New varieties deliver essential micronutrients to those who lack diverse diets
This article was originally posted on June 3, 2019 by Mike LISTMAN on cimmyt.org
TEXCOCO, Mexico (CIMMYT) — More nutritious crop varieties developed and spread through a unique global science partnership are offering enhanced nutrition for hundreds of millions of people whose diets depend heavily on staple crops such as maize and wheat, according to a new study in the science journal Cereal Foods World.
From work begun in the late 1990s and supported by numerous national research organizations and scaling partners, more than 60 maize and wheat varieties whose grain features enhanced levels of zinc or provitamin A have been released to farmers and consumers in 19 countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America over the last 7 years. All were developed using conventional cross-breeding.
“The varieties are spreading among smallholder farmers and households in areas where diets often lack these essential micronutrients, because people cannot afford diverse foods and depend heavily on dishes made from staple crops,” said Natalia Palacios, maize nutrition quality specialist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and co-author of the study.
More than 2 billion people worldwide suffer from “hidden hunger,” wherein they fail to obtain enough of such micronutrients from the foods they eat and suffer serious ailments including poor vision, vomiting, and diarrhea, especially in children, according to Wolfgang Pfeiffer, co-author of the study and head of research, development, delivery, and commercialization of biofortified crops at the CGIAR program known as “HarvestPlus.”
“Biofortification — the development of micronutrient-dense staple crops using traditional breeding and modern biotechnology — is a promising approach to improve nutrition, as part of an integrated, food systems strategy,” said Pfeiffer, noting that HarvestPlus, CIMMYT, and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) are catalyzing the creation and global spread of biofortified maize and wheat.
“Eating provitamin A maize has been shown to be as effective as taking Vitamin A supplements,” he explained, “and a 2018 study in India found that using zinc-biofortified wheat to prepare traditional foods can significantly improve children’s health.”
Six biofortified wheat varieties released in India and Pakistan feature grain with 6–12 parts per million more zinc than is found traditional wheat, as well as drought tolerance and resistance to locally important wheat diseases, said Velu Govindan, a breeder who leads CIMMYT’s work on biofortified wheat and co-authored the study.
“Through dozens of public–private partnerships and farmer participatory trials, we’re testing and promoting high-zinc wheat varieties in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Nepal, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe,” Govindan said. “CIMMYT is also seeking funding to make high-zinc grain a core trait in all its breeding lines.”
Pfeiffer said that partners in this effort are promoting the full integration of biofortified maize and wheat varieties into research, policy, and food value chains. “Communications and raising awareness about biofortified crops are key to our work.”
For more information or interviews, contact:
International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT)
Crop scientists refute the flawed findings of a study questioning climate resilience in modern wheat breeding.
This article by Marcia MacNeil was originally posted on May 28, 2019 on cimmyt.org.
In early 2019, an article published by European climate researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) journal questioned the climate resilience of modern wheat varieties. The article suggested that modern wheat varieties showed reduced climate resilience as a direct result of modern breeding methods and practices, a claim that researchers at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) vehemently rebuke
In a rebuttal letter published in the June issue of PNAS a group of scientists, including CIMMYT’s Susanne Dreisigacker and Sarah Hearne, strongly contradict the finding that breeding has reduced climate resilience in European wheat, citing significant flaws in the authors’ methodology, data analyses and interpretation.
“This article discredits European plant breeders and wheat breeders in general, who have been working over many decades to produce a wide range of regionally adapted, stable varieties which perform well under a broad range of climate change conditions,” said CIMMYT wheat molecular geneticist Susanne Dreisigacker.
Among other flaws, they found a number of omissions and inconsistencies.
The article shows a lack of understanding of commonly used terms and principles of breeding theory, criticizing newer wheat varieties for demonstrating a decrease in “climatic response diversity.” Less diversity in wheat response — that is, more stable yields despite the influence of climate change — is a benefit, not a threat, to farmers.
The article authors contradict the common knowledge among farmers and plant breeders that new elite wheat varieties are generally more productive than older varieties; new cultivars are only approved if they show added value in direct comparison to existing varieties.
The article’s claim of long-term losses of climate resilience in “European wheat” is unsubstantiated. The authors extensively used data from three small countries — the Czech Republic, Denmark and Slovakia — which contribute less than five percent of Europe’s wheat supply. Three of the five most important wheat producers in Europe — Russia, Ukraine and the United Kingdom — were not accounted for in the analysis.
The authors failed to report the actual wheat yields in their study, neglected to publish the underlying data with the manuscript and have up to now declined requests to make the data available.
Europe is one of the world’s major wheat producers and threats to its wheat production due to climate change would have serious consequences for world’s food security. Luckily, say the scientists who published the rebuttal letter, this fear is unfounded.
“Wheat producers and bread consumers around the world will be relieved to learn that breeders have not ignored climate change after all,” said letter lead-author Rod Snowdon, from the Department of Plant Breeding at Justus Liebig University of Giessen, Germany.
The full rebuttal letter by 19 international plant breeders, agronomists and scientists, is available on the PNAS site and reprinted in its entirety below.
Reduced response diversity does not negatively impact wheat climate resilience
Kahiluoto et al. (1) assert that climate resilience in European wheat has declined due to current breeding practices. To support this alarming claim, the authors report yield variance data indicating increasingly homogeneous responses to climatic fluctuations in modern wheat cultivars. They evaluated “response diversity,” a measure of responses to environmental change among different species jointly contributing to ecosystem functions (2). We question the suitability of this measure to describe agronomic fitness in single-cultivar wheat cropping systems. Conclusions are made about “long-term trends,” which in fact span data from barely a decade, corresponding to the duration of a single wheat breeding cycle. The authors furthermore acknowledge increasing climate variability during the study period, confounding their analysis of climate response in the same time span.
The underlying data are not published with the manuscript. Thus, the assertion that there is “no inherent trade-off between yield potential and diversity in weather responses” (1) cannot be verified. Inexplicably, the analysis and conclusions ignore absolute yields, which increase over time through breeding (3–6). Furthermore, incompatible data from completely different ecogeographical forms and species of wheat are apparently considered together, and the dataset is strongly biased toward a few small countries with minimal wheat production and narrow agroclimatic gradients.
The study assumes that increased response diversity among different cultivars is associated with yield stability. In contrast, the common, agronomic definition of yield stability refers to the ability of a single cultivar to stably perform well in diverse environments, without excessive responses to fluctuating conditions. Response diversity measures that ignore absolute yield do not support statements about food security or financial returns to farmers.
Cultivar yield potential, stability, and adaptation are enhanced by multienvironment selection over long breeding time frames, encompassing climate fluctuations and a multitude of other relevant environmental variables. Translation to on-farm productivity is promoted by national registration trials and extensive, postregistration regional variety trials in diverse environments. The unsurprising conclusion that planting multiple cultivars enhances overall production stability mirrors longstanding farming recommendations and practice (7). The availability of robust performance data from a broad range of high-performing cultivars enables European farmers to manage their production and income risks.
Kahiluoto et al. (1) speculate about “genetic erosion” of modern cultivars due to a “lack of incentives for breeders to introduce divergent material.” To substantiate these claims, the authors cite inadequate genetic data from non-European durum wheat (8), while explicitly dismissing clearly opposing findings about genetic diversity in European bread wheat (9). Short-term reductions in response diversity in five countries were misleadingly reported as a “long-term decline” in climate resilience in “most European countries,” although six out of seven countries with sufficient data showed no long-term decline. The article from Kahiluoto et al. and the misrepresentation of its results distorts decades of rigorous, successful breeding for yield potential and stability in European wheat and misleads farmers with pronouncements that are not supported by relevant data.
1 H. Kahiluoto et al., Decline in climate resilience of European wheat. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 116, 123–128 (2019).
2 T. Elmqvist et al., Response diversity, ecosystem change, and resilience. Front. Ecol. Environ. 1, 488–494 (2003).
3 S. De Schepper, M. De Loose, E. Van Bockstaele, P. Debergh, Ploidy analysis of azalea flower colour sports. Meded. Rijksuniv. Gent. Fak. Landbouwkd. Toegep. Biol. Wet. 66, 447–449 (2001).
4 I. Mackay et al., Reanalyses of the historical series of UK variety trials to quantify the contributions of genetic and environmental factors to trends and variability in yield over time. Theor. Appl. Genet. 122, 225–238 (2011).
5 F. Laidig et al., Breeding progress, environmental variation and correlation of winter wheat yield and quality traits in German official variety trials and on-farm during 1983-2014. Theor. Appl. Genet. 130, 223–245 (2017).
6 T. Würschum, W. L. Leiser, S. M. Langer, M. R. Tucker, C. F. H. Longin, Phenotypic and genetic analysis of spike and kernel characteristics in wheat reveals long-term genetic trends of grain yield components. Theor. Appl. Genet. 131, 2071–2084 (2018).
7 P. Annicchiarico, “Genotype x environment interactions: Challenges and opportunities for plant breeding and cultivar recommendations.” (Food and Agriculture 201 Organisation of the United Nations, Rome, Italy, 2002), FAO Plant Production and Protection Paper 174.
8 F. Henkrar et al., Genetic diversity reduction in improved durum wheat cultivars of Morocco as revealed by microsatellite markers. Sci. Agric. 73, 134–141 (2016).
9 M. van de Wouw, T. van Hintum, C. Kik, R. van Treuren, B. Visser, Genetic diversity trends in twentieth century crop cultivars: A meta analysis. Theor. Appl. Genet. 120, 1241–1252 (2010).
Lead agricultural scientists from G20 member countries gathered
in Tokyo, Japan last month to discuss ways to promote science and technology as
mechanisms to support the global food system.
The Meeting of Agricultural
Chief Scientists (MACS), which took place on April 25-26 in Tokyo, focused
on identifying global research priorities in agriculture and ways to facilitate
collaboration among G20 members and with relevant stakeholders. The purpose is to develop a global agenda ahead
of the May 11-12 meeting of G20 Agricultural Ministers.
CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) Program Manager
Victor Kommerell was among the attendees.
“It is essential to advocate for science-based decision making,” he said. “Better connecting the dots between national agricultural research agendas and the CGIAR international agenda is important. The G20 wheat initiative and WHEAT have made a good start.”
The threat of pests and the importance
of adopting climate smart technology came up as high priorities.
Transboundary pests have become a
serious threat to food security, exacerbated by the globalized movement of
people and commodities and the changing climate. As Kommerell commented to the
attendees, pathogens and pests cause
global crop losses of 20 to 30 percent. This has a “double penalty” effect,
wasting both food and resources invested in farming inputs.
The International Maize and Wheat
Improvement Center (CIMMYT) is particularly focused on pests and diseases
threatening maize and wheat, such as Fall armyworm and wheat rust and blast. Kommerell summarized a number of research-based
solutions underway thanks to international collaboration – including building globally-accessible
rapid screening facilities and using wild crop relatives as a genetic source
for resistance. But non-technical solutions, such as boosting awareness and communicating
preventative farming practices are also important.
The agricultural field is especially vulnerable to the effects of changing climate and weather variability, while at the same time heavily contributing as a source of greenhouse gases. Innovative agricultural technologies and practices are essential for sustainable production, climate resilience and carbon sequestration as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The key, the attendees concluded in a meeting communiqué, is the open and international exchange of knowledge, experience, and practices. Networks are already in place, but need strengthening at both the regional and international level.
To that end, a task force led by
Australia and the United States will develop guidelines for working groups and
initiatives designed to mitigate pests and scale adoption of climate smart
The government of Japan is also taking
an active role, with plans to hold international conferences this year to facilitate
sharing of experiences, research, and best practices from G20 countries.
In February 2019 filmmaker Chris Knight of International Programs at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences visited the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization – Food Crops Research Institute (KALRO – FCRI) research station in Njoro, Kenya. Wanting to visually capture how Cornell is working with CIMMYT and a global partnership of more than 25 countries to protect the world’s wheat from diseases and the stress of climate change, he produced the short film Protecting the World’s Wheat – Delivering Genetic Gain in Kenya .
The film features East Africa, a center of genetic diversity for wheat stem rust, a fungal pathogen that causes significant yield losses worldwide. To combat this, partner countries test more than 50,000 experimental wheat lines against stem rust in Kenya every year at the Njoro research station to ensure that newly released wheat varieties will be resistant to emerging virulent races of the stem rust fungus as they evolve and spread.
Farmers and scientists have been fighting stem rust since the domestication of wheat thousands of years ago. This brilliant dance between humans and nature will likely never stop, but by working together we can stay one step ahead of this pesky pathogen. As Ruth Wanyera, Principal Research Scientist at KALRO stated, “(Stem rust) is running, and we’re also running. It’s running, and we’re also running. We have to do something to make sure there’s food in the table. That is where my motivation is. Let’s do something. Let’s feed the world. Let there be food for people to eat, or for people to survive.”
This article by Vanessa Meadu was originally posted on March 21, 2019 on cimmyt.org.
On World Water day, researchers show how India’s farmers can beat water shortages and grow rice and wheat with 40 percent less water
India’s northwest region is the most important production area for two staple cereals: rice and wheat. But a growing population and demand for food, inefficient flood-based irrigation, and climate change are putting enormous stress on the region’s groundwater supplies. Science has now confronted this challenge: a “breakthrough” study demonstrates how rice and wheat can be grown using 40 percent less water, through an innovative combination of existing irrigation and cropping techniques. The study’s authors, from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA), Punjab Agricultural University and Thapar University, claim farmers can grow similar or better yields than conventional growing methods, and still make a profit.
The researchers tested a range of existing solutions to determine the optimal mix of approaches that will help farmers save water and money. They found that rice and wheat grown using a “sub-surface drip fertigation system” combined with conservation agriculture approaches used at least 40 percent less water and needed 20 percent less Nitrogen-based fertilizer, for the same amount of yields under flood irrigation, and still be cost-effective for farmers. Sub-surface drip fertigation systems involve belowground pipes that deliver precise doses of water and fertilizer directly to the plant’s root zone, avoiding evaporation from the soil. The proposed system can work for both rice and wheat crops without the need to adjust pipes between rotations, saving money and labor. But a transition to more efficient approaches will require new policies and incentives, say the authors.
Sidhu HS, Jat ML, Singh Y, Sidhu RK, Gupta N, Singh P, Singh P, Jat HS, Gerard B. 2019. Sub-surface drip fertigation with conservation agriculture in a rice-wheat system: A breakthrough for addressing water and nitrogen use efficiency. Agricultural Water Management. 216:1 (273-283). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agwat.2019.02.019
The study received funding from the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the Government of Punjab. The authors acknowledge the contributions of the field staff at BISA and CIMMYT based at Ludhiana, Punjab state.
As a native of Obregon, Mexico, Carolina Rivera has a unique connection to the heart of Norman Borlaug’s wheat fields. She is now carrying on Borlaug’s legacy and working with wheat as a wheat physiologist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and data coordinator with the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP).
Given her talents and passion for wheat research, it is no surprise that Rivera is among this year’s six recipients of the 2019 Jeanie Borlaug Laube Women in Triticum (WIT) Early Career Award. As a young scientist at CIMMYT, she has already worked to identify new traits associated with the optimization of plant morphology aiming to boost grain number and yield.
The Jeanie Borlaug Laube WIT Award provides professional development opportunities for women working in wheat. The review panel responsible for the selection of the candidates at the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI), was impressed by her commitment towards wheat research on an international level and her potential to mentor future women scientists.
Established in 2010, the award is named after Jeanie Borlaug Laube, wheat science advocate and mentor, and daughter of Nobel Laureate Dr. Norman E. Borlaug. As a winner, Rivera is invited to attend a training course at CIMMYT in Obregon, Mexico, in spring 2020 as well as the BGRI 2020 Technical Workshop, to be held in the UK in June 2020. Since the award’s founding, there are now 50 WIT award winners.
The 2019 winners were announced on March 20 during CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program Visitors’ Week in Obregon.
In the following interview, Rivera shares her thoughts about the relevance of the award and her career as a woman in wheat science.
Q: What does receiving the Jeanie Borlaug Laube WIT Award mean to you?
I feel very honored that I was considered for the WIT award, especially after having read the inspiring biographies of former WIT awardees. Receiving this award has encouraged me even more to continue doing what I love while standing strong as a woman in science.
It will is a great honor to receive the award named for Jeanie Borlaug, who is a very active advocate for wheat research. I am also very excited to attend the BGRI Technical Workshop next year, where lead breeders and scientists will update the global wheat community on wheat rust research. I expect to see a good amount of women at the meeting!
Q: When did you first become interested in agriculture?
My first real encounter with agriculture was in 2009 when I joined CIMMYT Obregon as an undergraduate student intern. I am originally from Obregon, so I remember knowing about the presence of CIMMYT, Campo Experimental Norman E. Borlaug (CENEB) and Instituto Nacional de Investigación Forestales Agrícolas y Pecuario (Inifap) in my city but not really understanding the real importance and impact of the research coming from those institutions. After a few months working at CIMMYT, I became very engrossed in my work and visualized myself as a wheat scientist.
Q: Why is it important to you that there is a strong community of women in agriculture?
We know women play a very important role in agriculture in rural communities, but in most cases they do not get the same rights and recognition as men. Therefore, policies — such as land rights — need to be changed and both women and men need to be educated in gender equity. I think the latter factor is more likely to strengthen communities of women, both new and existing, working in agriculture.
In addition, women should participate more in science to show that agricultural research is an area where various ideas and perspectives are necessary. To achieve this in the long run, policies need to look at current social and cultural practices holding back the advancement of women in their careers.
Q: What are you currently working on with CIMMYT and IWYP?
I am a post-doctoral fellow in CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program where I assist in collaborative projects to improve wheat yield potential funded by IWYP. I am also leading the implementation of IWYP’s international research database, helping to develop CIMMYT’s wheat databases in collaboration with the center’s Genetic Resources Program. Apart from research and data management, I am passionate about offering trainings to students and visitors on field phenotyping approaches.
Q: Where do you see yourself in the agriculture world in 10 years?
In 10 years, I see myself as an independent scientist, generating ideas that contribute to delivering wheat varieties with higher yield potential and better tolerance to heat and drought stresses. I also see myself establishing strategies to streamline capacity building for graduate students in Mexico. At that point, I would also like to be contributing to policy changes in education and funding for science in Mexico.
by Dakshinamurthy Vedachalam, Sugandha Munshi / This article was originally published on the website of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center on March 12, 2019
Self-help groups in Bihar, India, are putting thousands of rural women in touch with agricultural innovations, including mechanization and sustainable intensification, that save time, money, and critical resources such as soil and water, benefiting households and the environment.
The Bihar Rural Livelihoods Promotion Society, locally known as Jeevika, has partnered with the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA), led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), to train women’s self-help groups and other stakeholders in practices such as zero tillage, early sowing of wheat, direct-seeded rice and community nurseries.
Through their efforts to date, more than 35,000 households are planting wheat earlier than was customary, with the advantage that the crop fully fills its grain before the hot weather of late spring. In addition, some 18,000 households are using zero tillage, in which they sow wheat directly into unplowed fields and residues, a practice that improves soil quality and saves water, among other benefits. As many as 5,000 households have tested non-flooded, direct-seeded rice cultivation during 2018-19, which also saves water and can reduce greenhouse gas emissions
An autonomous body under the Bihar Department of Rural Development, Jeevika is also helping women to obtain specialized equipment for zero tillage and for the mechanized transplanting of rice seedlings into paddies, which reduces women’s hard labor of hand transplanting.
“Mechanization is helping us manage our costs and judiciously use our time in farming,” says Rekha Devi, a woman farmer member of Jeevika Gulab self-help group of Beniwal Village, Jamui District. “We have learned many new techniques through our self-help group.”
With more than 100 million inhabitants and over 1,000 persons per square kilometer, Bihar is India’s most densely-populated state. Nearly 90 percent of its people live in rural areas and agriculture is the main occupation. Women in Bihar play key roles in agriculture, weeding, harvesting, threshing, and milling crops, in addition to their household chores and bearing and caring for children, but they often lack access to training, vital information, or strategic technology.
Like all farmers in South Asia, they also face risks from rising temperatures, variable rainfall, resource degradation, and financial constraints.
Jeevika has formed more than 700,000 self-help groups in Bihar, mobilizing nearly 8.4 million poor households, 25,000 village organizations, and 318 cluster-level federations in all 38 districts of Bihar.
The organization also fosters access for women to “custom-hiring” businesses, which own the specialized implement for practices such as zero tillage and will sow or perform other mechanized services for farmers at a cost. “Custom hiring centers help farmers save time in sowing, harvesting and threshing,” said Anil Kumar, Program Manager, Jeevika.
The staff training, knowledge and tools shared by CSISA have been immensely helpful in strengthening the capacity of women farmers, according to Dr. D. Balamurugan, CEO, Jeevika. “We aim to further strengthen our partnership with CSISA and accelerate our work with women farmers, improving their productivity while saving their time and costs,” Balamurugan said.
CSISA is implemented jointly by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). It is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
For plant scientists, increasing wheat yield potential is one of the most prevalent challenges of their work. One key strategy for increasing yield is to improve the plant’s ability to produce biomass through optimizing the conversion of solar radiation into plant structures and grain, called radiation use efficiency (RUE). Currently, the process is 30-50% less efficient in wheat than in maize.
International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) wheat physiologist Gemma Molero, in collaboration with Ryan Joynson and Anthony Hall of the Earlham Institute, has been studying the association of RUE related traits with molecular markers to identify specific genes associated with this trait.
Over the course of two years, Molero and fellow researchers evaluated a panel of 150 elite spring wheat genotypes for 31 traits, looking for marker traits associated with yield and other “sink”-related traits, such as, grain number, grain weight and harvest index, along with ‘’source’’-related traits, such as RUE and biomass at various growth stages. Many of the elite wheat lines that were tested encompass “exotic” material in their pedigree such as ancient wheat landraces and wheat wild relatives.
The scientists found that increases in both net rate of photosynthesis and RUE have the potential to make a large impact on wheat biomass, demonstrating that the use of exotic material is a valuable resource to help increase yield potential. This is the first time that a panel of elite wheat lines has been assembled using different sources of yield potential traits, and an important output from a large global endeavor to increase wheat yield, the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP).
“We identified common genetic bases for yield, biomass and RUE for the first time. This has important implications for wheat researchers, breeders, geneticists, plant scientists and biologists,” says Molero.
The identification of molecular markers associated with the studied traits is a valuable tool for wheat improvement. Broadly speaking, the study opens the door for a series of important biological questions about the role of RUE in yield potential and in the ability to increase grain biomass.
In order to accommodate worldwide population increases and shifts in diet, wheat yield needs to double by 2050 — and genetic gains in wheat, specifically, must increase at a rate of 2.4 percent annually. Increasing biomass through the optimization of RUE along the wheat crop cycle can be an important piece in the puzzle to help meet this demand.
In celebration of International Women’s Day 2019, Victor Kommerell, Program Manager of the CGIAR Research Programs on MAIZE and WHEAT at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, reflects about International Women’s Day and gender research at CGIAR in a conversation with CGIAR science leaders.
Victor encourages gender in agriculture specialists to “Get out of your comfort zone!”
See the full article, as well as with videos, interviews and publications from across the CGIAR system on gender research, here.
In an attempt to curb the spread of this disease, policymakers in the region are considering a “wheat holiday” policy: banning wheat cultivation for a few years in targeted areas. Since wheat blast’s Magnaporthe oryzae pathotype triticum (MoT) fungus can survive on seeds for up to 22 months, the idea is to replace wheat with other crops, temporarily, to cause the spores to die. In India, which shares a border of more than 4,000 km with Bangladesh, the West Bengal state government has already instituted a two-year ban on wheat cultivation in two districts, as well as all border areas. In Bangladesh, the government is implementing the policy indirectly by discouraging wheat cultivation in the severely blast affected districts.
CIMMYT researchers recently published in two ex-ante studies to identify economically feasible alternative crops in Bangladesh and the bordering Indian state of West Bengal.
The first step to ensuring that a ban
does not threaten the food security and livelihoods
of smallholder farmers, the authors assert, is to supply farmers with economically feasible alternative crops.
In Bangladesh, the authors examined the economic
feasibility of seven crops as an alternative to wheat, first in the entire
country, then in 42 districts vulnerable to blast, and finally in ten districts
affected by wheat blast. Considering the cost of
production and revenue per hectare, the study ruled out boro rice, chickpeas
and potatoes as feasible alternatives to wheat due to their negative net
return. In contrast, they found that cultivation of maize, lentils, onions, and
garlic could be profitable.
The study in India looked at ten crops
grown under similar conditions as wheat in the state of West Bengal, examining the
economic viability of each. The authors
conclude that growing maize, lentils, legumes
such aschickpeas and urad bean, rapeseed, mustard and potatoes
in place of wheat appears to be profitable, although they warn that more rigorous research
and data are needed to confirm and support this transition.
Selecting alternative crops is no easy
task. Crops offered to farmers to replace wheat must be appropriate for the
agroecological zone and should not require additional investments for
irrigation, inputs or storage facilities. Also,
the extra production of labor-intensive and export-oriented crops, such as
maize in India and potatoes in Bangladesh, may add costs or require new markets
There is also the added worry that the MoT fungus could survive on one of these
alternative crops, thus completely negating any benefit of the “wheat holiday.”
The authors point out that the fungus has been reported to survive on maize.
A short-term solution?
In both studies, the authors discourage a
“wheat holiday” policy as a holistic solution. However, they leave room for
governments to pursue it on an interim and short-term basis.
In the case of Bangladesh, the researchers assert that a “wheat holiday” would increase the country’s reliance on imports, especially in the face of rapidly increasing wheat demand and urbanization. A policy that results in complete dependence on wheat imports, they point out, may not be politically attractive or feasible. Also, the policy would be logistically challenging to implement. Finally, since the disease can potentially survive on other host plants, such as weeds and maize—it may not even work in the long run.
In the interim, the government of
Bangladesh may still need to rely on the “wheat holiday” policy in the severely
blast-affected districts. In these areas, they should encourage farmers to
cultivate lentils, onions and garlic. In addition,
in the short term, the government should make generic fungicides widely
available at affordable prices and provide an early warning
system as well as adequate information to help farmers
effectively combat the disease and minimize its consequences.
In the case of West Bengal, India, similar
implications apply – although the authors conclude that the “wheat holiday”
policy could only work if Bangladesh has the same policy in its blast-affected
border districts, which would involve potentially difficult and costly
inter-country collaboration, coordination and logistics.
Actions for long-term success
The CIMMYT researchers urge the governments
of India and Bangladesh, their counterparts in the region and international
stakeholders to pursue long-term solutions, including developing a convenient
diagnostic tool for wheat blast surveillance and a platform for open data and
science to combat the fungus.
CIMMYT scientists in both studies close
with an urgent plea for international financial and technical support for collaborative
research on disease epidemiology and forecasting, and the development and
dissemination of new wheat blast-tolerant and resistant varieties and
complementary management practices – crucial steps to ensuring food security for
more than a billion people in South Asia.
First officially reported in Brazil in 1985, where it eventually spread to 3 million hectares in South America and became the primary reason for limited wheat production in the region, wheat blast moved to Bangladesh in 2016. There it affected nearly 15,000 hectares of land in eight districts, reducing yield by as much as 51 percent in the affected fields.
Blast is devilish: directly striking the wheat ear, it can shrivel and deform the grain in less than a week from the first symptoms, leaving farmers no time to act. There are no widely available resistant varieties, and fungicides are expensive and provide only a partial defense. The disease, caused by the fungus Magnaporthe oryzae pathotype triticum (MoT), can spread through infected seeds as well as by spores that can travel long distances in the air.
South Asia has a long tradition of wheat consumption, especially in northwest India and Pakistan, and demand has been increasing rapidly across South Asia. It is the second major staple in Bangladesh and India and the principal staple food in Pakistan. Research indicates 17 percent of wheat area in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan — representing nearly 7 million hectares – is vulnerable to the disease, threatening the food security of more than a billion people.