A new drought-tolerant durum wheat variety has been created as part of an international breeding program to increase climate resilience in the food system by increasing crop diversity.
Durum wheat is used to make pasta, pizza crusts, and flatbreads like pitta and chapati, as well as couscous, bulgur, and sweet pastry like baklava.
The new Jabal wheat, which means “mountain” in Arabic, was developed by farmers and crop scientists by crossing a commercial durum wheat with a wild relative from an arid region of Syria to create a new durum variety capable of resist drought.
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It is part of the Crop Trust’s Wild Relatives Project, which uses genetically diverse crop varieties to help develop more resilient and adaptable varieties of wheat, barley, rice and potatoes that can withstand the erratic and extreme weather conditions caused by climate collapse.
Although not commercially available yet, in about three years Moroccan farmers will be the first to start growing the new version of durum wheat, which is widely consumed in North Africa and the Middle East. Morocco is suffering its worst drought in four decades and grain production has fallen by around 70% due to extremely dry conditions.
Ranchers and farmers in drought-affected areas planted numerous new durum wheat varieties between 2017 and 2021. Jabal stood out because it was able to thrive and produce grains while all commercial durum wheat varieties failed. Its distinctive black tips also produced high yields of meaty kernels that made tasty bread, the scientists said.
“Many farmers said it was love at first sight when they saw it enduring as all other varieties were destroyed by drought,” said Filippo Bassi, senior scientist with the durum wheat breeding program at the International Center for agricultural research in arid areas. (Icarda) in Lebanon.
Wheat, the most consumed grain globally, is grown on every continent except Antarctica and consumed by billions of people.
Crop failures due to biodiversity loss and extreme weather events such as drought, extreme heat and floods have led to soaring grain prices and food insecurity in many parts of the world, exacerbated by Russia’s war against Ukraine, as both countries were major grain exporters.
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Last year, durum wheat prices jumped 90% after widespread drought and unprecedented heatwaves in Canada, one of the world’s largest grain producers, followed a few months later by record rainfall. Over the past century, Canadian farmers have increasingly relied on genetically similar high-yielding wheat varieties, eliminating crucial diversity.
It takes years to breed new wheat varieties, in a complicated and never-ending race against time, as global warming causes climatic disasters and the emergence of new, adapted or more aggressive pathogens.
Wild relatives are considered the hardier cousins of commercial crops, having evolved in the wild to survive harsh conditions such as extreme heat, drought, floods and poor soils. Plant breeders are increasingly seeking wild varieties and other forgotten varieties stored in seed banks for useful genetic diversity, which has been sidelined in favor of yield, uniformity and profits since the Green Revolution.
But the international group of experts on sustainable food systems warns that beyond genetic diversity, building resilience in the food system also requires diversity in farms and landscapes, as well as more farmer-led initiatives.
“Farmers have domesticated 7,000 different crop species and donated more than 2.1 million plant varieties to international gene banks, but most of the profit from this effort has been reaped by four or five international seed companies.” said Pat Mooney, an agricultural diversity and biotech expert. “[Jabal] it shows what can be achieved with multilateral cooperation where farmers are at the heart of the decision-making process”.