17) Increasing crop legume productivity in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia

Developing improved varieties and production technologies that can provide higher and stable yields is crucial for increasing the productivity of crop legumes in Asia and Africa. However, the responsibility of the agricultural research institutes and the development agencies working to increase the productivity does not end here, said Dr William Dar, Director General of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).

Delivering the inaugural speech at the Project Launching Meeting of the Tropical Legumes II Project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Dr Dar said that research institutes and development agencies have to make concerted efforts to raise farmers’ awareness of these technologies and remove bottlenecks in their adoption. “In short, we have an institution to grow, a mission to fulfill, and impacts to achieve,” he said.

ICRISAT believes it is necessary to reduce the gap between intention and action, Dr Dar added. The prevalence of research and extension activities in the programs has facilitated widespread impacts of the research. This is the research-for-development paradigm because the complex nature of agriculture is such that solutions cannot be based around a one-fix approach. Decisions are made taking into account natural resource fragility, community vulnerability, risk profiles, asset resilience, market options, and a host of other factors.

The Tropical Legume Improvement II Project is a mega project that involves three CGIAR institutes – ICRISAT, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). These Centers are partnering with the national agricultural research systems, NGOs, and government agencies of eight countries of sub-Saharan Africa ( Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Mali, Niger and Nigeria) and two countries of South Asia ( India and Myanmar). The project involves six major legumes – beans, cowpea, chickpea, groundnut, pigeonpea and soybean.

Through the improvement of crop legume productivity, the project targets to improve the livelihoods of more than 300 million poor people in sub-Saharan Africa and more than 600 million in South Asia who live below the poverty line.

The proposed project aims to (i) exploit the improved germplasm that already exists, by using ‘fast track’ evaluation and seed production; (ii) encourage farmer-participatory varietal selection; (iii) develop improved crop cultivars (including hybrids in the case of pigeonpea) by combining conventional plant breeding with modern breeding tools and techniques developed at the participating institutes and by the Tropical Legumes I Project; and (iv) strengthen national programs’ capacity for plant breeding.

“We are confident that this project will contribute to increases in the productivity and production of legumes in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, help reduce food and nutritional insecurity, improve the livelihoods of resource-poor farmers and ensure adequate availability of legumes at affordable prices to poor rural and urban consumers,” Dr Dar said.

Grain legumes contribute up to one-third of the dietary protein needs of the human population globally. Being a cheaper source of protein than meat and milk products, they are particularly important in developing countries where diets are low in protein derived from animal products.

Grain legumes are grown globally on 71.8 million hectares, but the bulk of legumes produced for food are grown in tropical and sub-tropical countries where the majority of the poor and malnourished live. Seventy-six percent of the area planted to legumes worldwide is found in Asia (49.6%) and Africa (26.2%).

Despite its significance to human nutrition, legume consumption in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia is very low due to inadequate availability. For instance, the per capita availability of legumes in India declined from 22 kg per annum in 1950 to 10 kg per annum in 2003. Moreover, the relative price of legumes compared to cereals has risen sharply (due to increased demand and decreased supply), making them less affordable to the poor.

Compared to cereals, legume productivity averages around 700 kg/ha in both sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, compared to wheat (2805 kg/ha), rice (3970 kg/ha) and maize (4610 kg/ha).

Low legume yields are the result of their high susceptibility to pests and diseases and factors such as salinity, low soil fertility, heat stress and drought. Global climate change threatens to worsen droughts in large parts of the tropics, due to erratic and inadequate total rainfall, long dry spells, and the delayed onset and/or early cessation of rains.

There are serious concerns about declining productivity in high-input cereal-based rice-wheat, rice-rice and maize-wheat cropping systems. Despite increased levels of inputs, yield levels are declining in some cases.

By including legumes in cropping systems, the heavy nitrogen needs of modern intensive cereal-based cropping systems can be at least partially met, and the physical and chemical characteristics of the soil generally improved. Legumes in rotation with cereals not only improve cereal productivity but also economize on nitrogen use. Experiments have show that chickpea increased the yield of a succeeding rice crop by one ton per ha when compared with crop rotation involving wheat.

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