$24M grant aims to combat global wheat crop threats

Coffman and wheat farmers
Linda McCandless/Provided
Ronnie Coffman, center, international plant breeder and director of the newly funded Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat project, meets with Ethiopian farmers.

Climate-change-induced heat stress and disease pathogens migrating across borders threaten the world’s wheat supply and food security in conflict zones of Africa and the Middle East. To expand the scope of a global partnership to combat these threats, Cornell University has been awarded a $24 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The grant, Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW), will mitigate serious threats to wheat brought about by climate change and develop and deploy new strains of heat tolerant wheat that resist wheat rusts and other diseases.

“Over the last eight years, we have built a global consortium of wheat scientists and farmers whose efforts have so far prevented the global epidemics of Ug99 stem rust predicted back in 2005,” said Ronnie Coffman, international plant breeder and director of Cornell’s International Programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who leads the consortium. “We have improved wheat resistance to stem and yellow rust globally and increased global yields.

“In the new DGGW grant 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 these politically vulnerable regions.”

The four-year grant builds on the successes of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI), led by the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project, funded by the Department for International Development in the UK and the Gates Foundation from 2008 to 2016.

Deadly wheat pathogens have been moving from the wheat fields of northern and East Africa into the Middle East. In their rush to identify genes that can resist evolving and virulent new strains of the disease known as stem rust, BGRI scientists have developed collaborative arrangements and facilities with the support of national governments and agencies to screen thousands of samples of wheat yearly from every continent under rust infection and identify resistant lines.

DGGW will be based at Cornell but will enlist national partners in Kenya and Ethiopia, as well as scientists at international agricultural research centers that focus on wheat, including the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas. Advanced research laboratories in the U.S., Canada, China, Turkey, Denmark, Australia and South Africa will collaborate on the project. More than 2,000 scientists from 35 institutions spread across 23 countries are involved in the consortium, and 37 countries contribute data to the surveillance network.

Wheat rust pathologist Maricelis Acevedo is the newly hired associate director for science for the DGGW project at Cornell.

At CIMMYT’s Ciudad Obregón research station in Mexico, where the grant is being announced, many of the world’s top experts are meeting March 14-17 to review tools and technologies that will allow them to monitor the spread of stem rust and other windborne wheat diseases while breeding new varieties aimed at protecting the global wheat supply. This is critical, given that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates world demand for wheat is expected to increase up to 60 percent by 2050 as the global population reaches or exceeds 9 billion people.

Global Threats

“The challenge for global agriculture is to grow more food on less land, using less water, fertilizer and pesticides,” said Hans Braun, director of the Global Wheat Program at CIMMYT. “Sustainable cropping systems that are economically viable, socially acceptable and respectful of the environment are critical to ensure global food security,” he said. “Wheat provides 20 percent of all calories and 20 percent of all protein in developing and developed countries, is the staff of life for 25 million wheat-consuming men, women and children who live on less than $2 per day, and provides vital income for approximately 20 million poor wheat producers and their families.”

A recent FAO study warns that climate change is expected to reduce yields of wheat and other major crops and fuel the spread of wheat pathogens, nurtured by higher temperatures and moisture. With climate change, the rusts are more likely to move into areas that are less prepared for them. According to the FAO report, “They are especially serious in the Near East, Central Asia and Eastern and Northern Africa, creating severe epidemics and causing significant losses in wheat production.”

A recent peer-reviewed analysis suggests changing climate is implicated as well in the recent conflict in Syria, reinforcing the importance of protecting important food crops in politically vulnerable regions. A summary of the findings reports: “Before the Syrian uprising that began in 2011, the greater Fertile Crescent experienced the most severe drought in the instrumental record. For Syria, a country marked by poor governance and unsustainable agricultural and environmental politics, the drought had a catalytic effect, contributing to political unrest.”

Said Coffman, “For many of the poorest people in Africa and southern Asia, wheat provides most of their food and is an important source of income. It’s these people who have benefited the most from the DRRW and the BGRI’s successes at developing new strains of wheat that are high-yielding, rust-resistant and nutritious. With this grant, we will continue to involve farmers in the variety selection and seed multiplication process and train the next generation of wheat warriors to keep up the fight.”

Linda McCandless is associate director for communications in International Programs. 

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