Ethiopia builds wheat production capacity with adoption of new-improved varieties

Image source: CIMMYT

ETHIOPIA – Ethiopia, the largest wheat producer in sub-Saharan Africa is inching closer to become self-sufficient in production of the crop, following the widespread adoption of new, improved and rust-resistant wheat varieties since 2014.

This was revealed by International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) who undertook the first nationally representative large-scale wheat DNA fingerprinting study, in partnership with the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR), the Ethiopian Central Statistical Agency (CSA) and Diversity Array Technologies (DArT).

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The study was undertaken in 4,000 plots which found that nearly half (47%) of the area sampled was grown to varieties 10 years old or younger and the majority (61%) of these were released after 2005.

According to CIMMYT, four of the top varieties sown were recently-released rust-resistant varieties developed through its breeding programs and that of EIAR.

Further to that, the study confirmed the substantial contribution of CGIAR to national breeding efforts, with 90% of the area sampled containing wheat varieties released in collaboration with the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) germplasm.

Varieties developed using germplasm received from CIMMYT covered 87% of the wheat area surveyed.

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The widespread adoption of these improved varieties has clearly had a positive impact on both economic returns and national wheat production gains. 

“This is good news for Ethiopian farmers, who are seeing better incomes from higher yielding, disease-resistant wheat, and for the Ethiopian government, which has put a high national priority on increasing domestic wheat production and reducing dependence on imports.”

Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research Deputy Director General – Chilot Yirga

Initial estimates show that farmers gained an additional 225,500 ton of extra production, valued at US$50 million by using varieties released after 2005.   

“These results validate years of international investment and national policies that have worked to promote, distribute and fast-track the release of wheat varieties with the traits that farmers have asked for — particularly resistance to crop-destroying wheat rust disease,” said CIMMYT Principal Scientist Dave Hodson, the lead author of the study.

Some of the international donor agencies who have championed wheat production in the country include, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO, formerly DFID), the World Bank, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Ethiopian government.

Their success in speeding up variety release and seed multiplication in Ethiopia is considered a model for other countries.

“This is good news for Ethiopian farmers, who are seeing better incomes from higher yielding, disease-resistant wheat, and for the Ethiopian government, which has put a high national priority on increasing domestic wheat production and reducing dependence on imports,” said EIAR Deputy Director General Chilot Yirga.

Accuracy of research tool used

The research tool used during the study, DNA fingerprinting, enabled researchers to identify the variety present in samples, based on a comprehensive reference library of the genotypes of known varieties.

According to the report, over 94% of plots could be matched with known varieties and this provided data that is vastly more accurate than traditional farmer-recall surveys.

This in turn eliminated the barriers faced with using classic tools of such as adoption studies, with Hodson explaining that, “When we compared DNA fingerprinting results with the results from a survey of farmers’ memory of the same plots, we saw that only 28% of farmers correctly named wheat varieties grown.”

The overall resulting data which is deemed to be highly reliable, will help national breeding programs adjust their seed production to meet demand, and national extension agents focus on areas that need better access to seed.

It will also help scientists, policymakers, donors and organizations such as CIMMYT track their impact and prioritize funding, support, and the direction of future research.

“This research demonstrates that DNA fingerprinting can be applied at scale, and is likely to transform future crop varietal adoption studies. Additional DNA fingerprinting studies are now also well advanced for maize in Ethiopia,” concluded CIMMYT Senior Scientist Kindie Tesfaye, co-author of the study and lead of the associated BMGF funded project.

Wheat production in 2020/21 to reach 5m metric tons

According to a GAIN report by USDA, wheat production in the country in Marketing Year 2020/21, is forecast to reach a record 5 million metric tons.

The desert locust invasion remains a potential challenge with the report noting that effects of mitigation measures on production will be known until next year.

The country’s wheat consumption capacity during the period under review is expected to reach 6.7 million MT, a slight increase over 2019/20.

To meet its demand, Ethiopia has been importing an average of 1.2 million metric tons over the past three years (2016/17-2019/20). The wheat imported is aimed to stabilize food prices.

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