How to climate-proof the Ethiopian breadbasket? Combine genomics and farmer knowledge

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Cultivation of durum wheat varieties in trial plots in Amhara, Ethiopia. Photo credits: Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT

Ethiopia is one of the most important wheat producing countries in Africa. But it might surprise you to learn that conventional bread wheat (Triticum aestivum, the world’s most commonly produced species) only came to the country in the 1940s. For the past 5,000 years, Ethiopian agriculture had relied on a variety of durum wheat varieties (Triticum turgidum ssp. durum, the closely related species ideal for making noodles) that are still consumed in a variety of ways.

“Durum wheat is culturally important in Ethiopia to provide malt for the local beer ‘tella’, homemade bread (‘difo dabo’), ‘kitta’ (unleavened bread), ‘nifro’ (boiled whole grain), ‘kollo’ (roasted whole ) grain used mainly as a snack) and ‘kinche’, a form of porridge,” explains Cherinet Alem Gesesse, plant geneticist at the Amhara Regional Agricultural Research Institute (ARARI).

Beyond its cultural significance, this agrobiodiversity has significant implications for the future of agriculture. “These cultivars have evolved over thousands of years through natural and artificial selection and are very well adapted to Ethiopia’s climate and soils,” says Carlo Fadda, senior scientist at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT. “They are climate change resilient and important assets for future production.”

Ethiopian farmers, already struggling with drought and soil degradation, know they cannot rely on a single wheat variety bred solely for productivity. Matteo Dell’Acqua, plant geneticist from Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, has been working with Ethiopian farmers to find new ways to permanently integrate their knowledge into the agricultural innovation process. He says that farmers look for useful traits at the cultivar level: “Farmers look to what they see in their own fields, which may differ from breeding program expectations due to specific environmental, crop and management conditions. They select varieties with better adaptation to local use and cultivation.”

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Farmers have extensive knowledge of traditional, locally adapted varieties. Photo credits: Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT

From farm to gene bank and back to farm

However, farmers are often forced to make compromises: for example, they choose varieties that are more likely to survive to harvest time but are less productive. You also have to make choices based on a limited pool of diversity. “Much of agrobiodiversity is maintained in genebank collections that have been collected from farmers’ fields over the years, but are not easily accessible to them. Farmers who live further away have limited opportunities to share seeds and experiences,” says Dell’Acqua.

To find a balance between adaptation and use, the researchers looked into Ethiopian gene banks to tap into the “broad genetic variations that may contribute significantly to future crop improvement,” says Gesesse. They crossed traditional Ethiopian durum wheat varieties with international breeding lines and produced 1200 new genetic materials. Dell’Acqua says: “We are trying to mix up the genetic factors to produce new combinations that have never existed before and that can be used by farmers.”

These varieties were evaluated by groups of farmers in a large-scale evaluation in field trials in Ethiopia. Farmer preferences and feedback were quantified and compared to agronomic measures of crop performance, including yield, and used in combination with DNA sequencing of wheat varieties to create predictive performance models.

In her latest article, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesthe researchers demonstrated that farmer assessments can efficiently predict wheat yield, and intend to use the data generated by these “citizen scientists” to drive selection and breeding.

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In the words of one reviewer: “I am struck by the finding that the genomic selection model using the farmers’ general estimate had a higher predictive accuracy for grain yield than the model trained on the grain yield itself.”

Farmers choose the future

“Farmer knowledge is a scientific quantity that can contribute to breeding results,” says Dell’Acqua. “This is not to say that farmers should replace breeders and scientists; we believe these data-driven methods can help capture real-world complexity and incorporate it into breeding decisions that are user-centric. Farmers can be an addition Their full integration would not only benefit the selection of the most appropriate varieties, as we show in this paper, but also help ensure proper recognition of farming communities and cultural heritage in producing better agrobiodiversity and their To promote dissemination world for the benefit of mankind.”

Fadda says: “Africa is rich in agrobiodiversity: with species, varieties and the associated traditional knowledge. This study shows that in order to achieve accelerated resilience and sustainability in agriculture, both the genetic diversity of African crops and the associated knowledge must feed into agricultural research and development strategies.”

More information:
Cherinet Alem Gesesse et al., Genomic breeding for local adaptation of durum wheat is enhanced by farmers’ traditional knowledge, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2023). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2205774119

Journal Information:
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Provided by the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture

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