SATrends Issue 57                                                                                                                  August 2005

  • Breakthrough in Chickpea research
  • Tea-break in the desert
  • Well begun is half done!
  • 1. Breakthrough in Chickpea research
    Chickpea (Cicer arietinum), the world's third most important food legume, rests on a narrow genetic base because of its single domestication and its self-pollinating nature. One of the best and proven means to broaden the genetic base of the crop, and also to introduce newer sources of resistance to various biotic and abiotic constraints, is to create interspecific hybrids of the plant, and more, by utilizing the wild species of chickpea for the purpose. Alas, chickpea is not easily given to hybridization. Except for two closely related wild species, namely C. reticulatum and C. echinospermum, none of the remaining 41 wild species are crossable with cultivated chickpea due to serious hybridization barriers, such as lack of post-zygotic growth.

    With the development of embryo rescue and tissue culture techniques for chickpea wide crosses at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), it was possible to cross C. arietinum with C. bijugum and obtain healthy hybrids.  Unlike crosses with other incompatible wild Cicer species, green hybrid plants were produced between cultivated chickpea and the wild species C. bijugum, for the first time at ICRISAT, and probably for the first time on earth, marking a breakthrough in this research.





    1. Wild species Cicer bijugum. 2.Embryo culture to save aborting hybrid embryos. 3.Hybrid plant from C. arietinum and C. bijugum.

    Scientists are justifiably encouraged by this success. Efforts will now be directed to consistently produce hybrids in large numbers, which will show great promise for the improvement of cultivated chickpea.


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    2. Tea-break in the desert

    The Desert Margins Program, led by ICRISAT, involves nine countries in Africa, and a host of NARS, NGOs and other partners. One key objective is to improve livelihoods in Africa's driest, most ecologically fragile areas. DMP partners think ‘outside the box', looking for innovative and sustainable ways to fight rural poverty.

    Tea isn't a crop you would normally associate with the desert margins – not unless you come from the arid Northern Cape province in South Africa. The DMP, along with other partners, is supporting a farmers' cooperative that grows herbal tea – profitable, environmentally sustainable, and a model for participatory community development.

    Aspalathus, a genus of shrubs indigenous to two provinces in South Africa, contains 274 species. One of these, A. linearis, also known as Rooibos, makes great herbal tea. It has been traditionally used by local communities who harvest plants from the wild and also grow it on small-scale ‘plantations'. Health-conscious urban consumers love it too, and are willing to pay premium prices for it. In a rooibos tea plantation.

    The Suid Bokkeveld is a poor, remote area in the Northern Cape that had been starved of government development assistance for decades. Local small-scale farmers grew good Rooibos, but lacked markets and business skills. That began to change in 2001, when they formed the Heiveld Cooperative to grow and market Rooibos tea.

    With support from NGOs (Environmental Monitoring Group, Indigo), government programs and now the DMP, business is growing rapidly. Partners have helped the farmers tap the lucrative European market, where Rooibos is sold as a certified organic product, grown without fertilizer or pesticides. This year, the cooperative exported over 30 tons to Europe. Producers' earnings have doubled, from R7/kg in year 2000, to R14.50/kg today (1 US$ = R6.50). From the profits, the cooperative has invested R100,000 in a tea processing facility; another R120,000 is being invested this year.

    This explosive growth is due to the full community participation. Farmers made the decisions, and identified areas where they were provided with professional assistance –N lawyers, accountants, business training, access to markets. Progress was monitored closely and transparently. Community organizations grew stronger and developed the ability to react quickly to mid-season drought, price fluctuations, environmental degradation and other challenges.

    There is still scope for growth. For example, the DMP partners can contribute to research on Rooibos – agronomy, pest management, processing and post-harvest methods. But the achievements to date stand out as a shining example of how community-led partnerships can create opportunities for small-scale farmers even in the driest, harshest farming environments.


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    3. Well begun is half done!

    The Rajendra S Paroda Genebank at ICRISAT-Patancheru is one of the largest repositories of crop germplasm for sorghum, pearl millet, chickpea, pigeonpea, groundnut, and six small millets (finger millet, foxtail millet, little millet, kodo millet, proso millet and barnyard millet) assembled from different parts of the world. The genebank holds about 1,14,800 accessions of germplasm under medium-term and long-term storage conditions. The seeds in the genebank are at risk of being contaminated by several strains/races of seed-borne pathogens. This problem is exemplified by severe economic consequences of commercial pea production in North America owing to the introduction of pea seed-borne mosaic virus.

    When seeds are stored under high humidity, storage fungi such as Penicillium and Aspergillus spp reduce their ability to germinate. This results in expensive regeneration. Diseases on a standing crop also influence germplasm characterization and evaluation as several pathogenschange key morphological characteristics. Even under genebank storage conditions, some pathogens survive inside the seed or on the seed surface for a few months to several years hampering the seed viability.

    Germplasm seed health testing offers a solution to identify the health status of seed lots. It suggests suitable recommendations to minimize the contamination by seed-borne pathogens at the time of storage and during exchange. The revised phytosanitary regulations has forced International Agriculture Research Centers in the CGIAR system to take steps to protect against inadvertent introductions of plant pathogens during exchange.

    Healthy germinated chickpea seed on left vs. diseased seed on right

    Under the World Bank Project, the Plant Quarantine Laboratory (PQL) at ICRISAT initiated seed health testing of genebank collections in 2003 using the standard blotter method. Freshly regenerated germplasm accessions from medium-term were tested for seed health prior to long-term storage.


    A total of 11,101 germplasm accessions were regenerated during different growing seasons of 2003 and 2004 for long-term storage. At the PQL, during the seed health testing of these seed lots, 70 fungi belonging to 36 genera were detected. Thirteen fungi occurring on different crops hampered the germination up to 90% in 0.23% of the accessions in cereals and 0.1% in pulses. These accessions will be regenerated by salvaging them with seed dressing fungicide. They will be re-tested before they are transferred to the long-term storage.

    This habit of testing seed health plays a key role in germplasm conservation for better future harvests and a more food-secured world.

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