SATrends Issue 29                                                                                                                  April 2003


1. Sweet and Swaying

People chew on sugarcane, and people chew on grass stalks somewhere midway, swaying in the breeze and looking anything but likely candidates, are sweet sorghum stalks, which promise more than meets the eye.

Sweet sorghum ( Sorghum bicolor [L.] Moench) is grown not just for its grain, but also for its sugar rich stalk. It has other advantages wide adaptability, drought resistance, waterlogging tolerance, saline-alkali tolerance, rapid growth, sugar accumulation and high biomass. (Left, swamped by sweet sorghum!).

Apart from grain and fodder, several alternative products such as forage, silage, syrup, jaggery, alcohol, ethanol, sugar, wine, vinegar, pulp and paper, sweetener and natural pigments can be obtained. This is added value indeed!

The biomass production capacity of sweet sorghum is equal or superior to sugarcane in the tropics, and it has other plus points. Sweet sorghum has an advantage over sugarcane and sugar beet (the world's main sources for commercial sugar) since the latter have a comparatively lengthy growing period and high water requirement. Moreover, sugar extraction from molasses causes water and air pollution. The stillage from sweet sorghum has higher biological value than bagasse from sugarcane as animal fodder. Ethanol obtained from sorghum stalks has a significantly lower sulphur content, so is considered 'cleaner' than ethanols from other sources. And last but not least, the grain from sweet sorghum is used to produce superior booze!

Research on sweet sorghum is ongoing at the National Research Centre for Sorghum in India and elsewhere. At ICRISAT a small program was initiated to develop three kinds of sweet sorghum varieties:

  1. Ratoon and multicut high biomass-yielding varieties
  2. Ratoon and multicut dual-purpose varieties
  3. Ratoon and multicut hybrid parental varieties

We identified 54 sweet stalk lines, including 12 hybrid seed parents, 20 varietal/restorer lines, 10 dual-purpose (grain and fodder) sorghum lines and 12 tillering lines (for forage). The performance for some important traits in each group are promising stem sugar 13-20%, fresh fodder yield (t ha-1)17 to 46, grain yield (t ha-1) 0.1-4.5, and ratooning ability 15-95%.

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2. Chickpea Changes Lives in Myanmar
U Ba Than, an old farmer of Aleban village in Myanmar, looked ICRISAT's young and energetic chickpea breeder, PN Gaur, in the eye and proudly related that he was one of the pioneer farmers to start chickpea cultivation in his village.

In 1986, Mr Than received 200 seeds of ICRISAT chickpea variety ICCV 2 from the scientists of Myanmar's Central Agricultural Research Institute. After the first harvest he shared the seed with other farmers. This variety has changed the life of the farming community in that area, increasing their net annual income by at least 50%, according to Mr Than. Before entering the village Gaur passed a 15-km stretch of farmlands, 80% of which was sown to ICCV 2. (Right, baskets brimming with chickpea).

Chickpea is the third most important food legume in Myanmar after urdbean and mungbean. The chickpea area is confined to the northern dry zone covering the Sagaing, Mandalay and Magway divisions, where the average annual rainfall is 700 mm and the climatic conditions are similar to those of southern India. Farmers prefer the extra-short duration kabuli chickpea ICCV 2 (released as Yezin 3 in Myanmar during 2000), because it escapes terminal drought due to early maturity, and because it fetches a higher price than desi types.

Sagaing Division is the major chickpea-growing area of Myanmar. ICCV 2 has made significant impact here and comprises 85% of the total chickpea area. During the past three years, the average chickpea yield in Myanmar has increased from 659 to 1007 kg/ha, and in Sagaing division from 626- to1154 kg/ha.

Farmer U Aung Hman of Chanung Kan village is happy he switched from wheat to ICCV 2 cultivation. Why? The wheat yield is only 13-15 baskets/acre, whereas ICCV 2 gives about 17-20 baskets. The wheat price is about 5000 kyats per basket ($0.15 per kg), whereas ICCV 2 is sold at 7000 kyats per basket ($0.22 per kg). ICCV 2 is definitely more remunerative than wheat in short growing environments under rainfed conditions.

U Bin Bo, the head of the Lazine village, beams when he recounts the story of his 1994 FAO prize for the high yield of ICCV 2 in his fields.

The impact of ICCV 2 in Myanmar is visible in the everyday lives of people. Most farmers now go to their fields on motorbikes instead of old bicycles. They live in houses made of bricks instead of bamboo. And they watch TV instead of listening to the radio.

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3. Cash from Cowpea (yes, cowpea!)

Cowpea isn't one of ICRISAT's mandate crops. But it is still a key component of the ICRISAT-USAID-LEAD project, for several reasons. It is highly nutritious, drought-tolerant and improves soil fertility. And, as project farmers are discovering, it can make you rich.

The LEAD project aims to make subsistence farmers more market oriented by linking them with a private firm that will buy their produce at a fair price. The partners are ICRISAT, the USAID-LEAD program, and Seed Co, Zimbabwe's largest seed firm. The pilot phase of the project targets four drought-prone districts in Zimbabwe, and results have far exceeded expectations.

Zaka district is a typical smallholder farming area, with poor soils and fickle rainfall. Farmers grow mainly sorghum and cowpea, which tolerate drought better than most crops. ICRISAT and Seed Co distributed foundation seed of two improved varieties, sorghum Macia (developed by ICRISAT), and cowpea IT 18 (developed by IITA). Farmers multiply the crops into commercially certified seed, and Seed Co and ICRISAT monitor quality. Eventually, Seed Co buys the seed harvest for sale under its brand name. (Left, ICRISAT grown cowpea in Zimbabwe).

Sorghum performance was excellent, as expected; so let's talk about cowpea. A total of 1097 farmers in Zaka planted the seed crop. The target was to produce 60 tons of seed. We now expect over 200 tons more than the target for the entire project, covering four districts.

At a recent community meeting, 35 project farmers discussed the costs and profitability of cowpea seed production. Total costs for a well-managed crop (including pesticides, weeding etc) were estimated at Z$ 78,000 per hectare. With careful management, you can harvest over 1 ton of seed per hectare. Farmers say they can sell cowpea grain (seed is more expensive) in Zaka for Z$10,000 per 20-litre container, or about Z$ 330/kg. Profits? One hectare, yield of 1 t/ha, production cost Z$ 78,000, sell for Z$ 330,000. You can smile all the way to the bank!

Income generation is one part of the project; capacity building is the other. Using a combination of hands-on training, demonstration plots, and intensive discussions, the project delivers knowledge about new varieties, crop and seed production methods, soil fertility management, IPM, erosion control, and water harvesting and conservation techniques. Training workshops and field days have been held in all project areas, and have proved enormously popular: over 1000 farmers, both project participants and others, attended the field day in Zaka last month.

Every smallholder is at heart a full-fledged commercial farmer. All he needs is opportunity. ICRISAT and its partners are providing that opportunity, and in the process setting an example for rural development programs everywhere.

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4. Preserving the Priceless

It is important for us living in the present to preserve that which will prove useful and important for those living in the future. Plant genetic material is one such treasure. ICRISAT's Genetic Resources Unit preserves germplasm of the institute's mandate crops sorghum, pearl millet (including minor millets), chickpea, pigeonpea, groundnut, and their wild relatives.

With nearly 114,000 accessions from 130 countries in the bank (the genebank, that is), ICRISAT acts as a world repository for these crops. Germplasm has been assembled at ICRISAT HQ in India since 1972 through donations from various institutes, and by launching global collections jointly with national agricultural research systems.

Incoming samples are examined by the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources for exotic diseases and pests, and a Government quarantine unit within the campus ensures prompt inspection and clearance of seed shipments.(Right, ICRISAT's genebank)>

Seed storage is the principle method of conserving genetic resources. Seeds are stored in controlled environments to prolong seed viability. Wild species, which do not produce adequate quantities of seed, are maintained as live plants.

The unit has the following facilities:

  • A short-term storage at 18-20ºC and 30-40% relative humidity (RH)
  • Two rooms at 4ºC and 20-30% RH to hold active collections
  • Three long-term storage rooms at -20ºC to store base collections
  • A seed-drying room and two drying cabinets at 15ºC and 15% RH
  • An air-cooled screenhouse for wild species of groundnut
  • A field genebank for wild species of pearl millet, sorghum and pigeonpea
  • A seed laboratory for conducting germination tests, seed research and cytological work
  • Access to 10 ha of field space for regeneration of germplasm and field characterization and evaluation
  • Standby refrigeration and dehumidification systems, and alarms and fire warning systems

The Convention on Biological Diversity, created in 1993, provides the framework for acquisition and utilization of germplasm. ICRISAT's policy had been to distribute germplasm free to all bonafide users. However, in 1994 the collections were placed under the auspices of the FAO, and germplasm is now distributed only to recipients who sign material transfer agreements that prevent them from claiming intellectual property rights.

The germplasm is characterized and evaluated using a set of internationally accepted descriptors. Information on country of origin, location of collection and pedigree, among other passport data, permit the selection of germplasm on a geographic basis. This online information is freely available to any interested party.

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