The Heat and Drought Wheat Improvement Consortium (HeDWIC) is a network that facilitates global coordination of wheat research to adapt to a future with more severe weather extremes, specifically heat and drought. It delivers new technologies to wheat breeders worldwide via the International Wheat Improvement Network (IWIN), coordinated for more than half a century by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center. Together, we are creating future wheat.
Climate change is creating hotter and drier environments, and our food crops are struggling to survive in these more extreme conditions. The number of extreme weather events – droughts and heat waves included – have tripled in fewer than 40 years (since 1980), causing huge damage or loss to entire crops.
“The world’s poorest people are the most vulnerable to climate change. This includes both farmers who grow wheat to feed their communities, and poor urban consumers who would suffer the most from food shortages and price hikes”.
HeDWIC is a global research and capacity building network that makes it easier for wheat scientists to work together on solutions to the complex problems of heat and drought. By harnessing the latest technologies in crop physiology, genetics and breeding, new varieties are being developed that are more climate resilient. HeDWIC takes wheat research from the theoretical to the practical by incorporating the best science into real-life breeding scenarios.
A core HeDWIC pre-breeding engine is currently run by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) with funding from Mexico’s ministry of agriculture (SADER) as part of the MasAgro project. This effort examines current breeding material as well as collections held in germplasm banks and applies genomic and phenotypic approaches to identify novel diversity for heat, drought and other key traits. The strategy is to avail this novel diversity in the form of pre-bred lines suitable for use in breeding programs. At the same time, young scientists receive hands-on training through involvement in research, in order that a new generation of crop experts will be ready to tackle the pressing issues of crop adaptation under future climate scenarios.
HeDWIC’s outputs are underpinned by the hugely successful IWIN, a well-established wheat improvement network of around 700 field sites in over 90 countries. Breeding in IWIN is directed towards 12 different mega-environments -mostly encompassing heat and drought stress- developing new high yielding, disease-resistant lines targeted to major agro-ecologies, delivered annually as international public goods. IWIN-related varieties have impacted at least half of all wheat areas globally, benefiting especially less developed countries where additional value of around $3 billion per year is spread among resource-poor farmers and consumers. This represents a benefit-cost ratio of over 100:1 from the IWIN breeding efforts, and which HeDWIC research will boost as a worsening climate makes genetic gains progressively harder to achieve. Other collaborators support HeDWIC by sharing research ideas and plant selection protocols as well as genetic resources with unique characteristics (Table 1, Resources’ page). Many of these collaborators have been actively involved in capacity building through participation in doctoral training programs (see Box) and supervising collaborating post-doctoral researchers. Based on a previous call for research ideas, over 370 scientists expressed interest in contributing to HeDWIC’s agenda. By working together we can find new solutions and do more in less time.
An expanded HeDWIC will accelerate the development of climate resilient wheat by:
HeDWIC is currently in resource mobilization mode in order to tackle the most urgent areas of climate-resilience research. Different funding scenarios can be envisaged, from modest investment that allows low-hanging research targets to be translated into breeding products, to a full-scale agenda that supports novel, blue-sky research ideas.
In order to fast-track research and better link renowned experts to the HeDWIC breeding effort, one of the immediate goals is to directly couple research funds with well-focused scholarship opportunities. Such funding will provide the opportunity for young scientists from climate-challenged countries to lead research projects under the direct supervision of recognized authorities in their field (Box). Calls for funding would address HeDWIC prioritized research areas with operational budgets tied to human capacity development. The latter would require at least some fieldwork in relevant wheat growing environments, if not in the scholars home country. Funding would be awarded on a competitive basis to ensure the most promising ideas are translated into useful products for farmers, and that the best qualified individuals are recruited from climate-affected regions worldwide.
An independent external body representing the interests of funders, industry and other stakeholders in the crop research community will provide oversight and strategic advice to HeDWIC.
HeDWIC will develop a scholarship scheme that provides opportunities for young scientists from climate/food security vulnerable countries to conduct research on heat and drought tolerance at advanced institutes internationally. The model has already worked successfully in Mexico, a country facing serious threats to agriculture from climate change. Starting in 2010, with funding from the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture (SADER) and National Science and Technology Council (CONACYT) as part of the MasAgro initiative, 12 young Mexican scientists were recruited into PhD Programs and trained at top ranking universities in UK, USA, Australia, Spain and Chile. Most of them conducted or are currently conducting research on wheat’s adaptation in the Sonoran Desert in NW Mexico at CIMMYT’s research station; an environment where a wide range of heat and drought stress profiles can be simulated in the field, situated in the heart of Mexico’s breadbasket. In an expanded HeDWIC, research scholarships awards would encourage if not be conditional on thesis research being carried out at least partly in a relevant stressed wheat growing environment, preferably in the students home country.