Energizing Ethiopia's wheat seed sector
Marketed in tandem with science-based recommendations for growing wheat, Ethiopia’s annual seed supply has steadily increased since 2014 through the Wheat Seed Scaling Initiative.
Photo: Kemeriya Mohamed stacking harvested wheat. Peter Lowe/ CIMMYT
Zinc-enriched wheat fights malnutrition in Pakistan
A zinc-enhanced wheat variety released in Pakistan is spreading among farmers, who like its good yields, health benefits, and delicious taste. It is one of six zinc-enhanced varieties released in South Asia and stems from research to biofortify wheat and thus benefit the poor who cannot afford dietary supplements or cannot access sufficiently diverse foods.
Scientists confirm value of whole grains and wheat for nutrition and health
Photo: A little girl eats a freshly-made roti and watches as the women of her family prepare more at her home in the village of Chapor, in the district of Dinajpur, Bangladesh. S. Mojumder/Drik/CIMMYT
An exhaustive review of scientific studies on cereal grains and health has shown that gluten- or wheat-free diets are not inherently healthier for the general populace and may actually put individuals at risk of dietary deficiencies.
According to a compilation of 12 reports published in the scientific journal Cereal Foods World during 2014-2017, eating whole grains is actually beneficial for brain health and associated with reduced risk of diverse types of cancer, coronary disease, diabetes, hypertension, obesity and overall mortality.
“Clear and solid data show that eating whole-grain wheat products as part of a balanced diet improves health and can help maintain a healthy body weight, apart from the 1 percent of people who suffer from celiac disease and another 2 to 3 percent who are sensitive to wheat,” said Carlos Guzmán, wheat nutrition and quality specialist at the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), which produced the compilation.
Photo: Bakers mix, roll and bake bread at La Conchita bakery in Texcoco, Mexico. Mike Listman/CIMMYT
Wheat accounts for a fifth of the world’s food and is the main source of protein in many developing and developed countries and second only to rice as a source of calories. “Among wheat’s greatest benefits, according to the research, is fiber from the bran and other grain parts,” Guzmán explained. “Diets in industrialized countries are generally deficient in such fiber, which helps to regulate digestion and promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria.”
Inhabitants in developing and industrialized countries are experiencing higher incidences of diabetes, allergies, inflammatory bowel disorder, and obesity. A profitable industry has developed around gluten- and wheat-free food products, which the popular press has promoted as beneficial for addressing such disorders. But scientific evidence contradicts popular writings about these food products.
“Much of the anti-grain messaging comes from publications produced by supposed ‘specialists’ who are not nutritionists, and are often built on faulty premises.” according to Julie Miller Jones, Distinguished Scholar and Professor Emerita at St. Catherine University, U.S.A., and a key contributor to the review studies in the compilation.
First blast resistant, biofortified wheat variety released in Bangladesh
Photo: Bleached spikes infected with wheat blast hold shriveled grain, if any. Etienne Duveiller/CIMMYT
As wheat farmers in Bangladesh struggle to recover from a 2016 outbreak of a mysterious disease called “wheat blast,” in 2017 the country’s National Seed Board (NSB) released a new, high-yielding, blast-resistant wheat variety.
Called “BARI Gom 33,” the variety was developed by the Bangladesh Wheat Research Centre (WRC), using a CIMMYT breeding line, according to Naresh C. Deb Barma, Director of WRC.
“This represents an incredibly rapid response to blast, which struck in a surprise outbreak on 15,000 hectares of wheat in southwestern Bangladesh just last year, devastating the crop and greatly affecting farmers’ food security and livelihoods, not to mention their confidence in sowing wheat,” Barma said.
Caused by the fungus Magnaporthe oryzae pathotype triticum, wheat blast was first identified in Brazil in 1985 and has constrained wheat farming in South America for decades. Little is known about the genetics or interactions of the fungus with wheat or other hosts. Few resistant varieties have been released in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, the countries most affected by wheat blast.
Photo: Researchers take part in a Wheat Blast screening and surveillance course in Bangladesh. Tim Krupnik/CIMMYT
The Bangladesh outbreak was its first appearance in South Asia, a region where rice-wheat cropping rotations cover 13 million hectares, a billion inhabitants eat wheat as a main staple, and the disease will likely spread, according to Pawan Singh, a CIMMYT wheat pathologist.
“Many blast fungal strains are impervious to fungicides,” Singh explained. “The Bangladesh variant is still sensitive to fungicides, but this may not last forever, so we’re rushing to develop and spread new, blast-resistant wheat varieties for South Asia,” Singh explained.
Preliminary assessments by CIMMYT have identified 7 million hectares of wheat cropping areas in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan whose agro-climatic conditions resemble those of the Bangladesh outbreak zone. Even modest blast damage of 5-10 percent to wheat in a single season in those areas would cause grain losses amounting to as much as 1.7 million tons and worth $350 million, straining the region’s already fragile food security and forcing up wheat imports and prices.
As an added benefit for the nutrition of wheat consuming households, BARI Gom 33 grain features 30 percent higher levels of zinc than conventional wheat. Zinc is a critical micronutrient missing in the diets of many of the poor throughout South Asia and whose lack particularly harms the health of pregnant women and children under 5 years old.
Key partners and supporters include the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the Instituto Nacional de Innovación Agropecuaria y Forestal in Bolivia, Kansas State University (KSU), the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Services (USDA-ARS), USAID through its Feed the Future project, and other national and provincial research organizations in India, Nepal, and Pakistan.
Stable window 1 and 2 (W1W2) funding from CGIAR enabled CIMMYT and partners to react quickly and screen breeding lines in Bolivia, as well as working with KSU to identify sources of wheat blast resistance. The following W1 funders have made wheat blast resistance breeding possible: Australia, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Canada, France, India, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the World Bank. The following funders also contributed vital W2 funding: Australia, China, the United Kingdom (DFID) and USAID.
Pushing for full conservation agriculture in South Asia
Photo: Participants in a CIMMYT conservation agriculture workshop in India examine a multi-use, multi-crop zero tillage seeder. CIMMYT
Research over the last decade has found conservation agriculture solutions for both the wheat and rice phases of the rice-wheat cropping systems of the Indo-Gangetic Plains, according to a far-reaching review study by WHEAT scientists.
Breeding alone cannot address the need for sustainable crop productivity, and WHEAT partners and predecessors’ have for decades studied and promoted resource-conserving practices for South Asia, a region where rice-wheat cropping rotations cover 13 million hectares and over a billion inhabitants eat wheat as a main staple.
A prime example is the direct seeding of wheat into unplowed paddy fields, including stubble and straw, in a single tractor pass following rice harvest. Known as zero tillage (ZT), the practice replaces the long, laborious, costly, and soil-depleting conventional practice of reforming paddies to plant wheat.
Farmers on some 1.8 million hectares in the region are growing wheat after rice this way, linked to the expanding business of entrepreneurs who provide ZT on contract using specialized, locally-manufactured sowing implements designed and refined by WHEAT partners.
The success of ZT wheat, along with rising labor costs and concerns about soil health and water supplies, are driving farmer and researchers’ interest in radical innovations such as non-flooded, direct seeded rice. Gaining ground as well are precision land leveling and nutrient management for more effective irrigation and fertilizer use, and retaining crop residues on fields to store carbon and prevent noxious smog from residue burning.
The study says that full conservation agriculture for rice-wheat cropping raises yields, profits, and water use efficiency, while reducing labor and greenhouse gas emissions.
At the same time, results show that it’s better to introduce conservation agriculture practices to farmers in a step-wise fashion, so they can test the new technology and understand how it benefits them.
Heat-tolerant wheat can help farmers adapt to climate change
Photo: Farmers grow durum wheat in the oasis. Filippo Bassi/ICARDA
In research recognized with the prestigious Olam Prize for Innovation in Food Security in 2017, WHEAT scientists developed a set of durum wheat varieties adapted for Africa’s Senegal River Basin and able to withstand temperatures of up to 40 degrees C.
If scaled up, the technology offers the potential to fight hunger and help farmers adapt to rising temperatures, according to Filippo Maria Youssef Bassi, durum wheat breeder at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and leader of the effort.
“This prize is really dedicated to the hard work by Mauritania and Senegal partners,” said Bassi “It’s also validation and recognition for this crazy vision we had five years ago to grow durum wheat in the Savannah at 40 degrees Celsius.”
Photo: Filippo Bassi at Terbol Station, Lebanon. Michael Major/Crop Trust
The Senegal River supports cropping on 200,000 hectares of land from Senegal through Guinea, Mauritania, and Mali. Farmers in the region cultivate rice during eight months of the year then leave the land fallow.
Using conventional breeding aided by DNA markers, Bassi and partners developed super-early-maturing and heat-tolerant durum wheat lines and tested them for three years at multiple locations of fallow land in the Basin.
“Because the varieties grow fast, farmers can produce them during the fallow between rice crops,” Bassi said, adding that the varieties yielded over 3 tons per hectare in just 90 days in the Senegal River Valley. “If widely adopted in the region, the varieties could yield up to 600,000 tons of additional food, worth more than $200 million in additional revenue for smallholder farmers, without affecting rice production.”
The varieties and related data are freely available for use in other dryland durum wheat production areas worldwide, according to Bassi.