Olam on awarding the 2017 Prize for Innovation in Food Security to a discovery of natural durum wheat strain that resists hot conditions in West Africa. Interview with Dr Filippo Bassi, Research Project Lead, ICARDA
This year, a major breakthrough in natural food production, in drought-stricken climates, has come to be. Courtesy of the genome fingerprinting research project led by Dr Filippo Bassi of ICARDA and and Professor Rodomiro Ortiz (SLU, Alnarp), and funded by the Swedish Research Council, a new fast-growing durum wheat strain that shows resilience against very hot temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius, has entered the West African agricultural scene. The non-Genetically modified wheat is a big success for the people of Senegal, Mali and Mauritania, who will likely use as an organic weapon against famine. The idea received the 2017 Olam Prize for Innovation in Food Security. Bizrika talked to Dr Filippo Bassi about this recognition.
What are the likely gains in developing this ‘heat tolerant’ wheat strain for arid West African states?
Temperatures in West Africa are high and destined to rise further in the near future as climates continue to change. The ability to tolerate this rise in temperature is a remarkable characteristic for a cold-season grain like wheat. Better yet, the crop we have developed not only tolerates very high temperatures, but also goes from planting to harvest in a very short period of time. These two characteristics combined create the possibility that new areas in West Africa, previously cultivated only with warm-season cereals such as millet, sorghum, corn, and rice, can now integrate their production systems with durum wheat. In the specific case of the Senegal River, the new varieties of durum wheat fit perfectly in between two rice seasons, in a time of the year when the soil is left bare and cultivation does not occur. Hence, the new durum varieties have unlocked a new crop, without affecting the common rice cultivation, producing completely “new” food that could not be harvested before.
What makes this invention so superior that the Olam Prize for Innovation in Food Security went to it?
I think this is a question for the judges that awarded it really, but my feeling is that the potential that this technology has generated is the true driver of the prize being awarded to this research. With the support of Olam’s Prize, and after seeking the financial involvement of more private and public enterprises, we have the potential to generate over 600,000 tonnes of “new” food for the region. Further, when this value is divided by the estimated 1 million smallholder farming families that live along the River, it means over 600 Kg of new food for each family, enough to impact the diet of 8-10 people for 1 year.
Many organizations, including US-based NGOs have used modified foods to feed populations in Africa. Will this non-GM breakthrough change all that?
In reality, our research specifically applies to wheat. As of today, there are no commercialized varieties of GM wheat anywhere around the world. Breeders of wheat have been following non-GM methods for delivering superior varieties adapted to climatic stresses. This more traditional system has been working fine for this crop, especially because we are lacking some of the basic molecular knowledge that would be needed to generate genetic modification.
However, we cannot say that biotechnology will not play a more critical role for wheat in the future. For instance, we are already witnessing that termites are occasionally hard to control in wheat fields in West Africa without recurring to very frequent irrigations. Maybe in that sense genetic modification could help control this pest without having to resort to dangerous chemical pesticides, but we are very far from even starting this type of research.
One thing that can be said is that, if the amount of food produced directly in Africa is increased (through new Ag technologies like heat tolerant durum wheat), then the amount of GM food that needs to be imported from other countries will be reduced.
Are there plans to transit the invention to other parts of Africa including East Africa, which occasionally faces food insecurity?
The science is nothing more than seeds that have been selected and tested to resist severe heat. As such, they can quite easily be transferred to any other parts of the World. In fact, in the following years we will test the same varieties in Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan to see if the improved heat tolerance could be beneficial there. However, the more likely use for other African countries is through breeding. This means that the heat tolerance identified can be transferred to other varieties with other useful traits via pollination. For instance, my organization is extremely involved in Ethiopia, where the major treats are fungal diseases like stem rust and droughts in the lowlands (see: https://www.globalrust.org/blog/how-pasta-wheat-helping-ethiopian-farmers-escape-poverty ). Here, we would take the varieties we have already developed for rust and droughts tolerance, cross them with the heat tolerant ones for Mauritania and Senegal, and hopefully obtain new varieties with all three traits.
Were there other entries in this year’s innovation award that had similar strengths as the ‘Pasta Power’ idea?’
The Olam team told me that the Olam Prize for Innovation in Food Security received 92 entries. I was honoured to hear therefore that the panel of independent international experts voted unanimously for this research project to win the prize.
When is the next Olam award coming?
The prize is awarded every two years. Entries for the 2019 will be accepted for submission in Autumn 2018. Go to http://olamgroup.com/sustainability/focus-areas/food-security/olam-prize-innovation-food-security/ for more information
Thank you so much for talking to Bizrika.