Wheat is currently considered a secondary cereal in Bhutan because it is grown over an area of only 5,540 acres. However, its contribution to the Bhutanese farming system in terms of food and other requirements is acknowledged. This is particularly relevant in far-flung and remote farming communities where access to imported wheat products is limited. Wheat cultivation has been challenged by many constraints; most notably pressure from diseases (particularly rusts).
Sonalika, an obsolete and disease-susceptible cultivar, is still a mega-variety, grown on a significant area. In addition, the research system has also been constrained due to a lack of trained and dedicated researchers leading the wheat program. However, the CIMMYT Regional Office in Kathmandu has facilitated the introduction of elite germplasm recently released in South Asia (particularly in Nepal) and advanced lines from the Global Wheat Program (GWP) in Mexico. The facilitation of germplasm to Bhutan began in 2011 when promising lines already under participatory varietal selection (PVS) in South Asia were introduced along with a few CIMMYT trials such as Elite Spring Wheat Yield Trial (ESWYT) and Semi-Arid Spring Wheat Yield Trial (SAWYT). The introduction of germplasm was supplemented by support from CIMMYT, the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project and the Borlaug Global Rust Initative, allowing Bhutanese wheat researchers to participate in annual workshops, meetings and conferences.
Their participation allowed them to obtain information and updates on wheat research and developmental activities. The Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA) wheat breeding program also supported the effort. The collaborations between these different stakeholders have been very effective and fruitful. The support has greatly strengthened the technical capacity of Bhutanese wheat researchers in PVS, disease survey and surveillance, rust scoring and other activities. The most tangible output of the collaboration occurred on 13 August, when the Government of Bhutan authorized the release of two new improved wheat varieties (Bajosokhaka and Gumasokhaka) from CIMMYT. This is the first release of any wheat variety in Bhutan in the last 20 years. Bajosokhaka has the pedigree (ATTILA*2/ STAR/4/SNI/TRAP#1/3/ KAUZ*2/TRAP//KAUZ, while Gumasokhaka is developed from the cross KIRITATI//HUW234+LR34/PRINIA).
“Both varieties yielded, on average, 50 percent higher than Sonalika, the most popular variety, in three years of multilocation testing in Bhutan,” said Sangay Tshewang, senior research officer and wheat co-ordinator of the Renewable Natural Resources Research and Development Sub-Centre in Tsirang. He added that the varieties also performed better than two other varieties in on-farm testing. Because of their notable performance under timely and late-sown conditions with limited water availability, both varieties are believed to have water stress tolerance. In addition to yield advantage and potential water stress tolerance, these varieties possess good resistance to yellow rust, while Sonalika was badly affected. The release of the two wheat varieties is a major achievement, and farmers will now have alternate varieties to choose from and can cultivate a rust-free and healthy crop which can provide higher yields for the same amount of work and inputs.
Hans Braun, GWP director, commented that, “the release of new wheat varieties also opens a new chapter for wheat production in Bhutan.” For both varieties a pre-release multiplication program was initiated which resulted in 20 tons of improved seed for the coming year, according to Arun Joshi, CIMMYT wheat breeder. The National Seed Center of the Bhutanese Department of Agriculture has been entrusted to produce adequate seed of these new varieties for wider promotion and dissemination during the coming cropping season.