Author Archive

The International Wheat Yield Partnership announces 2019/20 Annual Report

The International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP), a partnership of public sector agencies and private industry focusing on innovations in wheat breeding for significant yield increases – and a strong partner of the CGIAR Research Program for Wheat and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) recently released its 2019-2020 Annual Report

 IWYP was founded on a simple yet aggressive goal, of raising the genetic yield of potential of wheat by 50% by 2035. Five years after initiating its Science Program, the partnership has grown in response to need and exciting results continue to emerge, including the discovery of new sources of enhanced traits, molecular genetic markers and tools to measure phenotypes in labs and fields.

Many new research discoveries have been recorded over the last year, despite all the unique challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among other achievements, IWYP expanded its output delivery capabilities with the launch of two new Hubs for discovery validation and pre-breeding, one in the US and the other in Europe, complementary to the spring wheat germplasm Hub it maintains at  CIMMYT’s wheat research station in Obregon, Mexico.

Over the last year, IWYP research projects have transferred 11 new outputs into this Hub, where 8 were validated and entered the pre-breeding stage. From Hub pre-breeding, 150 new higher-yielding elite lines were tested, and 32 were selected and sent for international field trials at over 100 locations across the world.

Four of these new, higher yielding lines have been selected to become varieties in countries including Pakistan and Afghanistan.

CIMMYT and WHEAT look forward to this continued, productive partnership with IWYP and encourage those interested to have a look at the full IWYP Annual Report 2019-2020 here.

Solving South Asia’s sustainability issues will require a systems approach to crop management

New research shows that a portfolio of crop management practices can boost productivity while minimizing harm to the environment.

This piece was originally posted on the CIMMYT Website by Alison Doody.

A researcher from the Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA) walks through a wheat field in India. (Photo: BISA)
A researcher from the Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA) walks through a wheat field in India. (Photo: BISA)

New research by an international team of scientists, including scientists from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), shows that adopting a portfolio of conservation agriculture and crop diversification practices is more profitable and better for the environment than conventional agriculture.

Reported last month in Nature Scientific Reports, the results of the study should encourage farmers and policymakers in South Asia to adopt more sustainable crop management solutions such as diversifying crop rotations, direct-seeding rice, zero tillage and crop residue retention.

Rice-wheat has for a long time been the dominant cropping system in the western Indo-Gangetic plains in India. However, issues such as water depletion, soil degradation and environmental quality as well as profitability have plagued farmers, scientists and decision makers for decades. To tackle these issues, researchers and policymakers have been exploring alternative solutions such as diversifying rice with alternative crops like maize.

“Climate change and natural resource degradation are serious threats to smallholder farmers in South Asia that require evidence-based sustainable solutions. ICAR have been working closely with CIMMYT and partners to tackle these threats,” said SK Chaudhari, deputy director general of the Natural Resource Management at ICAR.

In the study, CIMMYT scientists partnered with the ICAR-Central Soil Salinity Research Institute, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA), Swami Keshwan Rajasthan Agriculture University and Cornell University to evaluate seven cropping system management scenarios.

The researchers measured a business-as-usual approach, and six alternative conservation agriculture and crop diversification approaches, across a variety of indicators including profitability, water use and global warming potential.

Wheat grows under a systematic intensification approach at the Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA) in India. (Photo: BISA)
Wheat grows under a systematic intensification approach at the Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA) in India. (Photo: BISA)

They found that conservation agriculture-based approaches outperformed conventional farming approaches on a variety of indicators. For example, conservation agriculture-based rice management was found to increase profitability by 12%, while decreasing water use by 19% and global warming potential by 28%. Substituting rice with conservation agriculture-based maize led to improvements in profitability of 16% and dramatic reductions in water use and global warming potential of 84% and 95%. Adding the fast-growing legume mung bean to maize-wheat rotations also increased productivity by 11%, profitability by 25%, and significantly decreased water use by 64% and global warming potential by 106%.

However, CIMMYT Principal Scientist and study co-author M.L. Jat cautioned against the allure of chasing one silver bullet, advising policymakers in South Asia to take a holistic, systems perspective to crop management.

“We know that there are issues relating to water and sustainability, but at the same time we also know that diversifying rice — which is a more stable crop — with other crops is not easy as long as you look at it in isolation,” he explained. “Diversifying crops requires a portfolio of practices, which brings together sustainability, viability and profits.”

With South Asia known as a global “hotspot” for climate vulnerability, and the region’s population expected to rise to 2.4 billion by 2050, food producers are under pressure to produce more while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and damage to the environment and other natural resources.

“Tackling these challenges requires strong collaborative efforts from researchers, policymakers, development partners and farmers,” said Andrew McDonald, a systems agronomist at Cornell University and co-author of the study. “This study shows this collaboration in action and brings us closer to achieving resilient, nutritious and sustainable food systems.”

“The results of this study show that one-size doesn’t fit all when it comes to sustainable crop management,” said PC Sharma, director of India’s ICAR-Central Soil Salinity Research Institute (ICAR-CSSRI). “Farmers, researchers and policymakers can adopt alternative crop rotations such as maize-wheat or maize-wheat-mung bean, but they can also improve existing rice-wheat rotations using conservation agriculture methods.”

10 Lessons from WHEAT in 2020

By Madeline Dahm

The past year has been full of challenges but also full of insights. We invite you to take a look at 10 major take-aways in wheat research delivered by the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) in 2020, and wish you a happy holiday season!

1. Epidemiology models for humans have a lot in common with epidemiology models for plants. Former WHEAT director Hans Braun gives his opinion in a Q+A, and Senior Scientist Dave Hodson discusses in a podcast the striking parallels between wheat rusts and global pandemics in humans. They point out that in both cases, we’re just one step ahead of the pathogen.

2. Nutrition experts recommend that half our daily intake of grains should come from whole grains. Escape the “noise” surrounding fad diets: here’s a simple, scientific explanation of the structure, health benefits and identification of truly-whole grains.

3. We know we can improve wheat productivity through better agronomic practices, but it is equally important to grow the right wheat varietiesWatch CIMMYT Wheat Physiologist Carolina Rivera discuss — in just one minute — choosing and breeding desirable wheat traits with higher tolerance to stresses.

4. Agricultural research for development must foster deep, structural and systemic change in gender-based power relations. New research from GENNOVATE makes a powerful call for changing the way development researchers work to reach greater gender equity in agricultural innovations.

5. Strategic, continued investment in wheat partnerships, breeding and agronomy is paramount to attaining global food security. An external review found that WHEAT has a “track record of delivering local solutions with a global perspective,” but is vulnerable to funding volatility. 

6. Wheat blast, a fast-acting and devastating fungal disease, is on the move. First reports of the disease on the African continent were published this year, and swift, intensive research, monitoring, education and mitigation will be needed to contain the spread.

7. WHEAT scientists have made incredible advances in fighting wheat rust diseases. A strong surveillance and monitoring network has strengthened over time, countries are  adopting improved varieties and new research has found over 100 statistically significant genetic markers associated with yellow rust resistance.

8. Genetic gains in wheat are coming: faster, better, fairer. The new CIMMYT/WHEAT-led project Accelerating Genetic Gains in Maize and Wheat for Improved Livelihoods (AGG) was launched this year, and will speed up the development and delivery of more nutritious, high yielding and resilient wheat varieties. Stay in the loop

9. Practicing conservation agriculture improves income and air quality. Research shows that promoting better on-farm practices, such as no-burn policies and use of the “Happy Seeder” machine reduces air pollution in South Asia. Plus, it saves farmers money in water and labor costs.

10. WHEAT, as we know it, is changing. CIMMYT and WHEAT wish a fond, heartfelt retirement to Hans Braun, and warmly welcomes the new WHEAT Director, Alison Bentley. At the end of next year, the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat will come to a close, and the transition to One CGIAR promises positive change to the CIMMYT, ICARDA, and partner wheat research communites.

This challenging year has proven the resilience of the CGIAR as an essential organization that will never halt in its efforts to secure a healthy, sustainable, food secure planet. Stay in touch and reflect with us as we undergo this transition, and reflect with us as WHEAT wraps up 9 years of high-impact work by December 2021 and transitions into a new CGIAR 2022+ Initiative.

Agriculture for Peace: A call to action to avert a global food crisis

CIMMYT, the Government of Mexico and the Nobel Peace Center celebrate the 50-year anniversary of Norman Borlaug’s Nobel Peace Prize.

The original version of this story by Ricardo Curiel can be found on the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) website.

Norman Borlaug teaches a group of young trainees in the field in Sonora, Mexico. (Photo: CIMMYT)
Norman Borlaug teaches a group of young trainees in the field in Sonora, Mexico. (Photo: CIMMYT)

50 years ago, the late Norman Borlaug received the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for averting famine by increasing wheat yield potential and delivering improved varieties to farmers in South Asia. He was the first Nobel laureate in food production and is widely known as “the man who saved one billion lives.”

In the following decades, Borlaug continued his work from the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), a non-profit research-for-development organization funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and the governments of Mexico and the United States.

CIMMYT became a model for a future network of publicly-funded organizations with 14 research centers: CGIAR. Today, CGIAR is led by Marco Ferrroni, who describes it as a global research partnership that “continues to be about feeding the world sustainably with explicit emphasis on nutrition, the environment, resource conservation and regeneration, and equity and inclusion.”

Norman Borlaug’s fight against hunger has risen again to the global spotlight in the wake of the most severe health and food security crises of the 21st Century. “The Nobel Peace Prizes to Norman Borlaug and the World Food Programme are very much interlinked,” said Kjersti Flogstad, Executive Director of the Oslo-based Nobel Peace Center. “They are part of a long tradition of awarding [the prize] to humanitarian work, also in accordance with the purpose [Alfred] Nobel expressed in his last will: to promote fraternity among nations.”

During welcome remarks at the virtual 50-year commemoration of Norman Borlaug’s Nobel Peace Prize on December 8, 2020, Mexico’s Secretary of Agriculture and Rural Development Víctor Villalobos Arámbula, warned that “for the first time in many years since Borlaug defeated hunger in Southeast Asia, millions of people are at risk of starvation in several regions of Africa, Asia and Latin America.”

According to CIMMYT’s Director General Martin Kropff, celebrating Norman Borlaug’s legacy should also lead to renewed investments in the CGIAR system. “A report on the payoff of investing in CGIAR research published in October 2020 shows that CIMMYT’s return on investment (ROI) exceeds a benefit-cost ratio of 10 to 1, with median ROI rates for wheat research estimated at 19 and for maize research at 12.”

Mexico’s Foreign Affairs Department echoed the call to invest in Agriculture for Peace. “The Government of Mexico, together with the Nobel Peace Center and CIMMYT, issues a joint call to action to overcome the main challenges to human development in an international system under pressure from conflict, organized crime, forced migration and climate change,” said Martha Delgado, Mexico’s Under Secretary of Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights.

Norman Borlaug sits on a tractor next to field technicians in Sonora, Mexico. (Photo: CIMMYT)
Norman Borlaug sits on a tractor next to field technicians in Sonora, Mexico. (Photo: CIMMYT)

The event called for action against the looming food crises through the transformation of food systems, this time with an emphasis on nutrition, environment and equality. Speakers included experts from CGIAR, CIMMYT, Conservation International, Mexico’s Agriculture and Livestock Council, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the World Food Programme (WFP), among others. Participants discussed the five action tracks of the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit: (1) ensure access to safe and nutritious food for all; (2) shift to sustainable consumption patterns; (3) boost nature-positive production; (4) advance equitable livelihoods; and, (5) build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stresses.

“This event underlines the need for international solidarity and multilateral cooperation in the situation the world is facing today,” said Norway’s Ambassador to Mexico, Rut Krüger, who applauded CIMMYT’s contribution of 170,000 maize and wheat seeds to the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway. “This number reflects the global leadership position of CIMMYT in the development of maize and wheat strains.”

Norman Borlaug’s famous words — “take it to the farmer” — advocated for swift agricultural innovation transfers to the field; Julie Borlaug, president of the Borlaug Foundation, said the Agriculture for Peace event should inspire us to also “take it to the public.”

“Agriculture cannot save the world alone,” she said. “We also need sound government policies, economic programs and infrastructure.”

CIMMYT’s Deputy Director General for Research and Partnerships, and Integrated Development Program Director Bram Govaerts, called on leaders, donors, relief and research partners to form a global coalition to transform food systems. “We must do a lot more to avert a hunger pandemic, and even more to put the world back on track to meet the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda.”

CIMMYT’s host country has already taken steps in this direction with the Crops for Mexico project, which aims to improve the productivity of several crops essential to Mexico’s food security, including maize and wheat. “This model is a unique partnership between the private, public and social sectors that focuses on six crops,” said Mexico’s Private Sector Liaison Officer Alfonso Romo. “We are very proud of its purpose, which is to benefit over one million smallholder households.”

The call stresses the need for sustainable and inclusive rural development. “It is hard to imagine the distress, frustration and fear that women feel when they have no seeds to plant, no grain to store and no income to buy basic foodstuffs to feed their children,” said Nicole Birrell, Chair of CIMMYT’s Board of Trustees. “We must make every effort to restore food production capacities and to transform agriculture into productive, profitable, sustainable and, above all, equitable food systems worldwide.”

“Happy Seeder” saves farmers money over burning straw, new study in India shows

Authors conclude that no-till, no-burn practices can cut severe pollution in northern India and that they merit strong policy support, including enforcement of bans on burning straw.

The original version of this story by Mike Listman can be found on the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) website.

Direct sowing of wheat seed into a recently-harvested rice field using the “Happy Seeder” implement, a cost-effective and eco-friendly alternative to burning rice straw, in northern India. (Photo: BISA/Love Kumar Singh)
Direct sowing of wheat seed into a recently-harvested rice field using the “Happy Seeder” implement, a cost-effective and eco-friendly alternative to burning rice straw, in northern India. (Photo: BISA/Love Kumar Singh)

Compared to conventional tillage practices, sowing wheat directly into just-harvested rice fields without burning or removing straw or other residues will not only reduce pollution in New Delhi and other parts of northern India, but will save over $130 per hectare in farmer expenses, lessen irrigation needs by as much as 25%, and allow early planting of wheat to avoid yield-reducing heat stress, according to a new study published in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability.

The practice requires use of a tractor-mounted implement that opens grooves in the soil, drops in wheat seed and fertilizer, and covers the seeded row, all in one pass. This contrasts with the typical method for planting wheat after rice, which involves first burning rice residues, followed by multiple tractor passes to plow, harrow, plank, and sow, according to Harminder S. Sidhu, principal research engineer at the Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA) and a co-author of the study.

“There are already some 11,000 of these specialized no-till implements, known as the Happy Seeder, in operation across northern India,” said Sidhu, who with other researchers helped develop, test and refine the implement over 15 years. “In addition to sowing, the Happy Seeder shreds and clears rice residues from the seeder path and deposits them back onto the seeded row as a protective mulch.”

Covering some 13.5 million hectares, the Indo-Gangetic Plain stretches across Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan and constitutes South Asia’s breadbasket. In India, the northwestern state of Punjab alone produces nearly a third of the country’s rice and wheat.

Some 2.5 million farmers in northern India practice rice-wheat cropping and most burn their rice straw — an estimated 23 million tons of it — after rice harvest, to clear fields for sowing wheat. Straw removal and burning degrades soil fertility and creates a noxious cloud that affects the livelihoods and health of millions in cities and villages downwind. Air pollution is the second leading contributor to disease in India, and studies attribute some 66,000 deaths yearly to breathing in airborne nano-particles produced by agricultural burning.

The central and state governments in northwestern India, as well as universities and think-tanks, have put forth strategies to curtail burning that include conservation tillage technologies such as use of the Happy Seeder. Subsidies for no-burn farming, as well as state directives and fines for straw burning, are in place and extension agencies are promoting no-burn alternatives.

A farmer in India uses a tractor fitted with a Happy Seeder. (Photo: Dakshinamurthy Vedachalam/CIMMYT)
A farmer in India uses a tractor fitted with a Happy Seeder. (Photo: Dakshinamurthy Vedachalam/CIMMYT)

As an aid for policy makers and development practitioners, the present study applied econometrics to compare conventional and zero-tillage in terms of yield, input levels and implications for rice residue burning. The study also compared use of the Happy Seeder versus a simple zero-tillage drill with no straw shredder. Participants included more than 1,000 farm households in 52 villages, encompassing 561 users of conventional tillage, 226 users of simple zero-tillage seeding implements, and 234 Happy Seeder users.

They found that only the Happy Seeder was able to sow wheat directly into large amounts of rice residues, with significant savings for farmers and equal or slightly better wheat yields, over conventional tillage. The Happy Seeder also saves time and water.

“Given the benefits of sowing wheat using the Happy Seeder against the tremendous health and environmental costs of residue burning, the reduction or elimination of straw burning should be pushed forward immediately,” said P.P. Krishnapriya, research scientist at the Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University, and a co-author of the article. “Investments in social marketing and policies that foster the use of the Happy Seeders, including significant subsidies to purchase these machines, must be accompanied by stricter enforcement of the existing ban on residue burning.”

The study also found that the information sources most widely-available to farmers are currently geared towards conventional agricultural practices, but farmers who use the internet for agricultural information are more likely to be aware of the Happy Seeder.

“Awareness raising campaigns should use both conventional and novel channels,” said Priya Shyamsundar, lead economist at the Nature Conservancy (TNC) and co-author of the article. “As with any innovation that differs significantly from current practices, social and behavioral levers such as frontline demonstrations, good champions, and peer-to-peer networking and training are critical.”

In addition, rather than having most individual farmers own a Happy Seeder — a highly-specialized implement whose cost of $1,900 may be prohibitive for many — researchers are instead promoting the idea of farmers hiring direct-sowing services from larger farmers or other people able to purchase a Happy Seeder and make a business of operating it, explained Alwin Keil, a senior agricultural economist with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and lead author of the new study.

“We are extremely grateful to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the Nature Conservancy, and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat Agri-Food Systems (WHEAT), who supported our research,” said Keil.

“Let there be food to eat”

Longtime CIMMYT collaborator Ruth Wanyera nears retirement from an honorable and decorated career in wheat research.

This piece was originally written by Madeline Dahm for the CIMMYT Website.

National Wheat Coordinator Ruth Wanyera (third from right) gives a lesson to pathology interns in the field of a fungicide efficiency trial at KALRO Njoro Research Station, Nakuru, Kenya.
National Wheat Coordinator Ruth Wanyera (third from right) gives a lesson to pathology interns in the field of a fungicide efficiency trial at KALRO Njoro Research Station, Nakuru, Kenya. (Photo:CIMMYT)

“We want to feed the people, we don’t want them to go hungry. We have to do something to make sure there is food on the table. That is where my motivation is… Let there be food to eat.”

— Ruth Wanyera, 2019

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) has long attributed its widespread impact and reach to strong collaborations with national agricultural research systems (NARS) around the world. Today, CIMMYT — and especially the Global Wheat Program and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat — wish to honor one long-term collaborator whose work and dedication to wheat research has had abiding positive effects beyond her home region of sub-Saharan Africa.

Ruth Wanyera, national wheat research program coordinator at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), has spent her more than 30-year career dedicated to plant protection research, fueled by her motivation to “feed the people.” She was one of the first scientists to recognize stem rust in east Africa and has been one of CIMMYT’s strongest allies in fighting the devastating wheat disease, stem rust Ug99.

Wanyera recently won both the Norman Borlaug Lifetime Achievement Award from the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative and the Kenya Agricultural Research (KARA) Award at the High Panel Conference on Agricultural Research in Kenya. Wanyera’s team at KALRO has also been recognized with the prestigious Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) Gene Stewardship Award.

A long-term relationship with CIMMYT

Ruth accepts the Gene Stewardship Award at BGRI 2015.

Sridhar Bhavani, senior scientist and head of Rust Pathology and Molecular Genetics at CIMMYT has worked closely with Wanyera and her team since the mid-2000s.

“Ruth is a passionate researcher who has tirelessly dedicated her entire career to cereal pathology, and as a team, we coordinated the stem rust phenotyping platform for over a decade and had great successes on multiple international projects,” he said.

CIMMYT’s relationship with Wanyera’s team strengthened when Nobel Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug visited the Kenyan research facility to observe the emerging threat of stem rust. Upon witnessing how serious the outbreak had become, Borlaug organized an emergency summit in Nairobi in 2005, famously “sounding the alarm” for swift and concerted action on stem rust, and ultimately leading to the establishment of the BGRI.

“Ruth and her team of dedicated scientists from KALRO have not only made Kenya proud but have also made a remarkable contribution to the global wheat community in mitigating the threat of stem rust Ug99,” says Bhavani. “Ruth has mentored master’s and PhD students who are now leading researchers at KALRO. She has elevated the research capacity of KALRO to international repute.”

Two recent wheat breeding projects helped extend the CIMMYT-KALRO partnership beyond Kenya. The Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) and Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) projects brought in a partnership with the Ethiopia Institute for Agricultural Research (EIAR) to establish and operate stem rust phenotyping platforms that addressed the global threat of Ug99 and other serious stem rust races, and helped provide solutions for the region. Thanks to KALRO’s screening efforts at the CIMMYT-KALRO Stem Rust Screening Platform in Njoro, Kenya, CIMMYT-derived rust-resistant varieties now cover more than 90% of the wheat farming area in Kenya and Ethiopia.

Ruth Wanyera receives the Kenya Agricultural Research Award (KARA), during the High Panel Conference on Agricultural Research in Kenya. (Photo: CIMMYT)
Ruth Wanyera receives the Kenya Agricultural Research Award (KARA), during the High Panel Conference on Agricultural Research in Kenya. (Photo: CIMMYT)

The partnership continues to grow

Continued collaboration with Ruth’s team at KALRO will be essential in the new Accelerating Genetic Gains in Maize and Wheat for Improved Livelihoods (AGG) project. AGG — which aims to accelerate the development and delivery of more productive, climate-resilient, gender-responsive, market-demanded, and nutritious wheat varieties in in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia — has a particular focus on enhanced collaboration with national partners such as KALRO.

Its success is also closely tied to the Njoro Stem Rust Screening Platform — which, since its establishment in 2008, has conducted crucial screening for over 600,000 wheat lines, varieties, varietal candidates, germplasm bank accessions and mapping populations. Wanyera’s leadership in the Platform, alongside that of CIMMYT wheat scientist Mandeep Randhawa, plays a major role in screening, monitoring, and clearing seed in time for sowing.

As Hans Braun, former director of the CIMMYT Global Wheat Program said, “Without our national agriculture research system partnerships, CIMMYT would become obsolete.”

Indeed, the unparalleled wealth of knowledge, skills, and research facilities of the CGIAR as a whole would not be so uniquely impactful if it weren’t for the 3000+ partnerships with national governments, academic institutions, enthusiastic farmers, private companies and NGOs that help carry out this work.

CIMMYT’s historic and continued impact depends on close international partnerships with scientists and leaders like Ruth Wanyera, and we congratulate her on her numerous awards, thank her for her collaboration, and wish her a pleasant retirement.

World Soil Day Special: Too much or never enough

Don’t underestimate the crucial role nitrogen plays in cereal-based agroecosystems and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Originally posted by ML Jat on the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) Website

A young man uses a precision spreader to distribute fertilizer in a field. (Photo: Mahesh Maske/CIMMYT)
A young man uses a precision spreader to distribute fertilizer in a field in India. (Photo: Mahesh Maske/CIMMYT)

December 4, 2020: World Soil Day

Although nitrogen has helped in contributing to human dietary needs, there are still large areas of the world — namely sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia — that remain short of the amounts they need to achieve food and nutritional security.  

Conversely, synthetic nitrogen has become increasingly crucial in today’s intensive agricultural systems, but nearly half of the fertilizer nitrogen applied on farms leaks into the surrounding environment. It is possible that we have now transgressed the sustainable planetary boundary for nitrogen, and this could have devasting consequences.  

Given this conflicting dual role this compound plays in agricultural systems and the environment — both positive and negative — the nitrogen challenge is highly relevant across most of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established by the United Nations. 

Facing a global challenge 

The challenge of nitrogen management globally is to provide enough nitrogen to meet global food security while minimizing the flow of unused nitrogen to the environment. One of the key approaches to addressing this is to improve nitrogen use efficiency – which not only enhances crop productivity but also minimizes environmental losses through careful agronomic management – and measures to improve soil quality over time. 

Globally, average nitrogen use efficiency does not exceed 50%. Estimates show that a nitrogen use efficiency will need to reach 67% by 2050 if we are to meet global food demand while keeping surplus nitrogen within the limits for maintaining acceptable air and water qualities to meet the SDGs. 

This target may seem ambitious — especially given the biological limits to achieving a very high nitrogen use efficiency — but it is achievable.  

Earlier this year, J.K. Ladha and I co-authored a paper outlining the links between nitrogen fertilizer use in agricultural production systems and various SDGs. For instance, agricultural systems with suboptimal nitrogen application are characterized with low crop productivity, spiraling into the vicious cycle of poverty, malnutrition and poor economy, a case most common in the sub-Saharan Africa. These essentially relate to SDG 1 (no-poverty), 2 (zero-hunger), 3 (good health and well-being), 8 (decent work and economic growth) and 15 (life on land).  

On the other hand, excess or imbalanced fertilizer nitrogen in parts of China and India have led to serious environmental hazards, degradation of land and economic loss. Balancing the amount of N input in these regions will contribute in achieving the SDG 13 (climate action). Equally, meeting some of the additional SDGs (5, gender equality; 6, clean water and sanitation; 10: reduced inequalities; etc.) requires optimum nitrogen application, which will also ensure “responsible consumption and production” (SDG 12). 

A diagram shows the impact of fertilizer nitrogen use on the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. (Graphic: CIMMYT/Adapted from CCAFS)
A diagram shows the impact of fertilizer nitrogen use on the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. (Graphic: CIMMYT/Adapted from CCAFS)

So, how can we achieve this?  

Increased research quantifying the linkages between nitrogen management and the SDGs will be important, but the key to success lies with raising awareness among policy makers, stakeholders and farmers. 

Most agricultural soils have considerably depleted levels of soil organic matter. This is a central problem that results in agroecosystems losing their ability to retain and regulate the supply of nitrogen to crops. However, poor knowledge and heavy price subsidies are equally to blame for the excess or misuse of nitrogen.  

While numerous technologies for efficient nitrogen management have been developed, delivery mechanisms need to be strengthened, as does encouragement for spontaneous adaptation and adoption by farmers. Equally — or perhaps more importantly — there is a need to create awareness and educate senior officials, policy makers, extension personnel and farmers on the impact of appropriate soil management and intelligent use of nitrogen fertilizer, in conjunction with biologically integrated strategies for soil fertility maintenance.  

An effective and aggressive campaign against the misuse of nitrogen will be effective in areas where the compound is overused, while greater accessibility of nitrogen fertilizer and policies to move farmers towards soil quality improvement will be essential in regions where nitrogen use is currently sub-optimal. 

It is only through this combination of approaches to improved system management, agricultural policies and awareness raising campaigns that we can sufficiently improve nitrogen use efficiency — and meet the SDGs before it’s too late. 

Read the full study “Achieving the sustainable development goals in agriculture: the crucial role of nitrogen in cereal-based systems” in Advances in Agronomy. 

Background image for CIMMYT

Check out the CIMMYT Explainer on Nitrogen in agriculture:

What is it? How do plants use it? When did synthetic fertilizer start playing a role? Is it sustainable?

CIMMYT breaks it down, simply. Read here.

News from Accelerating Genetic Gains (AGG) project

AGG has just published its second, quarterly newsletter, where early success stories of the most ambitious maize and wheat project led by the International Maize and Wheat Research Center (CIMMYT) have been curated.

This issue focuses on capacity building-initiatives, technical updates from our wheat research, a look at the legacy of our maize research, and an update on our partnership and management activities. We also give a fond farewell to our Global Wheat Program director, Hans-Joachim Braun, who retired this month after nearly 40 years with CIMMYT, and enthusiastically welcome our new director, Alison Bentley.

We look forward to continued and growing progress achieving our goals for the world’s farmers and consumers of maize and wheat. If you have not yet subscribed to the quarterly newsletter, sign up here or click the button below.

Accelerating Genetic Gains in Maize and Wheat for Improved Livelihoods (AGG) brings together partners in the global science community and in national agricultural research and extension systems to accelerate the development of higher-yielding varieties of maize and wheat — two of the world’s most important staple crops. 

Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), AGG fuses innovative methods that improve breeding efficiency and precision to produce and deliver high-yielding varieties that are climate-resilient, pest- and disease-resistant, highly nutritious, and targeted to farmers’ specific needs. Visit the AGG Webpage.

“CIMMYT is at my heart”

Global Wheat Program director Hans Braun retires, leaving behind a legacy of strong leadership and wheat for millions.

This story by Madeline Dahm was originally posted on the CIMMYT website.

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After a 37-year career, Hans-Joachim Braun is retiring from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). As the director of the Global Wheat Program and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat, Braun’s legacy will resonate throughout halls, greenhouses and fields of wheat research worldwide.

We caught up with him to capture some of his career milestones, best travel stories, and vision for the future of CIMMYT and global wheat production. And, of course, his retirement plans in the German countryside.

Beyh Akin (left) and Hans Braun in wheat fields in Izmir, Turkey, in 1989. (Photo: CIMMYT)
Beyh Akin (left) and Hans Braun in wheat fields in Izmir, Turkey, in 1989. (Photo: CIMMYT)

Major career milestones

Native to Germany, Braun moved to Mexico in 1981 to complete his PhD research at CIMMYT’s experimental station in Obrégon, in the state of Sonora. His research focused on identifying the optimum location to breed spring wheat for developing countries — and he found that Obrégon was in fact the ideal location.

His first posting with CIMMYT was in Turkey in 1985, as a breeder in the International Winter Wheat Improvement Program (IWWIP). This was the first CGIAR breeding program hosted by a CIMMYT co-operator, that later developed into the joint Turkey, CIMMYT and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) winter wheat program. “In 1990, when the Commonwealth of Independent States was established, I saw this tremendous opportunity to work with Central Asia to develop better wheat varieties,” he said. “Today, IWWIP varieties are grown on nearly 3 million hectares.”

Although Braun was determined to become a wheat breeder, he never actually intended to spend his entire career with one institution. “Eventually I worked my entire career for CIMMYT. Not so usual anymore, but it was very rewarding. CIMMYT is at my heart; it is what I know.”

Hans Braun (center), Sanjaya Rajaram (third from right), Ravi Singh (first from right) and other colleagues stand for a photograph during a field day at CIMMYT’s experimental station in Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, Mexico. (Photo: CIMMYT)
Hans Braun (center), Sanjaya Rajaram (third from right), Ravi Singh (first from right) and other colleagues stand for a photograph during a field day at CIMMYT’s experimental station in Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, Mexico. (Photo: CIMMYT)

“Make the link to the unexpected”

One of Braun’s standout memories was a major discovery when he first came to Turkey.  When evaluating elite lines from outside the country — in particular lines from a similar environment in the Great Plains — his team noticed they were failing but nobody knew why.

Two of his colleagues had just returned from Australia, where research had recently identified micronutrient disorders in soil as a major constraint for cereal production. The team tried applying micro-nutrients to wheat plots, and it became crystal clear that zinc deficiency was the underlying cause. “Once aware that micro-nutrient disorders can cause severe growth problems, it was a minor step to identify boron toxicity as another issue. Looking back, it was so obvious. The cover picture of a FAO book on global soil analysis showed a rice field with zinc deficiency, and Turkey produces more boron than the rest of the world combined.”

“We tested the soil and found zinc deficiency was widespread, not just in the soils, but also in humans.” This led to a long-term cooperation with plant nutrition scientists from Cukurova University, now Sabanci University, in Istanbul.

But zinc deficiency did not explain all growth problems. Soil-borne diseases — cyst and lesion nematodes, and root and crown rot — were also widespread. In 1999, CIMMYT initiated a soil-borne disease screening program with Turkish colleagues that continues until today.  Over the coming decade, CIMMYT’s wheat program will make zinc a core trait and all lines will have at least 25% more zinc in the grain than currently grown varieties.

After 21 years in Turkey, Braun accepted the position as director of CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program and moved back to Mexico.

Left to right: Zhonghu He, Sanjaya Rajaram, Ravi Singh and Hans Braun during a field trip in Anyang, South Korea, in 1990. (Photo: CIMMYT)
Left to right: Zhonghu He, Sanjaya Rajaram, Ravi Singh and Hans Braun during a field trip in Anyang, South Korea, in 1990. (Photo: CIMMYT)

Partnerships and friendships

Braun emphasized the importance of “mutual trust and connections,” especially with cooperators in the national agricultural research systems of partner countries. This strong global network contributed to another major milestone in CIMMYT wheat research: the rapid development and release of varieties with strong resistance to the virulent Ug99 race of wheat rust. This network, led by Cornell University, prevented a potential global wheat rust epidemic.

CIMMYT’s relationship with Mexico’s Ministry of Agriculture and the Obregón farmers union, the Patronato, is especially important to Braun.

In 1955, Patronato farmers made 200 hectares of land available, free if charge, to Norman Borlaug. The first farm community in the developing world to support research, it became CIMMYT’s principal wheat breeding experimental station: Norman Borlaug Experimental Station, or CENEB.  When Borlaug visited Obregón for the last time in 2009, the Patronato farmers had a big surprise.

“I was just getting out of the shower in my room in Obregón when I got a call from Jorge Artee Elias Calles, the president of the Patronato,” Braun recalls. “He said, ‘Hans, I’m really happy to inform you that Patronato decided to donate $1 million.’”

The donation, in honor of Borlaug’s lifetime of collaboration and global impact, was given for CIMMYT’s research on wheat diseases.

“This relationship and support from the Obregón farmers is really tremendous,” Braun says. “Obregón is a really special place to me.”

A worldwide perspective

Braun’s decades of international research and travel has yielded just as many stories and adventures as it has high-impact wheat varieties.

He remembers seeing areas marked with red tape as he surveyed wheat fields in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and the shock and fear he felt when he was informed that they were uncleared landmine areas. “I was never more scared than in that moment, and I followed the footsteps of the guy in front of me exactly,” Braun recalls.

On a different trip to Afghanistan, Braun met a farmer who had struggled with a yellow rust epidemic and was now growing CIMMYT lines that were resistant to it.

“The difference between his field and his neighbors’ was so incredible. When he learned I had developed the variety he was so thankful. He wanted to invite me to his home for dinner. Interestingly, he called it Mexican wheat, as all modern varieties are called there, though it came from the winter wheat program in Turkey.”

Seeing the impact of CIMMYT’s work on farmers was always a highlight for Braun.

Hans Braun, Director of CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program of CIMMYT, is interviewed by Ethiopian journalist at an event in 2017. (Photo: CIMMYT)
Hans Braun, Director of CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program of CIMMYT, is interviewed by Ethiopian journalist at an event in 2017. (Photo: CIMMYT)

CIMMYT’s future

Braun considers wheat research to be still in a “blessed environment” because a culture of openly-shared germplasm, knowledge and information among the global wheat community is still the norm. “I only can hope this is maintained, because it is the basis for future wheat improvement.”

His pride in his program and colleagues is clear.

“A successful, full-fledged wheat breeding program must have breeders, quantitative genetics, pathology, physiology, molecular science, wide crossing, quality, nutrition, bioinformatics, statistics, agronomy and input from economists and gender experts,” in addition to a broad target area, he remarked at an acceptance address for the Norman Borlaug Lifetime Achievement award.

“How many programs worldwide have this expertise and meet the target criteria? The Global Wheat Program is unique — no other wheat breeding program has a comparable impact. Today, around 60 million hectares are sown with CIMMYT-derived wheat varieties, increasing the annual income of farmers by around $3 billion dollars. Not bad for an annual investment in breeding of around $25 million dollars. And I don’t take credit for CIMMYT only, this is achieved through the excellent collaboration we have with national programs.”

A bright future for wheat, and for Braun

General view Inzlingen, Germany, with Basel in the background. (Photo: Hans Braun)
General view Inzlingen, Germany, with Basel in the background. (Photo: Hans Braun)

After retirement, Braun is looking forward to settling in rural Inzlingen, Germany, and being surrounded by the beautiful countryside and mountains, alongside his wife Johanna. They look forward to skiing, running, e-biking and other leisure activities.

“One other thing I will try — though most people will not believe me because I’m famous for not cooking — but I am really looking into experimenting with flour and baking,” he says.

Despite his relaxing retirement plans, Braun hopes to continue to support wheat research, whether it is through CIMMYT or through long friendships with national partners, raising awareness of population growth, the “problem of all problems” in his view.

“We have today 300 million more hungry people than in 1985. The road to zero hunger in 2030 is long and will need substantial efforts. In 1970, Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) countries agreed to spend 0.7% of GDP on official development assistance. Today only 6 countries meet this target and the average of all OECD countries has never been higher than 0.4%. Something needs to change to end extreme poverty — and that on top of COVID-19. The demand for wheat is increasing, and at the same time the area under wheat cultivation needs to be reduced, a double challenge. We need a strong maize and wheat program. The world needs a strong CIMMYT.”

Left to right: Bruno Gerard, Ram Dhulipala, David Bergvinson, Martin Kropff, Víctor Kommerell , Marianne Banziger, Dave Watson and Hans Braun at Borlaug Plaza during former Director General David Bergvinson’s visit to CIMMYT HQ.

To learn more about Hans Braun’s successor and incoming director of the Global Wheat Program and CGIAR Research Program on Wheat, check out this profile on Dr. Alison Bentley.

The new director of the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat brings many years of experience in wheat genetics, wheat genetic resources and wheat pre-breeding.

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