Wheat, Pray, Love: The Wheat Productivity Enhancement Program in Pakistan
This blog is written by Dr. Molly McCarty Gonzales, instructional assistant professor at the Center for Educational Technologies at Texas A&M College of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences with support from Eric Brownstein, international program specialist, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service.
Since the early 1960s, the U.S. and Pakistan have witnessed the growth of an enduring partnership whose focus has been the mutual growth of Pakistani and American agriculture. Over 50 years ago, the partnership was initiated by Dr. Norman E. Bourlaug, whose collaboration with Pakistani scientists on wheat production research ushered in a green revolution and revolutionized global agriculture. The techniques developed and the knowledge gained would go on to save the lives of millions around the world whose countries were on the brink of famine. To this day, wheat reigns as a staple crop, critical to Pakistani infrastructure and nutritional intake.
Pakistan’s strategic collaboration with the U.S. did not end in the 1960s. Most recently, the Pakistan/U.S. allegiance has collaborated to combat a wheat rust called Ug99. Ug99 has ascended the ranks as one of the top threats to the global wheat supply. A highly virulent wheat rust, Ug99 first triggered concern when it appeared in Uganda in 1999. When researchers looked at the genotypic makeup of this strain of stem rust, they soon realized that it was capable of killing around 90% of the world’s wheat. The Ug99 pathogen can spread quickly across long distances via airborne spores, clothing or shoes, potentially posing a devastating risk to U.S. wheat.
In the early 2000s, wheat rust began invading other countries and creeping closer to Pakistan and India. Knowing that Ug99 would be detrimental to Pakistan and would result in massive yield being lost, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) and the Agriculture Research Service (ARS), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the government of Pakistan joined forces and launched the Wheat Productivity Enhancement Program (WPEP) in 2010. By strategically developing and planting disease-resistant strains of wheat throughout Pakistan, the program would help prevent Ug99 from surviving and thriving and keeping damage and crop loss to a minimum.
Goals of this program included:
- Encourage greater internal cooperation and infrastructure,
- Improve the wheat surveillance program,
- Infroduce genetic diversity,
- Accenerate the variety release and seed multiplication,
- Increase internal collaboration, and
- Improve agronomic management
Under the leadership of Dr. David Marshall, the USDA ARS research leader and location coordinator, the WPEP team, the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council, the Pakistani Government and researchers from across the globe collaborated to breed and trial different wheat varieties which are both high-yielding and rust-resistant. In the 10 years that WPEP has been active, the team has successfully identified, developed, tested and approved more than 50 rust-resistant, high-yielding wheat varieties. Additionally, researchers developed a one-of-a-kind wheat germplasm collection system housed in Pakistan, allowing American and Pakistani producers to blend each other’s wheat lines to produce new, even higher quality varieties. This has led to the improvement of U.S. wheat germplasm and new disease-resistant material available to American farmers.
The development of new varieties was not the only tangible benefit of the WPEP project. Trainings held both in Pakistan and the U.S. strengthened the bilateral research community as experts walked the fields together to monitor and assess the growth and effectiveness of different wheat lines. In addition to the field trials and lab trainings in Pakistan, the team also initiated a scientist exchange and training program, which resulted in multi-week-long exchange programs with American universities and Pakistani scientists and regulators.
A more recent and exciting advancement through this program has been the incorporation of genotyping and phenotyping into the National Wheat Improvement Programs. By genotyping, or collecting the “biological fingerprint,” researchers catalog which specific genes are found within the different lines of wheat. Combining this knowledge with the science of phenotyping is key when growing a wheat breeding program. Finally, the WPEP program has made several advancements in supporting infrastructure and equipment improvement.
In looking to the future, while the funding for WPEP is nearing its close, the team has high hopes for how the lessons learned through this project can open new channels for continued research and development. By incorporating all the advancements and procedural improvements into the Pakistan program, there is an opportunity to drive new economic development in the wheat sector and improve the economy within the country. It is undeniable that WPEP is a glowing example of how sustainable international collaboration and cooperation is key to finding solutions to large-scale challenges. As Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to the United States of America, His Excellency Dr. Asad Majeed Khan, so eloquently shared at the beginning of the webinar celebrating this program, “Agricultural cooperation has been the golden chapter in the Pakistan and United States bilateral relationship… and I look forward to exploring ways and means in which we can work together to start another and more illustrious chapter.”