How to make the Ethiopian granary resistant to climate change? Combine genomics and farmer knowledge

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Durum wheat varieties growing in test plots in Amhara, Ethiopia. Credit: Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT

Ethiopia is one of the main wheat-producing countries in Africa. But it may surprise you to learn that conventional bread wheat (Triticum aestivum, the most common species produced worldwide) only entered the country in the 1940s. For the previous 5,000 years, Ethiopian agriculture had relied on a myriad of varieties of durum wheat (Triticum turgidum ssp. durum, the closely related species ideal for making pasta), which are still consumed in many ways.

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

Beyond its cultural importance, this agrobiodiversity has important implications for the future of agriculture. “Having evolved under natural and artificial selection for thousands of years, these varieties are very well adapted to the Ethiopian climate and soils,” says Carlo Fadda, senior scientist at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT. “They are resilient to climate change and important assets for future production.”

Already dealing with drought and soil degradation, Ethiopian farmers know they cannot depend on just one type of wheat, raised solely with productivity in mind. Matteo Dell’Acqua, a plant geneticist at Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, has been working with Ethiopian farmers to devise new ways to permanently integrate his knowledge into the agricultural innovation process. He says that farmers are looking for useful traits at the varietal level: “Farmers look at what they see in their own fields, which may be different from the expectations of breeding programs due to specific environmental, cultural and management conditions. They select varieties with better adaptation to local uses and crops”.

Farmers have extensive knowledge about locally adapted traditional varieties. Credit: Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT

From farm to genebank and back to farm

But farmers are often forced to make trade-offs: for example, opting for varieties that are more likely to survive until harvest time, but are less productive. They also have to make selections based on a limited set of diversity. “Much agrobiodiversity is held in genebank collections collected over the years in farmers’ fields, but it is not easily accessible to farmers. Farmers living further away have limited opportunities to share seeds and experiences,” Dell’Acqua says.

To strike a balance between adaptation and use, researchers have looked within Ethiopia’s genebanks to unlock the “wide genetic variations that may contribute substantially to future crop improvement,” says Gesesse. They crossed traditional Ethiopian durum wheat varieties with international breeding lines, producing 1,200 new genetic materials. Says Dell’Acqua: “We are trying to mix 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 male and female 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 build yield prediction models.

In his latest article, published in the 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 inform future selection and breeding.

In the words of one reviewer: “I found the result amazing: the genomic selection model using farmers’ general appreciation had a higher prediction accuracy on grain yield than the model trained on grain yield itself.”

Farmers selecting for the future

“Farmers’ knowledge is a scientific quantity that can contribute to breeding results,” Dell’Acqua says. “This is not to say that farmers should replace breeders and scientists; we believe that these data-driven methods can help capture real-world complexity and factor it into breeding decisions that are targeted to the needs of farmers.” users Farmers can be a complement to this process Their full integration would not only benefit the selection of the most appropriate varieties, as we show in this paper, but would also serve to foster appropriate recognition of farming communities and cultural heritage in producing better agrobiodiversity and sharing it in the wider world for the benefit of humanity”.

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

More information:
Cherinet Alem Gesesse et al, Genomics-driven 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

Newspaper information:
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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