Pablo Olivera discusses wheat and Ethiopia

John Bakum
Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Dr. Pablo Olivera summed up one of the issues facing the world’s wheat yields; “It’s not just a Ug99 problem, it’s a rust problem.”

Olivera, a Research Associate in the Department of Plant Pathology in the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota, delivered his message December 1 at a seminar presented at Cornell University.

Olivera was working on solutions to the especially virulent stem rust race, Ug99, to which the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project (2008-2015) was focused, but his research and messages mirror the broader scope of the new Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat project. The DGGW aims to increase wheat yields with the understanding that wheat is under fire from a variety of diseases, environmental pressures and climate change.

“The challenges of creating resistant wheat is bigger than we thought,” said Olivera. “It’s not enough for a variety to be Ug99 resistant, or even stem rust resistant.  It needs to be stripe rust resistant, able to handle changing climates, and most importantly, it must also maintain or increase yields.  Because if the overall yield isn’t as strong, farmers are not going to plant a new variety.”

“That’s why we need to look beyond just Ug99,” Olivera continued.  “But a huge positive of the previous focus on Ug99 was the creation of a robust surveillance infrastructure, especially in East Africa.  I give a lot of credit to Dave Hodson and his colleagues in building a surveillance system that works for stem rust, stripe rust, and other diseases.”

“Due to the large growing area and importance of wheat as a staple food in Ethiopia, rust epidemics in the country are relevant for food security.  But new stem rust outbreaks, for example in Germany in 2013, really broaden the focus of wheat research efforts.  Stem rust is now being recognized as a global issue”.

Another focal point of the DGGW project is an emphasis on training and creating a talent pipeline for the next generation of wheat scientists.  Olivera is directly engaged in formal training efforts at research centers in Ethiopia.  “The formal trainings are important and worthwhile,” said Olivera.  “Also as important is the informal learning that takes place between visiting scientists and the scientific and technical staff on the ground in Ethiopia. Each time I visit the Ambo Plant Protection Center for race typing and the screening nurseries in Debre Zeit and Kulumsa to score my wheat lines, I make sure to engage with the staff there.  They are so eager to learn and I want to help out any way I can. And the learning goes both ways, hopefully they learn from me and I always learn something as well.”