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Dow Jones Interview: Mexico’s CIMMYT to develop heat-tolerant wheat for South Asia

SINGAPORE- -The Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, or CIMMYT has embarked on an ambitious program to develop a new heat tolerant, improved variety of wheat that can grow in higher temperatures experienced in South Asian farms, a top scientist said in an interview.

This is significant amid predictions that as much as 25% of South Asia’s wheat crop can be lost to higher temperatures by 2050, due to global warming.

“Wheat is highly susceptible to global warming and we are just starting a new project to tackle the situation by developing new varieties, particularly for South Asia,” Etienne Duveiller, Associate Director of Global Wheat Program at CIMMYT said on the sidelines of the World Sustainable Agriculture Congress here.

CIMMYT is the leading global body for research in wheat and corn. Its ‘Mexican Dwarf’ wheat seeds used by India in the 1960s had propelled the Green Revolution that made the country self-sufficient in wheat after years of imports.

There is scope to increase annual wheat yields in Bangladesh and Eastern India to five metric tons a hectare from below three tons now, Mr Duveiller said, adding there is also scope to improve production in many parts of Punjab and Haryana where current yields are already around five tons.

Low yield in Eastern India shows what heat can do to the wheat crop as even a temperature difference of just one degree above normal can reduce output by up to 10%, he said.

Mr. Duveiller said CIMMYT plans to develop wheat varieties that can be planted in South Asia as early as October, instead of the usual end-November or December. This will ensure flowering in late February when temperatures are still low, instead mid-March when they start rising.

October plantings, however, imply that temperature will be higher at the time of sowing. Scientists are now researching how best to change the physiology of the plant and identify genes that can help the crop adapt to this situation, he said.

A major advantage of early planting of wheat in South Asia is that it can tap on the residual moisture from the June-September monsoon season and reduce the pressure on ground water that is used in irrigation. It also raises the prospect of a shorter-duration third crop between the summer and winter planting seasons.

Mr. Duveiller said CIMMYT recently tied up with Indian government to establish the Borlaug Institute of South Asia as research on such varieties needs to be conducted under local conditions. The research centers will be in Ladhowal in Punjab; Pusa in Bihar and Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh. The three different locations will represent India’s western, eastern and central regions which have different soil and climatic conditions.

Apart from developing better seeds, the institute will also introduce better agronomic practises such as zero tillage or direct seeding to reduce cost and retain stubs from the previous crop rather than burning them, to save vital soil nutrients, he said.

Sameer Mohindru, sameer.mohindru@dowjones.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 11, 2012 23:02 ET (03:02 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.