The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation website declares that two simple values lie at the core of the foundation’s work: all lives, no matter where they are being lived, have equal value; and to whom much is given, much is expected.
To this extent, the Gates Foundation has granted Cornell $26.8 million to fund the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat program.
“The overall mission of this project is to protect world wheat production from the urgent threat posed by new variants of stem rust disease emerging out of East Africa,” reads the project’s executive summary. “The expected impact is to prevent catastrophic losses of wheat production among resource-poor farmers in Africa and Asia.”
Ronnie Coffman, director of the program, said that stem rust is an airborne disease that can be carried hundreds of miles by the wind. It can destroy a crop of wheat in just a few days, and is called stem rust because it looks just like what rust on metal looks like.
“It’s an age old disease and many people believe it’s the source of the biblical plague,” said Coffman.
Resource-poor farmers are especially vulnerable to the effects of the disease because they cannot afford the chemicals that more wealthy farmers use to protect their crops.
According to Coffman, however, stem rust is also a big problem in the central United States, particularly in the Great Plains region. Stem rust is not a major problem in the Eastern United States because the type of wheat grown here is not normally affected by it.
“It thrives in dry environments and where there are strong winds, which allow it to spread quickly,” Coffman said.
Cornell will manage the project, but it is an international effort involving 15 institutional partners. According to Coffman, the money will be allocated to completing the project’s 10 objectives and creating subcontracts with the other partners. Cornell’s role includes planning the second phase of the project as well as advocacy to bring in other institutions.
Cornell is also responsible for one of the major scientific objects of the project, which is developing molecular markers. Prof. Mark Sorrells, plant breeding, is leading the research on campus.
“Our job is to develop the molecular tools that will be necessary to speed up the development of resistant varieties of wheat,” Sorrells said.
According to Sorrells, $440,000 from the grant has been allocated to his research for a three-year period, which means around $150,000 per year. The money will support postdoctoral scientists, travel and supplies. Sorrells is also managing $1.4 million of the grant because he is overseeing contracts with five other institutions.
“The proposal [for the grant] has all of the money allocated, including the association of investments with milestones, outputs, and outcomes,” said Mark Ward, the project coordinator.
Ward said that part of the money will go to Ethiopia and Kenya to support the screening facilities there.
The three of the international agricultural research centers involved in the project will also receive some of the grant. The centers are the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas in Syria and the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. CIMMYT and ICARDA provide a lot of the spring wheat variety that farmers grow in the developing world.
“We have other partners associated in investments in discovering new genes and manipulating those genes to make them more effective,” Ward said. “We have resources to plan the next phase in three years, and money for advocacy to raise awareness.”
The term of the grant is for three years, and phase two of the project includes planning for future funding.