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Supercharging the Wheat Plant

March 3, 2011

Wheat physiologists using a spectral radiometer to study photosynthesis in the spikes of wheat plants.

Against a worrisome background of unrelenting food price inflation and volatility, wheat researchers meeting in northwestern Mexico during the first week of March examined early evidence that shows the promise of a pioneering approach to achieve a quantum leap in the yield potential of this staple cereal. The group included some of the world’s top plant scientists, who gathered at Ciudad Obregón – the cradle of last century’s Green Revolution – for the First International Workshop of the Wheat Yield Consortium.

The approach they are pursuing focuses sharply on photosynthesis, the process whereby plants use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into biomass. The wheat plant’s photosynthetic inefficiency, compared with that of some other crops, like maize and sugarcane, is the primary obstacle to improving its yield potential. Yet, modern wheat breeding, while improving many other important traits, such as disease resistance, has left this fundamental aspect of crop performance essentially unaltered since the work began.

“The world desperately needs a breakthrough in wheat photosynthesis,” said Thomas Lumpkin, Director General of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), who painted a grim picture of the “perfect storm” that is brewing, as sluggish yield growth, worsening water scarcity and exhausted soils steadily undermine global food security.

Evidence suggesting that it is feasible to ramp up wheat photosynthesis has come from seemingly unlikely sources. One recent result concerns the “stunning effect,” as Martin Parry of Rothamsted Research in the UK put it, of a single enzyme on biomass production in tobacco, which increased by 40 percent in the first 7 weeks of plant growth. Parry is now exploring whether the bacterial gene that produced this outcome in health-harming tobacco can have a similar effect on wheat, a critical staff of life.

Another piece of evidence derives from the results of CIMMYT wheat trials conducted during 2010 in South Asia. Among the best performers were new lines that were designed by combining traits that are known to improve plant performance under drought.

“Since this approach is successful for improving wheat performance in dry areas, we expect it to have a similar or even greater impact on yield potential under optimum conditions,” said Matthew Reynolds, the CIMMYT plant physiologist who is coordinating the Wheat Yield Consortium, which has received strong financial support from the Mexican government.

Based on a detailed knowledge of the physiological and genetic basis for plant performance, the approach aims to deliver a new and long-awaited breakthrough in wheat yield potential. Since the Consortium’s creation in late 2009, participating scientists have been pursuing three main lines of research.

The first aims to raise biomass production in wheat through genetic modification of the enzyme Rubisco, which plays a key role in photosynthesis but is relatively inefficient. A second group of researchers is concentrating on changing various traits to ensure that more biomass translates to higher grain yield but without weakening the stems and roots, which would cause plants to topple over, or lodge, as the grains ripen. Using a variety of plant breeding methods, a third group will assemble the combination of traits needed for higher wheat yields in superior lines that meet farmers’ other requirements, such as disease resistance and wide adaptation to diverse production environments.

This work marks the beginning of an exciting new chapter in wheat improvement, which promises to raise yield potential in favorable environments (where most of the world’s wheat is grown) by up to 50 percent within about two decades.

The last time an increase of that magnitude was achieved, it resulted from the work of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug, who developed disease-resistant, semi-dwarf wheat varieties in Mexico between the mid-1940s and 1960s. When fertilizer was applied, the new lines produced higher grain yields rather than lodge, as did the tall traditional varieties they replaced in Mexico and subsequently Asia. The result was the Green Revolution of the 1970s.

Since then, wheat yields have risen only gradually through a process in which breeders have selected the best lines in international yield trials without knowledge of the physiological basis for their superior performance. Within the last decade, the annual rate of wheat yield growth has slowed to less than 1 percent – far short of the 2 percent increase needed to keep pace with burgeoning demand (driven mainly by rapid population growth) and to ensure affordable wheat for poor consumers.


A Detailed and Dismal Picture of Coral Reefs

February 24, 2011

A new report brings the perilous state of the world’s coral reefs into sharper focus than ever. Extraordinarily rich in biodiversity, they are critical sources of food and income and also perform key environemtnal services that benefit the millions of people  inhabiting coastal areas. But these fragile ecosystems could quickly unravel unless concerted action is taken to address the many threats they face.

Titled Reefs at Risk Revisited, the study was carried out by the World Resources Institute in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, the WorldFish Center and numerous other partners. Its purpose is to gather the knowledge needed to guide conservation efforts.

Reefs at Risk Revisited provides a “high-resolution update” of an earlier analysis, using a global map that is 64 times more detailed than the original one. The new study also assesses for the first time the threat to coral reefs posed by climate change. It observes that the combination of warming seas (which prompt a “stress response” referred to as “coral bleaching”) and ocean acidification (a result of rising levels of carbon dioxide) greatly compounds local threats, such as overfishing and pollution.

In his foreword to the study, former US Vice President Al Gore says that coral reef degradation, “like the proverbial ‘canary in the coal mine’, . . . is a clear sign that our dangerous overreliance on fossil fuels is already changing Earth’s climate.” He refers to study findings as a “wake-up call for policymakers and citizens around the world.” Gore shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for their effective efforts to raise public awareness about the threat of global climate change.

Reefs at Risk Revisited rates about 75 percent of the world’s coral reefs as under threat from the combination of local pressures and widespread damaged related to climate change. It also finds that local threats are greatest in Southeast Asia, where the overall threat level is 95 percent. In this region, Indonesia has the largest area of threatened reefs, followed by the Philippines. The study also concludes that global threat levels have increased dramatically – by 30 percent – in the decade since the original study was conducted.

A New Way of Working for a More Balanced Agriculture

February 14, 2011

Inger Andersen. New Delhi, India.

The importance of breaking down barriers that separate whole sectors and individual partners was a central message of the keynote address that Inger Andersen delivered to last week’s conference on agriculture for improved nutrition and health, held in New Delihi, India. Speaking from her vantage point as Chair of the CGIAR Fund Council and as Vice President for Sustainable Development at the World Bank, she stressed that both the CGIAR and World Bank are willing partners in moving forward.

To convey what “the way forward” might look like, the conference organizers from the International Food Policy Institute (IFPRI) prepared an initial draft synthesis of its conclusions, to which IFPRI Director General Shenggen Fan made reference in his closing remarks.

The synthesis sets out 15 actions steps organized under four general imperatives:

1. Fill the knowledge gaps.

While the linkages between agriculture, nutrition and health may seem obvious, many questions remain to be answered before effective policies can be designed to encourage better outcomes in all three spheres.

2. Do no harm.

Much can be done now, however, to lessen the damage agriculture causes to human nutrition and health, including more effective prevention of occupational hazards and control of diseases associated with agriculture.

3. Seek out and scale up innovative solutions.

Other important steps are to identify and better understand interventions already tried in agriculture that have improved nutrition and health cost-effectively and to build on these gains by designing programs that create synergies between the three sectors.

4. Create an environment in which cooperation can thrive.

To remove the “language barriers” and other divisions between these sectors requires a new way of thinking and working, reinforced by clear guidelines, incentives, leadership and advocacy.

Fan underlined that the synthesis is a “living document, subject to further debate” and invited comments on the text at the event website.

Agriculture for Improved Health and Nutrition

February 11, 2011

H.E. Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India

Agriculture can reduce poor people’s vulnerability to malnutrition and ill health by offering them reliable supplies of more nutritious foods. But it can also make them more vulnerable by providing unsafe foods and by increasing the spread of disease.

In search of ways to better realize agriculture’s potential to improve human nutrition and health, a major international conference got under way this week in New Delhi, India. Organized by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) under the auspices of its 2020 Vision Initiative, the event will bring together ideas, identify best practices, build consensus and reinforce networks, with the aim of catalyzing well-informed actions and investments.

During the inaugural session of the conference, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh underlined its particular importance for his and many other developing countries. He and other panelists called for stronger investment in research and education to fill glaring gaps in our knowledge of the linkages between agriculture, nutrition and health.

One of these involves complex connections between livestock diseases and human well-being, as reported this week in an Economist magazine article. It warns that, as food production is intensified in Asia and other regions, this could “create ‘hotspots’, where a huge amount of germs circulate among thriving livestock and human populations, especially near cities.”

This is but one part of the “double trouble” signaled by new assessments reported at the conference by scientists from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). The other concerns the enormous impact of livestock diseases on the food and nutrition security of the hundreds of millions of people who depend on farm animals for both food and income.

Particularly as the “wild cards” of climate change and rapid urban expansion come into play, ILRI scientists explained, developing countries need to adopt more effective approaches for containing livestock epidemics before they become widespread.

New Leadership for the CGIAR Fund Office

January 26, 2011

Jonathan Wadsworth

Jonathan Wadsworth, a senior adviser to the UK government, will take up operational leadership of the CGIAR Fund. This major new initiative aims to harmonize donor support for international agricultural research as it confronts some of the twent-first century’s most daunting challenges for humanity and the environment. 

The appointment of Wadsworth as Executive Secretary of the Fund Council and Head of the Fund Office comes as the latest in a series of steps – including the launch of new research programs and the selection of other new leaders – designed to help the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) further strengthen a solid record of achievement. With relatively modest investments, the organization has demonstrated how high-quality science can lead to innovations that deliver high payoffs in terms of development impact. 

“Donor countries have already begun channeling significant resources into the Fund,” said Inger Andersen, Chair of the CGIAR Fund Council and Vice President for Sustainable Development at the World Bank. “Under Jonathan’s capable leadership, we expect the Fund to flourish as one of the international community’s most reliable and effective investments for harmonizing efforts to address the multiple threats that poor people face today.” 

The Fund’s purpose, under the guidance of its representative Council, is to muster and focus significant donor support on major new agricultural research initiatives designed to deal more comprehensively and collaboratively than ever before with highly complex problems. Some of the Fund’s top priorities include deteriorating global food security, worsening water scarcity, rapid deforestation and the emerging negative impacts of climate change on agriculture and natural resources. 

This approach represents a sharp departure from the patterns of support that prevailed in recent years. Since the early 1990s, CGIAR funding has leveled out in real terms and become increasingly fragmented, with around two-thirds now provided by numerous short-term projects of diverse size and character. 

To pre-empt potentially negative effects on research impact, the CGIAR embarked on a major reform effort several years ago that included establishment of the Fund. The reforms also gave rise to the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers, which is responsible for developing new strategic research initiatives aimed at delivering key outputs in collaboration with diverse partners, leading to significant development outcomes. 

”I feel honored and privileged to have the opportunity to serve as Executive Secretary, a post that carries responsibility for a crucial part of the CGIAR reforms,” said Wadsworth. “The Fund’s success depends on our partners and stakeholders working together for a common cause; I look forward both to strengthening our current alliances and to building new ones” (see related interview). 

As a senior executive with the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), Wadsworth strongly championed CGIAR reforms, serving on various teams tasked with planning and implementing the changes. He brings to his new position a solid background in leading organizational change to enhance research performance. 

This includes the design and implementation of a new strategy for research on sustainable agriculture at DFID. In addition, as Chair of the European Initiative for International Agricultural Research for Development (EIARD), Wadsworth vigorously promoted a more harmonized European approach to research for development. His experience in agriculture for development spans numerous areas of interest, from practical farming and rural extension to research and executive leadership. 

In his new role, Wadsworth’s top four priorities will be to: (1) help the Fund Council provide good governance and management of donor funds; (2) offer the Fund Council Chair sound advice and analysis for consensus decision making; (3) represent the Fund to CGIAR stakeholders; and (4) manage the Fund Office – the Fund Council’s operational arm, particularly for resource mobilization – coordinating its activities with those of the Consortium, donors, and others. 

“Through nearly a decade of constructive donor engagement with the CGIAR, Jonathan has demonstrated his genuine passion for enhancing the role of agricultural research,” said Andersen. “I trust his will prove to be a contagious passion that inspires a large part of the donor community.”

Paving the Way for Climate Change Mitigation in Agriculture

January 13, 2011

Since its first appearance on the international climate change agenda several years ago, REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) has rapidly taken shape as a viable policy option, based on much field experience and analysis. Meanwhile, momentum has grown to create a central place on the agenda for a climate-friendly agriculture as well.

At the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Mexico last December, a broad coalition of organizations, including the CGIAR, made the case that agriculture is both part of the problem (not least as a major driver of deforestation) and part of the solution, with large potential for mitigating climate change and adapting to its impacts. This was a central message of Agriculture and Rural Development Day, which was held in parallel with the UN conference.

In support of this on-going campaign, the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) has published an analysis of lessons from the REDD+ experience that could inform policies and programs for mitigating climate change in agriculture. The authors cite strong financial support from donor countries, clear analysis of technical issues and other steps as keys to progress with REDD+. They further suggest that mitigation in agriculture can now evolve along a similar trajectory, and they outline a series of actions aimed at making this possible.

Lessons from REDD+ for Agriculture by Christine Negra and Eva Wollenberg. (2011).

Full report (pdf – 1.5 MB)

Policy brief (pdf – 406 KB)

Science on the Menu for a Food-Secure World

January 12, 2011

In on-going media coverage of renewed concern about global food security, agricultural and environmental science is moving to the center of the debate, which was sparked by a recent report on rising food prices from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

At issue is whether the new price spike presents a worrisome sign of much worse trouble to come – i.e., recurring food price crises like that of 2008 – or amounts to little more than a transitory imbalance between supply and demand. Despite the widely divergent views on this issue, there is agreement on the need for improved food production, with technological and policy change figuring importantly on the menu of options.

An 11 January letter to the Financial Times from Lloyd Le Page, CEO of the CGIAR Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers, reinforces this point, arguing that “science is rapidly rising” to new challenges like climate change and water scarcity, “with the benefit of more powerful tools and stronger partnerships for putting new knowledge to work.”

In a 10 January post on the Dot Earth blog of the New York Times, Gerald Nelson, senior research fellow at the CGIAR’s International Food Policy Institute (IFPRI), introduces to the debate new research results suggesting that a 40 percent increase in the growth of cereal productivity is needed to contain growth in cereal prices by 2050. Whether technical innovation can deliver such increases and whether people will actually invest in these innovations are among today’s “great food security questions,” according to Nelson.

Addressing these questions optimistically, Juergen Voegele, Director of Agriculture and Rural Development at the World Bank, calls for “very significant investments in agriculture R&D,” aimed at boosting overall productivity. He argues for “a sustained global effort” to reduce rural poverty, noting that “the successful reform of the CGIAR” is a “positive step in this direction.”