Posts Tagged ‘Wheat’

Why cereals matter: the cereals imperative of future food systems

The world urgently needs a transformation of the global food system, leading to healthier diets for all and a drastic reduction in agriculture’s environmental impact. The major cereal grains must play a central role in this new revolution for the benefit of the world’s poorest people.

This op-ed piece by Martin Kropff and Matthew Morell was originally posted on CIMMYT.org

Pioneering research on our three most important cereal grains — maize, rice, and wheat — has contributed enormously to global food security over the last half century, chiefly by boosting the yields of these crops and by making them more resilient in the face of drought, flood, pests and diseases. But with more than 800 million people still living in chronic hunger and many more suffering from inadequate diets, much remains to be done. The challenges are complicated by climate change, rampant degradation of the ecosystems that sustain food production, rapid population growth and unequal access to resources that are vital for improved livelihoods.

In recent years, a consensus has emerged among agricultural researchers and development experts around the need to transform global food systems, so they can provide healthy diets while drastically reducing negative environmental impacts. Certainly, this is a central aim of CGIAR — the world’s largest global agricultural research network — which views enhanced nutrition and sustainability as essential for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. CGIAR scientists and their many partners contribute by developing technological and social innovations for the world’s key crop production systems, with a sharp focus on reducing hunger and poverty in low- and middle-income countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The importance of transforming food systems is also the message of the influential EAT-Lancet Commission report, launched in early 2019. Based on the views of 37 leading experts from diverse research disciplines, the report defines specific actions to achieve a “planetary health diet,” which enhances human nutrition and keeps the resource use of food systems within planetary boundaries. While including all food groups — grains, roots and tubers, pulses, vegetables, fruits, tree nuts, meat, fish, and dairy products — this diet reflects important shifts in their consumption. The major cereals, for example, would supply about one-third of the required calories but with increased emphasis on whole grains to curb the negative health effects of cheap and abundant supplies of refined cereals.

This proportion of calories corresponds roughly to the proportion of its funding that CGIAR currently invests in the major cereals. These crops are already vital in diets, cultures, and economies across the developing world, and the way they are produced, processed and consumed must be a central focus of global efforts to transform food systems. There are four main reasons for this imperative.

Aneli Zárate Vásquez (left), in Mexico's state of Oaxaca, sells maize tortillas for a living. (Photo: P. Lowe/CIMMYT)
Aneli Zárate Vásquez (left), in Mexico’s state of Oaxaca, sells maize tortillas for a living. (Photo: P. Lowe/CIMMYT)

1. Scale and economic importance

The sheer extent of major cereal production and its enormous value, especially for the poor, account in large part for the critical importance of these crops in global food systems. According to 2017 figures, maize is grown on 197 million hectares and rice on more than 167 million hectares, mainly in Asia and Africa. Wheat covers 218 million hectares, an area larger than France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK combined. The total annual harvest of these crops amounts to about 2.5 billion tons of grain.

Worldwide production had an estimated annual value averaging more than $500 billion in 2014-2016. The prices of the major cereals are especially important for poor consumers. In recent years, the rising cost of bread in North Africa and tortillas in Mexico, as well as the rice price crisis in Southeast Asia, imposed great hardship on urban populations in particular, triggering major demonstrations and social unrest. To avoid such troubles by reducing dependence on cereal imports, many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America have made staple crop self-sufficiency a central element of national agriculture policy.

Women make roti, an unleavened flatbread made with wheat flour and eaten as a staple food, at their home in the Dinajpur district, Bangladesh. (Photo: S. Mojumder/Drik/CIMMYT)
Women make roti, an unleavened flatbread made with wheat flour and eaten as a staple food, at their home in the Dinajpur district, Bangladesh. (Photo: S. Mojumder/Drik/CIMMYT)

2. Critical role in human diets

Cereals have a significant role to play in food system transformation because of their vital importance in human diets. In developing countries, maize, rice, and wheat together provide 48% of the total calories and 42% of the total protein. In every developing region except Latin America, cereals provide people with more protein than meat, fish, milk and eggs combined, making them an important protein source for over half the world’s population.

Yellow maize, a key source of livestock feed, also contributes indirectly to more protein-rich diets, as does animal fodder derived from cereal crop residues. As consumption of meat, fish and dairy products continues to expand in the developing world, demand for cereals for food and feed must rise, increasing the pressure to optimize cereal production.

In addition to supplying starch and protein, the cereals serve as a rich source of dietary fiber and nutrients. CGIAR research has documented the important contribution of wheat to healthy diets, linking the crop to reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and colorectal cancer. The nutritional value of brown rice compared to white rice is also well known. Moreover, the recent discovery of certain genetic traits in milled rice has created the opportunity to breed varieties that show a low glycemic index without compromising grain quality.

Golden Rice grain (left) compared to white rice grain. Golden Rice is unique because it contains beta carotene, giving it a golden color. (Photo: IRRI)
Golden Rice grain (left) compared to white rice grain. Golden Rice is unique because it contains beta carotene, giving it a golden color. (Photo: IRRI)

3. Encouraging progress toward better nutritional quality

The major cereals have undergone further improvement in nutritional quality during recent years through a crop breeding approach called “biofortification,” which boosts the content of essential vitamins or micronutrients. Dietary deficiencies of this kind harm children’s physical and cognitive development, and leave them more vulnerable to disease. Sometimes called “hidden hunger,” this condition is believed to cause about one-third of the 3.1 million annual child deaths attributed to malnutrition. Diverse diets are the preferred remedy, but the world’s poorest consumers often cannot afford more nutritious foods. The problem is especially acute for women and adolescent girls, who have unequal access to food, healthcare and resources.

It will take many years of focused effort before diverse diets become a reality in the lives of the people who need them most. Diversified farming systems such as rice-fish rotations that improve nutritional value, livelihoods and resilience are a step in that direction. In the meantime, “biofortified” cereal and other crop varieties developed by CGIAR help address hidden hunger by providing higher levels of zinc, iron and provitamin A carotenoids as well as better protein quality. Farmers in many developing countries are already growing these varieties.

A 2018 study in India found that young children who ate zinc-biofortified wheat in flatbread or porridge became ill less frequently. Other studies have shown that consumption of provitamin A maize improves the body’s total stores of this vitamin as effectively as vitamin supplementation. Biofortified crop varieties are not a substitute for food fortification (adding micronutrients and vitamins during industrial food processing). But these varieties can offer an immediate solution to hidden hunger for the many subsistence farmers and other rural consumers who depend on locally produced foods and lack access to fortified products.

Ruth Andrea (left) and Maliamu Joni harvest cobs of drought-tolerant maize in Idakumbi, Mbeya, Tanzania. (Photo: Peter Lowe/CIMMYT)
Ruth Andrea (left) and Maliamu Joni harvest cobs of drought-tolerant maize in Idakumbi, Mbeya, Tanzania. (Photo: Peter Lowe/CIMMYT)

4. Wide scope for more sustainable production

Cereal crops show much potential not only for enhancing human heath but that of the environment as well. Compared to other crops, the production of cereals has relatively low environmental impact, as noted in the EAT-Lancet report. Still, it is both necessary and feasible to further enhance the sustainability of cereal cropping systems. Many new practices have a proven ability to conserve water as well as soil and land, and to use purchased inputs (pesticides and fertilizers) far more efficiently. With innovations already available, the amount of water used in current rice cultivation techniques, for example, can be significantly reduced from its present high level.

Irrigation scheduling, laser land leveling, drip irrigation, conservation tillage, precision nitrogen fertilization, and cereal varieties tolerant to drought, flooding and heat are among the most promising options. In northwest India, scientists recently determined that optimal practices can reduce water use by 40%, while maintaining yields in rice-wheat rotations. There and in many other places, the adoption of new practices to improve cereal production in the wet season not only leads to more efficient resource use but also creates opportunities to diversify crop production in the dry season. Improvements to increase cereal crop yields also reduces their environmental footprint; using less land, enhancing carbon sequestration and biodiversity and, for rice, reducing methane emissions per kilo of rice produced. Given the enormous extent of cereals cultivation, any improvement in resource use efficiency will have major impact, while also freeing up vast amounts of land for other crops or natural vegetation.

A major challenge now is to improve access to the knowledge and inputs that will enable millions of farmers to adopt new techniques, making it possible both to diversify production and grow more with less. Another key requirement consists of clear signals from policymakers, especially where land and water are limited, about the priority use of these resources — for example, irrigating low-value cereals to bolster food security versus applying the water to higher value crops and importing staple cereals.

Morning dew on a wheat spike. (Photo: Vadim Ganeyev/CIMMYT)
Morning dew on a wheat spike. (Photo: Vadim Ganeyev/CIMMYT)

Toward a sustainable dietary revolution

Future-proofing the global food system requires bold steps. Policy and research need to support a double transformation, centered on nutrition and sustainability.

CGIAR works toward nutritional transformation of our food system through numerous global partnerships. We give high priority to improving cereal crop systems and food products, because of their crucial importance for a growing world population. Recognizing that this alone will not suffice for healthy diets, we also strongly promote greater dietary diversity through our research on various staple crops and production systems and by raising public awareness of more balanced and nutritious diets.

To help achieve a sustainability transformation, CGIAR researchers and partners have developed a wide array of techniques that use resources more efficiently, enhance the resilience of food production in the face of climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while achieving sustainable increases in crop yields. At the same time, we are generating new evidence on which techniques work best under what conditions to target the implementation of these solutions more effectively.

The ultimate impact of our work depends crucially on the growing resolve of developing countries to promote better diets and more sustainable food production through strong policies and programs. CGIAR is well prepared to help strengthen these measures through research for development, and we are confident that our work on cereals, with continued donor support, will have high relevance, generating a wealth of innovations that help drive the transformation of global food systems.

Martin Kropff is the Director General of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

Matthew Morell is the Director General of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

Microsatellite data can help double impact of agricultural interventions

Study of smallholder wheat farmers in India shows data from small satellites can quantify and enhance yield gains

This story by Mandira Banerjee was originally posted in the University of Michigan Newsroom.

A young man uses a precision spreader to distribute fertilizer in a field. (Photo: Mahesh Maske/CIMMYT)

Data from microsatellites can be used to detect and double the impact of sustainable interventions in agriculture at large scales, according to a new study led by the University of Michigan (U-M).

By being able to detect the impact and target interventions to locations where they will lead to the greatest increase or yield gains, satellite data can help increase food production in a low-cost and sustainable way.

According to the team of researchers from U-M, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), and Stanford and Cornell universities, finding low cost ways to increase food production is critical given that feeding a growing population and increasing the yields of crops in a changing climate are some of the greatest challenges of the coming decades.

“Being able to use microsatellite data, to precisely target an intervention to the fields that would benefit the most at large scales will help us increase the efficacy of agricultural interventions,” said lead author Meha Jain, assistant professor at the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability.

Microsatellites are small, inexpensive, low-orbiting satellites that typically weigh 100 kilograms (220 pounds) or less.

“About 60-70% of total world food production comes from smallholders, and they have the largest field-level yield gaps,” said Balwinder Singh, senior researcher at CIMMYT.

To show that the low-cost microsatellite imagery can quantify and enhance yield gains, the researchers conducted their study in smallholder wheat fields in the Eastern Indo-Gangetic Plains in India.

They ran an experiment on 127 farms using a split-plot design over multiple years. In one half of the field, the farmers applied nitrogen fertilizer using hand broadcasting, the typical fertilizer spreading method in this region. In the other half of the field, the farmers applied fertilizer using a new and low-cost fertilizer spreader.

To measure the impact of the intervention, the researchers then collected the crop-cut measures of yield, where the crop is harvested and weighed in field, often considered the gold standard for measuring crop yields. They also mapped field and regional yields using microsatellite and Landsat satellite data.

Collecting the crop-cut measures of yield. Photo courtesy of: CIMMYT
Collecting the crop-cut measures of yield. Photo: CIMMYT

They found that without any increase in input, the spreader resulted in 4.5% yield gain across all fields, sites and years, closing about one-third of the existing yield gap. They also found that if they used microsatellite data to target the lowest yielding fields, they were able to double yield gains for the same intervention cost and effort.

“Being able to bring solutions to the farmers that will benefit most from them can greatly increase uptake and impact,” said David Lobell, professor of earth system science at Stanford University. “Too often, we’ve relied on blanket recommendations that only make sense for a small fraction of farmers. Hopefully, this study will generate more interest and investment in matching farmers to technologies that best suit their needs.”

The study also shows that the average profit from the gains was more than the amount of the spreader and 100% of the farmers were willing to pay for the technology again.

Women applying fertilizer via traditional method. Photo courtesy of: CIMMYT
Women applying fertilizer via traditional method. Photo: CIMMYT

Jain said that many researchers are working on finding ways to close yield gaps and increase the production of low-yielding regions.

“A tool like satellite data that is scalable and low cost and can be applied across regions to map and increase yields of crops at large scale,” she said.

Read the full study:
The impact of agricultural interventions can be doubled by using satellite data

The study is published in the October issue of Nature Sustainability. Other researchers include Amit Srivastava and Shishpal Poonia of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in New Delhi; Preeti Rao and Jennifer Blesh of the U-M School of Environment and Sustainability; Andrew McDonald of Cornell; and George Azzari and David Lobell of Stanford. 

Smallholder farmers’ multi-front strategy combats rapidly evolving wheat rust in Ethiopia

Researchers found farmers who increased both the area growing resistant varieties and the number of wheat varieties grown per season saw the biggest yield increases.

This story by  Simret Yasabu was originally posted on CIMMYT.org.

New research shows that smallholder farmers in Ethiopia used various coping mechanisms apart from fungicides in response to the recent wheat rust epidemics in the country. Scientists from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) call for continuous support to research and extension programs to develop and disseminate improved wheat varieties with resistant traits to old and newly emerging rust races.

Rising wheat yields cannot catch up rising demand

Wheat is the fourth largest food crop in Ethiopia cultivated by smallholders, after teff, maize and sorghum. Ethiopia is the largest wheat producer in sub-Saharan Africa and average farm yields have more than doubled in the past two decades, reaching 2.74 tons per hectare on average in 2017/18. Farmers who use improved wheat varieties together with recommended agronomic practices recorded 4 to 6 tons per hectare in high-potential wheat growing areas such as the Arsi and Bale zones. Yet the country remains a net importer because demand for wheat is rapidly rising.

The Ethiopian government has targeted wheat self-sufficiency by 2023 and the country has huge production potential due to its various favorable agroecologies for wheat production.

However, one major challenge to boosting wheat production and yields is farmers’ vulnerability to rapidly evolving wheat diseases like wheat rusts.

The Ethiopian highlands have long been known as hot spots for stem and yellow wheat rusts caused by the fungus Puccinia spp., which can spread easily under favorable climatic conditions. Such threats may grow with a changing climate.

Ethiopian wheat planting. (Photo: CIMMYT)

Recurrent outbreaks of the two rusts destroyed significant areas of popular wheat varieties. In 2010, a yellow rust epidemic severely affected the popular Kubsa variety. In 2013/14, farmers in the Arsi and Bale zones saw a new stem rust race destroy entire fields of the bread wheat Digalu variety.

In response to the 2010 yellow rust outbreak, the government and non-government organizations, seed enterprises and other development supporters increased the supply of yellow rust resistant varieties like Kakaba and Danda’a.

Fungicide is not the only solution for wheat smallholder farmers

Two household panel surveys during the 2009/10 main cropping season, before the yellow rust epidemic, and during the 2013/14 cropping season analyzed farmers’ exposure to wheat rusts and their coping mechanisms. From the survey, 44% of the wheat farming families reported yellow rust in their fields during the 2010/11 epidemic.

Household data analysis looked at the correlation between household characteristics, their coping strategies against wheat rust and farm yields. The study revealed there was a 29 to 41% yield advantage by increasing wheat area of the new, resistant varieties even under normal seasons with minimum rust occurrence in the field. Continuous varietal development in responding to emerging new rust races and supporting the deployment of newly released rust resistant varieties could help smallholders cope against the disease and maintain improved yields in the rust prone environments of Ethiopia.

The case study showed that apart from using fungicides, increasing wheat area under yellow rust resistant varieties, increasing diversity of wheat varieties grown, or a combination of these strategies were the main coping mechanisms farmers had taken to prevent new rust damages. Large-scale replacement of highly susceptible varieties by new rust resistant varieties was observed after the 2010/11 epidemic.

The most significant wheat grain yield increases were observed for farmers who increased both area under resistant varieties and number of wheat varieties grown per season.

The additional yield gain thanks to the large-scale adoption of yellow rust resistant varieties observed after the 2010/11 epidemic makes a very strong case to further strengthen wheat research and extension investments, so that more Ethiopian farmers have access to improved wheat varieties resistant to old and newly emerging rust races.

Read the full study on PLOS ONE:
https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0219327

Back from the brink of extinction

Visiting scientist Roi Ben-David discusses Israel’s exotic germplasm gap and ongoing efforts to restore the country’s lost wheat landrace collections.

This story by Emma Orchardson was originally published at CIMMYT.org.

In the early 20th century, Aaron Aaronsohn, a prominent agronomist best known for identifying the progenitor of wheat, began looking for durum wheat landraces in Israel. He travelled to villages across the country, carefully collecting and recording details of the local varieties used in each area.

This task was not without purpose. Aaronsohn recognized that as increasing numbers of settlers like himself came to the territory, the varietal change from the introduction of new and competitive wheat varieties and the rapid intensification of agriculture would soon cause all the traditional structures he had identified to disappear.

IPLR durum wheat landrace, Rishon LeZion, Israel. (Photo: Matan Franko/ARO-Volcani Center)

Aaronsohn was one of the first to begin collecting germplasm in the region, but others saw the importance of collecting before large-scale change occurred. For example, Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov gathered samples from Israel on one of his expeditions through the Middle East. By the end of the century, a number of collections had been established, but overall efforts at conservation were fragmented.

“That’s why we say the collection was on the verge of extinction,” explains Roi Ben-David, a researcher at the Volcani Center, Israel’s Agricultural Research Institute (ARO). “There were single accessions in genebanks around the world but no one really gave them special treatment or saw their value. Many were in private collections; others were simply lost.”

When Ben-David and his colleagues began looking for landraces six years ago, even the collection housed at the Israeli Genebank (IGB) was disappointing, with many samples stored in unmarked boxes in sub-optimal conditions. “When we came in nobody was really trying to study what we had and put it together to represent the area’s wheat landscape as it was 100 years ago.”

Long-term efforts to restore and conserve a collection of Israeli and Palestinian wheat landraces (IPLR) have led to the restoration of 930 lines so far, but there are many varieties that cannot be recovered. Therefore, it came as a great surprise to Ben-David when he arrived at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) headquarters in Mexico and stumbled upon one of the collections presumed lost. “I think it was actually my first week at CIMMYT when I spotted a demonstration plot growing one of the lost varieties – a subset of the Ephrat-Blum collection – and I couldn’t believe it.”

He had heard about this collection from the late Abraham Blum, but had never been able to locate it. “Someone might have moved the seeds, or maybe the box was not well labelled and thrown out. We don’t know, but needless to say it was a very good surprise to rediscover 64 of our missing lines.”

What prompted you and your colleagues to start looking for landraces in Israel?

We began because we recognized local landraces are good genetic resources but unfortunately, we couldn’t find any. It wasn’t so much that they didn’t exist, but the accessions were scattered across the world, mostly in private collections in countries like the USA or Australia. The Israeli Genebank, which sits only two floors above my office, had a few buckets of germplasm but nobody really knew what was inside.

The Middle East and the Fertile Crescent are centers of diversity, not only for wheat but for all crops that were part of the Neolithic revolution 10,000 years ago. They started here – the exact point of origin was probably in what is now southeast Turkey – so we have had thousands of years of evolution in which those landraces dominated the agricultural landscape and adapted to different environments.

Why do you think so much of the collection was lost?

The lines from Israel were lost because their conservation simply wasn’t prioritized. Losses happen everywhere but what was missing in this case was the urgency and understanding of just how important these collections are. Luckily, the current manager of the IGB, who is a fundamental partner in building the IPLR, understood the need to prioritize this and allocated a budget to conserve it as one collection.

What is the value of conserving landraces and why should it be prioritized?

Landraces are an extremely important genetic resource. Wild relatives are the biggest treasure, but breeders are usually reluctant to use them because they are so very different from modern varieties. So landraces form the link between these two, having already been domesticated and developed within farming systems while remaining genetically distinct from the modern. In wheat, they’re quite easy to spot because of how tall they are compared to the semi-dwarf varieties that replaced them in the 20th century.

There are two main reasons why we need to prioritize conservation. First, we believe that the evolution under domestication in this region is important to the community as a whole. Second, it is now a critical time, as we’re getting further from the time in which those traditional lines were in use. The last collection was carried out in the 1980s, when people were still able to collect authentic landraces from farmers but this is just not possible any more. We travelled all over the country but the samples we collected were not authentic – most were modern varieties that farmers thought were traditional. Not everybody knows exactly what they’re growing.

The time factor is critical. If we were to wake up 50 years from now and decide that it’s important to start looking for landraces, I don’t know how much we could actually save.

Plant height variability among IPLR wheat landraces, Rishon LeZion, Israel. (Photo: Matan Franko/ARO-Volcani Center)

Are there any farmers still growing landraces in Israel?

When we started looking for farmers who are still growing landraces we only found one farm. It is quite small – only about ten acres shared between two brothers. They grow a variety which is typically used to make a traditional food called kube, a kind of meat ball covered in flour and then then either fried or boiled. If you boil it using regular flour it falls apart, so people prefer to use a landrace variety, which is what the brothers grow and are able to sell for up to six times as much as regular durum wheat in the market. However, they’re not really interested in getting rich; they’re just trying to keep their traditions alive.

How are you and your colleagues working to conserve the existing collection?

There are two approaches. We want to develop is ex-situ conservations to preserve the diversity. As landraces are not always easy to conserve in a genebank, we also want to support in-situ conservation in the field, like traditional farmers have done. Together with the IGB we’ve distributed seed to botanical gardens and other actors in the hope that at least some of them will propagate it in their fields.

Having established the collection, we’re also trying to utilize it for research and breeding as much as possible. So far we’ve characterized it genetically, tested for drought tolerance and other agronomic traits and we’re in talks to start testing the quality profile of the lines.

Did you continue working on this while you were based at CIMMYT?

Yes, this was an additional project I brought with me during my sabbatical. The main success was working with Carolina Sansaloni and the team at the Genetic Resources Program (GRP) to carry out the genotyping. If it were left to my own resources, I don’t think we could have done it as the collection contains 930 plant genotypes and we only had the budget to do 90.

Luckily, CIMMYT also has an interest in the material so we could collaborate. We brought the material, CIMMYT provided technical support and we were able to genotype it all, which is a huge boost for the project. We had already been measuring phenotypes in Israel, but now that we have all the genetic data as well we can study the collection more deeply and start looking for specific genes of interest.

What will happen to the lines you discovered at CIMMYT?

They’ve been sent back to Israel to be reintegrated into the collection. I want to continue collaborating with people in CIMMYT’s GRP and genebank to do some comparative genomics and assess how much diversity we have in the IPLR collection compared with what CIMMYT has. Is there any additional genetic diversity? How does it compare to other landraces collections? That is what we want to find out next.

Roi Ben-David is based at Israel’s Agricultural Research Organization (ARO). He works in the Plant Institute, where his lab focuses on breeding winter cereals such as wheat. He has recently completed a one-year sabbatical placement at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

CIMMYT’s germplasm banks contain the largest and most diverse collections of maize and wheat in the world. Improved and conserved seed is available to any research institution worldwide.

Scientists use DNA fingerprinting to gauge the spread of modern wheat in Afghanistan

New study finds that wheat farmers often do not accurately identify their varieties.

Wheat is Afghanistan’s number-one staple crop, but the country does not grow enough and must import millions of tons of grain each year to satisfy domestic demand.

Despite the severe social and political unrest that constrain agriculture in Afghanistan, many farmers are growing high-yielding, disease resistant varieties developed through international, science-based breeding and made available to farmers as part of partnerships with national wheat experts and seed producers.

These and other findings have emerged from the first-ever large-scale use of DNA fingerprinting to assess Afghanistan farmers’ adoption of improved wheat varieties, which are replacing less productive local varieties and landraces, according to a paper published yesterday in the science journal BMC Genomics.

The study is part of an activity supported between 2003 and 2018 by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, through which the Agricultural Research Institute of Afghanistan and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) introduced, tested, and released improved wheat varieties.

“As part of our study, we established a ‘reference library’ of released varieties, elite breeding lines, and Afghan wheat landraces, confirming the genetic diversity of the landraces and their value as a genetic resource,” said Susanne Dreisigacker, wheat molecular breeder at CIMMYT and lead author of the new paper.

“We then compared wheat collected on farmers’ fields with the reference library. Of the 560 wheat samples collected in 4 provinces during 2015-16, farmers misidentified more than 40%, saying they were of a different variety from that which our DNA analyses later identified.”

Wheat is the most important staple crop in Afghanistan — more than 20 million of the country’s rural inhabitants depend on it — but wheat production is unstable and Afghanistan has been importing between 2 and 3 million tons of grain each year to meet demand.

Over half of the population lives below the poverty line, with high rates of malnutrition. A key development aim in Afghanistan is to foster improved agronomic practices and the use of high quality seed of improved wheat varieties, which together can raise yields by over 50%.

“Fungal diseases, particularly yellow rust and stem rust, pose grave threats to wheat in the country,” said Eric Huttner, research program manager for crops at the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and co-author of the present paper. “It’s crucial to know which wheat varieties are being grown where, in order to replace the susceptible ones with high-performing, disease resistant varieties.”

Varietal adoption studies typically rely on questionnaires completed by breeders, extension services, seed producers, seed suppliers, and farmers, but such surveys are complicated, expensive, and often inaccurate.

“DNA fingerprinting resolves uncertainties regarding adoption and improves related socioeconomic research and farm policies,” Huttner explained, adding that for plant breeding this technology has been used mostly to protect intellectual property, such as registered breeding lines and varieties in more developed economies.

This new study was commissioned by ACIAR as a response to a request from the Government of Afghanistan for assistance in characterizing the Afghan wheat gene bank, according to Huttner.

“This provided the reference library against which farmers’ samples could be compared,” he explained. “Accurately identifying the varieties that farmers grow is key evidence on the impact of introducing improved varieties and will shape our future research

Joint research and development efforts involving CIMMYT, ACIAR, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the International Centre of Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), French Cooperation, and Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL) and Agricultural Research Institute (ARIA) have introduced more than 400 modern, disease-resistant wheat varieties over the last two decades. Nearly 75% of the wheat grown in the areas surveyed for this study comes from these improved varieties.

“New gene sequencing technologies are increasingly affordable and their cost will continue to fall,” said Dreisigacker. “Expanded use of DNA fingerprinting can easily and accurately identify the wheat cultivars in farmers’ fields, thus helping to target breeding, agronomy, and development efforts for better food security and farmer livelihoods.”


For more information, or to arrange interviews with the researchers, please contact:

Marcia MacNeil, Wheat Communications Officer, CIMMYT
M.MacNeil@cgiar.org, +52 (55) 5804 2004, ext. 2070

Rodrigo Ordóñez, Communications Manager, CIMMYT
r.ordonez@cgiar.org, +52 (55) 5804 2004, ext. 1167

About 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 CGIAR 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.

About ACIAR
As Australia’s specialist international agricultural research for development agency, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) brokers and funds research partnerships between Australian scientists and their counterparts in developing countries. Since 1982, ACIAR has supported research projects in eastern and southern Africa, East Asia, South and West Asia and the Pacific, focusing on crops, agribusiness, horticulture, forestry, livestock, fisheries, water and climate, social sciences, and soil and land management. ACIAR has commissioned and managed more than 1,500 research projects in 36 countries, partnering with 150 institutions along with more than 50 Australian research organizations.

About Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock
The Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL) of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan works on the development and modernization of agriculture, livestock and horticulture. The ministry launches programs to support the farmers, manage natural resources, and strengthen agricultural economics. Its programs include the promotion and introduction of higher-value economic crops, strengthening traditional products, identifying and publishing farm-tailored land technologies, boosting cooperative programs, agricultural economics, and export with marketing.

Alternatives to burning can increase Indian farmers’ profits and cut pollution, new study shows

Published in Science, the article provides evidence for national policies that block stubble burning and promote no-till mechanization to manage crop residues.

This story by Mike Listman was originally posted on the website of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

India’s farmers feed millions of people. (Photo: Dakshinamurthy Vedachalam)

The new study compares the costs and benefits of 10 distinct land preparation and sowing practices for northern India’s rice-wheat cropping rotations, which are spread across more than 4 million hectares. The direct seeding of wheat into unplowed soil and shredded rice residues was the best option — it raises farmers’ profits through higher yields and savings in labor, fuel, and machinery costs.

The study, conducted by a global team of eminent agriculture and environmental scientists, was led by researchers from The Nature Conservancy, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA) and the University of Minnesota.

A new economic study in the journal Science shows that thousands of farmers in northern India could increase their profits if they stop burning their rice straw and adopt no-till practices to grow wheat. Alternative farming practices could also cut farmers’ greenhouse gas emissions from on-farm activities by as much as 78% and help lower air pollution in cities like New Delhi.

A burning issue

To quickly and cheaply clear their fields to sow wheat each year, farmers in northern India burn an estimated 23 million tons of straw from their rice harvests. That enormous mass of straw, if packed into 20-kilogram 38-centimeter-high bales and piled on top of each other, would reach a height of over 430,000 kilometers — about 1.1 times the distance to the moon.

Regulations are in place in India to reduce agricultural fires but burning continues because of implementation challenges and lack of clarity about the profitability of alternate, no-burn farming.

Farmers have alternatives, the study shows. To sow wheat directly without plowing or burning rice straw, farmers need to purchase or rent a tractor-mounted implement known as the “Happy Seeder,” as well as attach straw shredders to their rice harvesters. Leaving straw on the soil as a mulch helps capture and retain moisture and also improves soil quality, according to M.L. Jat, CIMMYT Principal Scientist, cropping systems specialist and a co-author of the study.

A combine harvester (left) equipped with the Super Straw Management System, or Super SMS, works alongside a tractor fitted with a Happy Seeder. (Photo: Sonalika Tractors)

Win-win

The Science study demonstrates that it is possible to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in a way that is profitable to farmers and scalable.

The paper shows that Happy Seeder-based systems are on average 10%–20% more profitable than straw burning options.

“Our study dovetails with 2018 policies put in place by the government of India to stop farmers from burning, which includes a US$166 million subsidy to promote mechanization to manage crop residues within fields,” said Priya Shyamsundar, Lead Economist, Global Science, of The Nature Conservancy and first author of the study.

Shyamsundar noted that relatively few Indian farmers currently sow their wheat using the Happy Seeder but manufacturing of the Seeder had increased in recent years. “Less than a quarter of the total subsidy would pay for widespread adoption of the Happy Seeder, if aided by government and NGO support to build farmer awareness and impede burning.”

“With a rising population of 1.6 billion people, South Asia hosts 40% of the world’s poor and malnourished on just 2.4% of its land,” said Jat, who recently received India’s prestigious Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Award for outstanding and impact-oriented research contributions in natural resource management and agricultural engineering. “Better practices can help farmers adapt to warmer winters and extreme, erratic weather events such as droughts and floods, which are having a terrible impact on agriculture and livelihoods. In addition, India’s efforts to transition to more sustainable, less polluting farming practices can provide lessons for other countries facing similar risks and challenges.”

In November 2017, more than 4,000 schools closed in Delhi due to seasonal smog. This smog increases during October and November when fields are burned. It causes major transportation disruptions and poses health risks across northern India, including Delhi, a city of more than 18 million people.

Some of these problems can be resolved by the use of direct sowing technologies in northwestern India.

“Within one year of our dedicated action using about US$75 million under the Central Sector Scheme on ‘Promotion of agriculture mechanization for in-situ management of crop residue in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and NCT of Delhi,’ we could reach 0.8 million hectares of adoption of Happy Seeder/zero tillage technology in the northwestern states of India,” said Trilochan Mohapatra, director general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). “Considering the findings of the Science article as well as reports from thousands of participatory validation trials, our efforts have resulted in an additional direct farmer benefit of US$131 million, compared to a burning option,” explained Mohapatra, who is also secretary of India’s Department of Agricultural Research and Education.

Read the full study in Science

This research was supported by the Susan and Craig McCaw Foundation, the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT), and the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). The Happy Seeder was originally developed through a project from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).

For more information, or to arrange interviews with the researchers, please contact:

Rodrigo Ordóñez, Communications Manager, CIMMYT
r.ordonez@cgiar.org, +52 5558042004 ext. 1167


Wheat expert calls for global unity to avert future hunger crises

Adapted from original blog by Matt Hayes on the website of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI)

Maricelis Acevedo (left), associate director of science for Delivering Genetic Gains in Wheat and Ronnie Coffman (right), international professor of plant breeding and director of International Programs in the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. (Photo: L. McCandless/Cornell) 

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.”

Top scientists from CGIAR to present latest research at International Wheat Congress in Canada

More than 800 global experts will gather in Saskatoon to strategize on ways to meet projected nutritional needs of 60% more people by 2050.

SASKATOON, Canada (CIMMYT) — Amid global efforts to intensify the nutritional value and scale of wheat production, scientists from all major wheat growing regions in the world will gather from July 21 to 26, 2019 at the International Wheat Congress in Saskatoon, the city at the heart of Canada’s western wheat growing province, Saskatchewan. The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT), led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), is a founding member of the G20 Wheat Initiative, a co-host of the conference.

Wheat provides 20% of all human calories consumed worldwide. In the Global South, it is the main source of protein and a critical source of life for 2.5 billion people who live on less than $2 (C$2.60) a day.

In spite of its key role in combating hunger and malnutrition, the major staple grain faces threats from climate change, variable weather, disease, predators and many other challenges. Wheat’s vital contribution to the human diet and farmer livelihoods makes it central to conversations about the rural environment, agricultural biodiversity and global food security.

More than 800 delegates, including researchers from the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat, CIMMYT, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP), Cornell University’s Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat project (DGGW), the University of Saskatchewan and many other organizations worldwide will discuss the latest research on wheat germplasm.

“We must solve a complex puzzle,” said Martin Kropff, CIMMYT’s director general. “Wheat must feed more people while growing sustainably on less land. Wheat demand is predicted to increase 60% in the next three decades, while climate change is putting an unprecedented strain on production.”

“The scientific community is tackling this challenge head-on, through global collaboration, germplasm exchange and innovative approaches. Researchers are looking at wheat’s temperature response mechanisms and using remote sensing, genomics, bio-informatics and other technologies to make wheat more tolerant to heat and drought,” Kropff said.

The congress is the first major gathering of the wheat community since the 2015 International Wheat Conference in Sydney, Australia.

CGIAR and CIMMYT scientists will share the latest findings on:

  • State-of-the-art approaches for measuring traits to speed breeding for heat and drought tolerance
  • Breeding durum (pasta) wheat for traits for use in bread products
  • New sources of diversity — including ancient wheat relatives — to create aphid-resistant wheat and other improved varieties
  • DNA fingerprinting to help national partners identify gaps in improved variety adoption

For more details on schedule and scientists’ presentations, click here.

Research shows that more than 60% of wheat varietal releases since 1994 were CGIAR-related.

Low- and middle-income countries are the primary focus and biggest beneficiaries of CGIAR wheat research, but high-income countries reap substantial rewards as well. In Canada, three-quarters of the wheat area is sown to CGIAR-related cultivars and in the United States almost 60% of the wheat area was sown to CGIAR-related varieties, according to the research.

  • WHEN: July 21-26, 2019
  • The opening ceremony and lectures will take place on Monday, July 22, 2019 from 08:50 to 10:50 a.m.
  • The Premier of Saskatchewan, Scott Moe, will give welcoming remarks at the opening ceremony. Other attending dignitaries include the Mayor of Saskatoon, Charlie Clark, and the President of the University of Saskatchewan, Peter Stoicheff.
  • Contacts: For further information, or to arrange interviews, please contact:
  • Marcia MacNeil: m.macneil@cgiar.org
  • Julie Mollins: j.mollins@cgiar.org

About CGIAR: CGIAR is a global research partnership for a food secure future dedicated to reducing poverty, enhancing food and nutrition security, and improving natural resources.

About the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat: Joining advanced science with field-level research and extension in lower- and middle-income countries, the Agri-Food Systems CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) works with public and private organizations worldwide to raise the productivity, production and affordable availability of wheat for 2.5 billion resource-poor producers and consumers who depend on the crop as a staple food. 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 for WHEAT comes from CGIAR and national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies, in particular the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). www.wheat.org

About 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 CGIAR 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.

Modern wheat breeding benefits high- and low-input farmers, study shows

Study results underscore the value of CIMMYT’s breeding programs.

Farmer Gashu Lema’s son harvests improved variety “Kubsa” wheat, Gadulla village, Mojo Ethiopia 2015. Photo: CIMMYT/P. Lowe

This story by Marcia MacNeil was originally posted on CIMMYT.org.

A recent article in the journal Nature Plants validates the work of wheat breeders who produce yield-boosting varieties for farmers across a range of incomes and environments. 

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.

In a commentary published in the same Nature Plants issue, two CIMMYT scientists — Hans Braun, director of CIMMYT’s global wheat program and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat and Matthew Reynolds, CIMMYT wheat physiologist – note the significance of the study.

“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,“ they state.

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 hybrid breeding.
  • 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.   

CIMMYT global partnership fights mutating wheat rust

Kenya research station offers a unique wheat science platform with global impact

By Joshua Masinde

KALRO staff selecting and taping promising wheat plants with resistance to stem rust disease at the wheat stem rust phenotyping facility in Njoro. Photo: Joshua Masinde/CIMMYT.

Stem rust, which occurs mainly in warm and humid conditions, is a serious biotic threat to wheat that can destroy healthy plants just a few weeks before harvest, resulting in huge yield losses to farmers. Along with leaf rust and stripe rust, it is the among the world’s most threatening wheat fungal diseases, dreaded by farmers for centuries.

Two decades ago, a virulent race of stem rust — identified as Ug99 — was identified in Uganda. The race went on to cause major epidemics in Kenya in 2002 and 2004. It continues to evolve and emerge into new races. Ug99 and its variants have since spread across East African highlands to South Africa, and to Yemen and Iran, threatening regional food security.

To tackle this stem rust pathogen, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and Cornell University established the International Stem Rust Phenotyping Platform in Njoro, Nakuru County, Kenya, in collaboration with the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) through the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project in 2008.

Stem rust resistant (left) and susceptible (right) wheat plants at the stem rust phenotyping facility in Njoro, Nakuru County in Kenya. Photo: Joshua Masinde/CIMMYT.

Over the past decade, wheat breeders and pathologists have worked collaboratively at the facility to stay ahead of this fast-evolving wheat stem rust fungus. This partnership has resulted in the release of over 150 wheat lines around the world, with resistance to Ug99 and its variants. The development of these high-yielding varieties suitable to various agro-ecologies has been possible with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Department for International Development (DFID) initially through the DRRW project, and presently as part of the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) project, managed by Cornell University.

Phenotyping – the use of field-testing technology to identify desired plant traits – is a core component in the facility. The facility uses the CIMMYT Mexico-Kenya shuttle breeding system to quickly evaluate and select wheat lines for stem rust resistance. It also evaluates wheat germplasm from different countries, and “mapping populations” — crosses of diverse parents — to identify and characterize new sources of rust resistance.  

Shuttle breeding

The CIMMYT Mexico-Kenya shuttle breeding system allows breeders to plant at two locations to rapidly advance new plant generations and expose the wheat to different stresses (abiotic and biotic). Testing in Obregon yields wheat lines adaptable to different agro-ecological zones, and with resistance to local races of leaf rust and stem rust pathogen, while additional testing in Kenya enhances stem rust resistance to Ug99 and its variants. This enables the Njoro facility to screen and select about 1,500-2,000 segregating wheat populations over the course of two seasons.

“Through the CIMMYT Mexico-Kenya shuttle breeding, continuous testing of wheat germplasm, speed breeding and use of modern marker technologies for genomic selection, we innovate continuously to develop improved wheat lines with a package of desired traits in a much shorter period of time,” explained Mandeep Randhawa, CIMMYT wheat breeder and wheat rust pathologist.

Scientists at the facility evaluate about 10,000 lines from yield trials for stem rust resistance over two seasons. The best performing lines undergo second year of yield tests under five different environments in Obregon, Mexico:  full irrigation, drought, flat bed, raised bed and heat stress. Breeders then select and compile high-yielding lines and distribute them as international nurseries to national partners with the help of CIMMYT’s germplasm bank.

Wheat plants infested with stem rust. Photo: Joshua Masinde/CIMMYT.

The Njoro screening facility has a capacity of testing 50,000 wheat lines in a year. As many as 20 countries send their germplasm to the facility for stem rust evaluation. About 600,000 wheat lines have been evaluated at Njoro over the last 10 years.

The critical challenge for breeders is to combine all desirable traits into single lines in a shorter period: say five, instead of 10 years. Such elaborate breeding efforts require sustained support and international cooperation to develop high-yielding stress resilient lines suited to various agro-ecologies. 

Training and capacity building for researchers and national programs

The Njoro facility plays a major capacity-building role for partner scientists, and MSc and PhD students. CIMMYT trains and equips early career scientists to better prepare them to deal with possible new epidemics, with an annual training targeting 20-25 early-career scientists from across the world. Last year’s training took place on October 1-9, 2018, as part of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation- and DFID-funded DGGW project (under the “talent pipeline” objective) managed through Cornell University.

In the last decade, CIMMYT has trained over 200 scientists from national research programs.

“In addition to imparting knowledge on new techniques in wheat breeding and genetics,” said Mandeep, “we normally use such opportunities to train the scientists on evaluating germplasm for stem rust resistance and standardizing stem rust note taking.”

“With such a partnership, it is easier and more cost-effective to train our local wheat researchers as opposed to sending them to all the way to Mexico. We have had a good number of young scientists trained at this facility as a result of this valuable partnership with CIMMYT,” said Ruth Wanyera, principal research scientist at KALRO.

Strengthening national programs better prepares them to put improved lines to appropriate use in the field – a core mandate of CIMMYT accomplished through the Njoro facility.