Posts Tagged ‘rust’

Q&A with Dave Hodson on MARPLE and Big Data

CIMMYT’s Dave Hodson taking wheat rust samples with Ethiopian farmers. Photo credit: John Innes Centre

The MARPLE (Mobile And Real-time PLant disease) project – a project to test and pilot a revolutionary mobile lab in Ethiopia, led by the John Innes Centre, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR)—won the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture Inspire Challenge Scale Up award in 2018.

The Inspire Challenge encourages CGIAR partners, universities and others to use big data approaches through innovative pilot projects to advance agricultural research and development. To be named a winner, projects must have real potential for developmental impact, have mobilized underused or misused data, and demonstrate meaningful partnerships with CGIAR and other sector members. Ultimately, the Inspire Challenge looks for novel approaches to inform policies and applications in agriculture and food security.

We sat down with CIMMYT Principal Scientist and rust pathologist Dave Hodson to ask him about the project and its relationship with Big Data for Agriculture.

What is the significance of Big Data to your work?
Advances in sequencing technology, and the use of innovative big data approaches on sequence data from thousands of yellow rust isolates, opened the door for Diane Saunders and colleagues at the John Innes Centre in the UK to develop revolutionary, near-real time, mobile pathogen diagnostic techniques using portable palm-sized gene sequencers. The final result being the first operational system in the world using nanopore sequence technology for rapid diagnostics and surveillance of complex fungal pathogens in situ.

How do you see the role of the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture in your work?
Support from the CGIAR Big Data Platform was critical to establish the partnership between John Innes, the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) and CIMMYT and enable piloting and testing of the new MARPLE diagnostic platform in Ethiopia. The choice of Ethiopia to be the first country for initial testing was based on several key factors. Firstly, a strong national partner in EIAR; secondly, the critical importance of wheat and wheat rust diseases in the country. Ethiopia is the largest wheat producer in sub-Saharan Africa, but it is also considered the gateway for new wheat rust strains entering into Africa from Asia. All these factors made Ethiopia the highest priority country to take the lead in testing this revolutionary new and rapid pathogen diagnostics platform.

How did it impact this MARPLE project?
The pilot and subsequent scale-up project from the CGIAR Big Data Platform has enabled in-country capacity to be developed, and cutting edge technology for rapid pathogen diagnostics to be deployed in the front-line in the battle against devastating wheat rust diseases. The scientific innovation in developing the MARPLE platform, coupled to the suitability of the technology for developing country partners has now attracted support and interest from other donors. Matching funds were recently obtained for the scale -up phase of MARPLE from the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat project (implemented by Cornell University and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Department for International Development). This scale-up phase of the project will see a set of distributed MARPLE hubs established and embedded within the Ethiopian wheat research system – resulting in a sentinel system for the rapid detection of new yellow rust races that is unparalleled anywhere in the world. The scientific breakthrough in developing rapid diagnostics for complex fungal pathogens using nanopore sequencing will permit the development of similar systems for other important fungal diseases in the future.

The MARPLE project was selected as a 2017 winner, with the team receiving 100,000 USD to put their ideas into practice. The team came runners up for the Scale Up award the following year, receiving an additional USD 125,000 for their outstanding ability to demonstrate the project’s proven viability and potential for impact.

A wheat self-sufficiency roadmap for Ethiopia’s future

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.

The consultative workshop “Wheat Self-Sufficiency in Ethiopia: Challenges and Opportunities” took place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on November 23, 2018.