IT has been a successful year for grain crops in Pakistan, as the country has released 20 new high-yielding, disease-resistant and climate change–resilient wheat and maize varieties during the year so far.

The achievement came mainly on the back of a partnership between the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) with support from the US development agency USAID.

Being the apex federal institution, PARC approved 10 new varieties of wheat for commercial cultivation, while provincial the provincial seed councils of Punjab and Balochistan approved four and six new open-pollinated varieties (OPVs) of maize.

These OPVs have been developed mainly for small-scale farmers to reduce the cost of seed without compromising the average yield. For the first time, the seed council of Balochistan approved any maize variety in the province.

According to the CIMMYT’s representative in Pakistan, Dr Muhammad Imtiaz, all the approved wheat and maize varieties have been tested vigorously by federal and provincial research organisations.

The production of high-yielding and disease-resistant varieties has come at a time when the government has launched the agriculture emergency programme

Initially, the introduced germplasm was distributed to research institutes across the country for performance evaluation and screening against diseases and climate challenges.

After the initial testing, the selected candidate lines were evaluated through National Uniform Yield Trial for two more years across Pakistan. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, four new wheat varieties were developed by Cereal Crops Research Institute, Nuclear Institute for Food and Agriculture and Barani Agricultural Research Stations of Kohat.

The Wheat Research Institute of Faisalabad, Arid Zone Research Institute of Bhakkar, and Regional Research Institute of Bahawalpur have released three new wheat varieties for Punjab farmers.

Additionally, the National Agriculture Research Centre has released one wheat variety for rain-fed areas of Punjab. Furthermore, the Maize and Millets Research Institute in Sahiwal came up with four new maize OPVs for resource-limited, small-scale farmers in the maize-growing regions of Pakistan.

In Balochistan, the Agriculture Research Institute of Quetta has released two wheat and six maize varieties, which are more yielding and resistant to droughts. All these varieties can produce ten to 20 per cent more yield and would be instrumental for food security.

PARC Chairman Dr Muhammad Azeem said the varietal diversity has enhanced the crop productivity and saved wheat and maize crops from rust. The last year’s crop debacle though resulted in grain loss, but the effects of rust were minimised.

The production of high-yielding and disease-resistant varieties has come at a time when the government has launched the agriculture emergency programme. Public-Private participation now needs to be strengthened for the availability of certified seeds to farmers, he said.

Dr Imtiaz of the CIMMYT said that the research partnership between Pakistan, the United States, and the CIMMYT has played a vital role in improving food security in the country. More than 70pc of current wheat varieties grown in Pakistan come either directly from CIMMYT selections or Pakistani cross-breeding programmes and at least 50pc of improved maize varieties are derived from joint research from the CIMMYT and Pakistan.

In Pakistan, about 65pc population depends on agriculture, and the sector makes up 24pc of GDP. Among major crops, wheat, rice and maize are the three most important cereal crops and contribute 63pc share in value-added agriculture. Developing genetically improved and stress-tolerant crop varieties ensures sustainability and food and nutritional security.

The USAID-funded Agricultural Innovation Programme has also helped Pakistan’s national partners to have access to improved rice and vegetable varieties. More than 1,172 advanced rice lines having various traits were introduced and distributed to 11 institutions throughout the country in public and private sectors for evaluation against important rice disease like bacterial blight and abiotic stresses (such as submergence, drought, salinity, low and high temperatures), tolerance, yield potential and grain quality.

Of these germplasm, four bacterial leaf blight–resistant basmati varieties have been approved by the provincial seed council and the variety evaluation committee of PARC.

Bacterial blight disease–resistant super basmati, BR1 and BR2 were selected and developed by the National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering in Faisalabad while varieties Super Basmati 2019 and Super Gold were selected and developed by the Rice Research Institute in Kala Shah Kaku.

All advanced super basmati rice varieties are resistant to bacterial blight disease, a major yield-limiting factor of basmati in Punjab, and producing 10pc to 12pc higher yields and better grain quality than traditional super basmati. Besides, super gold variety is also tolerant to flooding.

Similarly, the Nuclear Institute for Agriculture and Biology (NIAB) of Faisalabad has released two tomato hybrids, namely Niab Gohar and Niab Jauher, for commercial cultivation. All these and many other innovations like Zero-Till Happy Seeder and the Direct Seed Rice technology would only become possible due to close partnership between national and international stakeholders.

The CIMMYT is one of the 15 non-profit, research and training institutions affiliated with the CGIAR, a global partnership that unites international organizations engaged in research for a food-secured future. In addition to Pakistan, it has a strong presence in South and West Asian countries like Afghanistan, India, China, Turkey, Bangladesh and Nepal. Some of these countries provided support from their own resources while others are helped with donor support.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, December 23rd, 2019