One of the Alliance’s core areas of expertise is to preserve, study and utilize collections of seed varieties and germplasm to safeguard diversity and discover ways to make crops more nutritious and better adapted to climate change. Last year, our scientists led a major collaboration to combat a quickly emerging cassava disease in Southeast Asia and led the call for a Global Surveillance System for new crop diseases.
‘Seeds for Needs’ works with 40,000 smallholder farmers in 11 countries following a basic concept: if farmers have better information and access to a wide range of crop varieties, they are better able to choose those suited to their conditions, especially as those conditions are changing. Crowdsourcing insights from farmers has enabled researchers to identify diverse varieties that can resist fickle weather, pests, and are often more nutritious or useful.
Farmers and researchers collaborate to trial diverse wheat varieties in Ethiopia. Bioversity International
Take nutritious durum wheat, which has been cultivated and selected by Ethiopian farmers for millennia. The thousands of varieties that farmers have in their fields represent unique and under-studied sources of pre-existing diversity that can be harnessed for breeding hardier and healthier grains. Two 2019 studies on Ethiopian durum wheat (1 and 2) mapped out genetic characteristics of 50 families of durum wheat and found that diversity within farmers’ varieties enhanced the chance of selecting productive, stable, and adaptable new varieties for local climatic conditions. In short, these studies add to the growing body of evidence that highlights the vast potential of genetically diverse, farmer-bred varieties for future breeding and research efforts.
Wheat in a field trial, Ethiopia. Bioversity International/J.van de Gevel
Alliance research in Ethiopia also highlights the role of farmers in crowdsourcing trials of wheat varieties and contributing feedback that can be combined with researchers’ data.
Seeds for Needs’ use of novel approaches in statistics and big data analysis is attracting attention from the business sector, which is interested in how this data could be used to create so-called ‘recommender systems’ for various applications. The large datasets created via our trials provide exciting opportunities for cutting-edge data science, testing new algorithms, and combining with big data from other sources.
Beans to withstand the heat and drought of climate change
Beans are a major source of iron and other micronutrients for people across the globe and nowhere are they more important than for smallholder farmers in the Americas and Africa. But climate change – hotter weather and drought– is pushing bean crops to the brink in many places where they are key to food security.
Scientist Steven Beebe guides visiting colleagues from Central America and Africa through an experimental greenhouse, Colombia. CIAT/S.Mattson
To further advance Alliance research to breed hardier been varieties, researchers teamed up with the Crop Trust to study the climate-hardened tepary bean, which has been grown and consumed in the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico for 2,500 years. Having evolved in one of the driest places on the planet, the tepary bean (Phaseolus acutifolius), a close relative of the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), may have the genetic traits to help toughen up beans across the Global South.
“When we talk about climate change, obviously the instability of rainfall will be a big issue. But you can manage, to some extent, your water deficit with better soil management, and in some lucky cases, through irrigation,” said senior scientist Steve Beebe. “But when you talk about high temperatures, which we’re going to have year after year, there is no alternative to genetic tolerance to high temperatures.”
Bean varieties are trialed for characteristics such as heat tolerance. CIAT/S.Mattson
The project brings together bean breeders based in Central America, Colombia, and Mozambique. The researchers expect to be ready to field test and test new varieties in farmers’ fields soon.
“Low-fertility soils have been a problem (for bean cultivation) for a long time but we didn’t address heat before,” said Celestina Xerinda, a bean breeder at the Mozambique Institute of Agricultural Research (IIAM). “Under this project, we expect to develop a variety that is tolerant to heat stress because we are starting to get very high temperatures and the current genotypes (used by farmers in Mozambique) are not tolerant to heat.”
Reducing the toll that pests and diseases take on crops is one way to help meet agricultural demand without having to resort to the excessive clearing of new land (along with reducing waste and increasing low-productivity farms).
Cassava crops in northeastern Thailand, which have been affected by a combination of pest and disease outbreaks. CIAT/N.Palmer
More than 20 percent of staple crops, such as wheat, rice, maize, potato and soybean, are lost to pests and diseases. Low-income countries are especially vulnerable. In an article published in Science, Alliance researchers proposed creating an early warning system to detect and halt the spread of crop disease before it causes such widespread losses.
They call for a Global Surveillance System, or GSS, that would strengthen and interconnect crop biosecurity systems. It would focus on six major food crops: maize, potato, cassava, rice, beans and wheat, as well as other important food and cash crops that are traded across borders.
Headway on such an initiative would require focusing efforts on low-income countries that do not have the phytosanitary infrastructure some wealthier nations have. The GSS would focus on tightening networks of “active surveillance” and “passive surveillance” personnel who are on the front lines of disease outbreaks. Active surveillance consists of laboratories at agriculture inspection stations, and customs and phytosanitary inspectors at borders and ports of entry.
“A lot of collaboration and discussion is needed to rapidly take action and avoid outbreaks that could negatively impact food security and trade,” said Mónica Carvajal, an Alliance researcher who was the lead author on the study. Joe Tohme, the Alliance’s research director for Crops for Nutrition and Health, co-authored the study.
The GSS proposal is the result of a scientific meeting convened by CIAT and held in 2018 at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy.
The authors called for the GSS under the International Plant Protection Convention’s (IPPC) 2020-2030 Strategic Framework. “We encourage the annual G20 Agriculture Ministers Meeting, the World Bank Group, and FAO, among others, to join efforts toward enhancing cooperation for a multi-year action plan for the proposed GSS to more effectively reduce the impact of crop diseases and increase global food security,” they wrote.
The proposal has had widespread support. Tohme and Kitty Cardwell, a co-author from Oklahoma State University, presented the GSS idea to the Grand Challenges Annual Meeting, an event hosted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The presentation led to a proposed roadmap for implementing the GSS, which will be further refined in the coming months. Participants for developing the initiative go well beyond the original team and include representatives from the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the CGIAR Secretariat, among others.
2020 is the International Year of Plant Health, and further promotion and collaboration on building the GSS are planned as part of the year’s events.
“I think that this current situation will reflect how countries are prepared to respond to pandemics and the importance of networks and capacity sharing to overcome such undesired events,” said Carvajal.
Alliance research rose to the forefront of the battle to save banana crops in Eastern and Central Africa where banana Xanthomonas wilt (BXW) has been causing leaves to wither and fruit to rapidly ripen and rot. Left untreated, BXW can devastate 80-100 percent of affected fields. The disease has grave implications for more than 100 million farmers globally who depend on bananas for their livelihoods and the pathogen’s continued spread is threatening the highly productive plantain belt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Banana farmers in Uganda. Bioversity International/A. Vezina
The common method to control BXW is to uproot the diseased plant. However, farmers and scientists have developed an alternative approach in which the plant stem is cut at ground level, allowing it to grow back and other unaffected plants in the same “mat” to produce fruit and seed.
Harvested bananas for sale in Rwanda. CIAT/N.Palmer
Combined with small steps such as tool sterilization, the Single Diseased Stem Removal (SDSR) technique has rapidly reduced the incidence of disease from 80 percent to as low as 2 percent. Researchers are working closely with local partners, government agencies, and farmers to scale up SDSR and create effective training programs to catch the disease before it spreads further.
An Alliance study mapped hotspots across affected regions and identified vulnerable landscapes where surveillance and public extension work can make the biggest difference. Some 20,000 households have already recovered and another 17,000 were applying the SDSR technique by the end of 2019. These steps increase the value of banana production by US$462 per hectare per year.
Researchers and development partners are communicating with governments about the feasibility of national-level implementation, as well as long-term strategies that can protect crops and farmers by preventing the disease from ever reaching them.
Fighting a new cassava disease, and forages for low-emission livestock
Congratulations are in order for the Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA), which was awarded the prestigious Al-Sumait Prize for African Development. PABRA, which is coordinated by the Alliance, shared the US$1 million prize with Africa Rice, a CGIAR center based in Côte d’Ivoire.
A bean market in Kampala, Uganda. CIAT/N.Palmer
PABRA received the award “for serving a dynamic network of scientists and practitioners specializing in improving the productivity, processing, and the value chain of beans throughout Africa,” according to the announcement.
The disease reduces the growth of the plant’s valuable roots but learning how these roots accumulate bulk is not easy to study in real-time. Researchers discovered a way to overcome that limitation by studying roots as they grow in the air, an innovative use of aeroponics.
Forages for low-emission livestock
One key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from livestock is through better forages – the plants and grasses that livestock eat. One Alliance study showed that healthy pastures characterized by the forage grass Brachiaria humidicola were especially good at limiting nitrous oxide emissions. New genetic research on B. humidicola gave breeders a quick roadmap for creating new hybrids for climate change. Other research examined how different forages reduced methane emissions from livestock.
A drone-based aerial imaging system was developed to help select rice lines that are resistant to hoja blanca disease, in collaboration with the Latin American Fund for Irrigated Rice (FLAR). The developed system was found to be more efficient than manual methods to classify resistant and susceptible lines efficiently. We are also developing robust machine learning models to enhance the efficiency of the current phenotyping system.