International exchange and collaboration supports wheat food security in China
Thanks in part to international collaboration with CIMMYT and other countries for both wheat germplasm exchange and breeding research, China’s wheat production has more than doubled over the last 30 years, according to scientists.
The wheat boom from 1982 to 2014 -- a period when the wheat farming area actually declined -- is a perfect demonstration of the value of international collaboration and modern wheat breeding -- the core of WHEAT’s mission and work.
The study shows that over the 30-year period, Chinese farmers gradually adopted more modern wheat varieties, with many originating from “exotic,” or foreign elite lines from CIMMYT or other countries (19% and 81%, respectively).
As China's wheat breeding programs improved, the use of exotic varieties decreased and farmers began to sow more local wheat varieties. However, breeders in China are increasingly using exotic germplasm to create varieties that combine local and exotic germplasm for higher average yields.
The yield of Chinese germplasm-based varieties alone more than doubled between 1982 and 2014, and the use of exotic germplasm increased annual production by an additional 10.4 million tons over the 30 years.
In all, the accumulated contribution of exotic germplasm to wheat production in China over these three decades represents about 343 million tons of wheat, or $70 billion.
The results of this study have important implications for plant breeders, policy makers in China, and international donors, said Victor Kommerell, WHEAT program manager.
“International germplasm exchange is essential for creating new genetic diversity in wheat -- and international breeding research collaboration is very good value for the money,” said Kommerell.
Photo: Wheat (Alfonso Cortes/CIMMYT)
Towards gender equality in wheat farming
Gender and innovation processes in wheat-based systems are intertwined: gender norms can constrict women’s access and control over agricultural and natural resource management technologies and practices. Myths, such as that “wheat is a man’s crop,” can exacerbate these social inequalities.
The CGIAR Research Program on Wheat forms part of a multidisciplinary team that is leading the way debunking gender myths and unseating gender norms in wheat-based systems, through GENNOVATE, a project carried out by 11 CGIAR Research Programs.
This global comparative research initiative addresses how gender norms influence men, women and youth to adopt innovative practices and technologies in agriculture and natural resource management.
A new report - based on the experiences of around 2,500 women and men in wheat farming communities in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Morocco, Nepal, Pakistan and Uzbekistan – finds that deep-seated gender norms limit women’s access to new technologies.
For example, surveyed men in Nepal believe good male farmers are the ones that adopt new technologies and tools and are knowledgeable about fertilizers, diseases, and planting times; while good female farmers plant, weed and nurture crops – in addition to their household responsibilities.
The authors propose gender-based approaches to agricultural innovation: working with progressive opinion leaders, developing and testing agricultural extension arrangements that cater to women as well as men, and supporting female-household heads to open space for other women in their communities.
Findings from this project show that equal opportunity enables innovation and economic development, especially in agriculture.
Photo: A mother and daughter transport grain to market by donkey cart (Adefris Teklewold/CIMMYT).
New roles for South Asia’s farming women
Strong male out-migration in parts of South Asia, together with efforts to promote equality through social education, have fueled a rise in innovative farming – and agricultural decision making - by women in the region.
Photo: A woman drying wheat in Bihar, India (M. DeFreese/CIMMYT)
High tech “eyes” boost efforts for climate resilient wheat
WHEAT researchers are taking advantage of the most recent advances in remote sensing, genomics and bio-informatics to collect information about wheat traits at an unprecedented level of detail and precision, measuring traits such as plant development and architecture, radiation use efficiency, root length, photosynthesis and biomass productivity.
Digital and cutting edge tools such as spectroscopy, image analysis, robotics, drones and satellites are collecting these data on hundreds to thousands of plants each day.
Known as phenotyping, this approach permits an enhanced understanding of a crops’ physiology to improve traits -- such more vigorous root systems and improved photosynthesis and translocation of carbohydrates in the stem -- that increase tolerance to heat and drought, and help to create plant types tailored to future climates.
The Heat and Drought Wheat Improvement Consortium (HeDWIC) is one initiative that is capitalizing on these advanced methods. The consortium brings together wheat researchers from around the globe in the common mission to produce climate-resilient varieties -- combining genetic diversity with physiological and molecular breeding and bio-informatic technologies.
The approach already has proof of concept in Pakistan, a wheat powerhouse struggling with increased heat and drought. Over the past six years, breeders from CGIAR and the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council developed and released three widely adopted heat and drought-tolerant wheat lines: Kohat-17, Borlaug 2016 and Pakistan 2013. Pakistan-13, a drought and heat tolerant variety that is also resistant to yellow and leaf rust, is the biggest success story. Since its release, an estimated 9,120 tons of Pakistan-13 seed went to farmers, meaning that 93,860 farmers (based on the FAO estimate of 2 acres per farmer) have switched to the new variety.
In 2018 alone, it was planted on an estimated 40,000 hectares. In an environment that is expected to become hotter, dryer, and more volatile, wheat varieties must keep up. WHEAT partnerships such as HeDWIC offer hope to meet this urgent food security challenge.
Photo: "This is a very hot place,” said Pakistani farmer Sadia Ijaz (left). “And in this area, the new Pakistan-13 variety has more capacity to tolerate heat than other varieties." (Peter Lowe/CIMMYT)
WHEAT partnership supports a bold goal in Ethiopia
In 2018, the Government of Ethiopia announced a goal to be wheat self-sufficient by 2020, a remarkable ambition.
A long-standing collaboration between International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) – both partners of the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat -- with the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) has led to a steady rise in wheat production, productivity and varietal turnover that makes this goal a possibility.
After a rust epidemic in 2009, the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat supported the promotion and widespread availability of improved, rust-resistant varieties that led to rapid wheat variety replacement among Ethiopian farmers from 2009 to 2014. A study shows that farmer net income grew over this period from 4,320 to 5,339 Birr per hectare, despite rising costs of agricultural inputs.
In November 2018, CIMMYT and EIAR collaborated on a workshop to set out a “road map” for self-sufficiency. Investments in soil health, increased mechanization, and improved, rust-resistant seeds were noted as priorities. A revolutionary tool to rapidly diagnose rust diseases in farmers’ fields, the MARPLE portable rust testing lab, is another game-changer for the country’s production.
WHEAT-supported research on gender in wheat production found that gender equality is another crucial factor. Women head a quarter of rural households in Ethiopia. However, faced with low or no wages, limited access to credit and constrained access to land and other resources, they produce 23 percent less per hectare than men. In addition, women in male-headed households are often excluded from community power structures, extension services and technical programs.
The Ethiopian government has taken great strides towards recognizing the important role of women in agricultural productivity. These efforts must continue, a CIMMYT report argues, including improving technical gender research capacity and implementing existing gender-focused policies, if the country is to meet its bold goal.
Photo: Ethiopian Farmer Gashu Lema harvests improved variety "Kubsa" wheat in his own field (Peter Lowe/CIMMYT)
Nutritional and health benefits of zinc-biofortified wheat
A 2018 study supported by HarvestPlus shows that when vulnerable young children in India consume foods with wheat-enriched zinc, the number of days they spend sick with pneumonia and vomiting significantly diminishes. Globally, more than 17 percent of humans, largely across Africa and Asia, lack zinc in their diets, a factor responsible for the deaths of more than 400,000 young children each year.
An estimated 26 percent of India’s population lacks adequate micronutrients in their diets. Developed through biofortification — the breeding of crop varieties whose grain features higher levels of micronutrients — high-zinc wheat can help address micronutrient deficiencies.
The results of the study, which took place over six months, confirm zinc-enhanced wheat’s potential to improve the diets and health of disadvantaged groups who consume wheat-based foods, but the authors conclude that longer-term studies are needed.
In a second set of findings, a team of international scientists analyzed zinc concentrations in the grain of 330 bread wheat lines across diverse environments in India and Mexico. This endeavor uncovered 39 new molecular markers associated with the trait, as well as two wheat genome segments that carry important genes for zinc uptake, translocation, and storage in wheat.
“This work will expedite breeding for higher zinc through use of hotspot genome regions and molecular markers,” said Velu Govindan, wheat breeder at CIMMYT and first author of the report.
This research advances efforts to make selection for zinc a standard feature of CIMMYT wheat breeding.
“Because varieties derived from CIMMYT breeding are grown on nearly half the world’s wheat lands, mainstreaming high zinc in breeding programs could improve the micronutrient nutrition of millions, ” said Govindan.
Photo: A Bangladeshi woman makes roti (S. Mojumder/Drik/CIMMYT).