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.
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.
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.”
Linda McCandless, an intrepid journalist and champion for under-told stories around the world, received the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative’s Norman E. Borlaug Lifetime Achievement Award honoring her career advocating for science and smallholder farmers.
McCandless, who joined the BGRI in 2010, is a strong advocate for science-based journalism and science communication training, with a focus on diversity and empowering lesser-heard voices. Her dedication to issues of food security and the wheat community extends from Cornell University in New York state to the wheat fields of Africa, Asia and beyond.
As a writer and editor she has most recently specialized in international agriculture and development and the persuasive story-telling that brings science to life for all people.
“The hard work of feeding the world requires the passionate drive of scientists, farmers and the dedicated people who make our scientific projects possible,” said Ronnie Coffman, vice chair of the BGRI. Coffman is director of International Programs and international professor in the Department of Global Development. “Linda is an energetic champion for farmers and science. She is deeply respected by all, and has brought warmth, clarity and a heartfelt touch to all of her work.”
McCandless joined Cornell in 1994 at Cornell AgriTech (then known as the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station) located in Geneva, New York. In 2003, she became director of communications for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) before joining International Programs at CALS (IP-CALS) in 2010 to lead communications efforts for the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project. For the last decade she has led communications for the BGRI and IP-CALS and helped the unit expand into research areas in cassava, eggplant, gender, science communication and more.
Jeanie Borlaug Laube, chair of the BGRI and daughter of Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug, said, “Linda has the uncanny ability to put herself in your shoes and say the things that you would like to say with earnestness and eloquence. I feel she knows what it is like to be Norman Borlaug’s daughter! I am so grateful for her profound support building the BGRI into a thriving global community.”
At the DRRW, she was part of the leadership team that marshalled scientists from 22 research institutions around the world to work with farmers to mitigate rust threats through coordinated breeding and surveillance activities and replace susceptible wheat varieties with durably resistant varieties. The DRRW created accelerated multilateral plant breeding pipelines and delivered improved varieties by helping to optimize seed sectors in wheat-growing countries, particularly in East Africa and South Asia.
“Linda is truly an unsung hero of the BGRI. She has spent the past 12 years elevating the work of others, amplifying the voices of others, and advocating for investments that fund the science of others. Now it is time for us to celebrate Linda.” said Sarah Evanega, who directed the DRRW project from 2008 to 2017, and now directs the Cornell Alliance for Science.
Throughout her time with the BGRI McCandless has brought to life the scientific work and human impact of the projects through stories, videos, speeches and global events.
“Linda is a passionate communicator and advocate for science who always puts people first,” said Maricelis Acevedo, associate director of science for DGGW. “The global wheat community is stronger and more united thanks to her efforts.”
Coffman added, “I am grateful for her commitment and know that through her advocacy efforts she has made an enduring impact on millions of lives.”
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 varieties. Watch 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.
CIMMYT wheat scientists with connections to the University of Sydney were recently recognized in an issue of Georgika, the newsletter of the University’s Institute of Agriculture. Following is a transcription of the article.
Over the course of several decades, the University of Sydney has been sowing seeds of scientific talent that have taken root at a wheat research centre based halfway around the world: the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), a world-renowned international agricultural research and training non-profit headquartered in Mexico.
CIMMYT’s origins go back to the work of Norman Borlaug, which helped spark the Green Revolution and led to a Nobel Peace Prize. Today, CIMMYT scientists with ties to the University of Sydney are conducting state-of-the-art wheat science that Norman Borlaug might only have dreamed of.
Sanjaya Rajaram is CIMMYT’s most legendary University of Sydney alumnus. Sanjaya, 2014 World Food Prize laureate and 33-year veteran of CIMMYT developed 480 wheat varieties released in 51 countries and served as Director of the Global Wheat Program, received his PhD in plant breeding in the 1960s for a project based in Narrabri.
From legendary breeders to brand-new leaders, the University of Sydney-CIMMYT pipeline appears to be strong and growing. We caught up with a few of the many CIMMYT scientists with ties to the University, to find out how their University connection impacts their work creating the future of wheat.
Ravi Singh is a distinguished scientist and head of CIMMYT’s International Wheat Improvement Program, where he has been working for the last 37 years. Ravi earned his doctoral degree from the University of Sydney in genetics of rust resistance in wheat. In this role, his mission is to continue enhancing wheat productivity on 60 million hectares in Asia, Africa and Latin America by developing and distributing new more productive, disease resistant, climate resilient wheat varieties with processing and nutritional qualities to wheat researchers worldwide. Ravi has contributed to the development of more than 550 wheat varieties released by national program partners in many countries, including Australia.
“My University of Sydney scholarship and the opportunity to work under the supervision of Bob McIntosh gave me excellent knowledge of wheat rusts and resistance, which brought me to CIMMYT to continue working on it when I joined in 1983. Breeding rust resistant varieties with other necessary traits became a passion for me and that is what I do nowadays,” Ravi said.
Sridhar Bhavani received a master’s degree in Molecular Biotechnology and a doctoral degree in Wheat Rust Genetics and Breeding from the University of Sydney. As the head of rust research at CIMMYT, Sridhar Bhavani’s objective is to develop improved bread and durum wheat germplasm with durable resistance to the three rust diseases: leaf rust, yellow rust and stem rust. This involves dissecting the genetic components of resistance in a wide range of germplasm to better understand the genetic architecture of the trait, developing breeder friendly markers for trait introgression, coordinating the rust phenotyping platforms and working closely with the global rust reference centers on improved survey and surveillance and capacity building of national programs.
Sridhar’s 12-year collaboration with the University of Sydney’s Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) continues to this day with PBI projects on wheat and barley with the Australian Cereal Rust Control Program; and with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)-University of Sydney molecular marker program, funded by the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC).
During his academic career at the University, Sridhar was awarded a Faculty of Science Student Fellowship for his master’s degree research and the Thomas Lawrence Pawlett Scholarship for his doctoral research.
“The Plant Breeding Institute, University of Sydney has been instrumental in honing my theoretical and technical skills during my PhD study,” Sridhar said. “It was a rewarding experience working with eminent rust researchers. PBI has a wide network of collaborations both with CGIAR centers and advanced research institutes and universities, providing opportunities for students to conduct research at other centers. It still continues to be a hub for training young researchers from all over the world on cereal rusts.”
Alison Bentley is one of the newest University alumni to join CIMMYT, taking over as Director of the Global Wheat Program in November 2020. Alison earned both a BScAgr and a PhD at the University of Sydney. Prior to joining CIMMYT, Alison was the director of Genetics and Breeding at the UK National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB),working on wheat pre-breeding and trait genetics. She serves as the UK representative on the International Wheat Initiative Scientific Committee, and is a committee member for the Genetics Society, the UK Plant Sciences Federation, the Society of Experimental Botany, and the Editorial Board of Heredity.
“My research centres on the major questions of how to mobilize new scientific tools and technologies to accelerate wheat breeding, how better to adapt wheat to increasing seasonal instability and how to optimise input use in cereal-based cropping systems. These research areas are closely aligned with the work of the Global Wheat Program at CIMMYT and I am really looking forward to working with the incredible team to continue to use research and breeding to drive wheat breeding gains and their associated impacts.”
Alison “hugely enjoyed” her time as an undergrad and postgrad student at Sydney; particularly noting the “welcoming, friendly, and collaborative environment in which to discover things.”
“Questions were always encouraged (at all levels) and staff were always happy to share opinions (not always positive, but always constructive).”
Alison’s relationship with the university began a weekend event hosted at PBI Cobbitty for high school students interested in agriculture. The opportunity to have hands-on experience extracting DNA, touring facilities and hearing from plant breeders and other scientists inspired her to pursue her education there, a decision with lifelong impacts.
“I enjoyed the focus on application of science into practice, which I have carried forward in my career.”
“Sydney Uni was also a great environment to combine different interests and gave me the opportunity to play international sport whilst studying as well as to travel and enhance both my personal and professional development. This was very important for developing my understanding of how to work with others and to lead and manage diverse teams.”
Mandeep Randhawa earned his doctoral degree in Wheat Rust Pathology, Molecular Genetics and Breeding from University of Sydney. Mandeep currently manages and organizes the operational activities of the International Stem Rust Phenotyping Platform led by CIMMYT and the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) in Njoro, Kenya.
“In a nutshell, I contribute to rust research through identification and characterization of new sources of rust resistance, development of breeder friendly markers, transfer of rust resistance genes in breeding lines, field evaluation of germplasm accessions (wheat, durum, barley and oat) from various countries, and facilitating delivery of improved high yielding wheat lines for identification and release in the country. I also promote biofortified wheat lines in the region and conduct monitoring and early warning through improved rust surveys and surveillance, and capacity building through annual training courses and supervising students,” Mandeep explained.
Mandeep’s association with the University of Sydney began with his contribution to an Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR)-funded India-Australia collaborative research project on molecular marker technologies for faster wheat breeding in India, led by Sydney’s Richard Trethowan. From there, Mandeep was awarded the John Allwright Fellowship from ACIAR to pursue his PhD at Sydney, where his studies covered genetic characterization and mapping of rust resistance genes to facilitate their marker-assisted transfer into Indian and Australian wheat cultivars.
His collaboration with the Plant Breeding Institute Cobbitty continues at CIMMYT, with GRDC-funded joint wheat rust projects with the Institute and CSIRO.
“The Plant Breeding Institute Cobbitty is considered a ‘Mecca’ of cereal rust research. It was an honour and privilege to work, learn and conduct research with the support and mentorship of well-known scientists in cereal rust research” such as Drs. Urmil Bansal, Harbans Bariana and Richard Trethowan, he said. “My interdisciplinary training –in pathology, molecular genetics and breeding for disease resistance – at Sydney has equipped me with skills and capabilities to pursue my current role.”
Naeela Qureshi earned a doctoral degree in Molecular Genetics/Plant Breeding and Pathology from the University of Sydney and worked as a Research Associate at the Plant Breeding Institute. Naeela recently joined CIMMYT as an Associate Scientist in wheat rust molecular genetics and pathology, where she focuses on identifying and characterizing new sources of rust resistance genes and developing breeder friendly molecular markers linked with various rust resistance genes to facilitate marker-assisted breeding.
She is recipient of the early career award from International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC), the Jeanie Borlaug Laube Women in Triticum (WIT) award, and the USDA Borlaug Fellowship — but before these recognitions, she received the University of Sydney International Scholarship and Australian Endeavour Award that led her to her PhD.
After earning her doctoral degree in Molecular Genetics/Plant Breeding and Pathology, Naeela then became a PBI Research Associate working on discovery, characterization and molecular mapping of rust resistance genes. And, in a third role, Naeela went on to providing next-generation sequencing platforms to PBI collaborators at Agriculture Victoria Research.
“PBI played a very significant role in shaping and developing my capabilities in wheat rust research,” Naeela said. “All my practical and academic research skills in wheat rust discipline comes from PBI and my supervisors, Dr. Urmil Bansal and Dr. Harbans Bariana.
“I am looking forward to collaborating with University of Sydney researchers in the future under joint projects with CIMMYT,” Naeela said, echoing her CIMMYT colleagues.
Other Sydney alumni who have worked at CIMMYT include former CIMMYT wheat breeder David Bonnett and durum wheat and maize pathologist Sandro Loladze.
Richard Trethowan, undergraduate and postgraduate alumnus of the Faculty of Agriculture and now Professor of Plant Breeding and Director of the PBI, spent 13 years at CIMMYT and was the Principal Scientist and Head of Global Bread Wheat Breeding for Rainfed Areas.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
High-zinc and climate resilient varieties poised to boost production for farmers and nutrition for consumers
Kathmandu (Nepal) December 11, 2020
The Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC) announced the release of six new wheat varieties for multiplication and distribution to the country’s wheat farmers, offering increased production for Nepal’s nearly one million wheat farmers and boosted nutrition for its 28 million wheat consumers.
The varieties, which are derived from materials developed by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), include five bred for elevated levels of the crucial micronutrient zinc, and Borlaug 100, a variety well known to be high yielding, drought and heat resilient, and resistant to wheat blast, as well as high in zinc.
“Releasing six varieties in one attempt is historic news for Nepal,” said CIMMYT Asia Regional Representative and Principal Scientist Arun Joshi.
“It is an especially impressive achievement by the NARC breeders and technicians during a time of COVID-related challenges and restrictions,” said NARC Executive Director Deepak Bhandari.
“This was a joint effort by many scientists in our team who played a critical role in generating proper data, and making a strong case for these varieties to the release committee, ” said Roshan Basnet, Head of the National Wheat Research Program based in Bhairahawa, Nepal, who was instrumental in releasing three of the varieties, including Borlaug 2020.
“We are very glad that our hard work has paid off for our country’s farmers,” said Dhruba Thapa, Chief and wheat breeder at the National Plant Breeding and Genetics Research Centre, NARC.
Nepal produces 1.96 million tons of wheat on more than 750,000 hectares, but its wheat farmers are mainly smallholders with less than 1-hectare holdings and limited access to inputs or mechanization. In addition, most of the popular wheat varieties grown in the country have become susceptible to new races of wheat rust diseases.
The new varieties — Zinc Gahun 1, Zinc Gahun 2, Bheri-Ganga, Himganga, Khumal-Shakti, and Borlaug 2020 — were bred and tested in a “fast-track” approach, with CIMMYT and NARC scientists moving material from trials in CIMMYT’s research station in Mexico to multiple locations in Nepal and other Target Population of Environments (TPEs) for testing.
“Thanks to a big effort from Arun Joshi and our NARC partners we were able to collect important data in first year, reducing the time it takes to release new varieties,” said CIMMYT Head of Wheat Improvement Ravi Singh.
The varieties are tailored for conditions of a range of wheat growing regions in the country – from the hotter lowland, or Terai, regions to the irrigated as well as dryer mid- and high-elevation areas – and for stresses including wheat rust diseases and wheat blast. The five high-zinc, biofortified varieties were developed through conventional crop breeding by crossing modern high yielding wheats with high zinc progenitors such as landraces, spelt wheat and emmer wheat.
“Zinc deficiency is a serious problem in Nepal, with 21% of children found to be zinc deficient in 2016. Biofortification of staple crops such as wheat is a proven method to help reverse and prevent this deficiency, especially for those without access to a more diverse diet,” said CIMMYT Senior Scientist and wheat breeder Velu Govindan, who specializes in breeding biofortified varieties.
Borlaug 2020 is equivalent to Borlaug 100, a highly prized variety released in 2014 in Mexico to commemorate the centennial year of Nobel Peace laureate Dr. Norman E. Borlaug. Coincidently, its release in Nepal coincides with the 50th anniversary of Borlaug’s Nobel Peace Prize.
NARC staff have already begun the process of seed multiplication and conducting participatory varietal selection trials with farmers, so very soon farmers throughout the country will benefit from these seeds.
“The number of new varieties and record release time is amazing,” said Joshi. “We now have varieties that will help Nepal’s farmers well into the future.”
CIMMYT breeding of biofortified varieties was funded by HarvestPlus. Variety release and seed multiplication activities in Nepal were supported by NARC and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) through collaboration with ADB Natural Resources Principal & Agriculture Specialist Michiko Katagami. This NARC-ADB-CIMMYT collaboration was prompted by World Food Prize winner and former HarvestPlus CEO Howarth Bouis, and provided crucial support that enabled the release in record time.
The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) is the global leader in publicly-funded maize and wheat research and related farming systems. Headquartered near Mexico City, CIMMYT works with hundreds of partners throughout the developing world to sustainably increase the productivity of maize and wheat cropping systems, thus improving global food security and reducing poverty. CIMMYT is a member of the CGIAR System and leads the CGIAR Research Programs on Maize and Wheat and the Excellence in Breeding Platform. The Center receives support from national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies. For more information, visit www.cimmyt.org.
Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC) was established in 1991 as an autonomous organization under the Nepal Agricultural Research Council Act – 1991 to conduct agricultural research in the country to uplift the economic level of Nepalese people.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is committed to achieving a prosperous, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable Asia and the Pacific, while sustaining its efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. It assists its members and partners by providing loans, technical assistance, grants, and equity investments to promote social and economic development.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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).
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.