This story by Mike Listman was originally published on the CIMMYT website.
A new fact sheet captures the impact of CIMMYT after six decades of maize and wheat research in Pakistan.
Dating back to the 1960s, the research partnership between Pakistan and CIMMYT has played a vital role in improving food security for Pakistanis and for the global spread of improved crop varieties and farming practices.
Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and first director of CIMMYT wheat research, kept a close relationship with the nation’s researchers and policymakers. CIMMYT’s first training course participant from Pakistan, Manzoor A. Bajwa, introduced the high-yielding wheat variety “Mexi-Pak” from CIMMYT to help address the national food security crisis. Pakistan imported 50 tons of Mexi-Pak seed in 1966, the largest seed purchase of its time, and two years later became the first Asian country to achieve self-sufficiency in wheat, with a national production of 6.7 million tons.
In 2019 Pakistan harvested 26 million tons of wheat, which roughly matches its annual consumption of the crop.
In line with Pakistan’s National Food Security Policy and with national partners, CIMMYT contributes to Pakistan’s efforts to intensify maize- and wheat-based cropping in ways that improve food security, raise farmers’ income, and reduce environmental impacts. This has helped Pakistani farmers to figure among South Asia’s leaders in adopting improved maize and wheat varieties, zero tillage for sowing wheat, precision land leveling, and other innovations.
With funding from USAID, since 2013 CIMMYT has coordinated the work of a broad network of partners, both public and private, to boost the productivity and climate resilience of agri-food systems for wheat, maize, and rice, as well as livestock, vegetable, and fruit production.
The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat and its lead center, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), based in Mexico, are responding to the threat of COVID-19 and taking measures to ensure our worldwide staff is as safe as possible. While we adjust to the “new normal” of social distancing, temperature checks and quarantines, we will continue to perform field and desk research as best we can, and share our progress and findings with you through our website, newsletter, and Facebook page.
times such as this, we step back and remember the vision that brings us all
here: a world free of poverty, hunger and environmental degradation. We would
not be able pursue this vision without your support.
We hope you, your colleagues and loved ones stay safe and healthy. We are all in this together and we look forward to continuing our conversation.
Community celebrates nearly 50 years of achievements; highlights ways to meet future challenges
It was 1974. In the
United States, the environmental movement was in full swing, with the first
celebration of Earth Day, the establishment of the Environmental Protection
Agency, and the publication of Rachel Carson’s revolutionary book, Silent Spring. Around the world, the
public was gaining awareness of the danger of overuse of pesticides, as a small
group of crop breeders and entomologists decided to get together in what would
become the first International Plant Resistance to Insects (IPRI) workshop.
Today, the need for insect resistance is even greater. The UN,
which has named 2020 as the International Year of
Plant Health, estimates that almost 40% of food crops are lost
annually due to plant pests and diseases. The losses due to insects total up to
$1billion a year for wheat alone. Climate
change is another factor affecting the population and geographical
distribution of pests.
Last week, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement
Center (CIMMYT) hosted IPRI’s 24th biannual session, convening
entomologists, pathologists, breeders and nematologists to validate past work and
highlight innovative solutions. To name
South Africa’s Agricultural Research Council has
developed 43 new cultivars of wheat that are resistant to Russian Wheat Aphid.
CIMMYT precision scientists are using high-tech
cameras on drones or planes to measure individual plants for signs of biotic
stress, to allow farmers advance notice of infestation.
North Dakota State University’s mapping of the
Hessian Fly H26 gene has revealed two clear phenotypic responses to Hessian fly
attacks, bringing breeders a step closer towards developing resistant wheat
CIMMYT-designed Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
packages are helping farmers from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds
and cropping systems effectively fight the devastating maize pest fall armyworm
through a combination of best management practices.
A recurring theme was the importance of collaboration
between entomologists and breeders to ensure breakthroughs in resistance genes
are taken up to develop new varieties that reach farmers.
“There is a disconnect between screening and breeding,” CIMMYT
Global Wheat Program Director Hans Braun told attendees. “We need more and better collaboration between
disciplines, to move from screening to breeding faster.”
Communicating to farmers is crucial. Pesticides are
expensive, harmful to both human health and the environment, and can lead to crop
resistance. However, they can appear to
be the quick and easy solution. “IPM also means ‘integrating people’s
mindsets,’” said B.M. Prasanna, director of CIMMYT’s Global Maize Program.
National policies instituting strict quarantines pose
another serious barrier to the exchange of seeds required for testing and
To mark the workshop’s 24th anniversary, Michael
Smith, entomologist at Kansas State University and longtime IPRI participant, offered
a brief history of the event and the field—from the first insect-resistant
wheat developed in the early 1920s to the wake-up call of pesticide abuse in
“We’ve grown, we’ve made enormous technological changes, but
‘talking to people’ is still what we’re here for,” he stated. He added a
challenge for his colleagues: “We need
to tell a better story of the economic benefits of our science. We need to get
to the table in an even more assertive way.”
He also shared some lighter memories, such as the sight of
imminent plant scientists relaxing in leisure suits at the 1978 session. A traditional
mariachi serenade and traditional Mexican cuisine ensured that more memories
were made in 2020.
Leonardo Crespo-Herrera, CIMMYT wheat breeder
and workshop moderator closed with encouraging and provocative words for the
“The ultimate objective is to reduce the use of pesticides,” he said, adding: “How do we get this research out of the lab and into the field?”
In crop research fields, it is now a common sight to see drones or other high-tech sensing tools collecting high-resolution data on a wide range of traits – from simple measurement of canopy temperature to complex 3D reconstruction of photosynthetic canopies.
This technological approach to collecting precise plant trait information, known as phenotyping, is becoming ubiquitous on research fields, but according to experts at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and other research institutions, breeders can profit much more from these tools, when used judiciously.
In a new article in the journal Plant Science, CIMMYT Wheat Physiologist Matthew Reynolds and colleagues explain the different ways that phenotyping can assist breeding — from simple to use, “handy” approaches for large scale screening, to detailed physiological characterization of key traits to identify new parental sources — and why this methodology is crucial for crop improvement. The authors make the case for breeders to invest in phenotyping, particularly in light of the imperative to breed crops for warmer and harsher climates.
This work was supported by the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP); the Sustainable Modernization of Traditional Agriculture (MasAgro) Project by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (SADER) of the Government of Mexico; and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT).
On February 3rd of 2020, the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT) launched its annual Basic Wheat Improvement Course (BWIC). The Borlaug Training Foundation’s Janet Lewis had a chat with Fatima Camarillo Castillo, CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program Training Coordinator, to discuss the course and her role as coordinator.
Janet Lewis: “Can you give our audience a brief description of the Basic Wheat Improvement Course?”
Fatima Camarillo Castillo: “The wheat improvement courses at CIMMYT are short-term programs designed to train breeders working on national agricultural programs from countries where wheat is a major staple crop. During the basic training program, we provide participants an overview of the breeding pipeline and review breeding methodologies utilized in the Global Wheat Program for developing superior wheat germplasm. We also review core concepts on support disciplines for breeding such as genetics, statistics, plant pathology, and physiology. A set of practical and hands-on exercises follow where trainees collaborate directly with scientists and technicians on breeding activities of the program.”
JL: “What is your main role as the Training Coordinator?”
FCC: “I organize the content of the programs and communicate with the scientists to conduct the course. I also contribute to the training by lecturing on basic statistics, programming and genetics. During the training course, participants submit reports and prepare an oral and poster presentation. I support them by providing feedback on these activities. With the assistance of the training team, we also facilitate all the accommodations and arrangements for the participant’s trips and lodging in Mexico.”
JL: “What sparked your interest in being the training coordinator at CIMMYT?”
FCC: “As an alumnus, I personally understand the value of being part of this course. My goal as the current coordinator is to contribute to ensuring food security worldwide through training and capacity building on wheat research!”
JL: “2019 was your first year as the training coordinator. What experiences captivated you the most from 2019?”
FCC: “My greatest experience last year was that, as a coordinator, you do not expect to learn. The class of 2019 was a wonderful group of bright researchers that challenged me to keep working to become a better teacher and scientist. Some of them already excel in specific disciplines, so they provide me invaluable support to cover the academic content of the program.”
JL: “The 2020 class started on February 4th. Do you have any special expectations this year? The Women in Triticum group is participating this year, yes?”
FCC: “We will spend a couple of weeks at the CIMMYT research station at El Batan and move to Ciudad, Obregón to complete the training. We hope that trainees will interact with current scientists already established in Obregón. In the past, trainees were assigned to specific research groups in the middle of the course, but this year trainees will be integrated into the breeding activities starting the first day of their arrival in Obregon! We expect this will expose and familiarize the trainees with the breeding pipeline on a larger scale.
This year we will also have the recipients of the Women in Triticum Early Career Award. All our young scientists that have dedicated their scientific career to wheat research from Ethiopia, Uruguay, Germany, India, China, Mexico, and Pakistan.”
If you’d like to learn more about the Basic Wheat Improvement Course or any programs offered at CIMMYT, you can find them at https://www.cimmyt.org/events/
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
New study finds that wheat farmers often do not accurately identify their varieties.
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.”
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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.