ICARDA’s durum and bread wheat breeding efforts employ wild relatives extensively to generate elite germplasm that is well-suited to the severe and frequent droughts that plague the organization’s drylands.

High-yielding, rust-resistant, and heat-tolerant spring bread wheat varieties of ICARDA origin, including “Abay” and “Hachalu” in Ethiopia, were released in 2021; others have passed the distinctiveness, uniformity, and stability test for registration in Morocco. Similarly, many high-yielding and drought-tolerant elite spring bread wheat genotypes survived, without irrigation, the highly severe drought at Marchouch station, Morocco, in 2021/2022, much better than other cultivars. These elite spring bread wheat genotypes will be distributed to the national programs of countries in Central and West Asia and North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa in August 2022.

Furthermore,  a total of twelve high yielding, drought tolerant, and yellow resistant Winter Facultative Wheat varieties – originating from Turkey-CIMMYT-ICARDA (TCI), International Winter Wheat Improvement Program (IWWIP) –  were released in four different countries, six in Turkey, four in Azerbaijan, 1 in Iran, and 1 in Uzbekistan. 

Significant  2021  developments in our work on wheat were:

ICARDA’s Dissemination of Interspecific ICARDA Varieties via Participatory Research (DIIVA-PR) project, supported by the Crop Trust’s Crop Wild Relatives (CWR) Project, developed new climate-smart crop varieties derived from CWR crosses. Through a participatory varietal selection strategy, DIIVA-PR introduced these varieties to farmers in dry regions critically affected by climate change and climate variability. The project concluded successfully in July 2021. Building on its success, a second phase, ‘BOLD-DIIVA,’ launched shortly after DIIVA-PR’s conclusion. The project focused on areas in Morocco, Lebanon, Senegal, and Ethiopia that are heavily affected by drought and with a high concentration of rural poor. Using crop wild relatives, DIIVA-PR aimed to improve the climate change adaptation of three staple crops: durum wheat, barley, and lentil. Some 40 on-station trials were conducted to confirm the value of CWR-derived germplasm. In addition, a total of 22 on-farm demonstrations were set up to engage some 12 rural communities. The ultimate outcome was that the CWR-derived germplasm outperformed the best local varieties for adaptation to climate extremes, including a very severe drought in Morocco during the 2019-20 season and temperatures exceeding 38 degrees Celsius in Senegal. Farmers also showed clear appreciation for several of the CWR-derived entries because of their adaptation and rusticity. Some four varieties have been released by the project thus far based on farmers’ preferences, five more should be released soon, and over 50 partners around the World have benefitted from this unique germplasm.

The CWR-derived variety Jabal was released for commercial use in Morocco in 2021 by a farmers’ organization after seeing how well it tolerated a devastating drought that occurred in the 2019-20 season.

The ‘Genomic Prediction to Deliver Heat Tolerant Wheat to the Senegal River Basin’ project, funded by the Swedish Research Council and led by ICARDA’s Dr. Filippo Bassi, reached a successful conclusion in December 2021. The project successfully used advanced genomic models to increase the rate of genetic gain for the delivery of heat tolerant and short duration varieties of durum wheat that were adapted to the pedo-climatic conditions of the Senegal River valley. The major outcomes of these four years were the publication of ten ISI research articles in high-impact factor journals.

Further, the genomic selection model was improved using different training populations tested across three years for different traits of varying complexity levels. The use of kinship split to improve accuracy was confirmed and fully adopted by ICARDA. Due to the high impact within Senegal river communities, a third phase, under the project name ‘Delivering heat-tolerant alleles to raise farm income along the Senegal River,’ has now received funding until December 2024. The project aims to double the area of cultivation, integrate female cooperatives to operate as community-based seed enterprises, and attempt the fine mapping and possible cloning of the major locus identified as controlling heat tolerance.

Overall, this project represented a major milestone in the deployment of genomic selection as a breeding tool. ICARDA’s Durum Wheat Program has now shifted to this technology and will use it to achieve higher rates of genetic gain under the Accelerated Breeding Initiative (ABI) for all targetted product profiles.

In 2021, more than 1,000 accessions of barley and 1,800 lines of wheat were selected from ICARDA genebanks and shared with the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA-Morocco)’s barley and durum wheat program. More than 1,400 wheat pre-breeding lines are being genotyped for alleles and gene detection and for further integration into wheat breeding programs.