The wheat fields of South Asia account for nearly 20% of global production, making it a critical hotspot for scientists battling devastating wheat diseases like stem, yellow and leaf rusts that can wipe out entire crops.
More than a dozen young scientists from four countries gathered March 5-10 in northern India for the seventh biannual South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Wheat Rust Surveillance and Monitoring workshop. Supported by the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) project based at Cornell University, the workshop provided cutting-edge trainings and introduced young scientists working in wheat breeding and rust pathology into a global network of researchers aimed at containing and eliminating wheat rust diseases.
“Wheat rust threatens the food security of hundreds of millions of people around the globe, and every growing season brings fresh challenges that must be confronted if we are to keep people from going hungry,” said Maricelis Acevedo, associate director for science at DGGW and adjunct professor of plant pathology at Cornell. “Training young researchers working in the most vulnerable areas strengthens our global network of scientists and allows us to respond early to emerging threats.”
Fourteen scientists from Bangladesh (3), Bhutan (2), India (3) and Nepal (6) learned the latest in rust pathology and epidemiology, pathogen surveillance, field and laboratory techniques, wheat breeding and genetics of rust resistance. The workshop extended learning from the online course “Art and Science of Rust Pathology and Applied Plant Breeding” from the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative. Supported by DGGW, the workshop was organized by Sathguru Management Consultants in collaboration with the Indian Institute of Wheat and Barley Research (IIWBR).
South Asia has the largest low-income community in the world that depends on wheat for a majority of its calories. Over the past decade, the SAARC workshops have enlisted approximately 150 scientists from South Asia to play key roles in tracking the movement of rust in the region and contributing to global surveillance activities.
This year’s participants said it was rewarding to collaborate with global experts and learn the latest findings. Scientists from IIWBR and Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) gave specialized lectures, and IIWBR staff provided hands-on training in the field. The workshop included trips to IIWBR research farms and seed production farms, as well as trainings in scientific procedures in greenhouses.
“It was a great experience and I learned much more about surveillance and monitoring of wheat rusts,” said Sudhir Navathe, junior plant pathologist at Agarkar Research Institute in Pune, India, who took part in the workshop. Navathe credited informative talks from faculty, which included Acevedo from Cornell; Robert Park, professor at the Plant Breeding Institute at the University of Sydney, Australia; and Dave Hodson, senior scientist at CIMMYT, Ethiopia.
With digital technologies gaining greater adoption in agriculture, the scientists learned how to manage surveillance data using modern information technology tools known as the SAARC Toolbox. The kit includes the Rust Survey app developed by Sathguru that works on hand-held tablets. Data are fed into each country’s surveillance database and ultimately into RustTracker.org, a global cereal rust surveillance and monitoring portal from the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative based at Cornell.
DGGW is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UK aid from the British people.
Richa Kapur is a consultant at Sathguru Management Consultants