International Agriculture News, Wheat

Global wheat experts to address challenges facing global wheat supply at Morocco meeting

Leading wheat researchers from all over the world will convene for a workshop in Morocco to discuss challenges that face global wheat production, and how to breed high yielding varieties that are better able to resist diseases and tolerate heat and drought. The meeting holds against the background of rapidly changing climate and evolving pathogens continue to threaten the world’s wheat supply.

Experts will lead sessions that focus on various aspects of wheat breeding, such as host resistance, physiology, and abiotic stresses, increasing the rate of genetic gain, seed multiplication, and the role of gender-responsive research in breeding programs. They will also address the 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.

“The BGRI technical workshop brings a diverse group of top-notch scientists together to share the latest research and new ideas on how to deliver greater genetic gain in wheat,” said Maricelis Acevedo, associate director for science for the DGGW. “This year, several sessions are focused on applying the power of cutting-edge technologies like big data, precision phenotyping, and genomic selection to produce higher yielding, disease-resistant wheat and deliver them to farmers’ fields.”

Francisco Barro from the Institute of Sustainable Agriculture in Spain, who led the team that developed a gluten-free line of wheat using the gene-editing technique CRISPR/Cas9, is the keynote speaker for the conference. He will discuss the application of CRISPR/Cas9 to engineering complex traits and how it can be used to complement other breeding methods to improve wheat.

“For me, the elimination of the toxic gliadins and the maintenance of the bread making quality of wheat is the most exciting,” Barro said in a recent interview. “However, I realize that one of the most important targets for CRISPR is the resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses, in particular drought and salinity resistances, since this will allow sowing in soils not currently suitable for wheat cultivation, especially in developing countries.”

Mahmoud Solh, the former director-general of ICARDA who oversaw the relocation of ICARDA from Syria, will receive the BGRI’s inaugural Norman E. Borlaug Lifetime Achievement Award. The award recognizes outstanding leadership in enhancing food security and building capacity throughout Central and West Asia and North Africa (CWANA). Solh will deliver a talk on the challenge of relocating a major agricultural research institution like ICARDA out of a conflict zone.

“Dr. Mahmoud Solh has been a steadfast leader in agriculture in the Middle East over many decades,” said Ronnie Coffman, co-chair of the BGRI and director of IP-CALS at Cornell University. “Most recently, he guided ICARDA through some of the most difficult times in the history of the organization, shifting the headquarters and its world-class seedbank from Aleppo, Syria, to various key locations throughout the region. Farmers in the arid regions of the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa are greatly indebted to Dr. Solh for his leadership through challenging times.”

Gender awareness and long-term sustainability are focal points across all objectives of the DGGW project and its predecessor, the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project. In 2010, the DRRW instituted the annual Jeanie Borlaug Laube Women in Triticum (WIT) Early Career Award and WIT Mentor Award to improve the gender balance in the wheat research community and offer additional educational and professional experiences for women working in wheat. This year, WIT awardees from the 2017 and 2018 cohorts will be recognized at the BGRI workshop, and there will be a panel discussion about incorporating gender into research.

“Gender is particularly relevant to my work in wheat because the reason for all our breeding efforts is to improve the lives of farmers and the larger community by developing technologies that farmers will easily adopt and implement,” said Bernice Waweru, molecular breeder at the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), who will moderate the panel.

In addition, researchers will present outcomes of their latest research in main stage sessions, poster talks, and side workshops. Lee Hickey of the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) at the University of Queensland, Australia, will present a workshop on “speed breeding,” a protocol which allows breeders to significantly accelerate breeding efforts. Marcel Mayer of the University of Cambridge will present his work on modeling spore dispersal, which can provide valuable insight on the airborne spread of diseases such as stem rust.

From April 14-17, the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) project, led by International Programs at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (IP-CALS), will host the 2018 Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) Technical Workshop and celebrate a decade of wheat improvement. The workshop is co-hosted by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).