Modernizing crop breeding programs, enhanced monitoring and evaluation, digital agriculture and strategic research support to Africa locations were a few of the key topics discussed at the recent biannual Governing Board Meeting.
In a review of the first phase (2012-2016) of the two CGIAR Research Programs (CRPs) led by ICRISAT – Dryland Cereals and Grain Legumes – it was recalled that over 256 new legume varieties and 119 new dryland cereal varieties were developed and released in sub-Saharan Africa and India. For the next phase of the CRP, based on the audit reviews of Phase I, the Board recommended that ICRISAT management invest time, talent and resources to develop a lucid and compelling Phase II CRP proposal.
Professor Chandra Madramootoo, Chair, Governing Board, commended the fruitful partnership between ICAR and ICRISAT with both institutions having similar goals and complementing each other’s strengths well. He hoped for a long and productive association with ICAR in the future.
Dr Nigel Kerby underscored the cooperation between stellar institutions such as ICRISAT and ICAR. He said that ICAR’s Farm Science Centers were inspirational and would help attract youth to agriculture.
Dr David Bergvinson, Director General, ICRISAT, discussed the focus areas for ICRISAT:
- Modernizing breeding programs: To reflect its commitment to superlative breeding programs, ICRISAT aims to implement the Breeding Management Systems (BMS) by June 2017, thus becoming the first CGIAR center to do so. A Breeding Program Assessment team had reviewed ICRISAT’s breeding programs and came up with recommendations for improving the programs substantially in terms of targeting, speed, scale, efficiency and quality. Recommendations included enhancement of ICRISAT’s data science; stronger collaboration among data teams, breeders and other disciplines to prioritize statistics, bio-informatics and data management capabilities; and adoption of modern experimental designs and analysis methodologies by breeding teams.
- Digital agriculture: By progressively building capabilities in remote sensing, data management, and information and communication technologies, ICRISAT aims to achieve leadership in digital agriculture to help farmers increase productivity and prosperity. The Sowing App created in partnership with Microsoft India (R&D) Pvt. Ltd. and aWhere (Colorado, USA) is a case in point; groundnut farmers who followed the advisories increased their yield by about 30% compared to those who did not take the recommendations of the app.
Dr Bergvinson also highlighted the relevance of the newly commissioned iHub as a focal point for innovation for integration of agriculture science, IT, finance and energy to accelerate rural growth and reduce risks associated with smallholder agriculture.
- Enhanced Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E): Strengthening M&E capabilities helps to track implementation, outputs and success for better alignment with ICRISAT’s institutional goals. It also helps create more effective programs in the future for optimum resource utilization.
- Strengthening organizational culture: Centering its policies on the concept of ‘Working as One’, some of ICRISAT’s efforts for improving staff engagement are: providing incentives for stronger cross-team collaboration, offering clear career paths, and carrying out transparent evaluations and periodic employee surveys. Biannual staff survey results would be used to inform further human resource policies.
- Aligning with country strategies: ICRISAT’s scientific research, collaborations and resource mobilization activities can be made sharper and more efficient by working with partners for realizing national goals for agri-food systems and rural development for the drylands of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
- Sub-Saharan African countries: ICRISAT will continue to invest strategically to support its research in sub-Saharan Africa. This is an urgent agenda given the higher vulnerability of dryland farmers and consumers impacted by increased weather variability due to climate change.
- The Board inaugurated a pilot processing facility established at the Agribusiness Innovation Platform; this facility can process sorghum, millets, groundnuts and pulses into Energy and Nutrient Dense Foods (ENDFs). As the members saw demonstrations of processing equipment, they learned how it would be used in prototyping and pilot-scale production of ENDFs using ICRISAT mandate crops, supporting entrepreneurship development and capacity building of agribusiness entrepreneurs in India and Africa. The ultimate aim of the pilot facility is to provide farmers with access to similar production facilities for enhancing their income and linking them to the markets.
The Board thanked the outgoing Chair, Prof Madramootoo, for his immense contribution to ICRISAT as he completed his three-year tenure as Chair of the Governing Board and a total eight-year term on the Board. Prof Madramootoo joined the Board in April 2009 and took over as the Governing Board Chair in April 2014. He has since played a key role in ICRISAT’s journey to serve the resource-poor smallholder farmers of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The Board also gave a warm farewell to Dr Shoba Sivasankar, Director, CGIAR Research Programs Dryland Cereals and Grain Legumes.
The Governing Board Meeting was held on 19-21 April at ICRISAT-India.
Doreen Margaret Mashler Award
Dr Rajeev K Varshney, Research Program Director, Genetic Gains, was presented with the 2016 Doreen Margaret Mashler Award for his significant contribution in the areas of genome sequencing, genetic mapping and functional genomics. His work has played a key role in increasing the visibility and attention to the ‘orphan legume crops’, which are vital to fight the climate change challenge.
Some of the noteworthy outputs by Dr Varshney and his team have been: genome sequences of several crops and molecular breeding products such as introgression lines for drought tolerance, pyramided disease resistant lines in chickpea, and rust-resistant and high-oil quality introgression lines in groundnut. ICRISAT is the only CGIAR center to lead genome sequencing of several crops and publish several lead papers in the journal Nature.