Wheat drought-tolerance to enhance food security in Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab Spring

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The beginning of the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011, a regional revolution which started in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid in late 2010, occurred in part as a result of drought-triggered high wheat prices, which in the past led to ‘bread riots’ across several Middle East and North Africa (MENA) nations. Here we present, for the first time, an analysis of possible amelioration of wheat yield loss and greater stability in bread supply resulting from the incorporation of putative drought-tolerant traits into wheat cultivars grown in Tunisia. To this end, we used a simulation crop modeling approach using SSM-Wheat to evaluate yield loss or gain resulting from three types of water-saving traits that have been recently identified in wheat. These consisted in partial stomatal closure at high soil water content, overall decrease in transpiration rate (TR), and partial stomatal closure under elevated vapor pressure deficit (VPD). To capture large gradients in seasonal precipitation across wheat growing areas over a small country such as Tunisia, a grid pattern of 29 × 29 km was established as a basis for the geospatial simulation. Surprisingly, the simulation reflected opposite strategies in terms of water use (water-saving vs aggressive water use). The highest yield gain (30%) resulting from water-saving modification was found to occur in the food-insecure region of Sidi Bouzid. Traits enabling aggressive water use were found to be generally favorable across Tunisia, with one trait leading to up to 80% and 40% increases in yield and its stability in the food-challenged south of the country. However, major yield penalties were found to occur if water-saving traits were to be deployed in the ‘wrong’ region. Those findings could be used as a blueprint to navigate complex trait × environment interactions and to better inform local breeding and management programs to improve wheat yield and it stability in Tunisia and the MENA region in general.




Sadok, W., Schoppach, R., Ghanem, M. E., Zucca, C., & Sinclair, T. R. (2019). Wheat drought-tolerance to enhance food security in Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab Spring. European Journal of Agronomy, 107, 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eja.2019.03.009

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