This project aims to modernise the Ethiopian sorghum breeding program at the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR).
Sorghum is the world’s fifth most important cereal and a staple food crop of millions in the semi-arid tropics. It is crucially important to food security in Africa as it is grown in the drier and resource poor areas, where its capacity to better tolerate drought, high temperature, and low fertility make it a preferred crop to maize. Although sorghum tolerates stress, drought still causes significant crop losses and food insecurity in major sorghum growing regions in Ethiopia.
More effective use of water in these environments by improved tailoring of genetic and management options could reduce the effect of drought considerably. Local infrastructure and skills to conduct effective crop improvement programs in Ethiopia are limited, but investment to enhance local capacity could produce substantial and enduring benefits.
This project is part of a larger co-investment with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to enhance sorghum crop improvement in Ethiopia’s dry lowlands.
2014-15: Good progress was made on the three objectives of the project, co-funded and co-managed with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Objective 1: To enhance the effectiveness and capacity of the national sorghum breeding programs in Ethiopia and Objective 2: To improve productivity of sorghum in the target rainfall zones of Ethiopia by a combination of breeding and agronomic research.
These 2 objectives progressed together. The strategy of the breeding program in Ethiopia was updated following a joint workshop. EIAR breeders developed two clear breeding strategies to improve varieties for the dry lowlands: Strategy 1: Improving existing landrace varieties with high farmer acceptance and Strategy 2: Development of a pedigree breeding program aimed at improving key quantitative traits for dry lowlands. Strategy 1 is a short term approach using marker assisted backcrossing to introduce major effect QTL for stay-green and striga resistance into local landraces with high farmer acceptance. Strategy 2 is longer term strategy aimed at producing new varieties with enhanced performance and quality using a forward breeding approach (modified pedigree). This approach will attempt to change multiple quantitative traits and will involve larger populations and recycling of material. New technologies have started to be applied, to collect, store and manage phenotypic data, and to analyse the data and make breeding decisions, using crop modelling, adapted to the Ethiopian germplasm and environment. The Project has introduced to EIAR molecular marker technology, based on local extraction of quality DNA and genotyping by an Australian commercial service provider (DNA-to-data service). The Project has also introduced Near InfraRed spectroscopy technology to measure sorghum samples for quality traits.
Objective 3: To increase understanding of key drought adaptation mechanisms in sorghum and develop tools and germplasm sources to apply this understanding effectively in applied breeding programs. Activities towards this objective have progressed in Australia according to plan. Nested Association mapping families were increased and genotype information was obtained. A new high throughput phenotyping system for Transpiration Efficiency was commissioned and tested.
2015-16: The project co-funded and co-managed with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) has 2 main objectives in Ethiopia. Objective 1: To enhance the effectiveness and capacity of the national sorghum breeding programs in Ethiopia and Objective 2: To improve productivity of sorghum in the target rainfall zones of Ethiopia by a combination of breeding and agronomic research. A third Objective (“Increasing understanding of key drought adaptation mechanisms in sorghum and developing tools and germplasm sources to apply this understanding effectively in applied breeding programs”) covers more basic science activities in Australia, essentially supported by BMGF.
In 2015-16, the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research EIAR sorghum breeding program substantially modernised in all dimensions supported by the project.
The EIAR breeders have identified two product concepts and built breeding pipelines to deliver these concepts through their variety development program. In deciding on these targets they have balanced the current preferences of farmers for local landraces particularly due to their interest in biomass with the longer term need for shorter duration varieties which are more suited to increasingly drier seasons.
Product concept 1: Local landraces with Striga resistance and stay green. Rapid introgression of Striga resistance and stay green traits into popular existing cultivars.
Product concept 2: Early maturing varieties with acceptable yield, quality and biomass production. Stable and moderate yielding Open Pollinate Varieties for low input systems, combining earliness, good biomass and optimum grain yield with a range of preferred head and kernel traits (eg durra head shape).
New technologies introduced in the breeding program include: statistical methods, molecular markers, Near InfraRed spectroscopy for grain quality evaluation, characterisation of the environment and the cropping system using crop-based model APSIM, electronic data capture and management, electronic field books. Some technologies have also been spontaneously adopted outside the project by EIAR teams breeding other crops.
The project has prepared all sorghum data and historical records to facilitate their transfer in an effective and user-friendly plant breeding database, yet to be chosen and installed at the Melkassa research station of EIAR. The selected system BMS (the Breeding Management System of the Integrated Breeding Platform) is not yet ready to use; its progress will be monitored in the coming year and if suitable data will be transferred.
The environment and crop modelling activity established that carry-over of stored soil water from one season to the next (due to late rains during grain filling) was an important factor in the stress level experienced in the subsequent season. This provides opportunity for prediction of risk of crop failure as well as for adjusting Genetic x Management (GxM) to suit the specific circumstance. This possibility will be further explored in the GxMxEnvironment simulation analysis planned for the coming year.
The main risk to the future progress and the sustainability of the modernised breeding program is the over commitment and potential turnover of skilled EIAR staff.