22) Food security in the drylands in peril

In solidarity with the FAO’s World Summit on Food Security from 16 to 18 November in Rome, ICRISAT pledges to help end hunger in the semi-arid tropics.

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations declared that global food insecurity has worsened and continues to seriously threaten humanity. With food prices remaining stubbornly high in developing countries, the number of people suffering from hunger has grown relentlessly in recent years.

In fact, FAO estimates that the number of hungry people could increase by 100 million in 2009, passing the one billion mark.

FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf calling the attention of the world towards the crisis at hand said “ The silent hunger crisis — affecting one sixth of all of humanity — poses a serious risk for world peace and security. We urgently need to forge a broad consensus on the total and rapid eradication of hunger in the world.”

The threat of hunger looms even larger in the drylands of the developing world, covering 750 million hectares in 55 developing countries. This region is home to more than 2 billion people. Of these, 1.5 billion depend on agriculture for a living with 670 million comprising the poorest of the poor. In this region, short growing seasons alternate with very hot and dry periods. Rains are irregular, soil fertility is poor and crop pests abound.

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) warns that a plethora of crises threatens global agriculture and their confluence, if unabated, will lead to a ‘perfect storm.' Warming temperatures, droughts, floods, increasing land degradation, rising food prices, zooming energy demand and population explosion are creating extreme challenges to feed the hungry world.

ICRISAT Director General of ICRISAT William Dar says that “f armers in the dry tropics are most vulnerable since they do not only produce food under these very harsh conditions but also make a living out of farming.”

The FAO too, recognizing climate change as the core of the problem declares that “any recipe for confronting the challenges of climate change must allow for mitigation options and a firm commitment to the adaptation of agriculture, including through conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources for food.” Amidst this challenge, Dr Dar affirms, “ICRISAT is well placed to respond. Along with our partners, we are developing farming systems resilient to shocks, buffering crucial resources like water and nutrients, improving and adapting crops to warmer temperatures and new pest patterns.”

ICRISAT has proven innovations in crop, soil and water management that can help farmers better adapt to climate change . Its repository of genes of dryland crops like sorghum, pearl millet, pigeonpea, chickpea and groundnut are well adapted to changes in climatic regimes . For example, ICRISAT-developed pearl millet hybrids can flower and produce seeds even under very hot temperatures and improved sorghum lines are capable of producing good yields even in harsh conditions.

The recently launched project Harnessing Opportunities for Productivity Enhancement (HOPE) of Sorghum and Millets in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, aims to increase food security for smallholder farmers in dryland areas of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia . Through the development and delivery of improved crop varieties and training in crop management practices, HOPE will increase small-holder farmer yields by 35 to 40% during the first four years of the project. These improved varieties of sorghum and millet will be disseminated to 110,000 households in sub-Saharan Africa and 90,000 in South Asia . Within ten years, the project should benefit more than 2 million households in these continents.

Dr Dar further adds, “Our scientists' estimate that yields under climate change could still be high if farmers use adapted crop varieties and other improved crops management techniques.”

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