As farmers increasingly plant modern varieties of wheat, traditional wheat landraces are in decline. Yet the genetic diversity found in these hardy traditional varieties could be crucial for the future of wheat production.
A new series of publications from FAO introduces wheat landraces in the Central Asia subregion, starting with Tajikistan, Turkey and Uzbekistan. The experts visited farms across the three countries, talked with farmers, and surveyed the wheat varieties being grown.
The publications unravel an elaborate list of local wheat varieties with detailed information about where, why, how and under what conditions farmers continue to grow them. The research also delves into the trends that affect cultivation of local varieties – from socio-economic, geographic and agronomic perspectives. Also included is a set of recommendations for decision-makers for preserving genetic diversity.
Farmers opt for modern wheat varieties for different reasons – high yields, easy market access, and resistance to diseases, for example. Use of local varieties has become unusual, and tends to occur in remote rural areas. This wheat is usually consumed at household level and never reaches the market.
Domination of the market by modern varieties is resulting in loss of genetic diversity that may be needed to cope with climate change and other phenomena in the years ahead. Local wheat varieties have the ability to adapt to extreme weather conditions and a broad range of soil types. Without a supply of diverse genetic material, countries are prone to risks like environmental changes and sudden onslaughts of plant pests or diseases.
“Few people are aware of local wheat varieties and their vital features for preserving genetic diversity,” said Hafiz Muminjanov, FAO plant production and protection officer. “These publications serve as an information source about wheat landraces, and as a guide for decision-makers. Much can be done to support farmers who grow the local varieties, to promote consumer awareness, and to increase market opportunities.”
The studies showed that Turkey – known as one of centres of origin and diversity for wheat – has seen a significant decline in its local wheat varieties. Local landraces today account for less than 1 percent of total wheat production. Over the past 75 years, according to field surveys, the number of wheat landraces fell from 37 to 7 in Balikesir, a western province of Turkey.
“We need to raise awareness of the importance of local wheat varieties,” said Muminjanov. “If farmers are supported by appropriate polices, they will be able to compete and market success will follow. In this way, we will be ensuring both biodiversity and the livelihoods of small farmers.”
FAO carried out wheat landrace inventories in farmers’ fields with support from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), and national researchers.