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Keeping virulent wheat diseases in check amid pressures of climate change

April 1, 2016
DGGW team: The new Cornell project — Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) — is a partnership that includes (among others) (l-r) Dave Hodson and Ravi Singh of CIMMYT, Bedada Girma of the Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research (EIAR), Bekele Abeyo of CIMMYT, Ronnie Coffman of Cornell, Fentahun Mengistu of EIAR, Maricelis Acevedo, new director for science of the DGGW at Cornell, and Hans Braun, of CIMMYT. CORNELL/C.Knight

DGGW team: The new Cornell project, Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW), is a partnership that includes (among others) (l-r) Dave Hodson and Ravi Singh of CIMMYT, Bedada Girma of the Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research (EIAR), Bekele Abeyo of CIMMYT, Ronnie Coffman of Cornell, Fentahun Mengistu of EIAR, Maricelis Acevedo, new director for science of the DGGW at Cornell, and Hans Braun, of CIMMYT. Credit: CORNELL/C.Knight

Ronnie Coffman is International Professor of Plant Breeding and Director of International Programs of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. Any opinions expressed are his own.

ITHACA, New York (CORNELL) — Climate-change-induced heat stress and disease pathogens migrating across borders threaten the world’s wheat supply and food security in vulnerable areas throughout Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

To expand the scope of a global partnership to combat these threats, Cornell University was recently awarded a $24 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

As scientists working toward Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat — or DGGW, as the new project  is called — our objectives will be to mitigate serious threats to wheat brought about by climate change, and develop and deploy new strains of wheat that are resistant to various wheat diseases as well as heat tolerant varieties. The grant is managed by International Programs at Cornell University,  which also managed Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW), DGGW’s predecessor project.

Over the last eight years, we have been successful in building a global consortium of wheat scientists and farmers whose efforts have so far prevented the feared global epidemic of Ug99 wheat stem rust, which prompted Norman Borlaug, the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former head of wheat breeding at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), to sound the call for action to combat the virulent disease. Since then, we have improved wheat resistance to stem and yellow rust globally and increased global yields. I consider CIMMYT to be first among equals in the implementation of the DRRW and DGGW wheat projects.

In DGGW, we will use modern tools of comparative genomics and big data to develop and deploy varieties of wheat that incorporate climate resiliency as well as improved disease resistance for smallholder farmers in less developed regions in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

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DGGW builds on successes of DRRW, which began in 2008, some 10 years after Ug99 was discovered in Uganda. When Borlaug sounded the alarm about the spread of Ug99 in East Africa in 2005, the world was facing the threat of potential epidemics and ensuing starvation that would occur if the vulnerable 80 percent of the world’s wheat succumbed to infection.

As wheat breeders, pathologists and educators, we rose to the occasion united as the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) – an umbrella to DRRW and DGGW – to develop new varieties of rust resistant wheat and deploy them in timely fashion in rust-prone areas of the world. Major epidemics have not come to pass, and the smaller ones that have occurred have been anticipated and largely contained.

Here are some of the successes we have made as a consortium:

  • The interdisciplinary and global approach to fighting plant disease has made progress on many fronts, including: human capacity building; pre-breeding, breeding and seed delivery of resistant varieties; surveillance, monitoring and understanding the pathogen; improving screening facilities in Kenya and Ethiopia; gender-responsiveness; tracking alternate hosts and advocacy.
  • Since 2005, this community has released 81 varieties of rust-resistant wheat in 11 countries — Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, India, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan and Sudan.
  • We have grown the wheat community with new talent. More than 450 young scientists from around the world have been trained in breeding, screening, pathogen analysis and field survey techniques and methodologies in training courses held in Kenya, Ethiopia, Nepal, India and Mexico.
  • As of 2015, scientists from 37 countries participate in rust surveillance through a globally coordinated, online surveillance community — a network built around RustTracker.org that covers all major wheat growing countries of Africa, Middle East and South Asia.
  • We have improved the capacity of screening nurseries in Ethiopia and Kenya. Since 2006, over 400,000 accessions of bread wheat, durum wheat and barley from 25 countries have been screened in international screening nurseries in Kenya and Ethiopia. The capacity of these East African nurseries was virtually non-existent in 2005. Today, 29 partners from 24 countries screen cereal germplasm in these nurseries.
  • As one indicator of improved gender balance in the wheat community, the number of women attending the annual BGRI workshop has risen from 15 percent to 30 percent since 2008.
  • As far as advocacy goes, we have received coverage in many of the major newspapers of the world on every continent, built strong website, Facebook and Twitter communities and created 125 videos for teaching and advocacy purposes. In those videos, the “stars” include many of scientists working with National Agricultural Research Systems in our partner countries, wheat farmers and other hunger fighters.

This is just some of the good news we have to report since 2008 when the DRRW project was first funded. Our partners in this effort have been the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Department for International Development. We thank them.

In this third phase of funding, we are optimistic that we will be able to continue the momentum of the last eight years for a more wheat-secure world. We hope to stem the spread of Ug99, which has now been found in 13 countries. We hope also to secure investments in wheat research that will help steer many wheat research stations — and the scientific wheat community — into the next century.

Many of you reading this are involved in the efforts of addressing the challenges of global food security by improving wheat – the crop that is responsible for 20 percent of calories and 20 percent of protein consumed globally. If Norman Borlaug were still here, he would be very, very proud. He would tell us to keep up the good work, warn against complacency — and tell us this is no time to rest.

Ronnie Coffman was Norman Borlaug’s only Ph.D. student and was with him in the fields of CIMMYT’s research station in Toluca, Mexico, when Borlaug learned he had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. Borlaug’s success developing high-yielding, disease-resistant, semi-dwarf wheat varieties while working at CIMMYT earned him the title “Father of the Green Revolution.” The varieties are estimated to have helped save more than 1 billion lives in the developing world. About his relationship with Borlaug, Coffman says he was “mentored by greatness.”

Follow Ronnie Coffman on Twitter @WRonnieCoffman

Follow BGRI on Twitter @GlobalRust