Heat-resistant wheat will fight food insecurity and shake up the global wheat trade, say researchers

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock
© iStock

Related tags Agriculture Wheat

A non-GMO durum wheat variety that grows in 40°C heat and matures in record time could give African food security a vital boost and forge new global South-to-South trade dynamics, ending North Africa’s dependence on Western wheat.

Using non-GM molecular breeding techniques, a team of researchers led by Dr Filippo Bassi of the International Centre for Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) selected and crossed “thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands​” of durum wheat varieties before finding ones that can withstand the soaring 35-40°C temperatures along the savannah of the Senegal River basin.

In this area, which covers the drought-prone countries of Mauritania, Senegal, and Mali, farmers have been traditionally dependent on rice cultivation. However, the growing season for rice stops during winter when night temperatures fall to 16 °C, meaning a period of food insecurity.

Senegal, Mauritania and Mali ranked 67th, 83rd and 94th respectively in 2017’s Global Hunger Index.

It was therefore important for Bassi and his colleague Professor Rodomiro Ortiz from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences to develop a variety that not only withstands high temperatures (wheat is already cultivated in India and Sudan so this is not necessarily new) but one that reaches maturity in around 90 days, fitting in between other staple crops.

We didn’t want to replace rice in Senegal or maize in Mali – that would go against everything the governments have worked for,” ​Bassi told FoodNavigator.

Some farmers in Mauritania are skipping one rice crop to facilitate wheat production [but] we do not want that – unless they aim for the production of cowpea, a very nice legume that provides both protein and restore soils fertility. Otherwise, our goal is rice-durum-rice.”​  

Nutrition boost

Plant scientist Filippo Bassi won Olam's International Prize for Innovation in Food Security.

The addition of durum wheat to the local diet could also help tackle nutritional deficiencies. Durum has around five times more protein than rice and around 2-3% more than bread wheat.

When eaten as wholegrain bulgur, which it typically is in Mali and Mauritania, it is also a good source of fibre.

How do yields compare to standard wheat?

“There is no standard yield rate currently, it would be specified as zero as there are almost no other varieties that can get to maturity in 90 days. With the varieties we have developed, we have reached yields of well above 6 tonnes per ha but we declare 3 as the average yield.”

- Dr Filippo Bassi 

Affordable, accessible and adequate

This harvest period will generate income for farmers in an additional way by adding to global wheat stocks when other large producer countries, such as Canada and the US, have long finished harvesting.

This period of lower inventories pushes world wheat prices up, meaning the Senegal Basin farmers will get a higher price for their wheat.

What’s more ICARDA’s policy on sharing all germplasm freely with developing countries, meaning the variety could soon be grown in other drought-prone regions.

All these factors meant that Bassi and Ortiz’ project scooped up the 2017 Olam Prize for Innovation in Food Security - a unanimous decision among the panel of judges - for satisfying the three basic criteria: affordability, accessibility and adequacy of nutrition.

Launched in partnership with the Agropolis Fondation, based in Montpellier, France, the Olam prize aims to advance agricultural sciences and sustainable development through research for food security. Bassi and his team will use the cash prize of $50,000 to scale up the project.

Keeping the value in the global South 

Apart from continually re-selecting seeds to develop even better performing varieties, the next step for Bassi and his team is to roll out the crop on a large scale.

The varieties have already passed the trial period and he is in close contact with the governments of Mauritania and Senegal, as part of their national wheat programmes, to ensure the varieties will be in farmers’ fields for commercialisation within two years. So far the plant scientists are targeting “larger farmers​” that have greater influence at a local level.

Three varieties are being rolled out:

‘Elwaha’ is a super-early (84 days) variety with moderate yields

‘Haby’ is an early (90 days) good yielding line with large grains derived from Triticum diccoides

‘Amina’ is a medium early (92 days) high yielding line with large biomass derived from Agilops speltoides

In the mid- to long-term, however, the big priority is finding a route to market. The wheat varieties are not intended to be a subsistence crop for local farmers, rather a valuable source of income.

To do so, Bassi and Ortiz need to ensure the crops meet quality and hygiene standards. This has already been done, Bassi told us.

We are now testing directly with millers so we have their interest. It can be hard to tell them there’s good grain coming from the Savannah; we need to show them it’s true​,” he added.

The target customers for this grain are North Africa’s large pasta and couscous manufacturing industry, which are currently heavily dependent on imports, mostly from Canada, the US, Turkey and even Australia.

According to data from The Economic Complexity Observatory, North African countries imported €3 billion worth of durum grain in 2013.

Bassi is currently organising a series of meetings in March 2018 between farmers and agri-food processors to kick-start commercialising the crop.

“We will also invite companies from Europe, but I do truly hope we will be able to generate a South-South partnership between the Maghreb and West Africa, rather than relying on Europe for the purchases.”

Olam will be there – although it’s not investing just yet.

“We’re definitely watching and seeing how this develops but we’re not investing directly straightaway​,” head of communications for the company Nikki Barber said. “We will see how Bassi can advance the project with the support of the Olam prize money.”

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