation because everything is interconnected – insecurity, governance, infrastructure, logistics, access to roads, transport and markets.”

Even the country’s seed market, he adds, seems to be an artificial one. “I used to say that the seed market was donor-driven because they would give money to the government, who would purchase all the seed produced and distribute among farmers. But once that system dwindled around 2014/15, seed production came down. If production is not remunerative, farmers simply aren’t going to invest.”

In the face of limited resources and capacity, non-available irrigation services, collapsed industry and a fragile economy, Sharma highlights the lack of infrastructure as the main limiting factor in developing the country’s seed sector. “It matters because it really impacts the extent to which we can reach people.”

“Did you know, for example, that Afghanistan did not have a postal system until few years ago and the one present today is not fully functioning. Can you imagine how much effort it takes for us just to move our seed packets and data sheets from one province to another?”

With no functioning courier services and limited public transport between cities, trial data dispatches are sent across the country using private taxi services. There are obvious and imaginable challenges involved in working in a conflict zone, he explains, but realities on the ground are often more challenging than what you’d expect.

Successes with seed

It’s not all doom and gloom in Kabul though, and Sharma remains optimistic about the progress of CIMMYT’s work in Afghanistan despite the numerous challenges. “It’s not easy working here, but still we can do something.”

Recent successes include the release of four new high yielding and disease resistant wheat varieties in early 2020 and the successful culmination of the “Improving food security by enhancing wheat production and its resilience to climate change through maintaining the diversity of currently grown landraces” project in December 2019. Funded by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, the project supported the collection, characterization and evaluation of the country’s landraces and relied heavily on dedicated local staff and their ability to navigate the territory as safely as possible. “They know where they can and can’t go, as well as the dynamics and how to protect themselves,” Sharma explains.

In the northwestern provinces of Balkh and Herat, staff were able to collect landraces from farmer fields for testing against modern improved varieties at research stations. The team were then able to remove those susceptible to disease, purify the superior ones and improve them with regards to variability and uniformity. They found that, on average, Afghan wheat landraces yielded highest under rainfed conditions when compared with those from Iran and Turkey, as well as against winter wheat trials carried out in 2018.

These landraces have since been used in breeding improvement and crossing programs, as well as being multiplied and given back to local communities. “This has really enriched regional variability and made these landraces more useful for those communities who grow them and thus contribute to conserving useful variability on farm.”

Happy New Year from the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat!

2019 was an eventful year for wheat. Scientists from the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) and our global partners made groundbreaking progress for the more than 2 billion people who depend on wheat for their livelihoods and daily food.

Here are a few of the accomplishments we look back on in 2019.

WHEAT scientists joined more than 900 colleagues worldwide at the first International Wheat Congress, held in Saskatoon, Canada in July. They shared cutting edge findings to improve yield, nutrition, and climate change resilience, including state-of-the-art approaches to accelerate breeding for heat and drought tolerance, new sources of diversity for pest resistance, the link between nighttime temperatures and yield loss, and much more.

Safeguarding the biodiversity of wheat is crucial for developing new, resilient wheat varieties. We made exciting progress on finding and saving “lost” landraces

With our partners, we developed innovative digital tools to track the spread of improved varieties through DNA fingerprinting and to detect devastating rust disease from the field in nearly real-time with MARPLE diagnostics.

Our scientists also worked on identifying climate-friendly and cost-effective farming practices that can increase Indian farmers’ profits and cut pollution in the Indo-Gangetic plains.

As we enter 2020, we are inspired by evidence that research building on the recent breakthroughs in mapping the wheat genome will improve the yield, climate-resilience, and quality of bread wheat. 

This would not be possible without your support. Thank you!  We look forward to continuing our collaboration on wheat research that improves livelihoods.

Best regards for the new year and please stay in touch! Check out our 
blog, follow us on Facebook, and subscribe to our quarterly newsletter, The WHEAT Wire.      

The end of an era: Alexey Morgunov retires after a 28-year career

This story written by Alison Doody was originally posted on the CIMMYT website.

At the end of 2019, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) will say goodbye to Alexey Morgunov, head of the International Winter Wheat Improvement Program (IWWIP) in Turkey.

A native of Russia, Morgunov joined CIMMYT as a spring wheat breeder in 1991 working with Sanjaya Rajaram, former Global Wheat Program director and World Food Prize laureate. Morgunov went on to work as a breeder of winter wheat in Turkey in 1994 and later to Kazakhstan, where he helped generate new wheat varieties and technologies for Central Asia and the Caucasus region.

Since 2006 he has led the International Winter Wheat Improvement Program (IWWIP), a highly-productive collaboration between Turkey, the International Center for Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), and CIMMYT.

As part of that program, Morgunov contributed to the development of more than 70 widely grown wheat varieties in Central and West Asia and, in 2013, to a national wheat landrace inventory in Turkey. He has also helped develop and characterize synthetic wheats — created by crossing modern durum wheat with grassy relatives of the crop — and used them in breeding to broaden the diversity of winter wheat.

Alex Morgunov (right) with World Food Prize laureate and former CIMMYT wheat program director Sanjaya Rajaram. (Photo: Alex Morgunov/CIMMYT)
Alex Morgunov (right) with World Food Prize laureate and former CIMMYT wheat program director Sanjaya Rajaram. (Photo: Alex Morgunov/CIMMYT)

A professional journey across Central Asia

Morgunov said his childhood in rural Russia instilled in him the importance of agriculture and of education.

“My parents, who lived in rural Russia, went through hunger and were trying to make sure that their children worked somewhere close to food production so that we wouldn’t go hungry,” he explained. “They said: ‘OK, Alex, you go to an agricultural university and you will not be hungry.’ ”

After his university studies, Morgunov joined the Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge as a visiting scientist in the late 1980s, where he crossed paths with CIMMYT scientists seeking to partner with the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union. After an interview in 1991, he was invited to join the CIMMYT team in Mexico as a wheat breeder.

He was later posted to Kazakhstan to build relationships in Central Asia, a period he cites as a standout. “In the late 90s CIMMYT started working with Central Asian countries experiencing severe food security issues,” he said. “They didn’t really have any technologies or varieties for grain production, so we started a program in 95/96 which later developed into a CGIAR program.”

“We had great impact in those countries at the time, introducing zero tillage in Kazakhstan, new seed varieties in Tajikistan after the civil war, and high-yielding rust-resistant varieties to Uzbekistan.”

Reflecting on his time at CIMMYT, it was the friends and connections he made that stood out the most for Morgunov.

“The thing I most enjoyed was communicating with colleagues,” Morgunov said. “You start working in Kazakhstan and other places and building up cooperation and technical relationships and, over time, these relationships become friendships that we enjoy for as long as we live. I think this is very satisfactory for us as human beings.”

Last month, Morgunov received a fellowship from the Crop Science Society of America. The award is the highest recognition granted by the association.

Active retirement

One of Morgunov’s passions is sailing. (Photo: Alex Morgunov)
One of Morgunov’s passions is sailing. (Photo: Alex Morgunov)

Despite his plans to retire, Morgunov still plans to continue working — but on his own terms. “My wife is from Kazakhstan so we will be moving there and I plan to continue working in a different capacity and different schedule,” he explains. “Some Russian universities are writing to me to participate in projects and also universities from Kazakhstan. I have a couple of PhD students in Kazakhstan so I’d like to move more into the educational side of things, working with younger people.”

He was also given an Adjunct Faculty position by Washington State University early this year and will volunteer for them.

Morgunov has also recommended that CIMMYT creates an “emeritus” status for long-serving colleagues retiring from the organization, so they can continue to support the organization.

It won’t be all work though. Morgunov is a devoted tennis player and plans to improve his backhand. A keen sailor, he also hopes to spend more time on the waves and visiting new countries.

Discovering the value of “lost” wheat landraces

Efforts to preserve wheat biodiversity help crops, farmers and consumers

For more than 8000 years in an area that now includes Turkey and Afghanistan hundreds of local varieties — or landraces— evolved to be uniquely adapted to their environment and ideally suited for local production and consumption.  Over the years, for economic reasons, many farmers have adopted higher-yielding modern varieties, with only small subsistence farmers in remote areas still growing ancient landraces.  In Turkey, for example, a 2009 study showed the share of local landraces was under 1 percent of the total wheat production area.

Finding, identifying and conserving these local varieties not only safeguards the great biodiversity of wheat in the world, but also helps state of the art efforts to develop resistance to pests and disease, tolerance to environmental stresses and more nutritious wheat.

A selection of ancient wheat landraces found in Turkey. Photo: FAO

In a 5-year project supported by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture Benefit-Sharing Fund, wheat researchers from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), such as winter wheat breeder and head of the Turkey-based International Winter Wheat Improvement Program Alex Morgunov, combed the countryside of Turkey for ancient wheat varieties.  Between 2009 and 2014 they identified around 162 local landraces in Turkey alone. 

Now a new project, Wheat Landraces, supported by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture,  has expanded to more countries in this region, where wheat plays an important role in food security and landraces continue to be cultivated.  Researchers from CIMMYT and Turkey’s Bahri Dagdas International Agricultural Research Institute are selecting the most promising wheat landraces collected from farmers in those remote regions and using them to develop new, more resilient wheat germplasm for breeding and research.

To complete the cycle, they plan to distribute the seeds of these improved landraces to farming communities in the target provinces and offer training on sustainably cultivating their unique landraces to maintain biodiversity in their fields.  

“These landraces are very important to small farmers in remote mountainous regions,” said Morgunov.  “And they are rich source of genetic traits to fight future threats to wheat production.”

“We are honored to help farmers keep these varieties alive in their fields.”

Transporting harvested local wheat landraces in Turkey. Photo: Alex Morgunov, CIMMYT

Diversity is beneficial for not only wheat health, but human health as well. A conference this fall in Istanbul will bring wheat researchers and the health community together to share progress and discuss strategies for improving the health benefits of wheat using diverse genetic resources.


The Wheat Landraces project is led by CIMMYT and supported by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture Benefit-Sharing Fund.