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Conference tackles wheat improvement via international collaboration

The importance of diversity and international collaboration in achieving positive outcomes for smallholder wheat farmers in Africa and Asia was a key focus of an international conference held April 14-17 in Morroco.

The 2018 Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) Workshop brought together 333 wheat researchers from 51 countries. Led by International Programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (IP-CALS) through the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) project, the initiative first brought together international scientists focused on protecting the world’s wheat supply in 2008, and is celebrating a decade of wheat improvement.

“Farmers must be able to adjust to rapidly changing environmental and market conditions to meet the food security demands of the future,” said Maricelis Acevedo, DGGW associate director for science and an adjunct plant pathologist in Cornell’s School of Integrative Plant Science. “Over the last 10 years, through the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat and DGGW projects, we have focused on delivering improved varieties of wheat, strengthening national programs, and developing capacity in breeding and training pipelines to ensure sustainable wheat production in the future.”

Diversity and gender issues

“One of the important things the BGRI has done is to bring people together, both in meetings like this and through its mission to reduce the world’s vulnerability to stem, yellow and leaf rusts of wheat. However, we need to ensure that these collaborations continue and even expand,” said Emma Quilligan ’18, graduate student in Cornell’s Institute for Public Affairs, summarizing the workshop.

The importance of international collaboration and contributing diverse research backgrounds to the problem of wheat improvement was a workshop theme, emphasized in sessions that presented the work of multinational and multigenerational teams. An India team received the 2018 BGRI Gene Stewardship Award for its contributions to significantly increasing wheat productivity on 30 million hectares and replacing susceptible wheat varieties with resistant varieties.

Gender issues in wheat research was highlighted in two panel sessions and by the recognition of the 2017 and 2018 Jeanie Borlaug Laube Women in Triticum Early Career and Mentor awardees including Ph.D. candidate Margaret Krause and postdoc Weizhen Liu from Cornell University’s Gore Lab. This award is given to promising young women working in wheat, barley, rye or its relatives and provides opportunities for further training and mentorship.

The next generation of wheat scientists was represented in workshop and poster sessions. Graduate students from Pakistan, Ethiopia, India, the U.K., Australia and the U.S. delivered 10 main stage talks, addressing mathematical modeling of disease spread, root architecture and the economic impact for farmers who adopt new wheat varieties.

“The ‘when’ and the ‘where’ of the next high-impact race incursions are not known, “ Quilligan said. “To mitigate their impact, we need effective, coordinated surveillance at all levels across cereals and alternative hosts in various regions, compilation of data from many sources, and we need to speak a ‘common language’ and utilize shared facilities and resources.”

Beyond stem rust

Emerging threats to the world’s wheat have broadened the focus of the DGGW wheat scientists. Supported by a 2016-20 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UK aid from the U.K. government, the DGGW project aims to coordinate international efforts to develop varieties of wheat with improved genetic gain, disease resistance, and heat tolerance for sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Workshop sessions focused on host resistance, physiology, abiotic stresses, increasing the rate of genetic gain, seed multiplication and the role of gender-responsive research in breeding. Researchers also addressed challenges caused by wheat pathogens and how to manage them through global and regional surveillance networks, and by understanding their biology, epidemiology and the role of alternate hosts like barberry.

Samantha Hautea is a communications specialist with International Programs

Media Contact

Lindsey Hadlock