Durum Wheat and Crop Varieties – Making the Difference?

Crop varieties and genetic modifications have been in existence for years, but that doesn’t mean that advancements are not still in progress and still making real change. In northern Africa and other parts of the world, particularly those near the equator, agriculture struggles because of an inability to support growth during times of high heat. However, crop modifications are helping alleviate those struggles by allowing farmers the opportunity to grow crops they otherwise would have been unable to produce. A new strain of Durum wheat is one such example.

Photograph: Filippo Bassi/Icarda

The new strain, created by the International Center for Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), can survive in extremely hot temperatures – hotter than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Historically, wheat has been a crop produced in colder temperatures, because those are the only conditions it used to be able to exist in. Now, thanks to the work of groups like the International Center for Research in Dry Areas, the world can maximize productivity of hotter, drier areas like those of northern Africa.

Being that human (labor) capital is a key component of economic development, new innovations in the field of crop modification play an important role in the promotion of economic growth. As time progresses and humans are forced to adapt to changing climate conditions, genetic modifications like the creation of this new strain are going to become even more important to the promotion of a healthy population. This new strain in particular will be beneficial to those areas of Sub-Saharan Africa and other extreme-heat regions in which agriculture is typically hindered by the climate.

With all the benefits that these genetic crop modifications can have there are still aspects of the process and its results that have people justifiably worried about potential negative effects of the food. Besides the scientifically disputed long-term health effects of consuming genetically modified crops, there are an assortment of other negative externalities to consider when discussing their benefit. Of these include the rise in population of insecticide-immune bugs, a reduction of environmental biodiversity and the fact that poor farmers can’t harvest new seeds from old crops. For all these reasons and more, some people are questionable about just how big a role genetically modified crops should play in our ever-evolving future. For now, though, the tangible difference that their implementation is making in areas like Sub-Saharan Africa make them a necessary part of the sustainable development in places where agriculture is not always easy.

Works Cited

“10 Problems Genetically Modified Foods Are Already Causing.” Listverse, 22 June 2013.

“New Durum and Spring Wheat Varieties Perfect for North Dakota, Montana.” Dakota Farmer, 21 Nov. 2017.

Wheat in Heat: The “Crazy Idea” That Could Combat Food Insecurity. Global Development | The Guardian. Accessed 27 Mar. 2018.


NOTE: The ICARDA website indicates this is not a GMO but rather the result of standard selective crop breeding. These are not hybrids, they can be replanted. That’s a core component of the strategy of CGIAR institutions, because otherwise new varieties would be of little use to poor farmers, as one of the comments below indicates.

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11 Responses to Durum Wheat and Crop Varieties – Making the Difference?

  1. the prof says:

    One note: this is not a “GMO” but rather a “traditionally” bred cultivar. Of course everything we eat, and all our pets, are genetically modified through selective breeding. I’m not sure why those don’t come under attack as “unnatural” but only things that use modern biotechnology that can modify specific genes.

  2. pezzij19 says:

    There are two things this post made me think of. The first, it seems like we are coming closer to a Bladerunner world. We can control food, disease, a good portion of our bodies, and we obviously have an enormous impact on the environment around us; we are slowly defeating nature. In several ways this is good. We are able to reduce disease, lengthen life, and feed more people which all will have the inevitable positive effect on the economy by increasing human capital/labor and increasing productivity. But one thing I’d be interesting learning about, that I’m sure has conflicting answers, is how environmental degradation affects economic development. There is the obvious immediate profit that can come from logging, energy production, or fishing, but one thing I wonder is how natural exploitation can end up hurting an economy. I’m sure Professor can say more on this, but I read somewhere that China is losing 6% of their GDP in premature deaths from pollution. (http://fortune.com/2013/01/28/chinas-environment-an-economic-death-sentence/ for more info) An enormous amount of money is spent in healthcare to deal with the effects of pollution.
    And that’s just the human aspect, but the destruction or overexploitation of different resources I’m sure has a big impact as well.

    The second thing that struck me was the trade off of this new wheat. Maybe I’m not understanding correctly, but if farmers can’t collect seeds from old plants, then this new progress may not reach many who truly need it. For many impoverished or subsistence farmers in areas of the developing world, buying new seeds every year from these institutions may not be an option. I’m sure there is a considerable price attached to the production, transportation and delivery of them. Poor farmers might just assume the risk of the heat. But of course there is the positive aspect of the trade off that the wheat is more likely to maintain in the sheering heat.

  3. cashj18 says:

    These modified crops will certainly have a positive effect on the supply of food for these countries where crop yields have historically been lower. The conditions of Northern Africa have never been conducive to high yields of crops, and it is a testament to the progression of technology that farmers in that area can now cultivate plants that manage to thrive in these conditions. The concern about the health effects of consuming these crops is warranted, but until convincing research surfaces concerning their safety, the economic and social benefits outweigh the costs. The only problem that I see with these crops is that farmers cannot collect seeds from old plants. This may not be a huge issue if the seeds themselves are inexpensive, but the necessity of buying new seeds for every crop could be cumbersome on the poorer farmers, and farmers across the board will have to modify their habits to make this work. One question I have about this is do the plants simply not produce seeds, or do the seeds they produce just not work as intended?

    Overall this is a great development for the welfare of areas where crops have a hard time growing, and these crops will likely yield high economic returns and social benefits for those areas.

  4. herndono20 says:

    GMO’s like Durum can be extremely beneficial for heat intensive regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa, that were previously unable to farm year round because of dry and overused soil. They provide health food that is otherwise very difficult to attain, and they allow for increased productivity year round. But like every economic decision, they must consider the opportunity costs.

    How would it be for countries with struggling economies to import these new genetically modified seeds? What would be the overall value added? Domestic farmers that used these seeds would have to abandon their previously grown crops, and would rely on FDI to obtain these seeds.

    Another big concern is the external effects of growing Durum on the environment. Climate change and Sustainability are growing issues. World is aware of the issue but countries are unwilling to spare economic profit for the sake of being more sustainable. I predict this being an issue with the implementation of GMO’s in these developing countries.

    But all risks considered, I think this would be a move necessary to aid the agricultural sector in several developing countries; especially those struggling with health and hunger.

  5. ahny19 says:

    Agricultural innovations like the strain of Durum wheat are certainly attractive for countries in the tropics who have a greater burden of disease, erratic climate, and poor-quality soil for agriculture compared to countries in temperate zones. Although the potentially adverse long-term health effects and reduction of environmental biodiversity carries risks, the economic growth and development that can be attained through GMO’s appears substantial. Equatorial countries such as Nigeria aren’t left with many alternatives for agriculture and so I’m compelled to agree with Cash and Herndon that the benefits outweigh the costs.
    One concern that I am curious about is the global nature of increased environmental risks and conservation. Among the Sustainable Development Goals are objectives like climate action and responsible consumption/production; if agricultural innovations embraced by Nigeria are potentially harming the environment, would the UN ever intervene or attempt to inhibit the country’s production? Such acts would also be in conflict with other SDG such as decreased poverty and hunger.

  6. reamest18 says:

    I think there are two perspectives on GMO’s create conflicting opinions on their impact. First, GMO’s are not just used in areas where the base crop would traditonally struggle to grow. Instead, major domestic corporations use modified seeds to increase yields, reduce crop loss, and improve harvest times. The goal of these initiatives is to help drive the top and bottom line – not to solve a hunger issue. A lot of the negative attention given to GMO’s centers around these companies.

    On the other hand, you have situations such as the one outlined above. These seeds are providing for a region a crop that they otherwise were unable to have unless imported at a high cost. Access to new crops can provide many benefits to improve the livelihoods of the local people. As evidenced in the comments above, many people see this as a good thing.

    I am not sure that you have to take a side either way, but I do think it is important to acknowledge the fact that though the seeds can have great benefits to developing nations, they are also being used domestically to drive performance.

  7. mesisklism19 says:

    This new strain could help combat areas suffering from climate change. If wheat is hardier and more amenable to hot, dry weather, African countries like Mali and Niger may also use this crop to bolster their own agriculture.

    This has been a big problem since the Green Revolution, as the crops developed under that initiative were mainly colder-climate HYCs. Thusly, north china, Europe, and the US benefits more. With this new wheat strain, India, Indonesia, Southeast asia, and sub-saharan africa will be able to sustain their burgeoning population growth.

  8. Chris DuPont says:

    This is a huge development for the entire world economy and agriculture as an industry. The development of new heat resistant wheat will now allow developing countries, who have traditionally had very poor agriculture, to grow crops and spur economic development. Africa in particular will greatly benefit from this improvement however there are a few issues that may arise. In particular the price of this new wheat may pose a problem. Many developing countries in Africa are quite poor and may not be able to afford such advanced agriculture, so the government might have to provide help in the form of subsidies or credits for these farmers to encourage the purchase and utilization of this new technology.

  9. aidanchandless says:

    The issue of the potential downsides of genetically modified organisms is something that many third world countries don’t have the luxury to worry about. Many of these countries struggle to feed their population, so they have almost no choice whether or not to use the GMO crops. Their are some problems that the US has faced when specific GMO crops are owned by large corporations. There have been cases of Monsanto and similar companies planting GMO crops near the border of other farms, and then suing the other farms when the Monsanto crops spread to the other farmers fields. Another interesting issue facing the Northern Africans is the spreading of the Sahara. The Sahara spreads farther South every year and up to this point a clear solution has not presented itself. One of the more interesting potential solutions is the reintroduction of large animal herds to the South Sahara. There used to be large herds of grazing animals before they were over hunted, and these herds trampled the grass they walked over creating protection for the soil. This soil doesn’t dry out, preventing it from becoming arid desert.

  10. Banks Pflager says:

    GMOs that can create crops for people who cannot typically grow crops seems like a good argument for GMOs. The health affects that come with these GMOs require a cost-benefit analysis by individual countries. Some may be less susceptible to some of the risks that come with the GMOs and they could have a significant benefit to the country as a whole. The economy can also not only progress but find a solid base with strong agriculture. Countries would be able to increase GDP and increase overall health of their citizens. One question I have is about the requirements of growing wheat and whether or not sub-saharan African countries will be able to maintain steady, consistent growing crops.

    • the prof says:

      My sense of the biology is that the issue is not health threats, but that weeds will pick up genes that instill resistance to herbicides. I’m not sure how likely that is – very different species. In the US there’s the meme that “XYZ is not proven safe.” Of course that’s a logical impossibility, so it’s a straw man argument. All we can say is that “with a 99.9% confidence level Effect ABC is not present.” It is possible to (almost) prove something unsafe…qualified only because any such conclusions must be built using statistical arguments.

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