Ismail Cakmak, recently appointed to the CIMMYT Board of Trustees, accepted the International Crop Nutrition Award from the International Fertilizer Industry Association (IFA) this month for his work in Turkish agriculture to improve the grain yield and amount of zinc in wheat. In addition to the potential health benefits, his work has allowed farmers to reap an economic benefit of US $100 million each year.
In a NATO-Science for Stability program, Cakmak, a longtime CIMMYT partner, and colleagues from the University of Cukurova in Adana and National Research Institutions of the Ministry of Agriculture in Konya and Eskisehir, found that wheat harvests in Turkey were limited by a lack of zinc in the soil. When the plants were fed zinc-fortified fertilizer, researchers noticed spectacular increases in wheat yields. Ten years after the problem was diagnosed, Turkish farmers now apply 300,000 tons of the zinc-fortified fertilizers per year and harvest wheat with twice the amount of zinc.
HarvestPlus, a CGIAR Challenge Program, estimates that over 1.3 billion South Asians are at risk for zinc deficiency. Finding a more sustainable way to enrich the level of zinc in wheat is a goal for Cakmak, his CIMMYT colleagues, and HarvestPlus, which breeds crops for better nutrition. “Providing grain with high zinc content to people in Turkey should lead to significant improvements in their health and productivity. One can achieve this goal by applying fertilizers, a short-term answer, or through a more cost-effective and sustainable solution—breeding,” Cakmak says.Zinc fertilizer was applied to the soil beneath
CIMMYT and HarvestPlus are set to do this and have already bred high-yielding wheat varieties with 100% more zinc than other modern varieties. CIMMYT agronomist and HarvestPlus Wheat Crop Leader Ivan Ortiz-Monasterio says, “We intend to have modern, disease resistant varieties be the vehicle for getting more micronutrients into people’s diets.” Further research this year involves testing the bioavailability of the grain’s doubled zinc content to see if it can improve human health in Pakistan.
“Today, a large number of the world’s peoples rely on wheat as a major source of dietary energy and protein. For example in Turkey, on average, wheat alone provides nearly 45% of the daily calorie intake, it is estimated that this ratio is much higher in rural regions,” Cakmak says. It is hoped that this project, which uses agricultural practices to address public health while improving crop production, can be extrapolated to other zinc-deficient areas of the world.