A ‘crazy idea’ has resulted in the ability to grow durum wheat in the extreme heat of famine-affected Senegal, Mauritania and Mali, potentially boosting the income for one million farming families, and therefore winning the 2017 Olam Prize for Innovation in Food Security.
The genome fingerprinting research project led by Dr Filippo Bassi of ICARDA and Professor Rodomiro Ortiz, and funded by the Swedish Research Council, used non-GM molecular breeding techniques to develop a set of durum wheat varieties that can withstand constant 35-40 degree heat along the savannah of the Senegal River basin.
In this region, farmers grow rice for 8 months of the year  but the land remains unproductive for the other 4 months. The new durum varieties have therefore been developed to grow super-fast so that farmers can grow the wheat between rice seasons, which could produce 600,000 tonnes of new food, equivalent to 175 servings of pasta per person per year in the region, and could generate USD$210 million in additional income for the farmers.
As the wheat has 5 times more protein than rice, as well as vitamins and minerals, it will also help to improve diets.
Through ICARDA’s policy of sharing all germplasm and IP (identity preservation) freely with developing countries, the discovery also has wide adaptation potential for other areas hit by increasing temperatures.
This ground breaking research was therefore voted by a panel of expert judges as the winner of the Olam Prize for Innovation in Food Security – an international prize launched by the global agri-business in partnership with the Agropolis Fondation.
Dr Bassi commented, “When we had the idea 5 years ago, people thought we were a bit crazy so we are thrilled to see our vision of introducing durum wheat into this region recognised by the Olam prize. I would like to give special thanks to our supporting partners U-Forsk2013, CNARAD, ISRA, Université Mohammed V, and SLU Sweden.
By working closely with the farmers, we have gained their trust as they can see the benefit of planting this crop which can be easily cultivated with minimum investment. Now we need to help create a route to market so we will be using the prize fund to foster the establishment of a commercial partnership with the North African pasta and couscous industry.”
Sunny Verghese, Co-founder and Group CEO said: “Global Agriculture is facing significant problems with many millions of people going hungry and the world struggling to meet demand for growth in calories within the planetary boundaries. This research from Dr Bassi and his team goes to show how we can Re-imagine Agriculture through an inspired idea and the dedication of a team of people with a common goal. This breakthrough not only creates a viable and scalable solution which will potentially improve the lives of so many in the Senegal Basin, it could also be of great benefit to other regions affected by rising temperatures in the face of climate change.”
Dr. Pascal Kosuth, Director of Agropolis Fondation said: “The African region has, on average, the lowest agricultural productivity in the world; and many countries from the continent have met increased demand for food through overseas food imports. Developing sustainable agricultural production under severe climatic conditions and family farming systems requires an integrated effort – from plant breeding and seed systems to production systems, to product value chain as well as extension and training of farmers. This is why the panel of independent international experts convened by the Agropolis Fondation, unanimously selected the ICARDA project as this year’s winner of the Olam Prize for Innovation in Food Security.”