Breeding cereals for the 21st century: CIMMYT director speaks of global innovations

Photo of Tim Reeves, director of CIMMYT

NEW BREEDING breakthroughs particularly in drought resistance hold the key to Australia unlocking its potential and staying ahead in the challenging marketplace of the 21st century, the Director of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), Tim Reeves, told delegates to Grains Week 2002 recently in Melbourne.

Australia's ability to lead the way in the future will hinge on harnessing the capabilities of genetic solutions like synthetic wheats, while establishing markets in the developing world and providing what those markets are looking for, Professor Reeves said.

"Some of the most exciting breakthroughs, which are going to impact on the Australian industry in the near future, are at the low end of the cropping system in terms of things like water.

"One of the most exciting breakthroughs that I've seen in my whole career in agricultural research has come in the area of synthetic wheats in the last 12 months," he added.

Crosses between prime bread wheats and grassy relatives are tapping into the ability that plants like roadside grasses have developed to tolerate heat, disease and drought, Professor Reeves reported. From such crosses researchers have developed elite materials, which, while not cleared by the Wheat Board, are being tested and are returning good yields from as little as 150 mm rainfall in a growing season.

One of the best of these synthetic hexaploid wheats yielded 3 t/ha from 150 mm of water compared to the best normal wheat variety which achieved only 500 kg/ha.

This technology is coming to Australia through research supported by growers and the Federal Government through the GRDC, Professor Reeves reported. "I think it's going to have one of the biggest impacts on the Australian industry of perhaps anything that we've seen in the past."

Preliminary work is also showing that other synthetic material developed by CIMMYT has greater tolerance to frost than normal material, but this technology is not yet on its way to Australia.

CIMMYT operates out of headquarters in Mexico and is working in 100 developing nations and 18 offices in the developing world.

Harnessing biotechnology

Through biotechnology, researchers are taking elite varieties with just one failing and adding a gene to overcome that failing. For example, CIMMYT researchers recently 'drought-proofed' a wheat variety by adding one regulatory gene obtained from colleagues in Japan, Professor Reeves claimed.

One example of the new approach to improving plants has been seen in dealing with Striga, a parasitic weed that decimates yields of maize in Africa. Researchers have been working on Striga for decades and have come up with improved rotations plus some other approaches that are not that easy or cost-effective for growers.

CIMMYT researchers developed herbicide-resistant maize through mutation. Experiments showed that all of the normal maize plants were infested with Striga but where the seeds of the herbicide-resistant maize were dusted with herbicide (costing $3-$4 per hectare), there was no infestation for the whole growing season.

"That was a tremendous impact on the farmers' livelihood. Given the herbicideresistance in crops in Australia, there's tremendous scope for these technologies to be used here."

Moving towards nutraceuticals

The work of two CIMMYT researchers in developing quality protein maize (QPM) won them the world food prize two years ago, according to Professor Reeves. This maize is high in lysine and tryptophan and scientists are now looking to boost other nutritional characteristics including iron, zinc and, in the case of white maize, vitamin A.

Developing grains with specialised characteristics is the way the market is moving, Professor Reeves said. Other things the market is looking for are health enhancing traits such as fibre.

"If the first GMO product that had come out was a loaf of bread made from a genetically engineered wheat, with fibre that reduced your chance of bowel cancer by 80 per cent, then I don't think the public would be backing off."

Australia will need to make the most of these possibilities if it is to remain competitive and play its part in meeting future global food needs.

Production challenges in the developing world

"World agriculture in the 21st century has really got some enormous challenges - how to feed a growing population; how to reduce rural poverty; and how to do it in ways that not only protect natural resources but in many cases restore degraded systems."

If Australia wants to lead the way in that marketplace, it needs to look to the developing world because it is the only market that is really growing, Professor Reeves added.

The International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington forecasts that the developing world's requirements for cereal imports are expected to double to 230 million tonnes in less than 20 years.

"If Australia is going to hold its place in the market globally, then it will need to double its exports by 2020," Professor Reeves suggested. 'That means each farmer who wants to keep pace in the global scheme needs to be doubling production by 2020.

"Clearly more of the same isn 't going to be enough and we will have to do things differently. However, I am absolutely convinced new science is one of the things that really brings new hope for the people and their problems."

Applying appropriate technology farming systems

Professor Reeves provided examples of how 'low tech' changes in farming systems were making differences in production and costs. Zero-tillage systems in the Indo-Gangetic Plains of south Asia, for example, were having a huge impact.

"By changing their tillage systems in the rice-wheat systems, farmers in that region are increasing yields but reducing water use by 30-40 per cent, pesticide use by 50-60 per cent and they are also cutting back fertiliser use."

A further innovation for south Asia and in China is the use of simple bed technology developed by farmers in Northern Mexico. The technology being used now allows growers to not only produce one crop, but to diversify and to intercrop, Professor Reeves reported. "In China, for example, this system is producing 6-7 t/ha wheat crops but then they are interplanting maize down the edge of those beds, and getting 6-7 t/ha maize as well. That is a tremendous increase in productivity and flexibility coming from a new farming system."

That same sort of technology has been extended to the rice fields where traditionally paddies with lots of water have been the norm. Rice crop grown on beds last season yielded 9 t/ha using 60 per cent less water, Professor Reeves said.

"These sorts of developments are going to revolutionise the production of these food crops in much of Asia, and other parts of the world."

Defence of public support for research

A key advantage Australia has in staying ahead in the marketplace is the investment that growers and government are putting in through the GRDC, Professor Reeves concluded.

At a time when public sector investment in crop research and development is declining around the world, Professor Reeves said, Australia's R&D funding arrangements are envied by many countries and Australians should not underestimate the importance of this funding in future competitiveness.

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