Research initiative tackles wheat rust, fusarium head blight

An international research project involving scientists in Canada and Mexico is hoping to reduce financial losses in durum caused by two common diseases: wheat rust and fusarium head blight.

The Canadian Wheat Alliance (CWA) and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico will collaborate on the project, which involves scientists at CIMMYT, Canada’s National Research Council, Agriculture Canada and the University of Saskatchewan.

The five-year project will receive financial support of $1.5 million from the Saskatchewan government.

The funding will come from a $5 million pool of money that the province had previously committed to support Canadian Wheat Alliance programs.

The end goal of the CIMMYT project, according to CWA spokesperson Faouzi Bekkaoui, is to increase durum’s resistance to rust and fusarium and develop new durum varieties for growers.

“We know the importance of these two diseases and how much impact they have on yield and on income for farmers and the Canadian economy,” Bekkaoui said.

The CWA is a multi-year wheat research initiative that involves scientists at key research institutions in Canada. The initiative seeks to marry the expertise and resources of Canada’s most accomplished research institutions with financial investments and resources from outside organizations, including private industry.

CWA’s partnership with CIMMYT will allow Canadian wheat and durum researchers to work with international scientists who have a wealth of experience in breeding, plant genetics and the development of new breeding tools.

“They (CIMMYT) are one of the largest, if not the biggest breeding institution in the world, so they have tremendous expertise in … wheat breeding and they have the largest collection of wheat germplasm in the world,” Bekkaoui said.

CWA identified the project as a strategic collaboration that could benefit durum growers while strengthening the relationship between Canadian wheat researchers and CIMMYT, he added. “It’s something that is … going to solidify the interaction between Canada and CIMMYT.”

Although CWA’s initial research mandate was focused primarily on spring wheat rather than durum, the CIMMYT project was viewed as a good fit for the alliance’s broader research goals. It will identify genetic resources that can be used to im-prove disease resistance in Canadian durum varieties, Bekkaoui said.

According to the NRC, fusarium head blight has cost Canadian wheat producers more than $1.5 billion in lost income since the mid-1990s.

“Our collaboration with CIMMYT, one of the world’s most reputable organizations in the field of wheat improvement, will allow Canadian wheat farmers to benefit from the centre’s world class and extensive research,” added Roman Szumski, vice-president of life sciences with the NRC.

“This strategic arrangement will help us to achieve the Canadian Wheat Alliance’s main objectives of improving the yield, sustainability and profitability of Canadian wheat.”

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