Innovative ways of improving the livelihoods of dryland farm families in Africa and Asia through strategic investments in research was the theme of the Governing Board Meeting held on 25-27 September at ICRISAT-Patancheru. Issues discussed in depth included monitoring and evaluation, impact assessments and scaling up digital agriculture.
Speaking on the occasion, Dr S Trilochan Mohapatra, Secretary (DARE) & Director General (ICAR) and Member of ICRISAT’s Governing Board remarked, “India witnessed an all-time production high in pulses in 2017.” While the production increase was partly due to the expansion of land under pulses, it was boosted by the adoption of high-yielding varieties and cultivars. “ICRISAT’s efforts are much appreciated in the realms of crop research and collaboration with government bodies. Integrating breeding strategies and new areas of genomics is an important issue worldwide and for India, and we must move faster in this direction,” he emphasized. While underlining the importance of South-South collaboration between national programs and ICRISAT engaging in Africa, he said there was greater scope to work together with ICAR to fill technology gaps.
Dr Nigel Kirby, Chair of the Board, highlighted the importance of plant breeding. “It is important to relate genotypes that are in germplasm collections to phenotypes and mitigate risks to make plant breeding efficient and cost-effective, which at the end of the day should give enduring hope to smallholder farmers,” he said.
Engaging in groundbreaking crop research to increase production and productivity is an extraordinary feat but it should be done with the consumer in focus. Research should be demand driven, and in this context, Dr Mohapatra suggested ICRISAT adopt a ‘value chain’ approach. He recommended that ICRISAT take a long-term view on resource mobilization and look for support beyond 5-10 years. Dr Kirby welcomed the idea to initiate deeper deliberations on higher level resource mobilization.
A call for strategic investments to stay ahead in the game
The Governing Board was pleased to hear the CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals Agri-Food Systems is now ‘fundable’. While final approval is pending, the program is aimed at transforming underperforming agri-food systems in the drylands into well- functioning systems. Dr Peter Carberry, Deputy Director General-Research made a presentation on the proposal.
Dr Carberry also presented options to develop and fund strategic initiatives, including the issue of patenting for royalties from important ICRISAT innovations like the cytoplasmic male sterile gene in pigeonpea that could be used by the private seed sector. The Board appreciated this discussion, as scientists were asked for new ideas for Blue Sky Research or other initiatives with a focus on development.
Research Program Directors Dr Ramadjita Tabo (West and Central Africa) and Dr Moses Siambi (Eastern and Southern Africa) explained how ICRISAT’s investment of $5 million from reserves as part of the Africa Strategic Fund was used to modernize its research facilities in sub-Saharan Africa. The Board appreciated the cost-effective improvements to provide modern facilities for ICRISAT staff and partners as well as supporting strategic staff positions to position ICRISAT for success. However, skill gaps still remain based on regional needs in the drylands that will be addressed through structuring regional programs, partnerships and building national capacity. Future research needs like tackling emerging pests, digital agriculture, nutrition and latest genomics approaches should be promoted so that either through in-house or through new partnerships, ‘ICRISAT research programs stay at the forefront of science for development for the drylands’.
Young researchers showcase innovative ideas for the drylands
Three young ICRISAT scientists had the opportunity to showcase their groundbreaking ideas and research in climate change adaptation and modernization of crop breeding programs.
Dr Dakshina Murthy Kadiyala, a systems modeling expert from the Innovation Systems for the Drylands research program explained how using location-specific rainfall data, his team created an Intelligent Sowing Advisory Tool (ISAT) piloted in the semi-arid Anantapur district, Andhra Pradesh in collaboration with Microsoft India.
ISAT is a messaging tool for smallholder farmers to minimize climate risks and maximize yields and incomes. Farmers receive real-time, location, crop and soil-specific advisories using seasonal, medium range and two-week forecasts in their local language.
ISAT is ready for scaling up with support from the Indian Ministry of Environment, with plans to transfer this technology to Africa as well. ISAT’s work would help shape climate-smart agriculture policies as mapping of climate risk exposure will provide strategic insights into, for example, where and when a shift from cotton and maize to millets and pulses would be much more beneficial.
Dr Lekha Pazhamala, DST research grantee, has found a way to lower the cost of pigeonpea hybrid production by reducing the need from three to two hybrid lines. This was possible by finding which environmental factor controls the production of male sterile pigeonpea hybrid lines. Using the Leasyscan’s phenotyping analysis, Dr Pazhamala identified 24˚C day temperature as the threshold between fertility and sterility of pollen.
Cytological studies expose the crucial stage of dissociation of tetrads which does not happen in sterile pollen. Transcriptome analysis showed that auxin, a phyto hormone known for its role in plant growth plays a key role as auxin production at a temperature above 24˚C cuts off sugar transport to the pollen, thereby starving it. Below 24˚C, auxin production would result in proper nutrient transport and dissociation of tetrads.
The Board applauded this promising research as a perfect example of a fruitful ICRISAT investment in Blue Sky Research that will yield much more.
Dr Srinivasan Samineni, chickpea breeder in the Asia program, explained a breeding strategy to develop early-maturing chickpea that can escape terminal drought. This is important because the pulse is often grown on residual soil moisture, for instance in rice fallows, way after rice harvest. Flowering time was reduced from 60 to 20-28 days as genomic regions controlling early flowering were mapped. Multi-parent advanced generation inter-cross (MAGIC) populations were screened for different traits including height, yield, and harvest index or seed size from 1,200 lines to 4 promising lines, which will be shared with ICRISAT’s national research partners.
This result can be strategically exploited given the high demand for chickpea. Dr Samineni talked about the machine harvestable chickpea variety released in 2016 which has high demand by farmers due to increased profitability.
Given that the process link between evidence and decision making is crucial for research organizations, findings from three ex-post impact assessment studies conducted in 2017 were presented by Kizito Mazvimavi, Country Representative – Zimbabwe.
The UK Aid-funded impact study on the role of conservation agriculture in building drought resilience in Southern Africa and impacts from the Hybrid Parents Research Consortium on pearl millet in India were also mentioned.
From November, under the Tropical Legumes III project, ICRISAT will use DNA tracers to assess the adoption rate of improved chickpea varieties in Ethiopia.
Kizito Mazvimavi stressed that ICRISAT needs official peer-reviewed publications to maintain credibility. To ensure unbiased impact assessments, studies must be done by external consultants, usually 4-5 years after a project is completed. ICRISAT is committed to ensuring such studies are funded and done thoroughly. Dr Wendy Umberger, Director – Global Food Studies said, “ICRISAT has to allocate a side-budget for these impact studies. The Board needs to see what is the ICRISAT process; we cannot step away from it and it should be considered a strategic investment.”
Three promising case studies on how digital agriculture is transforming the drylands were discussed. Ram Kiran Dhulipala, Head – Digital Agriculture and Youth, presented ihub incubatees – Kalgudi (from Vasudhaika), the “LinkedIn” for agricultural communities; Khethinext (from PALS Global) helping farmers better access finance, markets, inputs and knowledge through an e-commerce network; and Plantix, a plant pest identification mobile App that provides highly accurate solutions to plant diseases and pests and the nearest agro-shops selling appropriate inputs to treat pests and disease.
The importance of real-time monitoring and evaluation in assessing project results was highlighted in a presentation on ‘Modernizing M&E – Measuring for Big Impacts’, by Satish Nagaraji, Manager- Digital Agriculture (M&E and Tools).
The Digital Agriculture team of ICRISAT, in partnership with ihub incubates, has designed and developed modern ICT-based monitoring and evaluation tools to collect quality data with real-time tracking, actionable insights for course correction and implementation. These systems use Android-based smartphone applications to capture and transmit crucial data, photographs and geotags. A web-based multi-layered dashboard will share evidence-based impacts among various stakeholders, including donors.
The Board took the opportunity to visit ICRISAT’s fields and see how the institute is modernizing its plant breeding programs. Some observations from our Board members:
“The quality of land, the way it’s being managed and the high quality of trials are commendable. Science is about quality and what we saw was quality, which helps harness our capability in plant breeding. Smallholder farmers hope for a better life and I believe that’s possible by introducing better varieties and science can play a major role in building that hope.”
Dr Nigel Kirby, Chair, ICRISAT Governing Board
“ICRISAT’s digitization and modernization of breeding programs is impressive and can have high impact in all regions. This is why it is crucial to have an assessment of the breeding programs as a way of continuously improving it.”
Dr Rachel Chikwamba, Member, ICRISAT Governing Board
Smart Food Endowment Fund
The Governing Board approved the establishment of a Smart Food Endowment Fund. This will escalate ICRISAT’s Smart Food initiative to a higher level after it gained significant global traction and support. This initiative has been selected by LAUNCH Food as one of the winning innovations for 2017.
Setting up the Endowment Fund is dependent on a business plan being developed and strategic partners will be sought to lead this initiative globally.
The Board celebrates the successful decoding of the pearl millet genome
Modernizing ICRISAT’s crop improvement and breeding programs