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Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement Workshop Welcomes Global Plant Breeders and Social Scientists

By Krisy Gashler

Sixteen scientists from agricultural research centers around the globe came to Cornell in October to participate in workshops designed to strengthen worldwide crop breeding efforts. Organized by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement (ILCI), the workshop included scholars from ILCI’s Priority Setting team, ILCI’s Cross-Cutting themes team and ILCI-supported Centers of Innovation working in Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Senegal and Uganda.

The workshop, held Oct. 1-15, was designed to offer training on resources like gender-inclusive research design and the Cornell Library, provide networking opportunities, and create time for hands-on team working sessions. These sessions allowed researchers to drill down on high-impact projects and solve problems alongside colleagues, said Martina Occelli, co-lead for ILCI’s Priority Setting team.

Belarmino Amadeu Faife Divage, a workshop participant and social scientist with the Mozambique Agricultural Research Institute, analyzes the cowpea value chain in his country. Cowpea are a legume native to sub-Saharan Africa, valued for their hardiness, nutrition, ability to grow off-season and to serve as a food source for both humans and livestock. Divage, who has a background in plant breeding and works on cross-cutting issues with the Center of Innovation for Crop improvement for East and Southern Africa (CICI-ESA) in Mozambique, seeks to understand which traits are most desired by growers and consumers and to influence priorities for plant breeding programs in the country.

“Agriculture is critical because it’s the start of economic development,” Divage said. Adoption of new varieties, and uptake of new technologies in general, is lower than it should be in Mozambique and studying community dynamics is key to understanding why, he said. “That’s why we came to Cornell, to learn, to share experiences and to see how we can make our contribution to change these dynamics.”

The workshop aimed to encourage plant breeders and social scientists to consider multidimensional priorities in crop improvement, such as economic, environmental and nutritional considerations alongside themes of gender equity, youth engagement, inclusion and resilience. The workshop brought together researchers working on a range of crops and multiple crop improvement programs in East Africa, West Africa, Central America and the Caribbean.

“We pre-decided with each team which interdisciplinary project they wanted to speed up during these two weeks and literally sat down, computer to computer, trying to figure out together how to resolve some of the problems,” Occelli said. “Visiting scholars also exchanged their experiences and lessons learned.”

Each day ended with hour-long, open-ended discussions with faculty members in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Human Ecology and the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. The two-week workshop ended with participants giving poster presentations in Mann Library.

Ibrahim Mayanja, a research associate with the National Semi-Arid Resources Research institute, investigates trait preferences for sorghum and millet in the dryland areas of Uganda where climate change is accelerating production challenges. “We lack a deeper understanding of what traits are preferred by the different end users — the producers, the consumers, the traders and the processors,” he said. Through his work with ILCI’s East African Center of Innovation for Finger Millet and Sorghum, his team characterizes different market segments and develops product profiles to ensure demand-driven breeding.

“We want to develop varieties targeting different market segments. The data are important in driving the direction for plant breeding in Uganda,” he said.

Participants Naomi Mvula and John Kafwambira, both researchers with the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Malawi, are also working to enhance adoption of cowpeas.

“The key issues in this part of Africa are food insecurity, so we want to find varieties that are early-maturing and able to address nutrition needs for the masses,” said Mvula, a social scientist.

Kafwambira, a plant breeder, said he’s hopeful that interdisciplinary collaboration, like that fostered through ILCI, will help scientists and growers to address hunger in East Africa.

“I am proud of the fact that people with different areas of expertise have come together to achieve similar goals,” he said.

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How a Desire to Lead Brought This Wheat Breeder to Canada

Video: How a Desire to Lead Brought This Wheat Breeder to Canada

Gurcharn Singh Brar is a wheat breeder whose path meandered from the breadbaskets of Punjab, India, to the sprawling fields of the Prairies. In a candid conversation, Brar shared insights into his journey, the challenges faced, and the undying passion that fuels his quest for better crops.

It all began with a childhood rooted in the wheat fields of Punjab, where agriculture isn’t just a livelihood but a way of life. His fascination with wheat and its potential led him to pursue a bachelor’s degree in agricultural sciences at Punjab Agricultural University. It was during this time that he encountered the spectre of rust diseases, particularly stripe rust, which plagued the region’s wheat crops. Determined to combat this menace, he set his sights on a journey that would take him across continents.

Venturing abroad for his graduate studies, he found himself in Saskatchewan at the Crop Development Centre (CDC), working under the mentorship of renowned researchers like Randy Kutcher and Pierre Hucl. Here, he delved deep into the world of wheat genetics, focusing on stripe rust resistance — a quest that would shape his academic pursuits for years to come.

After completing his master’s and Ph.D. in six and a half years, he embarked on a professional journey that would see him traverse academia and research. From brief stints as a research officer to landing his dream faculty position at the University of British Columbia’s Plant Science program, his career trajectory was marked by a strong drive to make a difference in the world of wheat.

Despite the allure of British Columbia’s unique agricultural landscape, he found himself wanting to return to the vast expanses of the Prairies, where wheat reigns supreme. He recently returned to the Prairies and is the new wheat breeder at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

“The opportunity to lead an established wheat breeding program at the University of Alberta was a dream come true. With the necessary resources and infrastructure in place, I’m excited to drive innovation and develop high-yielding wheat varieties tailored to the unique conditions of northern Canada,” he says.

Brar, one of Seed World Canada‘s 2024 Next-Gen Leaders, has become known for identifying novel sources of resistance to priority diseases and his efforts in developing wheat germplasm with multiple disease-resistant traits.

In addition to his groundbreaking research, Brar is committed to mentoring the next generation of agricultural scientists.

“I believe in nurturing talent and empowering students to pursue their passions,” he says. “Watching my students grow and thrive in their research endeavours is hugely rewarding.”

As he looks ahead, Brar’s vision for the future of wheat breeding is clear: “My number one target is to develop high-yielding wheat varieties adapted to the northern climates of Canada. By focusing on early maturity and strong straw traits, we can maximize yield potential while ensuring resilience to environmental challenges.”

His decision to also join the Prairie Recommending Committee for Wheat, Rye, and Triticale (PGDC) executive as member-at-large came from a desire to play an even more important role in the world of Canadian cereals.