Indian wheat adventures

our group

Following on from the BBSRC-DBT joint workshop on Crop Genomics in May last year, a return visit of UK scientists to India was organised in order to discuss further collaborations in wheat research. I was lucky enough to be invited to represent Keith Edwards’ group from the University of Bristol on this trip along organised by Peter Shewry (Rothamsted Research and the University of Reading). Also attending were Martin Parry (RRes), Malcolm Hawkesford (RRes), Sally Wilkinson (Lancaster University), Andy Greenland (NIAB) and Mike Gooding (University of Reading). The timing of the trip was fortuitous (thanks to Peter’s organisation!) for couple of reasons – firstly, a couple of weeks before was a BBSRC-DBT announcement for a joint call in Crops Genomics and Technologies, giving us a focus to structure our discussions around. Secondly, the wheat was heading in the fields, so a great time to see the field trials in action. Lastly, the weather was a pleasant 28-30°C during the day without a cloud in the sky!

Wheat field trials at the Directorate of Wheat Research, Karnal

Having focussed on UK and European wheat varieties in my own research it was fascinating to see and hear how differently wheat is grown in India. The country is divided into six different zones based upon geography and climate. We were visiting the North Western Plains zone, which produces the highest yields, however field trials are conducted across all the different zones, and different varieties are specifically bred for each zone. In this region the growing season begins in around November when the wheat is sown, and the crop is harvested in April, with the time to maturity taking 125-150 days on average. In this way 2-3 wheat crops may be harvested from the same land in one year, although common practice is to rotate wheat with rice or maize in the hotter months. The highest yielding varieties give around 5 tonnes/hectare per harvest. However, despite the distinct differences in climate and geography, there are still similarities in the challenges that both UK and Indian wheat breeders face. We are both breeding for an uncertain future in terms of climate change, resource availability and pest/disease prevalence. More specifically, there are common issues such as heat stress, drought and waterlogging and in pests and diseases such as rusts, blights and aphids. Breeding for productivity and quality are important aims for both countries. Addressing all these issues as well as sharing skills and resources provides plenty of opportunities for collaborations between the UK and India.

Lodi Gardens, New Delhi (photo courtesy of Malcolm Hawkesford)

Wheat aside, this was my first trip to India and I found it to be exotic, hectic and fascinating. I managed to visit several historic sights in Delhi, including the Red Fort, Humayun's tomb and the beautiful Lodi gardens. A climb up the 40m tall minaret of Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque, gave spectacular views of the city and a chance to orientate myself with the maze of roads and markets that we had travelled through. Up here we were surrounded by magnificent black kites, which are common scavengers in Delhi, rather like seagulls back home. The shopping was great, with beautiful jewellery, fabrics and ornaments at colourful markets and shops. The roads are chaotic, and sometimes scary – the motorway out of Delhi was crazy, with every type of vehicle you could imagine, including camel-drawn carts! The trip out of Karnal to see wheat trials grown on a farmland was even more of an adventure, combining the largest potholes I have ever seen and a minibus with apparently no suspension! The food was delicious and the hospitality great, and the company of my fellow travellers made the trip great fun as well as interesting and productive. Many thanks to Peter Shewry for organising the trip, the DWR, IARI and NBPGR institutes for hosting us and BBSRC for funding.

Alexandra (Sacha) Allen



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