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Wheat Scientists at Borlaug Dialogues Call for More Research on the Crop

October 23, 2014
Dr. Norman Borlaug was an American biologist, humanitarian and Nobel laureate who has been called "the father of the Green Revolution," "agriculture's greatest spokesperson"and "The Man Who Saved A Billion Lives". He is known for his work on solving a series of wheat production problems that were limiting wheat cultivation in Mexico. The work in Mexico not only had a profound impact on agricultural production in Mexico but in many parts of the world as well.

In 1970 Norman E. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for a lifetime of work to feed a hungry world. In 1986, he founded The World Food Prize, an annual $250,000 award that he hoped would both highlight and inspire breakthrough achievements in improving the quality, quantity and availability of food in the world, and which is now often referred to as the “Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture.”

Each year the World Food Prize holds The Borlaug Dialogue International Symposium annually in remembrance of Dr. Borlaug's legacy. At this year's symposium wheat scientists and breeders argued for more research programs for the crop and stressed that genetic engineering will be needed to grow more wheat in the future. 

Chris Clayton, DTN Ag Policy Editor covered the panel session:

One of the final panel discussions at the weeklong symposium tackled wheat production and rust diseases that plague the crop globally. The panel was reflective of the core of Nobel Prize laureate Norman Borlaug’s life’s work to breed more disease-resistant and higher-yielding varieties of wheat in developing countries. Borlaug helped end some of the scientific complacency in dealing with diseases such as rust.

Panel members focused on an issue Borlaug rarely faced: Having a technology — genetic engineering — that they know can help prevent famine but that is unacceptable in much of the world due to fear.

At the center of the panel discussion was Ug99, one of the most devastating wheat rusts. The disease got its designation after being discovered in Uganda in 1999. It’s a potent rust that can take 100% of a crop and attacks varieties bred to be resistant to other forms of stem rust. Ug99 is still affecting farmers in most East Africa countries, as well as Yemen and Iran. Several strains of Ug99-resistant varieties have been released in North Africa and the Middle East in recent years to help curb the spread of the Ug99 rust globally.

A consortium of companies and wheat breeders has come together to raise the yield potential of wheat by 50% over the next 20 years. Hans Joachim Braun, director of the Global Wheat Program for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, known as CIMMYT, was optimistic about work on wheat rust, but he acknowledged complacency is a problem. “Wheat is really relatively underinvested compared to other crops,” Braun said.

Ronnie Coffman, a plant breeding professor at Cornell University, leads a five-year project about Ug99 that was funded by a $40 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Kingdom. The project, which includes dozens of governments, universities and research facilities globally, is looking for wheat genes resistant to stem rust, ways to track the disease and ways to get stem-rust resistant seeds to farmers in countries hit by Ug99.

Coffman said the science is there to deliver rust resistance, but scientists do not have the support from society to provide the science to farmers. To combat virulent rust strains such as Ug99, scientists must discover and successfully transfer multiple resistance genes, Coffman said.

“We need GM technology to do that, initially,” Coffman said.

Cornell also has used $5.6 million in grant money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to start “the Alliance for Science” with the goal of trying to depolarize the debate around ag biotechnology and promote science to decision makers.

“We have two big objectives. One is to try to reclaim the conversation around biotechnology so that science and evidence-based perspectives surround the decision-making,” Coffman said.

The second objective is to “populate the science” with effective communicators, Coffman said. The alliance wants to develop communications training and activities for people who work in biotech and food production. “We all need to communicate better,” Coffman said. “It’s essential.”

Read Clayton's piece Wheat Scientists, Breeders Advocate Biotech Crop here in its entirety.