Across a paddock, beyond patches of maize and wheat, the flags of at least 40 countries flap in the breeze. This is the headquarters of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) just outside Mexico City.
It is 14,000 kilometres from the nearest Australian graingrower, yet the importance of this place for our wheat industry is immense. There's very little wheat grown in Australia that was not bred, wholly or in part, from genetic material sourced from this institution. By the reckoning of CIMMYT's Director-General, Australian Tim Reeves, the proportion of Australia's wheat area that owes part of its genetic make-up to the Centre's work is as high as 90 per cent.
CIMMYT was established in the late 1960s out of plant-breeding work begun in Mexico in the 1940s with funding from the humanitarian Rockefeller Foundation. For years it has been the world's premier wheat and maize breeding institution. While pursuing its charter of performing research to help the world's poor, it has given significant spin-off benefits to farmers in richer countries like Australia — mostly in the form of free access to its valuable germplasm resource.
A new era
Australian graingrowers through the GRDC are now starting to invest directly in specific CIMMYT projects.
An area of particular interest is putting 'on the shelf Australian wheat varieties resistant to diseases we don't yet have, for example, Karnal Bunt. If it were introduced, Australian wheat would suffer immediate quarantine restrictions to some of our most important markets.
At one of CIMMYT's centres in Northern Mexico, the GRDC is supporting work by Australian plant breeder Richard Trethowan to provide that varietal insurance policy against Karnal Bunt.
It's a similar story with the Russian wheat aphid. Yield losses can be total. Again, we don't have it here. But if we ever did, the resistance being bred into Australian breeding lines at CIMMYT will help make sure the Australian industiy is able to beat it off.
Another first is CIMMYT's connection to an Australian Cooperative Research Centre. The CRC for Molecular Plant Breeding aims to provide the next generation of plant breeders with the tools and training to accelerate the development of new varieties.