Posts Tagged ‘South Asia’

Bangladesh leads the way in global fight against wheat blast

An ongoing project was praised for its swift progress in the fight against wheat blast in Bangladesh and South Asia

Eric Huttner, ACIAR Research Program Manager speaking at last month’s mid-term review on wheat blast in Bangladesh and South Asia

At a mid-term review event last month at the BRAC Learning Centre in Dinajpur, Bangladesh, professionals from the Bangladesh Ministry of Agriculture, the Bangladesh Wheat and Maize Research Institute (BWMRI), the Bangladesh Agriculture Research Institute (BARI), the Department of Agriculture Extension (DAE), the Krishi Gobeshona Foundation (KGF), the Bangladesh Agriculture Development Corporation (BADC) and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) discussed progress made in the battle against wheat blast in Bangladesh and South Asia.

Wheat blast is a fast-acting and devastating fungal disease that threatens wheat production and food security in South America and South Asia. The disease, which originated in South America and first appeared in Bangladesh in 2016, can by dispersed by wind across large distances and spores can be seed borne. There is deep concern among scientists that the disease could spread further across South Asia. A 2018 ex-ante analysis found that in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan wheat blast could potentially cause losses of 0.89 – 1.77 million tons each year, with 7 million hectares of growing area at risk.

In 2017, CIMMYT, BWMRI and the Instituto Nacional de Innovación Agropecuaria y Forestal (INIAF) in Bolivia joined forces in an international effort to tackle wheat blast through widespread adoption of blast resistant wheat varieties.

The project, funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) addresses wheat blast in Bangladesh and South Asia through the identification of new sources of resistance genes for wheat blast and development of wheat blast resistant varieties. The germplasm, genes and markers, and genetic information developed through the project are shared with South Asian national wheat breeding programs and other researchers, finally ending up in farmers’ fields as resistant varieties.

The review meeting was chaired by BWMRI Director General Israil Hossain, and featured remarks by Bangladesh’s Additional Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture Kamala Ranjan Das.

“This project has over-delivered on its milestones,” said Eric Huttner, ACIAR Research Program Manager and lead of the review. “It’s very likely that the project will reduce the risk of blast on wheat production in Bangladesh.”

Early impacts in terms of research capacity and infrastructure are very clear:

  • The project-established precision phenotyping platform in Jashore — the first of its kind in Bangladesh and the region —  is running at full capacity, screening for blast in wheat germplasm materials from as far away as China, the United States and Europe.  The facility currently has the capacity to evaluate almost 5,000 wheat germplasm materials per season and there are ongoing plans for expansion and improvement.
  • Sixty-nine researchers and development professionals, including 9 women, have benefited from the capacity development activities.
  • Molecular research is also making progress. Pawan Singh, project leader and head of Wheat Pathology at CIMMYT, noted that the rapid response was possible due to collective and collaborative action by research partners in this project and beyond.

Meeting attendees emphasized the urgency and importance of the project, which is set to conclude in 2021, in the battle against a fast-moving and devastating disease.

As Huttner told attendees, “Now the resistant or tolerant materials need to be efficiently deployed for breeding high-performance wheat varieties that reach stakeholders as early as possible.”

The Identification of sources of resistance to wheat blast and their deployment in wheat varieties adapted to Bangladesh project is funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, with Bangladesh Wheat and Maize Research Institute and the National Institute of Agricultural and Forestry Innovation as key partners. More information about the project can be found on the project factsheet.

Assessing the effectiveness of a “wheat holiday” for preventing blast

Policy to encourage alternative crops for wheat farmers in South Asia a short-term solution at best, say CIMMYT researchers

The grain in this blast-blighted wheat head has been turned to chaff.
Photo: CKnight/ DGGW/ Cornell University

Wheat blast — one of the world’s most devastating wheat diseases — is moving swiftly into new territory in South Asia.

In an attempt to curb the spread of this disease, policymakers in the region are considering a “wheat holiday” policy: banning wheat cultivation for a few years in targeted areas. Since wheat blast’s Magnaporthe oryzae pathotype triticum (MoT) fungus can survive on seeds for up to 22 months, the idea is to replace wheat with other crops, temporarily, to cause the spores to die. In India, which shares a border of more than 4,000 km with Bangladesh, the West Bengal state government has already instituted a two-year ban on wheat cultivation in two districts, as well as all border areas. In Bangladesh, the government is implementing the policy indirectly by discouraging wheat cultivation in the severely blast affected districts.

CIMMYT researchers recently published in two ex-ante studies to identify economically feasible alternative crops in Bangladesh and the bordering Indian state of West Bengal.

Alternate crops

The first step to ensuring that a ban does not threaten the food security and livelihoods of smallholder farmers, the authors assert, is to supply farmers with economically feasible alternative crops.

In Bangladesh, the authors examined the economic feasibility of seven crops as an alternative to wheat, first in the entire country, then in 42 districts vulnerable to blast, and finally in ten districts affected by wheat blast. Considering the cost of production and revenue per hectare, the study ruled out boro rice, chickpeas and potatoes as feasible alternatives to wheat due to their negative net return. In contrast, they found that cultivation of maize, lentils, onions, and garlic could be profitable.

The study in India looked at ten crops grown under similar conditions as wheat in the state of West Bengal, examining the economic viability of each. The authors conclude that growing maize, lentils, legumes such aschickpeas and urad bean, rapeseed, mustard and potatoes in place of wheat appears to be profitable, although they warn that more rigorous research and data are needed to confirm and support this transition.

Selecting alternative crops is no easy task. Crops offered to farmers to replace wheat must be appropriate for the agroecological zone and should not require additional investments for irrigation, inputs or storage facilities. Also, the extra production of labor-intensive and export-oriented crops, such as maize in India and potatoes in Bangladesh, may add costs or require new markets for export.

There is also the added worry that the MoT fungus could survive on one of these alternative crops, thus completely negating any benefit of the “wheat holiday.” The authors point out that the fungus has been reported to survive on maize.

A short-term solution?

In both studies, the authors discourage a “wheat holiday” policy as a holistic solution. However, they leave room for governments to pursue it on an interim and short-term basis.

In the case of Bangladesh, the researchers assert that a “wheat holiday” would increase the country’s reliance on imports, especially in the face of rapidly increasing wheat demand and urbanization. A policy that results in complete dependence on wheat imports, they point out, may not be politically attractive or feasible. Also, the policy would be logistically challenging to implement. Finally, since the disease can potentially survive on other host plants, such as weeds and maize—it may not even work in the long run.

In the interim, the government of Bangladesh may still need to rely on the “wheat holiday” policy in the severely blast-affected districts. In these areas, they should encourage farmers to cultivate lentils, onions and garlic. In addition, in the short term, the government should make generic fungicides widely available at affordable prices and provide an early warning system as well as adequate information to help farmers effectively combat the disease and minimize its consequences.

In the case of West Bengal, India, similar implications apply – although the authors conclude that the “wheat holiday” policy could only work if Bangladesh has the same policy in its blast-affected border districts, which would involve potentially difficult and costly inter-country collaboration, coordination and logistics.

Actions for long-term success

The CIMMYT researchers urge the governments of India and Bangladesh, their counterparts in the region and international stakeholders to pursue long-term solutions, including developing a convenient diagnostic tool for wheat blast surveillance and a platform for open data and science to combat the fungus.

A promising development is the blast-resistant (and zinc-enriched) wheat variety BARI Gom 33 which the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) released in 2017 with support from CIMMYT.However, it will take at least three to five years before it will be available to farmers throughout Bangladesh. The authors urged international donor agencies to speed up the multiplication process of this variety.

CIMMYT scientists in both studies close with an urgent plea for international financial and technical support for collaborative research on disease epidemiology and forecasting, and the development and dissemination of new wheat blast-tolerant and resistant varieties and complementary management practices – crucial steps to ensuring food security for more than a billion people in South Asia.

Read the full articles on Averting Wheat Blast by Implementing a ‘Wheat Holiday’: In Search of Alternative Crops in West Bengal, India and Alternative use of wheat land to implement a potential wheat holiday as wheat blast control: In search of feasible crops in Bangladesh

Wheat Blast Impacts

First officially reported in Brazil in 1985, where it eventually spread to 3 million hectares in South America and became the primary reason for limited wheat production in the region, wheat blast moved to Bangladesh in 2016. There it affected nearly 15,000 hectares of land in eight districts, reducing yield by as much as 51 percent in the affected fields.

Blast is devilish: directly striking the wheat ear, it can shrivel and deform the grain in less than a week from the first symptoms, leaving farmers no time to act. There are no widely available resistant varieties, and fungicides are expensive and provide only a partial defense. The disease, caused by the fungus Magnaporthe oryzae pathotype triticum (MoT), can spread through infected seeds as well as by spores that can travel long distances in the air.

South Asia has a long tradition of wheat consumption, especially in northwest India and Pakistan, and demand has been increasing rapidly across South Asia. It is the second major staple in Bangladesh and India and the principal staple food in Pakistan. Research indicates 17 percent of wheat area in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan — representing nearly 7 million hectares – is vulnerable to the disease, threatening the food security of more than a billion people.

CIMMYT and its partners work to mitigate wheat blast through projects supported by U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), the CGIAR Research Program on WHEAT, and the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture.

New infographics illustrate impact of wheat blast

Wheat blast is a fast-acting and devastating fungal disease that threatens food safety and security in the Americas and South Asia.

First officially identified in Brazil in 1984, the disease is widespread in South American wheat fields, affecting as much as 3 million hectares in the early 1990s.

 In 2016, it crossed the Atlantic Ocean, and Bangladesh suffered a severe outbreak. Bangladesh released a blast-resistant wheat variety—developed with breeding lines from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT)—in 2017, but the country and region remain extremely vulnerable.

The continued spread of blast in South Asia—where more than 100 million tons of wheat are consumed each year—could be devastating.

Researchers with the CIMMYT-led and USAID-supported Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA) and Climate Services for Resilient Development (CSRD) projects partner with national researchers and meteorological agencies on ways to work towards solutions to mitigate the threat of wheat blast and increase the resilience of smallholder farmers in the region. These include agronomic methods and early warning systems so farmers can prepare for and reduce the impact of wheat blast.

This series of infographics shows how wheat blast spreads, its potential effect on wheat production in South Asia and ways farmers can manage it.   

This work is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). CSISA partners include CIMMYT, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

CIMMYT and its partners work to mitigate wheat blast through projects supported by U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), CGIAR Research Program on WHEAT, and the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture.

See more on wheat blast here: https://www.cimmyt.org/wheat-blast/

The saving grace of a hefty investment

By Md. Ashraful Alam, Sultana Jahan and M. Shahidul Haque Khan

Bangladesh farmer Raju Sarder rests his sickle and sits happily on a recently acquired reaper. Photo: iDE/Md. Ikram Hossain

A man in his early 20s walked the winding roads of Sajiara village, Dumuria upazila, Khulna District in Bangladesh. His head hanging low, he noticed darkness slowly descending and then looked up to see an old farmer wrapping up his own daily activities. With traditional tools in hand, the farmer looked exhausted. The young man, Raju Sarder, considered that there had to be a better way to farm while alleviating his drudgery and that of others in the community.

Determined to act, Raju set out to meet Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) officials the very next day. They informed him about the Mechanization and Irrigation project of the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA MI). They also introduced him to the project’s most popular technologies, namely the power tiller operated seeder, reaper and axial flow pumps, all of which reduce labor costs and increase farming efficiency.

Raju found the reaper to be the most interesting and relevant for his work, and contacted CSISA SI to acquire one.

The first challenge he encountered was the cost — $1,970 — which as a small-scale farmer he could not afford. CSISA MI field staff assured him that his ambitions were not nipped in the bud and guided him in obtaining a government subsidy and a loan of $1,070 from TMSS, one of CSISA MI’s micro financing partners. Following operator and maintenance training from CSISA MI, Raju began providing reaping services to local smallholder rice and wheat farmers.

He noticed immediately that he did not have to exert himself as much as before but actually gained time for leisure and his production costs dwindled. Most remarkably, for reaping 24 hectares Raju generated a profit of $1,806; a staggering 15 times greater than what he could obtain using traditional, manual methods and enough to pay back his loan in the first season.

“There was a time when I was unsure whether I would be able to afford my next meal,” said Raju, “but it’s all different now because profits are pouring in thanks to the reaper.”

As a result of the project and farmers’ interest, field labor in Raju’s community is also being transformed. Gone are the days when farmers toiled from dawn to dusk bending and squatting to cut the rice and wheat with rustic sickles. Laborious traditional methods are being replaced by modern and effective mechanization.

Through projects such as CSISA MI, CIMMYT is helping farmers like Raju to become young entrepreneurs with a bright future. Once poor laborers disaffected and treated badly in their own society, these youths now walk with dignity and pride as significant contributors to local economic development.

CSISA MI is a partnership involving the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and iDE, a non-governmental organization that fosters farmers’ entrepreneurial development, with funding from the USAID mission in Bangladesh under the Feed the Future Initiative.

Pakistan wheat seed makeover: More productive, resilient varieties for thousands of farmers

Munfiat, a farmer from Nowshera district, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan, is happy to sow and share seed of the high-yielding, disease resistant Faisalabad-08 wheat variety. (Photo: CIMMYT/Ansaar Ahmad)

Munfiat, a farmer from Nowshera district, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan, is happy to sow and share seed of the high-yielding, disease resistant Faisalabad-08 wheat variety. (Photo: CIMMYT/Ansaar Ahmad)

Nearly 3,000 smallholder wheat farmers throughout Pakistan will begin to sow seed of newer, high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat varieties and spread the seed among their peers in 2019, through a dynamic initiative that is revitalizing the contribution of science-based innovation for national agriculture.

Some 73 tons of seed of 15 improved wheat varieties recently went out to farmers in the provinces of Baluchistan, Gilgit Baltistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh, as part of the Agricultural Innovation Program (AIP), an initiative led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) with funding from the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

“Our main goal is to help farmers replace outdated, disease-susceptible wheat varieties,” said Muhammad Imtiaz, CIMMYT scientist and country representative for Pakistan who leads the AIP. “Studies have shown that some Pakistan farmers grow the same variety for as long as 10 years, meaning they lose out on the superior qualities of newer varieties and their crops may fall victim to virulent, rapidly evolving wheat diseases.”

With support from CIMMYT and partners, participating farmers will not only enjoy as much as 20 percent higher harvests, but have agreed to produce and share surplus seed with neighbors, thus multiplying the new varieties’ reach and benefits, according to Imtiaz.

He said the new seed is part of AIP’s holistic focus on better cropping systems, including training farmers in improved management practices for wheat.

Wheat is Pakistan’s number-one food crop. Farmers there produce over 25 million tons of wheat each year — nearly as much as the entire annual wheat output of Africa or South America.

Annual per capita wheat consumption in Pakistan averages over 120 kilograms, among the highest in the world and providing over 60 percent of Pakistanis’ daily caloric intake.

The seed distributed includes varieties that offer enhanced levels of grain zinc content. The varieties were developed by CIMMYT in partnership with HarvestPlus, a CGIAR research program to study and deliver biofortified foods.

According to a 2011 nutrition survey, 39 percent of children in Pakistan and 48 percent of pregnant women suffer from zinc deficiency, leading to child stunting rates of more than 40 percent and high infant mortality.

The road to better food security and nutrition seems straighter for farmer Munsif Ullah and his family, with seed of a high-yielding, zinc-enhanced wheat variety. (Photo: CIMMYT/Ansaar Ahmad)

The road to better food security and nutrition seems straighter for farmer Munsif Ullah and his family, with seed of a high-yielding, zinc-enhanced wheat variety. (Photo: CIMMYT/Ansaar Ahmad)

“I am very excited to be part of Zincol-16 seed distribution, because its rich ingredients of nutrition will have a good impact on the health of my family,” said Munsif Ullah, a farmer from Swabi District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Other seed distributed includes that of the Pakistan-13 variety for rainfed areas of Punjab, Shahkar-13 for the mountainous Gilgit-Baltistan, Ehsan-16 for rainfed areas in general, and the Umeed-14 and Zardana varieties for Baluchistan.

All varieties feature improved resistance to wheat rust diseases caused by fungi whose strains are mutating and spreading quickly in South Asia.

CIMMYT and partners are training farmers in quality seed production and setting up demonstration plots in farmers’ fields to create awareness about new varieties and production technologies, as well as collecting data to monitor the varieties’ performance.

They are also promoting resource-conserving practices such as balanced applications of fertilizer based on infrared sensor readings, ridge planting, and zero tillage. These innovations can save water, fertilizer, and land preparation costs, not to mention increasing yields.

“CIMMYT’s main focus in Pakistan is work with national wheat researchers to develop and spread better wheat production systems,” Imtiaz explained. “This includes improved farming practices and wheat lines that offer higher yields, disease resistance, and resilience under higher temperatures and dry conditions, as well as good end-use quality.”

CIMMYT’s partners in AIP include the National Rural Support Program (NRSP), the Lok Sanjh Foundation, the Village Friends Organization (VFO), the Aga Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP), the National Agricultural Research Council (NARC) Wheat Program, the Wheat Research Institute (WRI) Faisalabad and Sakrand centers, AZRI-Umarkot, Kashmala Agro Seed Company, ARI-Quetta, BARDC-Quetta, and Model Farm Services Center, KP.

(Photo: CIMMYT/Ansaar Ahmad)

(Photo: CIMMYT/Ansaar Ahmad)

New index gauges seed companies’ progress reaching smallholders in Asia

Sowing rice seed in Nepal. (Photo: CIMMYT/P. Lowe)

The Access to Seeds Index, an initiative to measure and compare the efforts of global seed companies to enhance the productivity of smallholder farmers, recently released the Access to Seeds Index 2019 for South and Southeast Asia. The Index details what 24 of the leading seed companies are doing—and what they are failing to do—to provide quality seed to smallholder farmers in the region. It is the first time a tool has shed light on how companies are reaching smallholder farmers in the region.

Crucial partners for achieving food and nutritional security, seed companies can directly help boost smallholder farmer productivity through the distribution of improved seed. To date, however, they only reach 20 percent of the smallholder farmers in the region.

To evaluate the 24 seed companies, the Index uses scorecards to outline the portfolio and strengths of each company. The Index also assesses company performance based on 59 indicators across four categories: commitment, performance, transparency and leadership. The companies who scored highly on the Index are characterized by having sustainable strategies aimed at improving access to seeds for smallholder farmers in the region.

In South and Southeast Asia, small-scale farming is the predominate form of agricultural activity. To raise agricultural productivity while simultaneously confronting climate change, seed companies and their shared successes in plant breeding are beneficial, but only when they reach smallholder farmers. The Index provides a resource to help close that gap.

In the months to come, the Access to Seeds Index will also publish indexes covering global seed industry benchmarks.

Read the full Access to Seeds Index 2019 for South and Southeast Asia here.

2018 Agricultural Innovation Program meeting: CIMMYT and partners’ achievements in Pakistan

Zero till wheat planting in Jaffarabad District.

By Kashif Syed, September 24

More than 70 agricultural professionals met in Islamabad, Pakistan, during September 4-5 to discuss agronomy and wheat activities under the Agricultural Innovation Program (AIP) for Pakistan. The event provided a platform for institutions involved in agronomy and the dissemination of agricultural technology and seed to share advances, discuss issues, and plan future undertakings.

“Crop productivity must be increased through research on innovative crop management techniques, varietal development and dissemination of better techniques and seed to farming communities,” said Dr. Yusuf Zafar, Chairman of PARC, addressing participants and touching upon a key theme of the event. He emphasized that precision agriculture, decision support systems, the use of drones, water productivity improvements and more widespread mechanization were on the horizon for Pakistani farmers, but that this would require active involvement of the public and private sectors.

Developments in zero tillage farming and ridge planting were highlighted in the two-day conference as conservation agriculture practices that are gaining traction in national wheat farming, according to Imtiaz Muhammad, CIMMYT representative and AIP project leader.

“In collaboration with a national network of 23 public and private partners, CIMMYT has reached more than 25,000 farmers through trainings on zero tillage, ridge planting, and direct seeded rice farming,” Imtiaz said, adding that support to farmers included nutrient management education the provision of seed planters. “These techniques are helping farmers to save water, avoid residue burning, and reduce their production costs.”

Collaboration with agricultural machinery manufacturers and other private sector actors is leading to local production of Zero Till Happy Seeders, which sow directly into unplowed fields and the residues of previous crops, according to Imtiaz. “Innovative approaches have also resulted in the production of 1,500 tons of wheat seed in 2018,” he explained.

Wheat seed production and farmers’ replacement of older varieties have progressed through local seed banks established by AIP in partnership with Pakistan’s National Rural Support Program (NRSP). Located in villages, the banks sell quality wheat seed for up to 12 percent less than local markets. “This is critical, because Pakistan’s wheat seed replacement is only 30 percent,” said Imtiaz, adding that there is a 50 percent gap between potential wheat yields and the national average yield for this crop.

The AIP will open more seed banks in remote areas of Pakistan, in conjunction with national partners. As well as producing and processing seed, the banks will provide farm machinery contract services and precision agriculture tools at subsidized rates.

Participants’ recommendations included adding straw spreaders to combine harvesters for rice, to facilitate the direct sowing of wheat after rice. They also suggested that agricultural service providers should help promote the direct seeding of rice and wheat with zero tillage implements. Participants observed that, in Baluchistan Province, support to farmers and service providers could increase the adoption of zero tillage for sowing wheat after rice and of precision land leveling, to improve irrigation efficiency and save water.

The AIP and partners will continue to promote water saving and nutrient management techniques, as well as building the capacity of farmers, national staff and agricultural service providers. Finally, those attending recommended that, for its second phase, AIP focus on the biofortification of wheat and rice, climate smart agriculture, decision support tools, women in farming, knowledge delivery, appropriate mechanization, nutrient management, weed management and water productivity.

AIP is the result of the combined efforts of the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC), the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the World Vegetable Center (AVRDC), the University of California at Davis, and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). It is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). With these national and international partners on board, AIP continues to improve Pakistan’s agricultural productivity and economy.

Q+A with Iván Ortíz-Monasterio on nitrogen dosages and greenhouse gases

Iván Ortíz-Monasterio, expert on sustainable intensification and wheat crop management at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), recently took part in a study detailing the detriments of excess fertilizer use and the benefits of more precise dosages.

In the following interview, he discusses the overuse of nitrogen fertilizer and related consequences, his experience with farmers, and his outlook for the future. According to Ortíz-Monasterio and study co-authors, research on wheat in the Yaqui Valley, state of Sonora, northwestern Mexico, and home to CIMMYT’s Norman E. Borlaug Experiment Station (CENEB), has direct implications for wheat crop management worldwide.

“The Yaqui Valley is agro-climatically representative of areas where 40 percent of the world’s wheat is grown, including places like the Indo-Gangetic Plains of India and Pakistan, the Nile Delta in Egypt, and the wheat lands of China,” said Ortíz-Monasterio.

  1. A key finding of the new publication was that, after a certain point, applying more nitrogen fertilizer does not increase yields, making excessive applications essentially a drain on farmers’ resources. Why then do farmers continue to apply more fertilizer than the crop needs?

Well there is a risk, if you under-apply N fertilizer, your yield goes down. Farmers are afraid that the yield will be lower and that their profit will be lower. The cost of under-applying for them is greater than the cost of over-applying, because they’re not paying all the costs of over applying. Those costs include the environmental impacts associated with greenhouse gas emissions, at a regional scale in the case of the Yaqui Valley because of nitrification of the Sea of Cortez, and at a local level due to contamination of the water table. All these costs are passed on to society. If we passed them on to farmers, then they would be more concerned about over-applying nitrogen fertilizers.

-Do you think farmers becoming more concerned is something that could happen?

Well there are starting to be more regulations in Europe. In the UK, farmers cannot apply any nitrogen before or at sowing; they can apply fertilizer only once the plant is about 15 centimeters tall. In other parts of Europe, like Germany, farmers cannot apply more than 150 kilograms of nitrogen on wheat, so it’s happening in other parts of the world. The government of Mexico and others are making commitments to reduce nitrous oxide emissions by 20 percent by 2030 and, in the case of agriculture, the main source of nitrous oxide is nitrogen fertilizer. To meet such commitments, governments will have to take policy action so, yes; I think there’s a good chance something will happen.

  1. There are technologies that can help farmers know precisely when to apply fertilizer and how much, for optimal crop yield and nitrogen use. Do many farmers use them? Why or why not?

NDVI (normalized difference vegetative index) map. Photo: CIMMYT.

Something interesting to me is what’s happening right now. For the last 10 years, we’ve been working with Yaqui Valley farmers to test and promote hand-held sensors and hiring farm advisors paid with government money who provide this service free to farmers, and adoption was high. Then the government removed the subsidy, expecting farmers to begin covering the cost, but

farmers didn’t want to pay for it.

Then a company that uses drones approached me and other researchers in the region and requested our help to convert wheat crop sensor data obtained using airborne drones to recommended fertilizer dosages. We agreed and, in their first year of operation, farmers growing wheat on 1,000 hectares paid for this service. I don’t know what it is—maybe seeing a colorful map is more sexy—but farmers seem to be willing to pay if you fly a drone to collect the data instead of having a farm advisor walk over the field. But it’s great! In the past we relied on the government to transfer the technology and now we have this  great example of a private-public partnership, where a company is helping to transfer the technology and making a profit, so that will make it sustainable. I’m very excited about that!

  1. Does CIMMYT have a plan to increase adoption of these technologies?

A CIMMYT technician uses a hand-held sensor to measure NDVI (normalized difference vegetative index) in a wheat field at the center’s CENEB experiment station near Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, northern Mexico. Photo: CIMMYT.

We’re not married to one technology, but need to work with all of them. You know we started with Greekseeker, which is a ground-based sensor, and now we’re also working with drones, with manned airplanes mounted with cameras, and even satellite images. So, there are four different ways to collect the data, and we’ve seen that the Greenseeker results correlate well with all of them, so the technology we developed originally for Greenseeker can be used with all the other platforms.

  1. Are you optimistic that farmers can shift their perceptions in this area and significantly reduce their nitrogen use?

I think we’re moving in that direction, but slowly. We need policy help from the government. Officials need to give some type of incentive to farmers to use the technology, because when farmers do something different they see it as a risk. To compensate for that risk, give them a carrot, rather than a stick, and I think that will help us move the technology faster.

Farmers, environment, and carbon markets to profit from more precise fertilizer management, study shows

A wheat farm family from the Yaqui Valley, northwestern Mexico. Photo: CIMMYT/Peter Lowe

EL BATÁN, MEXICO – 24 APRIL 2018–Farmers of irrigated wheat can increase profits and radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by applying fertilizer in more precise dosages, according to a new study.

Published today in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, the study shows that farmers in the Yaqui Valley, a major breadbasket region in northwestern Mexico that covers over 1.5 times the area of the Mexico City, are applying significantly more nitrogen fertilizer than they need to maximize wheat yields.

Lower application of nitrogen fertilizer would cut the region’s yearly emissions of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, by the equivalent of as much as 130,000 tons of carbon dioxide, equal to the emissions of 14 million gallons of gasoline, according to Neville Millar, a senior researcher at Michigan State University (MSU) and first author of the published paper.

“Our study is the first to isolate the effect of multiple nitrogen fertilizer rates on nitrous oxide emissions in wheat in the tropics or sub-tropics,” Millar said. “It shows that applying fertilizer to wheat at higher than optimal economic rates results in an exponential increase in nitrous oxide emissions.”

Yaqui Valley wheat farming conditions and practices are similar to those of huge wheat cropping expanses in China, India, and Pakistan, which together account for roughly half of worldwide nitrogen fertilizer use for wheat, according to study co-author Iván Ortíz-Monasterio, a wheat agronomist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), whose Yaqui Valley experiment station was the site of the reported research.

“The recommendations are thus globally relevant and represent a potential triple win, in the form of reduced greenhouse gas emissions, higher income for farmers and continued high productivity for wheat cropping,” Ortíz-Monasterio said.

Measuring nitrous oxide after nitrogen fertilizer applications in spring durum wheat crops during two growing seasons, Millar and an international team of scientists found an exponential increase in emissions from plots fertilized at greater than economically-optimal rates—that is, when the extra nitrogen applied no longer boosts grain yield.

They also found that grain quality at the economically optimal N rates was not impacted and exceeded that required by local farmer associations for sale to the market. They examined five different nitrogen fertilizer dosages ranging from 0 to 280 kilograms per hectare.

“In our study, the highest dosage to get optimum wheat yields was 145 kilograms of nitrogen fertilizer per hectare in the 2014 crop,” said Millar. “Yaqui Valley farmers typically apply around 300 kilograms. The wheat crop takes up and uses only about a third of that nitrogen; the remainder may be lost to the atmosphere as gases, including nitrous oxide, and to groundwater as nitrate.”

Promoting profitable, climate-friendly fertilizer use

Farmers’ excessive use of fertilizer is driven largely by risk aversion and economic concerns, according to Ortíz-Monasterio. “Because crops in high-yielding years will require more nitrogen than in low-yielding years, farmers tend to be optimistic and fertilize for high-yielding years,” said Ortíz-Monasterio. “At the same time, since farmers don’t have data about available nitrogen in their fields, they tend to over-apply fertilizer because this is less costly than growing a crop that lacks the nitrogen to develop and yield near to full potential.”

Ortíz-Monasterio and his partners have been studying and promoting management practices to help farmers to use fertilizer more efficiently and take into account available soil nitrogen and weather. This technology, including Greenseeker, a handheld device that assesses plant nitrogen needs, was tested in a separate study for its ability to advise farmers on optimal rates of fertilizer use.

“Sensing devices similar to Greenseeker but mounted on drones are providing recommendations to Yaqui Valley farmers for wheat crops grown on more than 1,000 acres in 2017 and 2018,” Ortiz-Monasterio notes.

Part of a research partnership between CIMMYT and MSU’s W.K. Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) Long-Term Ecological Research program to reduce greenhouse gas impacts of intensive farming, a key aim of the present study was to generate new emission factors for Mexican grain crops that accurately reflect nitrous oxide emissions and emission reductions and can be used in global carbon markets, according to Millar.

“The emission calculations from our work can be incorporated by carbon market organizations into carbon market protocols, to help compensate farmers for reducing their fertilizer use,” he said.

“This study shows that low emissions nitrogen management is possible in tropical cereal crop systems and provides important guidance on the optimal levels for large cropping areas of the world,” said Lini Wollenberg, an expert in low-emissions agriculture for the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), which helped fund the research. “With these improved emission factors, countries will be able to better plan and implement their commitments to reducing emissions.

To view the article

Millar, N., A. Urrea, K. Kahmark, I. Shcherbak, G. P. Robertson, and I. Ortiz-Monasterio. 2018. Nitrous oxide (N2O) flux responds exponentially to nitrogen fertilizer in irrigated wheat in the Yaqui Valley, Mexico. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agee.2018.04.003.

KBS LTER
Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station Long-term Ecological Research (KBS LTER) Program studies the ecology of intensive field crop ecosystems as part of a national network of LTER sites established by the National Science Foundation. More information at https://lter.kbs.msu.edu

MSU AgBioResearch
MSU AgBioResearch engages in innovative, leading-edge research that combines scientific expertise with practical experience to help advance FOOD, ENERGY and the ENVIRONMENT. It encompasses the work of more than 300 scientists in seven MSU colleges — Agriculture and Natural Resources, Arts and Letters, Communication Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Natural Science, Social Science and Veterinary Medicine — and includes a network of 13 outlying research centers across Michigan.

CIMMYT
The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) is the global leader in publicly-funded maize and wheat research and related farming systems. Headquartered near Mexico City, CIMMYT works with hundreds of partners throughout the developing world to sustainably increase the productivity of maize and wheat cropping systems, thus improving global food security and reducing poverty. CIMMYT is a member of the CGIAR System and leads the CGIAR Research Programs on Maize and Wheat and the Excellence in Breeding Platform. The Center receives support from national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies. For more information, visit www.cimmyt.org.

CCAFS
The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), led by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), brings together some of the world’s best researchers in agricultural science, development research, climate science and earth system science to identify and address the most important interactions, synergies and tradeoffs between climate change, agriculture and food security. CCAFS is carried out with support from CGIAR Fund Donors and through bilateral funding agreements. www.ccafs.cgiar.org

Young women scientists who will galvanize global wheat research

By Laura Strugnell and Mike Listman

Winners of the Jeanie Borlaug Laube Women in Triticum (WIT) Early Career Award pose in front of the statue of the late Nobel Peace laureate, Dr. Norman E. Borlaug. Included in the photo are Amor Yahyaoui, CIMMYT wheat training coordinator (far left), Jeanie Borlaug Laube (center, blue blouse), and Maricelis Acevedo, Associate Director for Science, the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat Project (to the right of Jeanie Borlaug Laube). Photo: CIMMYT/Mike Listman

CIUDAD OBREGÓN, Mexico (CIMMYT) – As more than 200 wheat science and food specialists from 34 countries gathered in northwestern Mexico to address threats to global nutrition and food security, 9 outstanding young women wheat scientists among them showed that this effort will be strengthened by diversity.

Winners of the Jeanie Borlaug Laube Women in Triticum (WIT) Early Career Award joined an on-going wheat research training course organized by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), 21-23 March.

“As my father used to say, you are the future,” said Jeanie Borlaug Laube, daughter of the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, and mentor of many young agricultural scientists. Speaking to the WIT recipients, she said, “You are ahead of the game compared to other scientists your age.”

Established in 2010 as part of the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) project led by Cornell University, the WIT program has provided professional development opportunities for 44 young women researchers in wheat from more than 20 countries.

The award is given annually to as many as five early science-career women, ranging from advanced undergraduates to recent doctoral graduates and postdoctoral fellows. Selection is based on a scientific abstract and statement of intent, along with evidence of commitment to agricultural development and leadership potential.

Women who will change their professions and the world

Weizhen Liu. Photo: WIT files

Weizhen Liu, a 2017 WIT recipient and postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University, is applying genome-wide association mapping and DNA marker technology to enhance genetic resistance in tetraploid and bread wheat to stripe rust, a major global disease of wheat that is quickly spreading and becoming more virulent.

“I am eager to join and devote myself to improving wheat yields by fighting wheat rusts,” said Liu, who received her bachelors in biotechnology from Nanjing Agricultural University, China, in 2011, and a doctorate from Washington State University in 2016. “Through WIT, I can share my research with other scientists, receive professional feedback, and build international collaboration.”

Mitaly Bansal, a 2016 WIT award winner, currently works as a Research Associate at Punjab Agricultural University, India. She did her PhD research in a collaborative project involving Punjab Agricultural University and the John Innes Centre, UK, to deploy stripe and leaf rust resistance genes from non-progenitor wild wheat in commercial cultivars.

Mitaly Bansal. Photo: WIT files

“I would like to work someday in a position of public policy in India,” said Bansal, who received the Monsanto Beachell-Borlaug scholarship in 2013. “That is where I could have the influence to change things that needed changing.”

Networking in the cradle of wheat’s “Green Revolution”

In addition to joining CIMMYT training for a week, WIT recipients will attend the annual Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) technical workshop, to be held this year in Marrakech, Morocco, from 14 to 17 April, and where the 2018 WIT winners will be announced.

The CIMMYT training sessions took place at the Norman Borlaug Experiment Station (CENEB), an irrigated desert location in Sonora State, northwestern Mexico, and coincided with CIMMYT’s 2018 “Visitors’ Week,” which took place from 19 to 23 March.

An annual gathering organized by the CIMMYT global wheat program at CENEB, Visitors’ Week typically draws hundreds of experts from the worldwide wheat research and development community. Participants share innovations and news on critical issues, such as the rising threat of the rust diseases or changing climates in key wheat farmlands.

Through her interaction with Visitors’ Week peers, Liu said she was impressed by the extensive partnering among experts from so many countries. “I realized that one of the most important things to fight world hunger is collaboration; no one can solve food insecurity, malnutrition, and climate change issues all by himself.”

A strong proponent and practitioner of collaboration, Norman E. Borlaug worked with Sonora farmers in the 1940-50s as part of a joint Rockefeller Foundation-Mexican government program that, among other outputs, generated high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat varieties. After bringing wheat self-sufficiency to Mexico, the varieties were adopted in South Asia and beyond in the 1960-70s, dramatically boosting yields and allowing famine-prone countries to feed their rapidly-expanding populations.

This became known as the Green Revolution and, in 1970, Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his contributions. Borlaug subsequently led CIMMYT wheat research until his retirement in 1979 and served afterwards as a special consultant to the Center.

When a new, highly virulent race of wheat stem rust, Ug99, emerged in eastern Africa in the early 2000s, Borlaug sounded the alarm and championed a global response that grew into the BGRI and associated initiatives such as DGGW.

“This is just a beginning for you, but it doesn’t end here,” said Maricelis Acevedo, a former WIT recipient who went on to become the leader of DGGW. Speaking during the training course, she observed that many WIT awardees come from settings where women often lack access to higher education or the freedom to pursue a career.

“Through WIT activities, including training courses like this and events such as Visitors’ Week and the BGRI workshop,” Acevedo added, “you’ll gain essential knowledge and skills but you’ll also learn leadership and the personal confidence to speak out, as well as the ability to interact one-on-one with leaders in your field and to ask the right questions.”

CIMMYT is the global leader in publicly-funded maize and wheat research and related farming systems. Headquartered near Mexico City, CIMMYT works with hundreds of partners throughout the developing world to sustainably increase the productivity of maize and wheat cropping systems, thus improving global food security and reducing poverty. CIMMYT is a member of the CGIAR System and leads the CGIAR Research Programs on Maize and Wheat and the Excellence in Breeding Platform. The Center receives generous support from national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies.

Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) under UK aid, the DGGW project aims to strengthen the delivery pipeline for new, disease resistant, climate-resilient wheat varieties and to increase the yields of smallholder wheat farmers.