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From Cairo to Kabul: Rust resistant wheat seed just in time

CIMMYT E-News, vol 6 no. 6, October 2009

nov03In a world fraught with divisions and human conflicts, an uplifting example of multi-sectoral, cross border cooperation is helping bring seed of a new, high-yielding, disease resistant variety from Egypt to small-scale wheat farmers in Afghanistan.

Responding to the threat of a new, eastern African strain of stem rust that could lay waste to wheat harvests in the Middle East and Asia, Egypt’s Agricultural Research Center (ARC) has shipped 1.5 tons of seed of its new, rust resistant variety Misr-1 to Afghanistan in time for planting prior to the Afghan rainy season (when sowing becomes difficult). “The idea is to multiply the seed for eventual distribution to Afghanistan’s wheat areas, which cover more than 2 million hectares,” says Mahmood Osmanzai, CIMMYT wheat agronomist based in Afghanistan.

The new variety is resistant to the Ug99 strain of stem rust. This age-old fungal disease of wheat had been held in check for five decades by high-yielding, rust resistant wheats developed in the 1950s by late CIMMYT wheat breeder Dr. Norman E. Borlaug and his international team of scientists working in Mexico. But in recent trials this older-generation of improved varieties—still sown on an estimated 40 million hectares of developing country wheat lands—is proving susceptible to Ug99.

Helping slow stem rust’s global spread

Since first being spotted in Uganda 10 years ago, spores of the deadly new strain and its variants have spread on the winds to Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen, and Iran, and are on the march toward South Asia. Though Ug99 has yet to appear in wheat fields of Afghanistan or Egypt, researchers in both nations are active in a project to multiply and rapidly deploy seed of rust resistant wheat in nine countries, with funding from USAID, leadership by CIMMYT, and key support from the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).

According to ARC wheat researcher, Dr. Moussa Guirgis Mosaad, Misr-1 was developed using a line selected from a 2006-07 elite bread wheat yield trial distributed by CIMMYT. “Egypt has offered to make seed available at cost to all countries participating in the USAID project,” says Mosaad, who leads Egypt’s work under the seed multiplication project. “It made particular sense in the case of Afghanistan, because that country has released the same variety—one developed from the same line of the same CIMMYT trial.” Egypt was among the first countries to identify promising lines from the trials, multiply the seed, and put the resulting varieties in national yield trials.

“We’re extremely grateful to Egypt’s research leaders, whose action has been exemplary,” says Hans Braun, director of CIMMYT’s global wheat program. “They were particularly generous in facilitating the logistics and complex bureaucratic arrangements needed for the seed to be shipped across borders and used in Afghanistan.” Braun adds that Afghan farmers’ use of disease resistant wheat will both safeguard their harvests and help provide a line of defense against the development and regional advance of Ug99.

The need for certified seed

The 1.5 tons of seed will be multiplied under a two-year FAO project, launched in May 2009 with funding from the European Union, to expand the production and use of certified seed for wheat and other major food crops in Afghanistan. “If all goes as planned, in one year Afghanistan will have 5% of its national wheat seed requirement,” says Braun. Because wheat seed multiplication provides 20-fold yields, planting out the 5% would then produce enough to meet the entire demand in Afghanistan for certified wheat seed—but, in this case, with a Ug99 resistant variety.

“The name of the new variety in Afghanistan is Muqawim-09, a spring wheat type that performs well when sown in early November,” says Osmanzai, adding that the seed will eventually be distributed to farmers with help from CIMMYT and ICARDA. “Dr. Mosaad was particularly helpful in moving this forward, with the support of ARC president Prof. Ayman Abou Hadid.”

Braun notes that the following individuals provided vital assistance to bring about the Cairo-Kabul seed shipment: Kay Simmons, acting deputy administrator, Plant Genetics and Grain Crops, United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS); Michael Ward, agricultural economist, of the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (USDA-FAS); and Jonathan P. Gressel, minister counselor for agricultural affairs, US Embassy, Cairo.

For more information: Hans Braun, director, global wheat program (h.j.braun@cgiar.org).