Launched in the 1950s by Norman Borlaug, a wheat scientist whose research and development contributions helped save hundreds of millions from starvation in the 1960s-70s, the international wheat improvement network coordinated by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center(CIMMYT) and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), both members of CGIAR, has been the main source of improved traits for wheat breeding programs and farmers in developing countries and often high-income nations. This has raised wheat yields, grain quality, and disease resistance, among other traits.
But what is the precise economic value of this breeding pipeline, which in recent times leverages annual donor contributions of approximately $30 million to test, select, and share wheat lines worldwide, as well as supporting seed production and distribution to farmers?
Photo: Peter Lowe/ CIMMYT
To find the answer, CIMMYT socioeconomists undertook a momentous study, gathering survey responses from breeding programs in 66 major wheat producing countries, analyzing the pedigrees of 4,604 wheat varieties released during 1994-2014, and poring over countless published reports and on-line resources.
Widespread, popular and productive
As documented in “Impacts of International Wheat Improvement Research 1994-2014,” varieties on nearly half the world’s wheat lands – as well as 70 to 80 percent of all wheat varieties released in South Asia, Central and West Asia, and North Africa – feature breeding contributions from CIMMYT or ICARDA.
“This means that about 50 million wheat farmers in developing countries are growing varieties that have our breeding lines in their pedigrees,” says Hans Braun, director of CIMMYT’s global wheat program and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat. “Through this improved seed, farmers gain immediate, free access to higher yields, resilience under hot and dry conditions, and resistance to devastating crop diseases.”
The study found that farmers’ use of this improved seed brings benefits in more bountiful harvests of between $2.2 and $3.1 billion each year, helping to raise farmers’ incomes and to keep wheat affordable for low-income consumers.