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Million-dollar vote of confidence from Mexican farmers and state officials

CIMMYT E-News, vol 5 no. 4, April 2008
apr02Nobel Peace Laureate Norman E. Borlaug anchors the announcement of a global, Cornell-coordinated project to combat a deadly wheat disease, and a Mexican farmer organization and Sonora officials pledge a million dollars for CIMMYT’s work to secure wheat harvests for developing country farmers.

Dr. Norman Borlaug had a joyous reunion in early April 2008 with CIMMYT and Mexican friends and former colleagues at the place—the research facilities near Ciudad Obregón, Sonora state, owned by the farmers union Patronato para la Investigación y Experimentación Agrícola del Estado de Sonora—where he and his research team developed the Green Revolution wheats. His visit came on the occasion of the announcement there by Ronnie Coffman, director of international programs at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, of a USD 26.8 million grant to Cornell by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to launch a global partnership to combat the rust diseases of wheat, particularly the virulent stem rust strain from eastern Africa, Ug99.

At the same event, the President of the Patronato, Jorge Artee Elias Calles, and the Sonora State Secretary for Mexico’s Federal Ministry of Agriculture, SAGARPA, announced that the Patronato and the state of Sonora would give respective donations to CIMMYT of 6 million pesos and 4 million pesos—equivalent to nearly USD 1 million in total—for research on rusts and on Karnal bunt disease. “The farmers of the region are aware of Ug99 and the problems it represents in other part of the world and could cause in the Yaqui Valley [the Ciudad Obregón region] in the future,” said Artee. “The donations are in honor of Dr. Borlaug and to welcome CIMMYT’s new Director General, Thomas A. Lumpkin.”

Lumpkin, who took up his appointment in mid-March 2008, thanked the Patronato and Sonora for the funding, which will support center research to combat wheat diseases. “I would also like to thank the Patronato for their other generous contributions to CIMMYT over the years,” he said. “They and other local farmers have played a vital role in our work, and I hope this privileged partnership will continue well into the future.”

Borlaug, who recently turned 94, was full of vigor and enthusiasm as he spoke to the gathering in fluent Spanish and, as on countless occasions throughout his life, went into the field to cast his discerning eye over rows of experimental wheat lines—this time, new ones that carry resistance to Ug99. “The rust pathogens recognize no political boundaries and their spores need no passport to travel thousands of miles in the jet streams,” he said. “Containing these deadly enemies of the wheat crop requires alert and active scientists, strong international research networks, and effective seed supply programs.” The new Cornell project essentially brings full circle work begun by Borlaug and Mexican associates 60 years ago in northwest Mexico, as part of the Rockefeller Foundation-funded Office of Special Studies, that resulted in the release of high-yielding, stem rust resistant wheats.

Patronato and CIMMYT roots entwine

The Patronato descends directly from a group of farmers who, having personally experienced the benefits of agricultural research, began supporting Borlaug’s pioneering wheat improvement efforts in the 1940s. “When Borlaug arrived, Valley farmers were struggling to survive because their wheat varieties regularly succumbed to stem rust,” says CIMMYT wheat agronomist Ivan Ortiz-Monasterio. “After they began sowing Borlaug’s rust resistant wheats, they doubled their harvests and became firm believers in agricultural research.”

To ensure that research activities in the Valley would continue, in 1955 the farmers, with government help, bought land and made it available to the Ministry of Agriculture. It was to be used for CIANO, the Northwestern Agricultural Research Center, for work in collaboration with Borlaug and his colleagues. Thus began a mutually beneficial relationship between Yaqui Valley wheat producers and Borlaug’s team of scientists. Over time, the former evolved into the Patronato and the latter became CIMMYT.

Extraordinarily fruitful not only for Patronato and CIMMYT but for much of the world, the relationship continues to this day. Starting in the 1960s, when the semidwarf wheat varieties developed by Borlaug and his colleagues in Mexico kept millions from starving in India and Pakistan, CIMMYT varieties and other wheat technologies have made a big difference in the lives of many. Endowed with many useful traits (such as disease resistance, wide adaptation, and heat and drought tolerance), the modern varieties have helped raise yields and produced enough food to feed millions of people in the developing world.

Stem rust rises again

The stem rust race Ug99, identified in Uganda in 1999, is the only known race of P. graminis tritici to be virulent against the resistance genes that have kept wheat crops safe for decades. The presence of the new rust was confirmed in the Arabian Peninsula and Sudan in 2006, and in Iran in 2007. Prevailing wind patterns predict its spread to the vast wheat-growing areas of North Africa, the Middle East, and Central, West, and South Asia. Most major wheat cultivars in this migration path are susceptible to Ug99, so annual losses of as much as USD 3 billion are possible. The effects on rural livelihoods and geopolitical stability would be incalculable, particularly given the current global food shortage crisis.

The new project will involve researchers from Cornell, CIMMYT, the Syria-based International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), FAO, and the national agricultural research programs of Ethiopia and Kenya. Among other activities, the project will seek to replace susceptible varieties with seed of durably resistant varieties and to introduce genetic immunity to rust from rice to wheat.

For more information: Ravi Singh, CIMMYT wheat geneticist/pathologist (r.singh@cgiar.org)