Meet the Winner: The Olam Prize for Innovation in Food Security

Interview with Dr Filippo Bassi of ICARDA and Olam Prize for Innovation in Food Security Winner

The winner of the 2017 Olam Prize for Innovation in Food Security epitomises what is possible when you put the farmer at the centre of all you do. The winning research by Dr Filippo Bassi of ICARDA (the International Centre for Research in the Dry Areas) and his international research team could transform the lives of over 1 million smallholder farmers in the Senegal Basin by helping them to grow durum wheat in extreme heat.  We got to find out more.

1. A ‘treasure chest of primitive wheats’ was at the heart of the research project that won the Olam Prize. Can you tell us more?

Over the centuries, our crops have become ‘domesticated’ which means humans have adapted them to fit a simplified environment with certain characteristics favoured, such as higher yields. Whilst this process has been advantageous for agricultural output, we are now seeing that resilience is missing in some of these crops to events such as our changing climate. To adapt to climate change, therefore, we need to find ways of putting this resilience back.

One of the greatest treasures of ICARDA is our gene bank, which is ranked amongst the top ten globally and, with thousands of unique accessions (individual types) stored, holds the largest collection of primitive wheats in the world. These seeds date back thousands of years to the very origins of agriculture itself and, as they have not undergone the process of domestication, they are a potential treasure chest of primitive diversity for adaptation to unfavourable climatic conditions.

We have been able to use conventional cross-breeding techniques to isolate the primitive genes that will give modern varieties of durum wheat good heat tolerance. This has enabled the crop to perform exceptionally well under the harsh conditions of the Senegal River. It’s not only a potentially life changing discovery for smallholder famers in Senegal, Mauritania and Mali in the Senegal Basin, but also for all farmers struggling with the increasing climatic temperatures.

2. Life-changing, how?

Senegal, Mauritania and Mali are famine-affected, poor countries ranking 67th, 83rd and 94th in the 2017 Global Hunger Index. Irrigation in the Senegal River Basin has created 200,000 hectares of land suitable for rice cultivation. However, malnutrition and poverty are still soaring in the area.

By being able to develop super-early, heat tolerant durum wheat that can be grown in heat of up to 40 degrees in just 90 days on the land normally left fallow between rice seasons, this discovery allows for the expansion of food production, equivalent to 175 servings of pasta per person per year for the area, without impacting rice growing. This crop also has the potential to create 600,000 tonnes of new food for West Africa, thereby increasing food security in the region

3. How does it feel to know your work could lift smallholder farmers out of poverty?

Our research work at ICARDA focuses on delivering practical solutions that farmers can utilise and to know that Olam understands the issues facing millions of smallholder farmers and wants to support the work we are doing is rewarding.

I’m extremely proud that this project will not only benefit farmers in Senegal, Mauritania and Mali but, due to ICARDA’s policy of annually sharing research freely with hundreds of partners across the globe, this capacity to sustain heat could be transferred to other varieties and help farmers facing raising climatic temperatures in other parts of the world.

Editor's Note:

The 2017 Louis Malassis Prize & Olam Prize for Food Security

Scientists hold some of the key answers to so many of today’s agricultural challenges at their fingertips. Our support for this community is vital if we are to deliver the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Agropolis founder Louis Malassis knew this, long before the SDGs came along, and set up an international campus in Montpellier, France as a home to one of the world’s largest concentrations of scientific skills and expertise in agriculture, food and the environment.

The Agropolis Fondation Louis Malassis Prize has been established in his honour to recognise some of the brightest scientific minds. Agropolis Fondation has also partnered with the Olam Prize for Innovation in Food Security to recognise agricultural innovation and help advance agricultural sciences and sustainable development through research for food security.

Ahead of this year’s awards ceremony, Olam chats to the winners.

You can read more prize winner interviews here.

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