The course, which is in its fourth year, builds regional capacity by training young scientists to monitor and manage the threat of wheat rusts.
Nepali farmers produce nearly 1.7 million metric tons of wheat on 768,000 hectares of land, averaging 2.27 tons per hectare. Wheat is the third most important cereal crop in the country after rice and maize. Since Nepal is locked between China and India, two of the leading producers of wheat in the world, the protection of the country’s wheat fields from rust becomes paramount. Disease outbreaks can spread rapidly from one country to another, carried by the wind.
The biggest threat to wheat security in South Asia is currently caused by outbreaks of yellow rust, but Ug99, the particularly virulent form of stem rust first identified in Uganda in 1998, which has already spread throughout East Africa and on to Yemen and Iran, could be a threat to the breadbaskets of South Asia. As an indication of the regional concern, the course in Kathmandu drew scientists from Pakistan, Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Ethiopia, Australia, South Africa, Mexico and the U.S.
Scientists from the Nepalese Agricultural Research Council (NARC), including Dr. Sarala Sharma, Dr. Nutan Raj Gautam, Dr. Dhruba Thata, and Dr. Baidya Mahto, were involved in the training that took place in classroom, lab, field stations and farmers’ fields. Other faculty included Dr. Robert Park (University of Sydney, Australia), Dr. Zak Pretorius (Department of Plant Sciences, University of the Free State, South Africa), Dr. Dave Hodson (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center [CIMMYT] Ethiopia), Dr. Arun Joshi (CIMMYT, Nepal) and Dr. Mohinder Prashar (Mahyco, India).
NARC scientists hosted the 2013 SAARC Wheat Rust Training Course which was organized by the DRRW project at Cornell University with Sathguru Management Consultants on behalf of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI).
The technologies that generated the most interest were those of the SAARC Toolbox. Dr. Hodson, the monitoring and surveillance expert from CIMMYT, demonstrated the new and efficient ways to update global surveillance data with this set of modern information technology tools. The kit included a Rust Survey application developed by Sathguru Management Consultants, Hyderabad, India, that works on a hand-held tablet. Scientists use the table to feed data from the field into each country’s surveillance database, and ultimately into the global Rust Mapper. This fast and efficient way of tracking the incidence and severity of diseases of wheat helps scientists from national agricultural research centers, policy planners, and farmers manage disease.
On the plane ride into Kathmandu, the first viscerally exotic view is that of the Himalayas off to the left – craggy, snow covered peaks jutting up through the clouds, a range of jagged mountains with snow plumes windblown horizontally off the tops.
Kathmandu is a city in a valley surrounded by mountains. It is mostly Hindu and Buddhist tempered. We walk on dusty, torn up roads and uneven sidewalks, past many structures made of brick, with centuries-old wooden doorways and windows, many slanting precipitously but apparently stable.
The crop rotation in Nepal is wheat, rice and bricks. Dr. Mahto, director of the Khumaltar Research Station, tells us. Every couple of hundred yards, we see neatly stacked piles of red clay bricks and most structures are a combination of brick and wood.
Kathmandu is in the mid-hills agricultural zone. We see wheat, onions, garlic, peas, cauliflower, lots and lots of mustard, all cultivated in terraced hillsides, each small plot, most about 1/3-1/2 acres, hand-bermed. Crops are planted on raised beds, the better to hold rainwater and irrigate when needed.
Clusters of small bamboo poly houses dot the landscape, where drip or hand irrigation is used to start seeds or cultivate tomatoes and other high-value vegetable crops for market.
There is not much mechanization. Much of the work is still all done by hand. Once, we see a pair of oxen working the field. Another time, we see a man lurching his way through rocks and brick-chipped ground, integrating piles of animal manure and urine soaked straw into the earth with a very heavy-duty rototiller. Three women pick the rocks and pieces of brick out of the plot they are going to plant with maize.
In Nepal, about 66% of the population is involved in agriculture. Of those, probably more than 70% are women as many men emigrate to the Gulf countries for work. This feminization of agriculture is changing the way crops which have been cultivated by hand for centuries are grown. Traditionally, it is the men’s job to prepare the soil. It has always largely been women’s and children’s work to pick rocks, plant, weed and harvest. Increasingly, it is also now women’s work to manage the farm, plan the crop rotations, find markets, and learn about new technologies.
In the morning, we see many women weeding, collecting the greens in large woven baskets that they carry on their backs with padded tump lines around their foreheads to the household to feed to the goats and the water buffaloes. In this way, green weeds and rice or wheat straw are turned into milk protein, which is then fermented into a creamy sweet yogurt or paneer, which is another food staple.
February 22 & 24: Pre-workshop farmer interviews
Chris Knight and I traveled to Nepal several days prior to the workshop to interview farmers. Maina Dhital, a Cornell Humphrey Fellow and capable Nepali journalist from the Kantipur Daily, joined us.
On 22 and 24 February, our enthusiastic hosts, Dr. Mahto, senior plant pathologists Dr. Sharma and Dr. Thapa, and other members of the NARC team took us to the station and nearby fields to talk with farmers about their adoption of resistant varieties of wheat that have been released by NARC.
In Nepal, over the past 10 years, variety selection has increasingly become a joint venture among the scientists and the farmers. The NARC team works with the farmers to select new varieties in participatory variety selection trials in farmers’ fields, providing seeds, fertilizer and agronomic advice.
Nepali farmers do not usually have a stem rust problem — and no Ug99 is present — but they experience frequent epidemics of yellow rust.
“We select for various characteristics,” said Dr. Mahto. ”Good agronomic characteristics, yield, biomass for straw, grain quality, color, multiple disease resistance, and heat tolerance. Because of climate change and increasing temperatures, we need fast grain-filling wheat,” said Dr. Mahto.
Another innovative NARC practice is engaging farmers to multiply seed. Once a new variety is approved by the national release committee, NARC gives 4-5 kg of foundation-seed to farmers to multiply. The farmers are then encouraged to give or sell it to their neighbors and family members. “Currently 6% of the total wheat area is Nepal is covered by resistant varieties,” said Dr. Mahto. He would like to see it increased to 97%.
It takes about 10 years to introduce a new variety. Nepali scientists practice shuttle breeding between the three agro-ecological zones of Nepal, from the plains to the mid-hills to the high-hills. Shuttle breeding reduces release time by about four years.
In Changathali Lalitpur, we interviewed Maiya Maharjan, who since 2006 has been involved in the 25-member Loktantrik Integrated Pest Management Farmers’ Group of 7 men and 18 women. When we arrived, other women from her family were working with her in the field, including her mother and sisters.
“We were very dissatisfied with how susceptible the old wheat varieties were to disease. Yield was very low. We are much happier with the new resistant varieties, especially WK1204 and Danphe that the scientists brought to us,” said Maharjan.
“Participatory variety selection is a very effective tool for us,” said Dr. Sharma. “Prior to PVS, we might release a new variety but it would not be adopted because it was not based on characteristics that the farmers themselves desired. Now decisions are made by farmer for farmers, in much more democratic process.”
“Our challenge is that farmers do not know of the threat of Ug99, but they do know yellow rust,” said Lamichhane. “Farmers are not aware of the high quality of the seeds of the new varieties of rust resistant wheat.”
Lamichhane lives in a compound with his extended family. Like most, they also grow peas, potatoes, rice and vegetables, and keep a few water buffalo for milk. “Six to 7 years ago, we experienced shriveled grain and 75% loss due to yellow rust. With the resistant varieties, we get 100% yield and much better quality. If we can improve wheat productivity, we will improve food security for the entire country,” he said.
February 25-27: Workshop introduction and Days 1-3
By Monday, the workshop participants have arrived, 17 men and 4 women, from Pakistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Afghanistan. All work with wheat in some capacity, as breeders, pathologists, surveillance officers, or in ministries of agriculture.
Dr. Madan Bhatta, a senior scientist at NARC, gave the opening address to the participants in the SAARC workshop, emphasizing that wheat was the staple crop for one-third of the world’s population.
Dr. Dil Bahadur Gurung, the executive director of NARC, talked about the “many global champions in the room,” and the significant progress Nepal has made in develop rust resistant varieties. He congratulated the NARC team for receiving the 2012 BGRI Gene Stewardship Award.
Gordon Cisar from Cornell welcomed the participants to the “community of connected scientists addressing the challenges of the next wheat pathogens,” and reminded the group that “food security is 12% protein and 88% politics.”
Dr. Arun Joshi, CIMMYT wheat breeder, emphasized the importance of adult plant resistance, the importance of surveillance and capacity building. “If people are not trained, we cannot implement new technologies,” said Joshi.
Lectures for the rest of days 1, 2 and 3 focused on the principles of plant pathology, biotic stresses of wheat, rust pathogens, the wheat host, pathogen interactions and rust pathogen surveillance, understanding pathogenic variation, and screening and selection for rust resistance. The capable tag team of professors Cisar, Pretorius, Park and Hodson had invested many hours in lecture and slide preparations.
In the afternoon of Day 3, the group departed to Godavari, outside of Kathmandu, to look for barberry in the field. It was very much in evidence in the hedgerows between the wheat fields. Work done by Yue Jin of the USDA lab at the University of Minnesota has proven that rust pathogens can undergo sexual recombination on barberry, as an alternate host, and is likely the cause of new rust races and increasing virulence.
“In Nepal, we have more than 32 species of barberry,” said Dr. Mahto, showing the rusty acial infection eruptions on the bottom of the leaves to the group. “Mostly it is prevalent in the mid- and high-hills.“
NARC scientists conduct barberry surveillance while they work. “All the evidence is there that barberry is the cause of yellow rust epidemics in Nepal. And Central Nepal is the focal point of rust infection for the North Eastern Zone of India,” said Mahto. “When you plant a rust resistant variety of wheat in Nepal, you protect all of South Asia,” said Mahto, pointing out the importance of this bilateral cooperation.
“At that time yellow rust was epidemic,” said Basnet. “Ten years ago, we harvested 3 tons per hectare, which was only sufficient for 2 to 3 months. When Dr. Thapa and the NARC scientists gave us the new varieties and helped us apply new agronomic practices and knowledge, we started producing 8 tons per hectare. Then we had enough to eat and sell. We even hired a tractor to plough the fields. Now we have bought a thresher for this village.”
In the fading twilight, we count 15 to 20 women working in the fields in what appears to be a very prosperous and agriculturally productive valley, predominantly covered in wheat.
On Day 4-5, the group departed for Bhairahawa Research Station, where Dr. Nutan Gautum and the team from the National Wheat Research Institute gave us a tour of the research fields and wheat trials. Bhairahawa is in the plain region of Nepal, very close to India. This region accounts for much of Nepal’s wheat production, as the flat fields covered in wheat stretch as far as the eye can see in all directions, a very different agroecological zone than the mid-hills around Kathmandu. Many more tractors are in evidence, as there are no hills to contend with.
While there, we visited a flourmill owned by Sushil Goyanka and his son Vinayara. There are 26 processing mills in Nepal. None of them are operating to capacity because of electric service is unreliable and apt to cut off for 8 or more hours a day. Although the plant has a generator, it is too expensive to operate.
“Yellow rust is not our concern,” said Sushil. “That is the concern of the farmers. If they have shriveled grain from the rust, we do not pay as much.”
March 2, Day 6: Visit to tourist attractions in and around Kathmandu
On Day 6, Saturday, which is the day off in Nepal, participants took the opportunity to tour Kathmandu with Nepalese participants acting as guides. Every outing in Nepal is a visceral journey and every stop expands the mind. We took in sacred Buddhist stupas like the Swayambhu and Boudha Stupa, sacred Hindu temples like Pashupatinath, the Narayanhiti Palace Museum (the former royal palace), paid a visit to the extraordinary Kumari Devi (the “living goddess”) and her home, and shopped the outdoor markets in 1000 AD Durbar Square.
On Day 7, we visited the Khumaltar Research Station for lectures, demonstrations and field tours. The NARC team was well-prepared in screenhouses, labs, nurseries, and fields to demonstrate the station’s wheat capacity and to offer the group scoring practice for adult and seeding resistance as well as field and seedling inoculation of yellow rust. The group learned how to handle inoculum and seedlings using simple materials that would be readily available in even the most minimally equipped lab.
“You have to adapt to what’s available to you,” advised Dr. Park, who demonstrated inoculating with a small paintbrush and spatula. He said an inverted plastic soft drink bottle with the bottle cut out makes an excellent settling tower.
March 4-6, Day 8-10: Wrapping up the Rust Training Workshop
The last three days, the group concentrated on technical sessions about plant breeding and the development and deployment of rust resistant varieties, listened to participant presentations about the situation with wheat in each SAARC country, had another field visit with the NARC hosts, and reviewed material.
Graduation occurred on day 10, and a happy and satisfied group departed for all points of the South Asian compass.
Radhika Bartuala, a young Nepali researcher who will start her studies for her PhD with Iago Hale at the University of New Hampshire in the fall summed up the workshop: “It is great to be exposed to new technologies and new people. Before this training I had worked with rust, but I really didn’t know how to handle the samples, what Ug99 really was, and how dangerous it was for the world.”
Like her classmates, she was enthusiastic about the opportunity for in-depth exposure to wheat pathology, surveillance and breeding. ”Here, there are more than 21 participants and we are mentored by 6 faculty from all over the world who have spent their whole careers in this field,” she said. Bartuala, who has been working as a research assistant with Dr. Dhruba, is the youngest of 8 children and the first to get a PhD in her family. “It is important to train young scientists so we can contribute food security to our home countries and the world.”