SATrends Issue 79 June 2007
  • Eureka its ethanol!
  • Indian recipe for robust pigeonpea
  • Modest beginnings with massive potential

  • 1. Eureka its ethanol!

    The pioneering project to produce ethanol from sweet sorghum, being implemented jointly by ICRISAT and Rusni Distilleries, has achieved a significant milestone with the first batch of ethanol flowing out of the distillery at Mohammed Shapur village in Andhra Pradesh, India.

    The ethanol produced marks a major success in this public-private partnership project that generates ethanol as a biofuel from the sugar-rich juice extracted from sweet sorghum stalks. A third partner, Aakrithi Agricultural Associates of India, helps to link the dryland farmers with the distillery. Sweet sorghum ethanol does not compromise food security since the farmers can continue to use the grain for food. Thus the farmer has only additional income to gain.

    Mr AR Palaniswamy, Managing Director of Rusni Distilleries, explains a process to ICRISAT Director General, Dr WD Dar.

    ICRISAT's crop breeding successes with sweet sorghum will soon help overcome the problem of getting sweet sorghum throughout the year for the distillery. With the sorghum breeders at the Institute having developed hybrids that can be planted at any time of the year, the limitation of planting only during the crop season has been overcome.

    Through its ethanol from sweet sorghum project, ICRISAT has been promoting the idea of generating biofuel without compromising on food production. ICRISAT's emphasis counters the global debate against biofuels, which are said to be taking away food crop agricultural lands for growing biofuel crops. Already countries are taking policy decisions that will prevent conversion of land available for food crops for growing biofuel crops. The Chinese Government has asked biofuel crop growers to switch to crops such as sweet sorghum for their projects, and the Philippines Government has invested in research and development of sweet sorghum and cassava for this purpose.

    Sweet sorghum has other benefits over sugarcane and maize as feedstock for ethanol production. It requires only one half of the water required to grow maize and around one eighth of the water required to grow sugarcane; and has the least cost of cultivation which is around one fifth of the cost for growing sugarcane.

    Sweet sorghum is also a carbon neutral crop, which means that the amount of carbon dioxide it fixes during its growing period is equal to the amount it emits during crop growth, conversion to ethanol and combustion of ethanol.

    The first batch of ethanol produced at Rusni Distilleries makes available the crop and technology necessary to launch a global pro-poor biofuel revolution.

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    2. Indian recipe for robust pigeonpea

    Tissue culture protocols - or a procedure to grow a whole plant from a single cell - can take years to develop. For example, it has taken ICRISAT scientists working at the headquarters in India more than five years to establish a reliable protocol for pigeonpea.

    Recently, ICRISAT scientists in Nairobi have taken the protocol that was developed in India and tested it on African pigeonpea varieties in collaboration with the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), with very promising results. "The recipe was developed in India, and we have brought the recipe card here to Nairobi," says Santie DeVilliers, ICRISAT biotechnologist based in Nairobi.

    Pigeonpeas are grown in eastern and southern Africa as a protein-rich subsistence crop for green and dry grain as well as a valuable cash crop that is sold in local markets and even exported to India. However, pigeonpea is quite susceptible to attack by pod-borers that target flowers and pods, causing up to 60% yield losses. Despite years of searching, no genes for resistance have been found. In other words, this is a problem that cannot be solved through traditional breeding.

    Quinata Emongor and Santie DeVilliers check on young pigeonpea plants each grown from a single cell of the mother plant in the KARI greenhouse.

    However, Bt (Bacillus thurigiensis) technology, which has been successfully used in maize and cotton, can provide a solution. In recognition of this, KARI, together with ICRISAT, has been working to transfer the Indian tissue culture protocol to locally adapted African pigeonpea varieties. This is the first step in the process to introduce pod-borer resistance into these varieties.

    ICRISAT and KARI are testing short, medium and long duration varieties as well as farmer-preferred varieties that already have some inbuilt resistance to Fusarium wilt. Tests so far have shown that the protocol works on African pigeonpea varieties. Scientists have been able to stimulate cells from cut leaf petioles, or stems, to grow into whole plants.

    These efforts will pave the way to develop pigeonpea varieties that are resistant to Fusarium wilt, achieved through conventional breeding, but with the added genetically engineered trait of pod-borer resistance that can be grown by resource-poor farmers across eastern and southern Africa in the future.

    Establishing genetic engineering technology in the region, in collaboration with national program partners, will also strengthen the capacity of African institutions and scientists to use modern science in Africa to successfully address problems relevant to the continent.

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    3. Modest beginnings with massive potential

    Readers of our May 2007 issue of SATrends will have seen the article on Farmers of the Future (FoF). The FoF activity is actually part of a bigger Integrated Village Development (IVD) program introduced in the village of Sadoré by ICRISAT-Niger following the success of the African Market Garden (AMG) and the watershed development program in Kothapally village in Andhra Pradesh.

    The rationale behind the IVD approach is that proper and sustainable development can occur only when all the components of a village livelihood are promoted and taken care of in an integrated way. The program is financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland.

    Watermelons grown in an AMG at Sadoré, Niamey.

    Other activities of the IVD are:

    Income generation for women: After the village women installed their second AMG, the village chief gave them one hectare of land where they cultivate indigenous vegetables with ICRISAT-supplied seeds. ICRISAT built a 500m2 fruit tree nursery adjacent to this, where twenty women were taught how to look after the plants and graft them. ICRISAT will help with marketing the produce. Expansion of the nursery will be fully paid for from earnings of the women's association. The association was also given one hectare of degraded land for production of two traditional vegetables, Senna obtusifolia and Hibiscus sabdariffa, which perform well in degraded lateritic soils.

    Income generation for farmers: The first activity for farmers will start in the 2007 rainy season. Ten farmers received training on planting and operation of the Sahelian Eco-Farm (SEF). This is an innovative trees-crops-livestock system, which reduces soil erosion, increases soil fertility and results in a three-fold higher profit per hectare as compared to the traditional systems.

    The farmers are provided with the seeds of a high yielding dual-purpose cowpea variety identified by ICRISAT, and plants of Acacia torulosa and Pomme du Sahel trees, which are components of the SEF. A high yielding variety of sorghum developed by INRAN, the local agricultural research institute, is also being cultivated in some areas. Farmers are also provided with fertilizers and are trained in ICRISAT's microdosing technique. The farmers will pay back the investment by giving one bag of millet or sorghum grains to the Village Development Committee (VDC) each year for a period of five years. VDC will use this to provide credit to future farmers.

    This is a modest beginning, but initial successes show that the IVD module has the potential to change the face of rural development in the Sahel.

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