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SATrends Issue 3
February 2001


1. Somalia:Seeds Deliver Hope Amidst Chaos

Seed relief organizations are helping the war-ravaged Somalian people re-establish their food security. In December a joint team from the Overseas Development Institute and ICRISAT undertook a seed sector assessment in southern Somalia to find ways to make relief seed distributions more effective. This help was made possible through a grant from the European Commission (Somalia Unit).

The team found that in normal times, farmers' own informal seed systems can cope with adversities such as drought. But these systems are derailed when war and social chaos strike, causing massive displacement of communities. Seed stocks are lost or eaten for survival.

Somalia-farmer.jpg (6103 bytes)Amidst this despair, though, opportunity beckons  - a chance to introduce better crop varieties, through emergency seed aid. For example, a new sorghum variety that matured earlier than this farmer (left) had ever seen before, helped avert hunger for his family. Sorghum is the main staple cereal crop for the people of Somalia.

The seed reached him through ICRISAT's collaboration with CARE, a nongovernmental organization. The CARE project is funded by USAID/OFDA (Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance).

"Farmers are interested in testing new crops and varieties," says Mr. Adoo Magan, who collaborated closely with ICRISAT in variety testing of sorghum and other crops during the 1970s/80s as Director of the Bonkay Research Station near Baidoa. Although Bonkay Research Station has been destroyed, its staff continue to dedicate their time and expertise to agricultural development.

Over the years, ICRISAT has assisted many developed-country governments, non-governmental institutions, and charitable organizations to rebuild from war. The Seeds of Survival project in southern Sudan and northern Uganda, Seeds of Hope project in Rwanda, and Seeds of Freedom initiative in Angola all helped the poor achieve food security and rebuild shattered lives.

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2. The CGIAR Fights Desertification in Africa

“ICRISAT scientists are working to break the age-old link between drought and famine by helping the Government of Niger to build an emergency seed delivery system,” said Mr. Ian Johnson, Vice President of the World Bank and CGIAR Chairman, at the Convention to Combat Desertification  (CCD), held in Bonn, Germany, from 11-22 December 2000. He was speaking of partnerships that are laying the foundation for a food-secure, self-reliant Africa.

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The CGIAR’s Desert Margins Program, convened by ICRISAT, is helping some of the poorest countries in the world to implement science-based solutions to the problems of desertification.  The Program operates in nine countries of sub-Saharan Africa.

Desert margins research seeks to realize the CCD's objectives in areas such as:

Its strong point is the wide range of partners working together, each contributing their skills in a specific area:

This list is growing - additional support is being considered by development investors such as the EcoRegional Trust Fund; the Global Environment Facility; the International Development Research Centre  (Canada); the United States Agency for International Development; the World Bank; and the governments of France and Norway.

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3. Creating the World's First Molecular Marker Map of Chickpea

The unraveling of the mysteries of DNA using the new technologies of molecular biology is one of the most exciting scientific stories of our time. But the dryland crops that feed the poor across the semi-arid tropics are receiving far less attention than are the 'glamour crops'. Chickpea is an example - a relatively little-researched crop that is nonetheless an important source of calories and protein for the poor across Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa.

ICRISAT is working with a range of institutions to try to narrow the 'genetic divide' between rich and poor-person's crops. The goal is to find useful genetic markers that can accelerate the progress in plant breeding for difficult traits like drought, insect, and disease resistance.

These traits will help resource-poor farmers cope with the types of natural stresses that they can't afford to overcome through irrigation and chemical sprays - at the same time, helping protect the environment from the risks of these external inputs.

A molecular marker system for chickpea was difficult to pin down, because the systems that worked on other crops did not show any differences, or polymorphisms, among genetic lines. With the development of the specific sequence tagged microsatellite site (STMS) marker system by Guenter Kahl's team at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University (Germany) and ICRISAT's sister center ICARDA in 1995, a marker mapping system for chickpea finally became possible.

Washington State University (USA) and ICRISAT are using the STMS system to map important traits, creating the world's first useful molecular marker-based linkage map for the cultivated species of chickpea (Cicer arietinum). So far, the map boasts about 100 markers, and has been used to locate 12 genes that govern important traits.

rootlengths.jpg (5260 bytes)An example is drought tolerance. About 90% of chickpea is grown under rainfed conditions and almost always suffers drought stress. “If we can reduce the drought problem in chickpea, it will be a great contribution to the productivity of this crop,” says ICRISAT chickpea breeder Dr. Jagdish Kumar. (Left, variation in shoot and root mass in a cross between chickpea and Cicer reticulatum).

Deep and numerous roots are a genetic trait that has been proven to increase drought resistance. Selection for drought resistance would be much easier if markers linked to the root trait could be identified. Rather than digging up thousands of plants in the field to measure their root systems - a costly, and tedious process - markers in the lab could quickly indicate the plants most likely to contain the deep-rooting genes. Jointly with the University of Saskatchewan (Canada), ICRISAT is trying to identify such markers - a discovery that could deliver major benefits to millions of poor farmers and consumers.

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4.Aflatoxin and Cancer:Cracking a Hard Nut in Developing Countries

Groundnuts (peanuts) are good for you - unless they contain aflatoxin, an invisible, odorless contaminant that is toxic in very tiny doses. Aflatoxin in groundnut was first reported in 1960 with an outbreak of a disease in England in which about 100,000 turkey chicks died within a few months. It was discovered that their groundnut meal was contaminated with aflatoxin. (Right, chickens affected by aflatoxin).

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Aflatoxins are carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic, and immunosuppressive. In short, they are downright dangerous, to human beings as well as to livestock.

A recent survey carried out in rural regions in India showed that 21% of groundnut samples contained non-permissible aflatoxin levels. Besides being a health risk to consumers, groundnut farmers are badly hit by the loss of export markets, which will not accept contaminated crops.

The problem is complex, because it is influenced not only by the production of the toxin by a fungus in the field or in storage, but also by handling and processing after harvest, where contaminated lots can be unknowingly mixed with clean ones. A solution will require a systems approach - and close coordination among a range of institutions, communities, and governments.

Previous research by ICRISAT and partners such as the Scottish Crops Research Institute, through DFID funding, scored a number of successes, including the development of tools for diagnosing aflatoxins in food cheaply and accurately. Other work enhanced the understanding of the genetics of seed colonization and seed infection by A. flavus, the fungus that leads to aflatoxin contamination; and developed methods for screening plants to identify those which may be resistant to the fungus.

The problem is by no means limited to Asia, either. Africa is grappling with the same complex problems, and needs plenty of help. ICRISAT lent its expertise in a recent inter-institutional workshop in West Africa, aimed at exploring strategies towards solutions. Scientists from countries across the West Africa region, along with US universities involved in the Peanut Collaborative Research Support Program (Peanut CRSP) consortium, Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD), and ICRISAT participated.

The workshop, hosted by the Institut National de Recherche Agronomique du Bénin (INRAB), West Africa, was organized jointly by Peanut CRSP, the Conseil Ouest et Centre Africain pour la Recherche et le Développement Agricoles (CORAF), INRAB, and ICRISAT, with funding from these institutes and from the Sasakawa-Global 2000 Foundation.

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Highlights of Previous Issues:

January 2001:Things Grow Better with Coke®: Micro-fertilizer System Sparks 50-100 Percent Millet Yield Increases in the Sahel Groundnut (Peanut) Production Accelerates in Vietnam   Pigeonpea Broadens Farmer's Options in Sudan   Private Sector Invests in Public Plant Breeding Research at ICRISAT .

December 2000:International Symposium on SAT Futures Centers Team Up to Help East Timor Spatial Variability in Watersheds World's First CyToplasmic Male-Sterile Hybrid Pigeonpea Groundnut (Peanut) Variety Boosts Malawian Agriculture National Researchers Persevere in El Salvador ICRISAT Celebrates India-ICRISAT Day ICRISAT and World Vision International Work Together in Southern Africa.