Soil salinity, frost and heat remain the main abiotic stresses to winter wheat production in many parts of Central Asia. They affect yields and farmers' incomes. So much of international research effort in the region is focused on identifying and developing improved winter wheat varieties resistant to these factors. This is also a focus of the CGIAR Research Program Dryland Systems led by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in the Aral Sea Action Site. In recent years considerable work has been carried out to this effect.
As a result of collaboration with scientists in Uzbekistan, for example, formal research into winter wheat is well under way at various demonstration sites. Winter wheat accessions are being tested for high yields and resistance to salinity, frost and heat. To date ICARDA scientists and their research partners in Khorezm Region and Karakalpakstan, both in Uzbekistan, have evaluated a large number of improved germplasm of winter wheat for tolerance to salinity, frost and heat. Several new varieties have been identified as a result. And a few are on the way. Most recently, researchers have found two winter wheat lines tolerant of medium-level soil salinity and frost. Researchers now also have solutions for farmers who sometimes fail to grow winter wheat for one reason or another. There are, for example, new varieties of spring wheat which are fast-maturing and heat-resistant. There are also heat-tolerant chickpea varieties.
While research is making progress, practice in the field still lags behind. Farmers usually lack either knowledge about improved varieties and technologies or do not have access to seeds of the improved varieties. But sometimes they have neither. This means that scientists need to engage more with farmers and train young agronomists who can really help farmers. So scientists are now doing more to promote their research findings among farmers and keep them up to date with best practices. More and more farms are also becoming testing grounds for new technologies and varieties. These farms often serve as examples of the advantages of improved varieties at events like farmers' field days. Researchers also listen more carefully to what farmers want as a growing number of farmers are being involved in evaluation of new varieties.
Engaging farmers in wheat evaluation was also the purpose of two field days in Chimbay District, Karakalpakstan, and Urgench, Khorezm Region of Uzbekistan, on 4 and 7 June 2015 respectively. More than 100 farmers, including women, took part in these events. The field days were particularly productive for two reasons. First, local authorities and senior officials were present. They had a chance to learn first-hand about work being done under the Dryland Systems program. Speaking at the field day in Chimbay District, chairman of the Supreme Assembly of Karakalpakstan Musa Erniyazov noted that new varieties could boost grain production in Karakalpakstan. Furthermore, he said, it was important to increase wheat seed production as a large share of seed comes from other regions, including Andijan. He added that the authorities are keen and ready to support local seed production. He also pointed out that it was necessary to strengthen seed production and capacity-building efforts should be a priority. Second, farmers had a chance to evaluate the performance of new winter wheat varieties for themselves. New varieties they selected during these events would be tested further. Thus, most of the farmers in Urgench, for example, selected the new variety 'Yaksart'.
All this work once again demonstrates how important international collaboration and support are in dealing with wheat production constraints affecting food security in Central Asia. As Dr Ram Sharma, of ICARDA, said: "Cultivation of new varieties will help to increase wheat production in Central Asia as a whole. We hope that all countries can benefit from using new varieties in wheat research and breeding programs."