Durum wheat varieties can withstand 40C heat along the Senegal River basin, and could produce 600,000 tonnes of food.
In the northern Senegalese village of Ndiayene Pendao, close to the border with Mauritania, Fatouma Sow is pulling weeds. Her team of female farmers tread carefully among the tall, ripening plants as they prepare to harvest the country’s first ever crop of durum wheat.
They had grown onions and tomatoes on the one-hectare plot (2.47 acres), Sow explains, but the crops took too long to grow and disrupted the essential rice growing season. Now the wheat offers a fast-growing, lucrative alternative.
Following four years of trials, which saw thousands of wheat varieties tested in the unforgiving sub-Saharan heat, scientists have successfully turned what was first thought of as a “crazy idea” into a vital new food crop. With more than 1 million smallholders living along the Senegal River basin, which also runs through Mali and Mauritania, it was an important strategic area to trial the wheat.
The new variety of wheat is fast growing, and can be harvested in just 92 days, ensuring it doesn’t impact on the rice. It can produce six tonnes per hectare, despite requiring less water than rice, and contains five times more protein, as well as more vitamins and minerals. Straw from the fields will also provide an important feed for livestock.
The strain of wheat can withstand constant 40C temperatures, and has been developed by the International Centre for Research in the Dry Areas (Icarda). The so-called drylands cover more than 40% of the world’s land surface and despite the challenges, remain huge centres of agriculture, supporting half the world’s livestock.
Wheat is traditionally seen as a cold climate crop, with most of it grown in the northern hemisphere. To find a strain that could withstand the heat of the African savannah, a genome fingerprinting research project was led by Icarda’s Dr Filippo Bassi and Prof Rodomiro Ortiz, from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.
“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,” Kosuth says.