SATrends Issue 52                                                                                                    March 2005

1. The March of ASP@ICRISAT


The Agri-Science Park@ICRISAT (ASP) is a “hub” for public-private partnerships that enhance the development and commercialization of science-generated technologies and knowledge through market mechanisms.ICRISAT commercializes technology through partnership ventures between its Technology Innovation Center (TIC) and private and public sector partners.

ICRISAT has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the government of Andhra Pradesh to jointly promote the ASP based at ICRISAT-Patancheru. The ASP consists of an Agri-Biotech Park (ABP), an Agri-Business Incubator (ABI), the Private Sector Hybrid Parents Research Consortia, the Bio-pesticide Research Consortium (BRC), and the SAT Eco-Venture.

The ABP has four external tenants: one that does hybrid research; a second that provides genetically modified organism testing services; a third that works on water policy; and a fourth that works on innovation and science policy.

The ABI is supported by the Department of Science & Technology of the government of India and has four private sector clients.

ICRISAT has concluded an MOU with the AP Tourism Department to develop the SAT Eco-Venture as an agriculture/environmental education program.

The most significant recent biotech-specific accomplishments include

  • Recruitment of an experienced CEO for the ASP
  • Ten companies joined the BRC
  • The AP R&D Fund grant is being used to build a second P-2 facility and purchase equipment for the Transformation Lab and Aflatoxin Testing Lab. 
  • The AP R&D Fund supports ICRISAT’s transgenic research to develop genetically modified pigeonpea, groundnut and chickpea.

Under the AP R&D Fund grant, the Virtual Academy for the Semi-Arid Tropics of ICRISAT and MS Swaminathan Research Foundation have developed a program to train AP farmers on the use of biotech products and bio-safety; and the Acharya NG Ranga Agricultural University (ANGRAU) and ICRISAT have developed a program to provide technical backstopping for marker-assisted selection for rice at ICRISAT.

The work plans of TIC and ASP for 2005 include:

  • Development of an MOU between TIC and ICRISAT to specify the working relationship between the two legal entities
  • Finalization of the ASP business plan
  • Vigorous marketing of the ASP to identify potential new tenants and ABI clients.
  • Commission a business plan for the Aflatoxin testing services, the commercialization of the Aflatoxin detection kit, the setting up a food safety and allergenicity assessment lab in the Park.
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2. New Ways to Feed Livestock

Livestock are a critical part of the agricultural system in southern Africa, for economic as well as cultural reasons. The problem is, how to feed them?

In the past two decades or so, human populations in southern Africa have grown rapidly, forcing farmers to convert grazing land into fields. But livestock populations grew rapidly as well – leading to an acute shortage of feed and fodder particularly during the dry season, when rangeland grass is scarce and of poor nutritional value.

After the harvest in smallholder communities, field fences are taken down and livestock allowed to graze on the crop residues. Traditionally, post-harvest fields were considered a community resource, just like communally owned grazing land. But with fodder becoming scarce, there is friction: the owner of the field removes all residues, and stores them for feeding his own animals.

This is one example of a general trend towards greater competition for, and more intensive utilization of, feed resources. For example, in more intensive systems, farmers begin producing fodder crops, and feed and fodder markets evolve. But what factors influence this transition, and what are the side-effects? Specific data for Africa are limited

A new GTZ-funded project, involving ICRISAT and Zimbabwe’s Department of Agricultural Research and Extension, will look at various aspects of feed intensification. For example, can the increased demand for feed be met with residues of grain crops? Can we develop dual-purpose varieties of maize or sorghum, for example, which will provide much more fodder without losing grain yield? Should farmers invest in the production of fodder crops? Will Southern Africa see the same transition that occurred in the west, where cattle eat feed (grain) rather than fodder? How will these changes affect wealthier versus poorer farm households? The project will focus partly on cattle, but even more on small stock and poultry, which are critically important for poorer families.

The project will run for 3 years, beginning with baseline analysis of trends in livestock populations, feed availability and demand; and an inventory of dry-season feed and fodder options, both traditional and improved. This information will help identify ‘best-bet’ options to improve the availability of livestock feed for smallholder farmers in semi-arid areas. These options will then be tested in a pilot program in drought-prone districts in Zimbabwe; and adoption measured in systems with varying degrees of intensification.

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3. Towards Safe-to-Eat Maize!

Many agricultural commodities are vulnerable to attack by a group of fungi that produce toxic metabolites called mycotoxins. Among mycotoxins, aflatoxins, produced by Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus, have assumed significance owing to their widespread occurrence. Aflatoxins are proven carcinogens. In developing countries, many individuals are chronically exposed to high levels of aflatoxins in their diet. The aflatoxin-producing molds attack several crops such as groundnut, millets, maize, chillies, coffee and almonds. The climate under which maize is grown favors fungal infestation and toxin production.

Fungal infestation occurs through growth cracks, mechanical injury and damage by pests to the plant parts or seeds, and it produces toxins under high temperatures, drought, high insect activity and water stress for more than 20 days prior to harvest. In the semi-arid tropics of Africa and India, maize is predominantly grown as a rain-fed crop, and because of drought/end-of-season moisture stress it is frequently contaminated with aflatoxins. Recently, in Kenya, consumption of aflatoxin-contaminated maize resulted in the death of over 100 people.

ICRISAT initiated a study through a project funded by Effem India Ltd, to understand the extent of aflatoxin contamination in Kharimnagar, Medak and Nizamabad districts of Andhra Pradesh – one of the maize growing belts in India. Maize samples (1151) were collected from 235 fields in 30 villages of these districts. Of these, 69 samples (6%) contained more than 20 parts per billion (ppb) aflatoxin. Toxin concentration in the rest of the samples was less than 20 ppb. Up to 50% of the samples collected from villages – Gundannapalli and Vattemla in Karimnagar district, and Thadvai village in Nizamabad – contained more than 20 ppb toxin. Almost all the samples analyzed contained aflatoxin, although in most, the concentration was less than 20 ppb. Studies on phytosanitary conditions and harvest and postharvest processing revealed that increased A. flavus infection and aflatoxin contamination in maize in these regions were due to moisture stress during the grain filling stage, damaged cobs because of insect feeding and growth cracks, rains during harvesting and drying periods, stacking of the harvested crop for more than two weeks, and threshing maize cobs when the grain moisture is more than 12%.

The development of low-cost on-farm aflatoxin management technologies would be useful to regulate the fungal contamination during cropping stages. The outcome of the study could help produce safe-to-eat maize in the near future.

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4. The Keen Mean Neem

Since time immemorial herbs have been used as medicines or pest repellants. It is usually the seeds or the leaves that carry the active ingredient. The Neem tree (Azadirachta indica) is an exception. Notoriously bitter, all plant parts of the neem have some ingredient with an ability to kill insect-pests. Although reported as a very potent and efficient, neem oil is rarely used by farmers due to its high cost. This is true of most biopesticides marketed today. Material needed for one spray for one ha is generally around Rs 300 (US$ 6). For a biopesticide to be used widely by farmers it should be affordable.

Foliage of neem

Research over the last five years at ICRISAT has shown that neem foliage can be vermi-composted using earthworms. This is contrary to reports stating that neem is lethal to earthworms. In laboratory studies, the wash of this compost, when sprayed on the third instar larvae of the pod borer Helicoverpa, killed at least 50% of the larvae. In a spraying schedule supplemented by sprays of insect-killing bacteria and fungi, the neem compost wash was effective in field conditions as well. The test crop used was cotton, and it was encouraging to note that there were also indications of improved crop growth after use of this spray.

To prepare extract or wash from neem compost, use a 100-liter capacity drum or tank to get 30 to 50 L wash per week (initial cost of Rs 500 or US$ 12).  The wash collected per week is enough to spray crops on one ha after dilution. The process is used repeatedly.

Composting should be started two-months before the biopesticide is required.

The drum should have a tap at the base. Place a metal grill inside the drum providing about 10 cm clearance between the base (floor) of the drum and the metal grill. Neem foliage is composted above the metal grill using earthworms. To prepare the wash, water is added uniformly on the surface of the compost. The wash is collected at the bottom of the drum.

At ICRISAT we added neem foliage as feed for the earthworms once a week, and after the initial 2 months, drained the wash every two weeks for about 8 months. Studies on the shelf life of this product are ongoing.

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