How The Gates Foundation and Carlos Slim are Supporting Innovation and Crop Improvement For Farmers

Carlos Slim, Bill Gates and Mexican Dignitaries visit CIMMYT to inaugurate the new Bioscience facilities © Eruviel Avila (CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Carlos Slim, Bill Gates and Mexican Dignitaries visit CIMMYT to inaugurate the new Bioscience facilities © Eruviel Avila (CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Fundación Carlos Slim have announced a partnership in support of efforts by the Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center CIMMYT) in Mexico to develop and disseminate higher-yielding, more resilient wheat and maize varieties. Read more of this post

Parasitic Witchweed defeated in Kenya

Striga Weed in a rice field © AfricaRice (License CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Striga Weed in a rice field © AfricaRice (License CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Striga, a parasitic weed (also known as Witchweed,) has long been a problem in African nations; causing farmers to lose billions of dollars’ worth of crops annually. To make matters worse, the weed flourishes in conditions that characterise that of poor farming communities (small plots, mono-cropping, lack of oxen and natural manure and lack of agricultural inputs.)

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The Climate Reality Project- Coffee Production Hit by Climate Change


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Recently aired as part of The Climate Reality Project (founded by Al Gore), this documentary contains a 5 minute  film about climate change and smallholder coffee production in Colombia. The film featured as part of a 24 hour online stream of climate documentaries and discussions to raise awareness and explain the varying impacts of global climate change.

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Research Projects Into Improving Crop Plants Receive Major Funding

The University of Illinois has received a five year, $25 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve the photosynthetic properties of key food crops, such as rice and cassava. The project, entitled ‘RIPE- Realising Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency’ has the potential to benefit farmers by improving the productivity of staple food crops. Increasing photosynthetic efficiency has the potential to increase yields and reduce the use of irrigation and fertilisation, however to date there has been limited research on photosynthetic properties of crop plants. The University of Illinois research team will apply recent advances in photosynthetic research, model simulations and crop bioengineering to the RIPE project. Stephen Long, the Project Director and Professor of Crop Sciences and Plant Biology at Illinois said:

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation predict that the world will need to increase staple crop yields by 20% by 2050. Photosynthesis promises a new area, ripe for exploitation that will provide part of the yield jump the world needs to maintain food security”

Women oversea cassava harvesting in Nigeria, the largest producer of cassava © IFDC Photography, via Flickr (License CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Women over look cassava harvesting in Nigeria, the largest producer of cassava © IFDC Photography, via Flickr (License CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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Slicing Into The Bread Wheat Genome

Bread wheat (Triticum aestivum) is a globally important crop that accounts for 20% of the calories consumed by the world’s human population. Major work is underway to increase wheat production by expanding knowledge of the wheat genome and analysing key traits, however due to the large size and great complexity of the bread wheat genome progress has been slow. Now scientists from a number of organisations including the Centre for Genome Research at the University of Liverpool, the University of Bristol, University of California and the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research service have been working to sequence the genome and identify several classes of genes involved in crop productivity. The analysis provides a resource for improving this major crop by identifying variation in useful traits such as yield and nutrient content, thereby contributing to sustainable increases in wheat production.

Wheat (Triticum aestivum), one of the world's most important food crops © David Monniaux via Wikimedia Commons (License CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Wheat (Triticum aestivum), one of the world’s most important food crops © David Monniaux via Wikimedia Commons (License CC-BY-SA 3.0)

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Looking to the past for disease resistance

Fireblight on apples

Fireblight on apples

Traditionally, farmers have bred their crops so that, in several generations, they have a variety that has a high yield or a particular taste or texture. These days, many farmers don’t breed their own crops but buy varieties that have been specially developed to perform well. However, it turns out that sometimes it is best to rediscover old varieties that naturally already have desirable traits.

Researchers at the Swiss research centre, Agroscope, were commissioned by the Fructus Association to look at the properties of apple varieties that are no longer widely grown. This is part of the NAP-PGREL project, which aims to record the properties of approximately 300 fruit varieties a year and make this information available to fruit growers. Read more of this post

Watermelon Genome Could Hold the Key to Improved Varieties With Fewer Pest Problems

A research team led by the Beijing Academy of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences have produced the complete genomic sequence of watermelon (Citrullus lanatus). It is hoped that the genomic data from this study will shape future research into watermelon genetics and provide a good resource for crop genetics and future plant breeding projects, resulting in improved watermelon cultivars with a greater degree of pest resistance.

Watermelons suffer large yield losses due to many pests and diseases and it is hoped that new genetic research can be used to improve varieties to make them less susceptible to pathogens ©Steve Evans via Wikimedia Commons (License CC-BY-2.0).

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Discovery of genes for resistance to black Sigatoka in bananas

Banana plant showing symptoms of black Sigatoka disease (Fred Brooks, University of Hawaii at Manoa, bugwood.org CC BY licence)

Researchers at Equador’s Biotechnology Research Centre (CIBE) have isolated the genes that are responsible for conferring resistance to black Sigatoka in the naturally resistant banana variety Musa Calcutta-4. Scientists have now been able to develop a protocol for the genetic transformation of banana cultivars Williams and Orito as well as the plantain cultivars Barraganete and Dominico. This involved creating the embryonic cell suspensions needed to complete these transformations. Black Sigatoka is caused by the fungus Mycosphaerella fijiensis, which affects the leaves of banana plants, leaving them discoloured and wilting. Read more of this post

Epigenetics – a new dimension to understanding plant disease

Coast live oak showing sudden oak death symptoms (Credit: Joseph O’Brien, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org)

The history of diseases that have affected a plant can determine the ability of its progeny to cope with similar diseases. Studies have revealed that, in many cases, progeny of a plant that was diseased develops tolerance to similar stresses in just a few generations, far too quick to be explained by chance mutations. It is here that scientists believe epigenetic mechanisms play a role. Read more of this post

Wheat rust and climate change – a possible connection

A possible link between wheat stripe rust and climate change was observed by researchers meeting at the International Wheat Stripe Rust Symposium, which convened in Aleppo, Syria last week.

The symposium organised by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) aimed to review the current global status of wheat stripe rust epidemics that have severely affected crop yields in Central and West Asia, the Middle East and North and East Africa in recent years. More than 100 scientists and policymakers from 31 countries participated and an important feature of the meeting was to share experience and approaches to manage wheat rust through breeding and control strategies in affected countries in Asia and Africa.

Recently, severe epidemics of stripe (yellow) rust have been reported in Morocco, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Syria. “Some of the countries affected by rust epidemics have invested very little in agricultural research and development,” said Hans Braun, director of the Global Wheat Program at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico. At the meeting, he challenged policymakers to recognize the link between scientific research and food security and to invest more heavily in agricultural research. “To combat the problem of wheat rusts, farmers in these regions need to adopt new varieties of wheat that have durable resistance to both stem and stripe rust,” said Ronnie Coffman, vice chair of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative.

Climate change, in terms of rising temperatures, and the timing and increasing variability of rainfall, is contributing to the spread and severity of rust diseases, said the press release. Emerging races of rust are showing adaptations to extreme temperatures not seen before. Scientists around the globe are working on monitoring and surveillance of stem rust and stripe rust to insure rapid detection and reporting so farmers, policymakers, and agricultural research centres can respond more quickly to initial outbreaks.

Wheat rust has been a problem for many decades, as reported in various papers in the CAB Abstracts database (Newton, 1922; Tehon, 1927; Zekl, 1934; Naoumova, 1935; Beilin, 1938; and Roche et al., 2008). Interestingly, the paper by Beilin, published in 1938 in the Bull. Acad. Sci. in 1938 and abstracted in CAB Abstract in 1939, discussed the problems related with developing hardy wheat cultivars with resistance to drought, without paying attention to their response to diseases; and how the climatic conditions exacerbated the disease spreading.

Beilin reported that Russian breeding work at the time had been concerned mainly with the development of hardy, prolific and drought-resistant wheat varieties with no focusing on their response to smut and rusts. As a result, the most popular standard wheat varieties then were highly susceptible to various rusts, including Puccinia, graminis, and the climatic conditions of the main area under winter wheat permitted overwintering of the rusts. The relatively high day temperature in June and abundant rainfall and dew in May and June facilitated their rapid development. The use of susceptible varieties under these conditions and the absence of correct crop rotations led to severe rust epidemics, lowering the quality of the grain and reducing the yields in some years and districts to about half the normal.

The ICARDA press release also reported that new rust resistant varieties are in the pipeline at international and national agricultural research centres. Breeders are selecting for other important characteristics including improved yield performance, drought tolerance, and regional suitability. 

Country preparedness for outbreaks of wheat rust involves such issues as the availability of resistant varieties that are known to and accepted by farmers, the availability of sufficient quality seeds of new varieties for farmers to use, and the availability, accessibility and affordability of effective fungicides and capacity of farmers to use them.

In most cases, the bottleneck to getting resistant varieties into the field in time to protect local harvests is local capacity and the ability of national programs to rapidly multiply seeds and deliver them to market. Improving country capacity requires long-term planning, funding, and getting farmers involved earlier in the variety selection process, says the ICARDA press release.

Link to the symposium website

Link to press release

Further Reading
    1. Beilin, I. G. (1938) Recent Wheat rust epidemics in North Caucasus and factors favouring their outbreak and development. Bull. Acad. Sci. U. R. S. S. 1938 1938 No. 5-6 pp. 995-1016 pp.
    2. Naoumova, Mme N. A, (1935) Dependence of the development of yellow rust of Wheat on meteorological factors. Summ. sci. Res. Wk Inst. Pl. Prot. Leningr., pp. 64-65 pp.
    3. Newton, M. (1922) Studies in Wheat stem rust (Puccinia graminis tritici). Trans. R. Soc. Canada, 3rd series, Section V 1922 Vol. 16 pp. 153-210 pp.
    4. Roche, R.; Bancal, M. O.; Gagnaire, N.; Huber, L. (2008) Aspects of Applied Biology, No. 88 pp.
    5. Sache, I.; Suffert, F.; Huber, L. (2000) A field evaluation of the effect of rain on wheat rust epidemics. Acta Phytopathologica et Entomologica Hungarica, Vol. 35 No. 1/4 pp. 273-277.
    6. Tehon, L. R. (1927) Epidemic diseases of grain crops in Illinois, 1922-1926. The measurement of their prevalence and de-structiveness and an interpretation of weather relations based on Wheat leaf rust data. Illinois Dept. Registr. and Educ. Div. of Nat. Hist. Survey, Bull, Vol. 17 No. Art. 1 pp. 1-96 pp.
    7. Zekl, F. (1934) Causes of wheat rust. Deutsche Landwirtschaftliche Presse, Vol. 61 No. 32 pp. 397 p.
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