Issue No: 1752
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Reporting from the ICRISAT Board Meeting

Dr Nigel Kerby, ICRISAT Governing Board Chair, with farmers and scientists in Malawi groundnut and pigeon pea intercropped fields. Photo: J Kane-Potaka, ICRISAT

Dr Nigel Kerby, ICRISAT Governing Board Chair, with farmers and scientists in Malawi groundnut and pigeon pea intercropped fields. Photo: J Kane-Potaka, ICRISAT

Strategic investments and Scientific Award announcements mark ICRISAT’s 84th Board Meeting

The announcement of new strategic investments for research and of ICRISAT’s highest scientific award, marked the 84th meeting of ICRISAT’s Governing Board.

The investments of US$ 200,000 were for an innovative collaboration with Dow-DuPont and for support to socio-economics research, announced during the Board Meeting in Malawi, in April.

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The new Systems Biology and partnerships for research as well as the significant Master Alliance Agreement with Dow DuPont were presented by Dr Rajeev Varshney while Dr Michael Hauser emphasized the need for more socio-economic research.

For the ICRISAT Science Awards 2017, The Doreen Mashler Award for scientific achievement was awarded to Dr. Mamta Sharma and Dr. Pooja Bhatnagar-Mathur.  ICRISAT Governing Board recognized the scientific achievements of Dr Baloua Nebie as the ‘Promising Young Scientist Awardee 2017’. A presentation on scientific contribution and outputs was made by Dr Nebie. Drs Sharma and Bhatnagar-Mathur will make their presentations at the next Board meeting in September 2018.

At the Program Committee where ICRISAT’s ongoing and future research was highlighted, the Board applauded the ongoing work in Malawi presented by Dr Patrick Okori, on revolving seed funds model, citing this as a learning opportunity for other institutions. The achievements from the CGIAR Research Program-CCAFS by Dr Robert Zougmore, emphasized the importance of partnerships in achieving outcomes for climate change in Africa. The suggestion of greater engagement of ICRISAT in integrative CRPs – WLE, PIM and CCAFS in Asia, by Dr Anthony Whitbread was agreed to. Dr Peter Carberry added that ICRISAT’s contribution to other CRPs and Platforms – A4NH, Genebank, Excellence in Breeding and Big Data, to be presented at the next Board meeting.

At the previous Governing Board meeting in September 2017, a Smart Food Endowment Fund was approved, with US$ 2M committed from ICRISAT. During this meeting, the business plan defining the Smart Food Vision and mission as a catalyst for nutrition, the environment and in breaking the food system divide was presented by Ms Joanna Kane-Potaka. The Board approved the governance structure and the business plan, recommending a Business Advisory Committee to be established for this globally acclaimed initiative.

Snapshots of CRP GLDC by Ms Neena Jacob, modernization of ICRISAT Crop Improvement by Dr Jan Debaene, and nutrition research by Drs Gichohi & Anitha received suggestions from the Board on value chain as well as on diversity of work.

A new way of sharing performance indicators using the MEASURE program developed in collaboration with ICRISAT ihub startup Verdantum, was presented by Dr Carberry. Dr Paco Sereme, Chair, Program Committee appreciated the MEASURE program and congratulated Dr David Bergvinson and colleagues for this new way of presenting data.

The Board took this opportunity to interact with farmers on the field. Visiting groundnut fields intercropped with pigeonpea, Dr. Nigel Kerby, Governing Board Chair, highlighted the strength of applied science at ICRISAT, which could be witnessed firsthand in Malawi. “It is inspiring to be surrounded by farmers and scientists and see the rapport and respect on all sides, and the real change to communities, dependent on agriculture,” he remarked. “You only need see this to know that all our efforts in governance are worth it.”

The Governing Board presented a Plaque of Appreciation to Ms Oluwande Muoyo for her service to ICRISAT, as Governing Board Member and Audit and Risk Committee Chair, from July 2012 – April 2018. Ms Muoyo, a former Hon Commissioner for Budget and planning in Ogun State, Nigeria, is succeeded by Ms Folashade Ogunde, also from Nigeria.  Ms Muoyo has retired from ICRISAT Board and will venture into farming. She was inspired by ICRISAT’s mission in helping smallholder farmers contribute to sustainable agriculture and farming systems. “I’m passionate about the change I can bring to the community and thank my colleagues for making me understand the importance of a food secure future,” she said.

At a dinner with partners during, Dr Kerby, shared his pleasure at the valuable link between ICRISAT and partners in Malawi, especially the government. “ICRISAT is proud to see the progress and impact of the collective contribution to science and farming systems and we are positive that we will accomplish more to benefit smallholder farmers,” he said.

Participants at the Board meeting included Dr Kerby, Dr Sereme, Board members, Dr Paul Anderson, Dr Wendy Umberger, Ms Muoyo, Dr Sissel Rogne, Dr Laurie Tollefson and Ms Ogunde along with Dr Carberry, and senior ICRISAT management and research staff.

Farmer Manzure Beda explaining use of his farm for training smallholder farmers. (Photos: J. Kane-Potaka, ICRISAT)

Farmer Manzure Beda explaining use of his farm for training smallholder farmers. (Photos: J. Kane-Potaka, ICRISAT)

The many models of Malawi that help farmers get better incomes

As part of the recently concluded Governing Board Meeting, ICRISAT Board members visited several farmers’ fields in Malawi to witness firsthand the impact of different agricultural models to raise productivity and efficiency of smallholder farms in the region. A few promising models are shared here.

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High-standard larger farms used as training grounds

, Director General (Acting), ICRISAT, gave accolades to Manzure noting, “You are an inspiring leader and see the big picture. You have also used your networks to bring the farmers on board.

, Director General (Acting), ICRISAT, gave accolades to Manzure noting, “You are an inspiring leader and see the big picture. You have also used your networks to bring the farmers on board.
Farmer Manzure Beda is a medium size farmer who provides a high quality training ground to smallholder farmers, guiding them on producing seeds. ICRISAT has been working with Manzure for 17 years to transition many farmers from tobacco, to viable food crops.
Manzure says he has not mechanized because it better replicates what is possible for the small holder farmers. It also provides seasonal employment which he says helps locals pay school and medical fees.
Malawi is a small land size with a large population, so increasing the arable land for farming is very difficult. The focus instead needs to be to maximize returns from the existing land.
One of the biggest needs identified by Manzure is for a structured market for farmers to sell their product at a fair price. He notes, “There was a collapse in prices last year and consequently we have seen a decrease in the crop quality this year as the farmers didn’t have resources for inputs.”
Manzure agreed to be a Smart Food ambassador to take forward the challenge to popularize the more nutritious foods like millets and legumes.
Farmer innovation platforms

ICRISAT scientists and farmers explaining the participatory selection process and benefits in better pigeonpea varieties for intercropping. ICRISAT scientists and farmers explaining the participatory selection process and benefits in better pigeonpea varieties for intercropping.

Another model to assist farmers is an innovation platform where farmers, scientists and others meet each month to look for opportunities. The innovation platforms are organized by the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi (NASFAM). There are two committees are set up under the platform – a market and a production committee. Farmer-to-farmer trainings occur, along with sharing information on nutrition and food safety.

Variety selection discussed on these platforms led to ICRISAT releasing improved varieties and ensuring seeds go into the community seed bank, making them easily available.

Community seedbanks

The county seed bank is a great success story of perseverance. It started in 2007 with 10 members. Five of these members were able to receive seed and only two were able to pay back with double the quantity lent. In 2009, eight people were able to pay back, reaching 160 kg of seed in the bank; 10 more people joined the club.

Farmer Doris Weisman said that after paying back the seed loan she was able to pay the school fees and bought some bricks to build a new home.

Farmer Doris Weisman said that after paying back the seed loan she was able to pay the school fees and bought some bricks to build a new home.

By 2012, there were 18 new clubs, and by 2015 there were 35 clubs in all. Now the seed banks have 9,000 kg of seed and 1,600 farmer members. Each seed bank can cover a radius of 15 km. The clubs are so large that now they are looking to purchase their own land and build a small warehouse.

Pigeonpea was introduced to satisfy export markets. The short-duration varieties were most successful to fit in with the seasons of the other crops like maize and beans and more recently with groundnut as a new system.

ICRISAT encouraged farmers to consume the crop as well with a variety of products ranging from pigeon pea cake to pigeon pea milk. Some challenges to domestic consumption is that there isn’t any processing equipment to deshell and split the pigeon pea; people don’t like to use it whole as this lengthens the cooking time. As a result, most pigeonpea is eaten as a green vegetable and some as a flour for porridge.

Creating demand through new products

Dr. Wanjiku Gichohi, ICRISAT Nutritionist, has been undertaking consumer studies to identify recipes that fit all criteria of being tasty while also nutritious and marketable.

Dr. Wanjiku Gichohi, ICRISAT Nutritionist, has been undertaking consumer studies to identify recipes that fit all criteria of being tasty while also nutritious and marketable.

Malawi has a high level of stunting at an average of 37% (National Statistical Office (NSO) [Malawi] and ICF. 2017. Malawi Demographic and Health Survey 2015-16. Zomba, Malawi, and Rockville, Maryland, USA. NSO and ICF). This central region is extremely high at 45%. To help break this, ICRISAT has also started a major effort to increase consumption of these more nutritious crops and add diversity to the maize dominant diets, with Malawi recognized as having the second highest consumption of maize in Africa.

“If the farmer is sick, everything stops,” notes Edmund, a local farmer.

“If the farmer is sick, everything stops,” notes Edmund, a local farmer.

ICRISAT Nutritionist, Dr Wanjiku Gichohi, has been undertaking consumer studies to identify recipes that fit all criteria of being tasty while also nutritious and marketable. Learnings, through farmer to farmer trainings, have also been sourced from northern Malawi which has more consumption, menu variety and processing especially of pigeonpea. Sanitation and hygiene as well as food safety (post-harvest aflatoxin mitigation in maize and groundnuts) are also integrated as key components of nutrition education.

Future work will include efforts to understand what children like, how to change dietary habits, creating recipes to suit the local communities and building commercial interest in urban and rural markets for new processed products.

Doreen Margaret Mashler Award for Dr. Mamta Sharma and Dr. Pooja Bhatnagar-Mathur

ICRISAT’s highest award for research – the Doreen Margaret Mashler Award – has been awarded to Dr Mamta Sharma and Dr Pooja Bhatnagar-Mathur for the year 2017. They have been recognized for significant scientific achievement in their respective research fields of plant pathology and biotechnology.

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Dr Mamta Sharma specializes in epidemiology of plant diseases and pathogens, focusing on disease-resistant breeding in chickpea and pigeonpea, two of ICRISAT’s mandate crops. In 2017, she led the team that developed the Loop-Mediated Isothermal Amplification (LAMP) method to identify a pathogen affecting chickpea and over 500 crops globally. She also established the Center of Excellence on Climate Change Research for Plant Protection to address effects of climate change on insect-pests and diseases.

Dr Sharma’s work on identifying new multiple disease-resistant sources has helped researchers in breeding programs across the globe understand the mechanism of inheritance of resistance.  Her climate variability work on diverse patho-systems will have major bearing on developing risk maps, models for diseases and insect-pest prediction as well as adaptation and mitigation strategies for sustainable crop production.

Encouraging the younger generation, especially young women, to take up science as a career Dr Sharma said, “The next few decades will see cutting-edge technologies in science for huge opportunities in India. If youngsters pursue a career in science with focus, perseverance and planning, they can become leaders of innovation and address the unmet needs of the country.”

Co-recipient of the award, Dr Pooja Bhatnagar-Mathur led an international, multi-institutional effort, for innovative biotechnology solutions to combat aflatoxin in groundnut using a ‘double-defense’ approach. These include engineering groundnuts to prevent infection by the fungus Aspergillus flavus by producing small proteins called defensins. In the second approach, the synthesis of aflatoxin by the fungus was shut down using gene-silencing RNA molecules. This breakthrough resulted in resistance to fungal infection as well as remarkably low levels of aflatoxin contamination.

Dr Bhatnagar-Mathur also worked towards successful isolation and characterization of the gene responsible for cytoplasmic male sterility in pigeonpea. As a result, ICRISAT filed its first ever patent in 2016-17. It holds great potential to induce and control male sterility in other crop species, thereby providing male sterile lines for developing scalable hybrid systems.

Describing the Mashler Award as her motivation to contribute even more to her professional goals, Dr Bhatnagar-Mathur said that she intended to build mutually beneficial newer collaborations and partnerships that ultimately benefit smallholder agriculture. Her advice to aspiring scientists is, “Be optimistic. Be innovative. Build supportive professional and personal networks and figure out how research funding flows and works to deliver on your mission.”

The Doreen Margaret Mashler award includes a plaque and a citation for each awardee. It will be presented during the ICRISAT Governing Board meeting in September 2018.

Feature stories

Dr. Peter Carberry, Director General (Acting), ICRISAT, and Dr. Tom Greene, Senior Research Director, Corteva Agriscience™, after signing the Master Alliance Agreement for technology sharing. Photo: S. Punna

Dr. Peter Carberry, Director General (Acting), ICRISAT, and Dr. Tom Greene, Senior Research Director, Corteva Agriscience™, after signing the Master Alliance Agreement for technology sharing. Photo: S. Punna

Forging an alliance to improve crops through latest technology

An agreement signed between Corteva Agriscience™ (the Agriculture Division of DowDuPont) and ICRISAT will enable crop scientists access the latest technology – including CRISPR-Cas gene editing – to improve productivity and quality of crops grown by smallholder farmers. The two institutions inked a Master Alliance Agreement (MAA) with a view to strengthen food security for millions through sharing of modern breeding technologies.

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The agreement signed on 12 April 2018 between Dr. Peter Carberry, Director General (Acting), ICRISAT, and Dr. Tom Greene, Senior Research Director, Corteva Agriscience™, allows sharing of know-how for adapting transformation techniques to new crops, and for applying knowledge of plant biochemical pathways to increase productivity and quality of crops.

Dr. Carberry, who is also the director of Global CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals (GLDC), said: “ICRISAT and Corteva Agriscience™ share goals of developing innovative technologies and promoting their translation into next-generation agricultural products to benefit the smallholder farmers in the drylands. Such public-private partnerships are actively sought and are critical to achieve the desired impact and success of the GLDC Program.”

Dr. Greene hoped that with cutting-edge technology like CRISPR-Cas, challenges of crop production and consumer-facing quality problems could be addressed. “The combination of experience from our scientists and refinement of new technologies offer promising areas of research and development for select crops that don’t receive enough attention, even though these crops feed millions,” he said.

Dr. Pooja Bhatnagar-Mathur, Principal Investigator, ICRISAT, and Dr. Amitabh Mohanty, Principal Investigator, Corteva Agriscience™, jointly developed the technology-sharing research plan. “With scientists from the two institutions working together, we will see rapid improvement in technologies towards developing more productive crops and a more prosperous agriculture for smallholder farmers,” said Dr. Bhatnagar-Mathur.

Dr. Mohanty anticipated that the collaboration would bring together expertise and experience that complement each other. He said, “Once we started discussions on the research plan, the collaboration came together quickly.”

The plan to work together on crops such as sorghum and millet was solidified at a meeting during the 2017 World Food Prize where Dr. David Bergvinson, Director General, ICRISAT, and Dr. Greene outlined general research concepts, targets, and available technology that would help drive solutions.

The novel technological tools are expected to help develop crops with greater environmental resiliency, productivity and sustainability, with the benefits reaching the grassroots-level farmers in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Dr Karsten Kristiansen, BGI-Shenzhen

Dr Karsten Kristiansen, BGI-Shenzhen

New Seeds Sown for Systems Biology Research at ICRISAT

Looking at nutrition from the view of the microbiome in human and soil systems may provide answers to tackle malnutrition in Asia and Africa. Agricultural and medical researchers and doctors from around the world came together from March 22 – 24, 2018, at ICRISAT to brainstorm on the connect with between microbiomes of the gut and the soil. This workshop on systems biology for human and plant nutrition aimed to elucidate the workings of microorganisms in the human body; the microbial connection between gut and brain/immune system/obesity as well as the factors influencing them (diet, genetics, environment). Experts from Ghana, India, Senegal, Mali and The Gambia presented their respective countries’ nutrition reports, highlighting the need for urgent interventions to improve nutrition. The role of plant/soil microbiomes – especially that of legumes in immune response and other physiological functions – was discussed in detail.

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In the inaugural address, Dr David Bergvinson, Director General, ICRISAT, called the workshop a rare integration of health, nutrition and soil, and challenged participants to connect the varied clusters and distil information that could significantly impact nutrition and agriculture, especially in the drylands.

Why gut bacteria are important

  • Gut Bacteria contain enzymes that help digest carbohydrates, and are involved in protein and lipid metabolism1.
  • They play a critical role in development of the immune system2.
  • They are also responsible for synthesis of certain vitamins such as Vitamin B123.

Dr Karsten Kristiansen, University of Copenhagen and BGI-Shenzhen, highlighted the importance of gut microbiome for different diseases. In his presentation, he showed how the certain human gut microbes such as Prevotella copri are linked to conditions such as insulin resistance and glucose intolerance.

Dr Rajeev K Varshney, Research Program Director, Genetic Gains, ICRISAT, introduced the newly commissioned Systems Biology initiative as an effort to understand the gut microbiome associated with legume-based diets, and the soil microbiome to better understand crop responses to soil inputs. The Systems Biology initiative at ICRISAT will focus on research on i) Human Gut Microbiome ii) Soil Microbiome and iii) Trait Biology. Dr. Varshney expressed hope that this approach would create a roadmap to tackle malnutrition in Asia and Africa.

Dr Peter Carberry, Deputy Director General, Research, ICRISAT, urged workshop participants to link systems biology with socio-economic systems (e.g. the Village Dynamics Studies in South Asia – VDSA) and crop systems modelling research. “This will enable us to exploit ICRISAT’s Village Level Studies, which have provided profound insights into social and economic changes in the village and household economies in the semi-arid tropics of Asia and Africa,” he said.

Professor Kwaku Tano-Debrah, University of Ghana

Professor Kwaku Tano-Debrah, University of Ghana

In the workshop, speakers from 19 organizations and 12 countries presented updates on ongoing research work and their areas of strength, which can be utilized to complement each other and move ahead on systems biology approach to address bigger challenges.

Dr. Wolfram Weckwerth, University of Vienna

Dr. Wolfram Weckwerth, University of Vienna

The potential research areas highlighted during the workshop included:

  • Gut microbiome for improving human nutrition: A multi-institute collaboration to study the effect of legume-based nutritional supplement on the gut microbiome of pregnant women and children in India through government nutrition, health and agriculture institutions in India. This would be done with BGI-Shenzhen with University of Copenhagen. The expertise of BGI-Shenzhen in foxtail millet and the University Hyderabad synergized with ICRISAT could analyze plant/soil microbiome in chickpea. Collaborations with CSIRO and Rothamsted Research Institute are also being considered.
  • ICRISAT will partner the Vienna Metabolomics Center, University of Vienna, to study drought tolerance in chickpea and analyze the two-line hybrid system and epigenomics for hybrids in pigeonpea. This study will use models to predict higher-order relationships between molecular phenotypes, interactions among each other and subsequent influence on complex traits.
  • International standards for data collection, analysis and storage will be used.

For more information about the workshop: http://cegsb.icrisat.org/1-sb/


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3144392/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5408367/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22940212

Over five million farmers and more: Bhoochetana expands in India

Bhoochetana, an initiative that has transformed lives of several million farmers in the Indian state of Karnataka, was launched in the state of Odisha in April 2018. The Department of Agriculture, Government of Odisha, and ICRISAT signed a Memorandum of Agreement that would potentially benefit 4.35 million farmers in the state. The three-year agreement is set to reach 6.1 million ha of farmland in 30 districts through a science-led development approach.

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The word Bhoochetana means revival of the land and involves soil health mapping, nutrient recommendations and support to farmers. Already over 4.75 million Indian farmers have got a 20-66% crop increase and US$350 million total net benefits.

Through this initiative, the soil analysis, nutrient management recommendations and treatment is shared with farmers. This helps increase productivity through improved practices. Also, improved cultivars, local seed banks, land and water management practices and capacity building for farmers is implemented. The MoA was signed in presence of Mr. Pradeep Maharathy, Odisha’s Agriculture Minister, and Director, Agriculture & Food Production, Government of Odisha; and Dr. Suhas P. Wani, Research Program Director, Asia, and Director, ICRISAT Development Center, on behalf of the Director General of ICRISAT.

Women in blue use smart foods to fight malnutrition in rural India

Empowering women can make a real difference to improving nutrition in rural areas

Despite having the most dynamic food production growth among Indian states in recent years, Madhya Pradesh has worrying child malnutrition statistics according to the last National Family Health survey in 2015-2016.  More than 40 percent of children under five are still stunted in the “Heart of India”, while almost 70 percent are anemic. This is particularly true for poor rural communities like the Gond and Baiga farmers, two indigenous groups recognized among India’s scheduled tribes.

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“To improve the nutrition situation in these rural communities, empowering women can make the real difference,” states Meera Mishra, country coordinator of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in India.  “More confident, skilled and economically independent women can become change makers within their own household and village, to improve family nutrition and health.”

This is what Tejaswini, a 10-year IFAD-funded women’s empowerment programme, has proved in six of the poorest districts of Madhya Pradesh. Tejaswini is an Indian name implying radiance and strength.

Women in blue make the difference

Central to Tejaswini was the creation of Shaurya Dal or “courage brigades”. Dressed in blue saris, groups of active village women including self-help group (SHG) members, health and social workers team up with men in the community to raise awareness on social issues like domestic violence, education and family health concerns, or child marriage.

In Madhya Pradesh, a third of women are married before the legal age (18). This hinders life prospects of the women and their families. A study in tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh found a strong correlation between marriage of the mother at a young age and malnutrition (and consequently the development potential of the children).

When the Tejaswini programme started in 2007, most women in these villages did not have a voice on family and community affairs, and often never ventured outside the family circle. Engaging women, some illiterate, in SHGs was a game changer as they started making use of choices, spaces and opportunities to improve family well-being.

Groups of 10 to 20 women would meet in a safe space twice a month, to discuss family and community problems. Women are gradually empowered, both in the economic and social spheres, through savings and income-generating activities, learning new skills, but more importantly being part of a group, opening up and talking in front of others.

When asked to name the most significant change Tejaswini brought to them, the women in blue often reply, “the freedom of going out and the confidence to speak unveiled”.

Being more listened to in the family and the community, they drove improvements in family nutrition as well.

‘Three colour plate’ teaches communities about diet diversity

Tejaswini encouraged families to grow a variety of vegetables for home consumption with the “seven day, seven plots” system. They received high quality seeds to grow seven types of vegetables – like coriander, eggplant, fenugreek, chickpea (eaten green), spinach, red amaranth, and tomatoes – each in a square plot of garden, so they could pick one different vegetable a day.

They learnt about a more balanced diet with the three colours plate or tirangaa thali. Women were taught to prepare meals with white (rice or wheat or dairy like curd), green (leafy vegetables) and saffron food (e.g. pulses in form of daal). “Tejaswini reached out to 200,000 households with this concept, and it has been widely accepted as the three colours remind them of our country’s national flag”, says Dr Rachna Gupta in charge of health and nutrition for the programme.

Families also adopted better food hygiene practices. Women listened to hygiene improvement messages from the health coordinator when they understood it was linked their finances too, as any sick child meant 2-3 days off work for the mother.

The Kodo Kutki way for smarter school feeding

“What you grow, that is what you eat” is a mantra often repeated by the Tejaswini team. In many villages, SHGs are supplying neighbouring schools and youth hostels with locally produced fresh produce, like vegetables or ground spices e.g. turmeric, chilies and coriander.

Like with Brazil’s innovative locally sourced school feeding, giving priority to women’s SHGs when implementing government-supported feeding schemes, drives women’s empowerment and rural development as well as better meals for children.  It brings secured income to women and local farmers and produce can be fresher and safer as women would ensure their children receive the right food.

In Mehadwani village, women wanted their children to eat the nutritious kodo and kutki millets that they used to traditionally grow. These dryland cereals are true smart foods, being nutritious grains packed with iron, fibre and antioxidant, climate resilient and quick to grow on poor soils. Yet with low yields and time consuming manual de-husking, kodo and kutki have been gradually replaced by rice and wheat. According to the Neglected and Under-utilized Species (NUS) initiative, minor millet production has declined by 50 percent in the last two decades in Madhya Pradesh.

With Tejaswini’s support, Mehadwani women developed a breakfast bar recipe to include in school feeding programmes. They started producing kodo patti composed of kodo millet, groundnut and soybean, to serve to children as breakfast, instead of the industrial packets of biscuits. Now, they have secured a contract with district authorities to supply schools and youth hostels with kodo breakfast bars, for at least a year, six days a week for around 5,000 children.

“Where the mind is without fear, and the head is held high, where knowledge is free … let my country awake”. The Indian poet Tagore’s words aptly fit the Tejaswini women from rural Madhya Pradesh. Smarter nutrition, better income opportunities, a safer world for girls: the impact these women are having on their family and community should not be underestimated.

Millets and Sorghum: Forgotten Foods for the Future

Millets and sorghum are grains that are nutrient-rich, drought-tolerant crops and can support communities around the world. The International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) estimates that more than 90 million people in Africa and Asia depend on millets in their diets, and 500 million people in more than 30 countries depend on sorghums as a staple food. However, in the past 50 years, these grains have largely been abandoned in favor of developing more popular crops like maize, wheat, rice, and soybeans.

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The Smart Food initiative at ICRISAT, in partnership with Feed the Future’s Accelerated Value Chain Development (AVCD) Program, is developing innovative methods to make these grains attractive again in the semi-arid tropics of Africa and India. At the same time, the project is hoping to educate consumers, farmers, food processors, health workers, and government leaders about the various benefits and uses of millets, sorghum, and grain legumes. Building awareness of these grains can support the diet diversity, well-being, and livelihoods of rural communities and farmers in Africa and India, where undernutrition, malnutrition, obesity, and anemia are common.

Millets are gluten-free, are high in protein and antioxidants, and have a low glycemic index, which can help prevent or manage diabetes. Pearl millet (pictured left), in particular, is very high in iron—one of the most common micronutrient deficiencies worldwide—and has twice the protein of milk. Finger millet has three times more calcium than milk. Kodo milletincludes three times the dietary fiber of wheat and maize, and ten times that of rice. Sorghum (pictured at top), also used as a sweetener syrup, is rich in vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber, and is also gluten-free. This cereal grain can help reduce the risk of certain cancers, as well as aid in diabetes control and prevention.

Despite being highly nutritious, these crops have suffered a loss of popularity and poorly developed value chains, according to Joanna Kane-Potaka, the Director of Strategic Marketing and Communication at ICRISAT. Millets and sorghum were the traditional crops across many parts of Africa and India, but “are now seen as old fashioned or food for the poor,” says Kane-Potaka. “There has been much less investment in these foods. The value chain is less developed, from the seed system being set up through to modern convenience products being developed.”

The current lack of development of millets and sorghum crops allows for substantial potential in growth and innovation. ICRISAT hopes to develop the crops’ value chains from farming to food products. “We are working with food processors to incorporate millets in ready-to-eat snacks and foods such as breakfast cereals, malt drinks, etc.” says Dr. David Bergvinson, the Director General of ICRISAT.

Some of ICRISAT’s other Smart Food projects include healthy cooking demonstrations and training programs for Kenyan women and families; a Smart Food reality TV show, which challenges contestants to incorporate millets, sorghum, and grain legumes into meals; and a program that adds millets into mid-day school meals in India. Restaurants and food companies such as Slurrp Farm in India are beginning to incorporate millets and sorghum into their everyday meals and food products.

Millets are multi-purpose—their stalks can be used not only as grains for human consumption, but also as animal fodder, as a biofuel, and in brewing. Other major crops like maize may see reducing yields or reach a yield plateau over the coming decade. However, ICRISAT reports that some millets and sorghum varieties could increase their yields up to three times their current potential. ICRISAT has found that millets and sorghum can be more reliable crops for farmers in spite of dry, hot conditions because they are usually the last crops standing in droughts. Not only can millets grow in about half the time of wheat, using few or no fertilizers and pesticides, but they also require 30 percent less water than maize and 70 percent less water than rice.

In the face of global climate change, water scarcity, and longer periods of drought, millets and sorghum may be valuable, nutritious, and hardy alternatives to provide sustainable food security for people living in increasingly dry climates. According to Kane-Potaka, a return to millets and sorghum means a return to food that is good for you, good for the planet, and good for the farmer.

Call to Promote the Hidden Treasures of ‘Future Smart Food’ for Zero Hunger

In an important FAO executive summary on ‘Future Smart Food’, ICRISAT scientists Dr. Suhas Wani and Dr. Gajanan Sawargaonkar suggest that strategically increasing the use of paddy fallow cultivation can boost incomes and family nutrition.

The FAO refers to Neglected and Underutilized Species (NUS) as Future Smart Food (FSF), since they are environment friendly, nutrition dense and locally available. Pulses (pigeonpea), roots & tubers (sweet potato) and nutrient-rich cereals (millets & sorghum) are few FSFs that can contribute to achieve the universal goal of ‘Zero Hunger’. The Future Smart Food Initiative was launched by FAO’s Asia Regional Office, in collaboration with 30 national and international organizations.

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In his foreword in the Future Smart Food publication, José Graziano da Silva, FAO Director-General emphasized that only 103 out of the nearly 30,000 edible plant species worldwide provide 90% of the calories in the human diet. “Over 60% of the world’s caloric intake comes from just a few staples such as maize, rice, wheat, soybean and potato,” he adds.

The publication aims to demonstrate the benefits of NUS to eradicate global hunger. It identifies promising nutrition-dense, climate-resilient, economically-viable, locally available varieties, highlights opportunities to harness these and provides an enabling environment for promotion, production, marketing and consumption of Future Smart Food, towards healthy diets.

Achieving ‘Zero Hunger’ and eradicating all forms of malnutrition is a UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). Increasing productivity and addressing poverty is one of the pathways to achieve better access to nutritious food. ICRISAT scientists who have authored a chapter in this publication suggest that paddy fallow cultivation in Asia should be promoted in a holistic way because dietary diversification starts with agricultural diversification.  “When combined with specific on-farm practices, inter-cropping and better seed varieties, the unit productivity and crop yields can increase in the range of 40% to 100%” they add.

A 2017 policy brief on Future Smart Food suggests that low dietary diversity and dependency on a single staple crop can result in insufficient intake of nutrient-diverse food leading to a significant nutrition gap.

On the other hand, over-utilization of few crops has attracted steady investments and research, strengthening the value chain and market pull of those crops. This has marginalized the consumption and market opportunities of other basic food crops giving rise to a food system divide.

About 90 million people in Africa and Asia depend on millets in their diets and 500 million people in more than 30 countries depend on sorghum as a staple food. Yet, these climate-resilient, water-efficient, culturally significant crops have been neglected in favor of rice, wheat, soybean and maize.

Recently ICRISAT partnered with FAO and several grassroot organizations to address the challenges of malnutrition in India. It was found that poor dietary diversity is the main cause for consistent malnutrition.

To contribute to sustainable agricultural development and the larger global movement for nutritious and sustainable foods for better health and wellbeing, ICRISAT has been spearheading the award winning ‘Smart Food’ initiative since 2014.

The global ‘Smart Food’ initiative focuses on food that fulfill 3 criteria; good for you, the planet and the farmer. One major objective is to diversify staples with an initial focus on millets and sorghum. The approach will be through a market pull driving consumer demand, working with food processors, the food service industry and the whole value chain linking in the farmers more closely as well. The goal is to generate greater investment and support for research and development of value chains for these less focused upon, nutritious crops.

Synergy among stakeholders including governments can help mainstream NUS and ‘Smart Food’ as they are good for the consumer, good for the planet and good for the farmer.

Read more about ICRISAT’s work in pearl millet, click here.

Read more on ICRISAT’s work in sorghum, click here.

Read more on the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health, click here.

This work contributes to UN Sustainable Development Goal.
1-no-poverty 2-zero-hunger 

A scene in Dawanu grain market, Kano, Northern Nigeria, the largest cowpea market in the world. Photo: A. Diama

A scene in Dawanu grain market, Kano, Northern Nigeria, the largest cowpea market in the world. Photo: A. Diama

From grass to great: Tropical Legumes project transforms agricultural extension in Northern Nigeria

Over a decade of efforts by the Tropical Legumes project towards building and strengthening agricultural extension systems is paying off in Northern Nigeria as smallholder farmers achieve economic independence and prosperity. Capacity-building exercises and intensive training of extension agents has encouraged many to take up cowpea seed production.

Cowpea remains vital for many smallholders in Nigeria where it is grown primarily for human consumption. Also, the fodder market of the crop has encountered a considerable success in the animal feed market in recent years.

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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has successfully partnered with the Tropical Legumes project to increase the adoption and uptake of improved cowpea varieties by farmers in Northern Nigeria. As a result, improved and farmer-preferred varieties, seed production and supply has seen significant enhancement.

Between 2007 and 2013, more than 530,000 tons of certified seeds (CS) and quality declared seeds (QDS) were produced in project target zones in Northern Nigeria. As result of capacity building of the national breeding system, the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), about 4–10 tons of breeder seed were annually injected into the groundnut system to meet the national demand against 500–1,000 kg prior the project interventions.

Mr. Sani Ado Oumar was able to buy a new car with the benefits of his product. Photo: A. Diama

Mr. Sani Ado Oumar was able to buy a new car with the benefits of his product. Photo: A. Diama

The role of agricultural extension was crucial in the promotion of these improved varieties, says Mr. Sani Ado Oumar, an extension agent working with nine communities in the Local Government Area (LGA) of Tsanyawa, Kano State Agricultural and Rural Development Authority (KNARDA). He recalled how much the Tropical Legumes project, especially in its third phase of implementation (TL III) was key in changing the extension pattern in Northern Nigeria.

Before TL III, our institution used to provide us with pre-season training. TL III has strengthened these efforts with more focused trainings and capacity building of extension agents in agronomic practices, pest management, safe and effective use of pesticides, data collection, record keeping, post-harvest management including cowpea storage as well business and marketing of agricultural products. The impact was tremendous,” says Mr. Ado.

According to Mr. Ado, the greatest impact was that the large uptake of technologies were achieved because of the step-down trainings offered to all extension agents within the LGA. “I have always provided a step-down training to fellows who did not benefit directly from the project trainings. It has changed the pattern of extension activities in this area, Mr. Ado says. “The trainings made a change in me which I was able to translate into 28 other extensions workers back into the nine communities covered by the project,” he adds.

The project capacitated extension agents with means of transport, thus increasing their mobility and facilitated a closer contact and monitoring of outreach activities. “We started with a few farmers in 2015; now all farmers take interest in cowpea production and a wider acceptance and adoption rate is registered due to our extension work. Trust in new varieties has increased and farmers have more confidence in using improved agronomic practices,” explains Mr. Ado.

On a more personal level, Mr. Ado says that TLIII was a huge opportunity for development and progress. “This project has enabled me to start my own cowpea production farm. Providing training to farmers has motivated me to embrace cowpea seed production. The project inspired me to create and register my own seed company, Ausye Agro-chemicals and Seed Company Nigeria Ltd.”  He is now the owner of two hectares where he produces cowpea. “TLIII has changed an extension agent like me from grass to great,” he adds. Not only was he able to improve his revenues, but he was also able to invest in a new car to improve his mobility in the field and reach out to more farmers.

With the support of the project, several technologies that have consumer-preferred traits were developed and released. These improved technologies included newly released cowpea varieties that are high-yielding, fast-maturing, with resistance to some of the major diseases, pests, nematodes and parasitic weeds, and adapted to sole planting or intercropping. They have increased the interest of farmers to convert to cowpea production.

The success of Mr. Ado is not an exception in Tropical Legumes project intervention zones in Nigeria. Mrs. Samale Shaibu from Tsanyawa LGA has a fairy tale. “With the improved varieties, I produce up to 45 bags per season, which I then process into various products including Danwake, a local dish well appreciated by the consumers. With the benefits of the sale I bought small ruminants, two bulls and a commercial bus. Now I am building a new house with concrete blocks in my village.”

Mr. Sanu Musa, Cowpea producer. Photo: A. Diama

Mr. Sanu Musa, Cowpea producer. Photo: A. Diama

Mr. Sanu Musa from Bagadawa LGA is not new in cowpea production but he started a new experience with the crop in 2017, when he cultivated his first improved variety of cowpea. “I harvested 14 bags whereas I could barely get three bags with the local variety. I sold 13 bags and used the earnings to build a house, pay for school fees of my children and improve the clothing of my children as well other enjoyment for my family members. Many fellows have witnessed my success and are willing to start cowpea production in 2018,” Musa says. He is very appreciative of the improved varieties of cowpea, adding, “I hope that the project will continue to support the farmers as it has in the past.”

“In 2017 I built a house, but in the coming year I hope, I wish and I am willing to construct three additional houses for the comfort of my family.” Mr. Sanu Musa concludes.

Farmers planting Andropogon grass on contour bunds

Farmers planting Andropogon grass on contour bunds

‘Contour Bunding’ preserves soils and boosts farmers’ incomes by 20% in Mali – New Study

A simple innovation can go a long way to help lives and livelihood of farmers in the drylands. A team of ICRISAT scientists in Mali have found that ‘contour bunding’, a technique that helps retain moisture and nutrients while preventing soil erosion also brings as much as 20% increase in net income. The study, in Kani watershed, about 450 km from Bamako, was carried out between 2014 and 2016. The research also looked at land use data between 1986 and 2014 to show the impact of Soil and Water Conservation (SWC) practices.

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Contour bunding technique reduces water runoff and controls soil erosion through ridges covered with perennial grasses such as Andropogon and Vetiver. Farmers use the ridges for crop production.

Says Dr Birhanu Zemadim Birhanu, Senior Scientist, ICRISAT who led the study, “We need to balance natural resource use. Areas that were natural forests have been converted into agricultural land without increase in crop yields per unit area. Contour bunding, a low-cost technique has dual benefits of soil conservation and sustainable agricultural intensification. It helps increase crop yield, without actually expanding farmlands.”

The region under study, is an area of 5780 ha, that receives just about 800 – 1100 mm average annual rainfall between July to September, struggling to retain even this. A constructed dam here, dries up after two months. During rainfall, flooding caused loss of topsoil and nutrients. Due to low productivity, land under natural vegetation gives way for farming, to increase production. This is a matter of concern, both from the environmental as well as economic perspective.

This is why a comprehensive watershed approach is important. During the study, participatory watershed management helped identify challenges in land and water practices. An evaluation of historical changes in land use and water consumption for major crops was carried out. The benefits of SWC practices were also evaluated through field experiments. By leaving upland areas in a watershed, forested, natural resources degradation can be greatly reduced. The contour bunding practice now could be scaled up at watershed, landscape or basin level through collective action of researchers, agricultural extension workers, NGOs and local community based organizations.

Results showed that erosion through rainfall, reduced considerably due to contour bunding. Also, farmers reaped as much as 20% net benefit increase from sorghum production with this technique.

Farmer Mr. Sekou Berthe of Kani village who used contour bunding, says, “I have been contacted by other farmers now, who also wish to have this in their fields. An NGO, AMEDD put this together for us at a cost of $US 10 per hectare of land. I am more than willing to pay this cost, since we have seen the benefit”, he says. More than 250 farmers implemented contour bunds in their farmlands echo Mr Berthe, that they were willing to pay for this, making it a sustainable model.

Malian Association of Awakening to Sustainable Development, (AMEDD), is an NGO working with research institutes and farmers in Mali to promote technologies among smallholder farmers. Says Mr Bougouna Sogoba Director, AMEDD, “Our technicians are well trained to demarcate contour lines in farmers’ fields at a minimum affordable price which is US$10 per hectare of land. Our market-driven approach and increased benefits from farm fields treated with contour bunds were key factors that influenced the success of this application in many farm fields.”

In the context of crop land expansion and low productivity in Mali, use of SWC practices is crucial to ensure that land degradation is curbed and productivity increased.  The study recommends scaling up contour bunding to help bring large scale benefits to farmers in the region.

The full paper may be accessed here: oar.icrisat.org/10512/

This work was supported by the CGIAR program on Water, Land and Ecosystem (WLE) and the Africa Research in Sustainable Intensification for the Next Generation (Africa RISING) program in Mali. Financial support was provided by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the US Agency for Development (USAID) through the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).

About the author

Jayashree Balasubramanian
Lead – Communication Outreach
Strategic Marketing & Communication

Training and workshops

Participants at the meeting in Kano, Nigeria Photo: L. Omoigui

Participants at the meeting in Kano, Nigeria Photo: L. Omoigui

Review of TL III and HOPE II projects highlights the role of synergy

Stakeholders of legume and cereal value chains in Nigeria identified recent successes and set goals for the next cropping season at the recent review and planning workshop of Tropical Legumes III (TL III) and Harnessing Opportunities for Productivity Enhancement of Sorghum and Millets II (HOPE II) projects.

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Scientists, farmers, seed producers, grain merchants and others discussed challenges of increasing production and productivity of two legumes (cowpea and groundnut) and two cereals (sorghum and pearl millet), as also to enhance seed systems of both crops.

The discussions identified key areas of synergy to leverage the resources of both projects for more efficient and effective seed delivery. Participants also deliberated on ways to align seed sector development activities (supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) with national priorities

The brainstorming and discussions also threw up some interesting suggestions:

  • Need for farmer-friendly varieties, improving upon current farmer favorites.
  • Management practices specific for improved seeds essential to realize full genetic potential of seed.
  • DNA finger-printing more reliable than names to ascertain exact varieties cultivated by farmers.
  • More in-depth analysis of adoption studies needed to show different components of adoption, e.g. the level of exposure in research areas.

The three-day Review-and-Planning workshop at Kano, Nigeria, during 7-9 March 2018 was attended by 78 participants in the background of the forthcoming cropping season to plan for the 2018.

Click here to know more about ICRISAT’s work in Nigeria.

More about ICRISAT’s work in sorghum here.

Read about ICRISAT’s remarkable work on groundnut here.

The dryland cereals and grain legumes are recognized as Smart Food.

Projects: Tropical Legumes III, Harnessing Opportunities for Productivity Enhancement for Sorghum and Millets (HOPE) II

Funder: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Partners: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA); Institute for Agricultural Research, Ahmadu Bello University (IAR/ABU); Centre for Dryland Agriculture, Bayero University Kano; University of Agriculture, Makurdi; and ICRISAT.

This work contributes to UN Sustainable Development Goal
1-no-poverty good-health 7-decent-work 17-partnerships-goals 

‘Excellence in Breeding Platform’ for greater crop genetic gains

In an effort to take stock of the achievements and capacity of existing breeding programs and to optimize genetic gains, the ‘Excellence in Breeding’ (EiB) platform organized a workshop at ICRISAT during 19 – 21 March 2018. The EiB platform, set up in 2017 by the CGIAR, and led by CIMMYT, is a step towards modernizing and empowering crop breeding programs in Asia, Africa and Latin America where less than 5% of breeding investment is made.

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During the workshop, there were 21 parallel sessions with thematic groups on ‘Non-rice’, ‘Rice’ and ‘Hybrids’. The groups came up with recommendations, an optimization plan and potential areas where EiB could offer support for improvement. Key aspects from the working group sessions included recommendations to devise an analytical tool for parental lines selection, for a cost effective way of trait selection and work closely with seed system specialists.

Emphasizing the importance of adhering to standard operating procedures for genotyping activities, Michael Quinn, EiB Leader said “The approach is to work with breeders, geneticists, bioinformatics and biometric specialists to define best practices, tools and services. This would help increase the rate of genetic gains and enable implementation.”

In his introductory speech, Dr. Rajeev Varshney, Research Program Director – Genetic Gains, highlighted the role of ICRISAT scientists in two EiB modules: the High Throughput Genotyping Project – HTPG and the Genomic and Open-source Breeding Informatics Initiative – GOBii. “Scientists are linking the projects to optimize outputs. On behalf of the Director General and Deputy Director General – Research, ICRISAT, I would like to emphasize ICRISAT’s commitment towards the deployment of EiB at ICRISAT and at NARS programs,” he said.

The EiB is important for the CGIAR to enhance development and delivery of resilient, productive, nutritious and market-oriented varieties. This is particularly useful as many farmers in emerging economies lack access to seed varieties adapted to their location and needs.

The platform works through four regional hubs in South Asia (Hyderabad), Eastern and Southern Africa (Nairobi), West Africa and Latin America. The EiB platform is available to all CGIAR breeding programs and four selected National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS).

To know more about the EiB platform, click here.

To know more about ICRISAT’s work in crop improvement, click here.

Partners of the EiB: Africa rice, CIAT, CIMMYT, CIP, IITA, ICARDA, ICRAF, ILRI, IRRI, World Fish, ICRISAT and 4-5 pilot NARS.  Contributors: CGIAR centers, Cornell University, Corteva, Monsanto and Queensland University.

Funders: CGIAR and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Excellence in Breeding Platform is led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

This work contributes to UN Sustainable Development Goal
1-no-poverty 2-zero-hunger good-health 13-climate-action 17-partnerships-goals 

Global meet repositions sorghum as vital 21st century cereal

After a gap of over two decades, more than 400 researchers from the global sorghum research community, including Dr Gebisa Ejeta, World Food Prize Winner, 2009, converged at the ‘Sorghum in the 21st Century’ conference held during 9-12 April 2018 at Cape Town, Republic of South Africa (RSA).

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The event touched upon various aspects of sorghum research, development, processing, marketing and policy.

ICRISAT co-sponsored a special session on Improvement of Post-rainy Sorghum on 11 April. During this the multi-disciplinary project (physiology, breeding, crop modelling, socio-economics, etc.) to improve the fodder/grain quality and productivity of post-rainy sorghum in India was discussed at length.

Scientists from ICRISAT shared their work and perspectives during the meet.

Dr. Kizito Mazvimavi, ICRISAT Country Representative, Zimbabwe, talked about how farm-level demonstrations and food tasting fairs have boosted sorghum utilization and production in Zimbabwe. While Dr. Jana Kholova, Senior Scientist – Crops Physiology & Modelling, presented the latest technological advances for in situ screening for crop nutritional qualities, Dr. Damaris Odeny, Theme Leader-Biotechnology, Eastern and Central Africa, spoke about the genomic studies being done to decipher crop resistance to multiple diseases.

Dr. Ashok Kumar, Principal Sorghum Breeder, described R&D efforts related to sorghum especially in the semi-arid tropics and emphasized its role in biofuels. Dr. Hari Upadhyaya talked about the sorghum mini-core collection. Dr Saikat Datta Mazumdar, COO, NPK-AIP, chaired a session on empowerment of smallholder sorghum farmers linking agriculture, nutrition and entrepreneurship.

Srikanth B. at the conference. Photo: S. Dattamazumdar

ICRISAT’s role in sharing improved seeds, technologies and enhancing the capacities of African researchers was noted as a major boost to sorghum improvement research in Africa.

Click here to know more about ICRISAT’s work on sorghum.

CGIAR Research Program: Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals

This work contributes to UN Sustainable Development Goal
7-decent-work 8-industry-innovation 17-partnerships-goals 

A ‘trash’ course on Ag Plastics

The last time I attended a talk on trash was at the ICRISAT headquarters based in India, where a group had come together to work towards making the campus plastic-free. While I did know of the many dangers of polythene use on the environment, I had never thought of its effect on soil health, which is of prime importance in the field of agriculture research.

Early this week, in view of Earth Day, there has been a media drive on ending plastic usage. However, the reportage tilted heavily towards plastic pollution in the oceans and I couldn’t find much about its impact on soil.

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So, what does plastic left on the soil do to it? We know that it can turn oceans into plastic soup  and make a mess of the climate, so imagine what it does to our farms where the use of plastic is growing by the day.

Ironically, plasticulture was introduced in agriculture to mitigate extreme fluctuations in weather, especially temperature, rainfall and wind – to help grow crops in hot desert-like conditions and even in cold regions by providing the needed protection against frost.

When you read through the many benefits of plastic film mulch, the feeling you get is akin to somebody waving a magic wand on a farm to fix all problems: Weeds suppressed, water conserved, soil temperature and moisture controlled, and near-zero soil erosion and fertilizer wastage.

This technology that seems like a boon, comes with loads of pollution risks. A study shows that large amounts of residual plastic film negatively impact soil structure, water and nutrient transport and crop growth, disrupting the agricultural environment and reducing crop production.  Even the soil fauna, such as bacteria, fungi and earthworms that help nourish the earth, are in serious trouble.

What if the only soil you had was made of plastic bits…

The growing use of plastics in agriculture i.e. ‘ag plastics’ is a big cause for concern – from irrigation drip tubes, nursery pots, silage bags, plastic mulch film and row coverings to plastic greenhouses, it’s uses are manifold. Right now they are life-savers for farmers, but we urgently need to continue with research to find alternatives.

The global agricultural plastic films market alone was estimated to be US$ 7.92 billion in 2017 and is projected to reach US$ 10.57 billion by 2022 (Business Wire). The highest growth is predicted in the Asia Pacific region.

Seems like a plastic epidemic is in the making. An article in Bloomsberg shows how plastic mulch has ruined the soil on Chinese farms. Yields grew by 30%, but the long-term damage was massive. Plastic residue, known locally as ‘white pollution’, is present at levels of 60-300 kg per hectare in some provinces. In China, about a fifth of arable land contains levels of toxins exceeding national standards (2014 government estimate).

Plastic in your spinach

Most Hyderabadis like me often worry over our vegetables, we know they are grown on polluted lake beds (read dried up drainage canals). All along I was worried about the heavy metals in my spinach, now I am wondering is there plastic too? Are our wastewater treatment plants even equipped to deal with it? And I find an article that gives me more cause for worry.

The Norwegian Institute for Water Research says that the consequences of transfers of microplastics from urban wastewater to agricultural soil barely have been considered by researchers and authorities, particularly in lieu of the extended attention directed at microplastics in the ocean. That’s a surprising knowledge gap.

Is bioplastic a better alternative to petroleum-based plastics?

All news need not be bad. There are some that bring a ray of hope, like my first encounter with bioplastic. It was at a Women’s Day event on campus – millet kichadi served in a biodegradable sugarcane bagasse bowl. Impressive, but I did recall my brief chats and mails with ICRISAT scientist Dr Ashok Kumar, and I knew that something even more eco-friendly was in the making.

When I first heard of high biomass sorghum and pearl millet varieties with potential for ethanol production for use in biofuels, it was great news. And that the bagasse from ethanol production is perfect raw material for bioplastics is even better news. ICRISAT’s ‘power plants’ unlike the water-guzzling sugarcane, thrive with less irrigation and do not compromise on food security as the grain is used for human consumption.

While innovations like these are promising, there are many issues that are open to debate. For starters, how biodegradable is bioplastic? Does it need special equipment or does it decompose in your regular compost pile?

And then there’s the debate on – should we go in for biodegradable bioplastics to abet our use-and-throw culture or is the fully reusable/recyclable ‘plantbottle’, partially made from plants, a greener option? Questions always…


Jemima Mandapati,
Senior Communication Officer,
Strategic Marketing and Communication,

In the Global Media

How to Feed 9 Billion People Within Planetary Boundaries (wbcsd)

What are the challenges and what do we need to change to be able to feed 9 billion people by 2050? Ms. Joanna Kane-Potaka, Director, Strategic Marketing and Communication, discusses these issues and more. Listen to the podcast here.

Shift to coarse grains from rice for healthy, environment-friendly diet: Study (Mongabay India)

A diet that moves away from white, polished rice to include coarse grains and wheat could help Indians tackle micronutrient deficiencies affordably and cut down greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with agriculture by up to 25 percent, says a new study. Read more here.

Maruti – the pigeonpea savior (Genebanks CGIAR)

A direct release from the ICRISAT genebank helped revitalize the pigeonpea industry in Karnataka, India

Sharanappa Pujari’s face started to glow when I asked him how the pigeonpea variety, Maruti, had helped him to prosper. He spoke quickly in Kannada, the predominant language of the Indian state of Karnataka. “Achchhee cheei,” he kept saying. A farmer next to me interrupted Sharanappa and started shouting out in excitement. I eagerly awaited a translation to see how such a simple question could generate such emotion. Read more here.


Dr Rajeev Varshney awarded Faculty Research Award 2018

Hon’ble Shri Prakash Javadekar, Union Minister of Human Resource Development, Government of India, felicitating Dr. Rajeev Varshney, Research Program Director, Genetic Gains, ICRISAT, with Faculty Research Awards 2018 as a ‘top researcher’ under the Agricultural and Biological Sciences category, at New Delhi on 20 March 2018. The award is presented to academic researchers in India across 24 disciplines and carries a cash prize of Rs. 50,000 and a citation. Photo: A.K. Padhee

Sad news

In Memoriam

We are saddened to report that Dr. Belum Venkata Subba Reddy, leading sorghum breeder at ICRISAT, passed away on 1 March 2018 at Hyderabad. He was 70.

Dr. Reddy completed his post-graduation IARI, and obtained a PhD in Genetics from the University of Minnesota, USA in 1974. He joined ICRISAT in October 1974 as a pigeonpea breeder and made the fascinating discovery of a genetic male sterility system in pigeonpea. Three years later he moved to sorghum as the crop of his research.

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Dr. Reddy made remarkable achievements in developing high-yielding and bold grain cytoplasmic-nuclear male sterile (CMS) lines and restorer parents. His efforts to improve sweet sorghum cultivars for high stalk sugar, high biomass (for biofuel-ethanol use), and low lignin (for second-generation ligno-cellulose-based ethanol production use) are receiving worldwide attention. Nearly 50 private sector sorghum hybrids, occupying over 2.8 million ha in India, are based on parental lines bred by him. Having developed several sweet sorghum cultivars, he had earned the nickname ‘Father of Sweet Sorghum Research’ at ICRISAT.

Dr. Reddy helped ICRISAT formulate its research policy on biofuels. He has published over 275 papers, in Research Journals, reports and conference papers, and 14 book chapters. He was a consultant at the Instituto Agronômico de Pernambuco, Brazil, from 1984 to 1985 and led a Latin American sorghum project at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Colombia, from 1996 to 2000.

ICRISAT will fondly remember Dr. Reddy as a mentor, father figure, philosopher, guide and a great human being. Through his untiring efforts he brought laurels to the institute, scientific fraternity and his entire team.

We offer our deepest condolences to his family.

New Projects

Title: Enhancing Agricultural Productivity and Rural Livelihoods through Scaling-up of Science-led Development in Odisha – Bhoochetana

Funder: Agriculture and Farmers’ Empowerment Department, Government of Odisha

Duration: 8 Apr 2018 – 7 Apr 2021

Principal Investigator: S P Wani

Research Program: Asia

Title: Doubling Farmer Incomes through Grafted Vegetable Seedlings

Funder: Department of Horticulture, Government of Andhra Pradesh

Duration: 1 Feb 2018 – 31 Mar 2019

Principal Investigator: S P Wani

Research Program: Asia

Title: Update of meso level database for India and development of interactive tool for public access and use

Funder: Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture & Nutrition, USA

Duration: 20 Apr 2018 – 19 Apr 2019

Principal Investigator: S Nedumaran

Research Program: Innovation Systems for the Drylands

New Publications

Compatibility of Streptomyces sp., Metarhizium anisopliae, and Neem Seed Powder against Pigeon Pea Pod Borer Complex

Authors: Agale SV, Gopalakrishnan S, Gupta R, Rangarao GV, Srinivas V and Wani SP

Published: 2018, International Journal of Current Microbiology and Applied Sciences, 7 (2). pp. 390-397. ISSN 2319-7706

Abstract: Biopesticides such as Streptomyces sp. SAI-25, Metarhizium anisopliae and neem seed powder were previously demonstrated to have biocontrol potential against Helicoverpa armigera, the polyphagous insect pest of many crops. In the present investigation, the biopesticides, Streptomyces sp. SAI-25, Metarhizium anisopliae, and neem seed powder, were evaluated for their compatibility so that these can be used as consortia to manage pod borer complex. The results reveal that all the three biopesticides were compatible with each other and hence can be used in consortia to manage H. armigera.

OAR link: http://oar.icrisat.org/10444/

Mass Production of Entomopathogenic Fungi (Metarhizium anisopliae) using Different Grains as a Substrate

Authors:  Agale SV, Gopalakrishnan S, Ambhure KG, Chandravanshi H, Gupta R and Wani SP

Published: 2018, International Journal of Current Microbiology and Applied Sciences, 7 (1). pp. 2227-2232. ISSN 23197692

Abstract: Investigations were carried out towards the “Mass production of entomopathogenic fungi (Metarhizium anisopliae) using different grains as a substrate” at ICRISAT, Patancheru, Hyderabad during 2016-17. For accomplishment of microbial control of insect pests, and successful mass production of the microbial agents in the laboratory, significant availability of the pathogen is a primary requirement in the biocontrol program. Metarhizium anisopliae is an entomopathogenic fungus which is used against a number of insect pests’ management and in very successful biopesticides in integrated pest management practices to reduces the cost of production and minimize the environment and public health hazard. To develop a proficient method for the deployment of this fungus as a bio control agent, various grains and liquid media such as Potato Dextrose Broth and Sabouraud’s Dextrose Broth were screened.

OAR link: http://oar.icrisat.org/10445/

Hari Deo Upadhyaya: Plant Breeder, Geneticist and Genetic Resources Specialist

Authors:  Dwivedi SL

Published: 2018, In: Plant Breeding Reviews. John Wiley & Sons, USA, pp. 1-53. ISBN 9781119414278

Abstract: This chapter discusses Hari Deo Upadhyaya, a plant breeder, geneticist and genetic resources specialist, and his contributions in management and utilization of genetic resources, molecular biology and biometrics, and in groundnut breeding. Hari’s contributions in genetic resources include enriching germplasm collections; forming representative subsets in the form of core and/or mini-core collections in chickpea, groundnut, pigeonpea, pearl millet, sorghum, and six small millets; unlocking population structures, diversity and association genetics; and identifying genetically diverse and agronomically desirable germplasm accessions for use in crop breeding.

OAR link: http://oar.icrisat.org/10446/

Utilizing Process-Based Modeling to Assess the Impact of Climate Change on Crop Yields and Adaptation Options in the Niger River Basin, West Africa

Authors:  Akumaga U, Tarhule A, Piani C, Traore B and Yusuf A

Published: 2018, Agronomy, 8(2) (11). pp. 1-23. ISSN 2073-4395

Abstract: Climate change is estimated to substantially reduce crop yields in Sub-Saharan West Africa by 2050. Yet, a limited number of studies also suggest that several adaptation measures may mitigate the effects of climate change induced yield loss. In this paper, we used AquaCrop, a process-based model developed by the FAO (The Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome, Italy), to quantify the risk of climate change on several key cereal crops in the Niger Basin. The crops analyzed include maize, millet, and sorghum under rain fed cultivation systems in various agro-ecological zones within the Niger Basin. We also investigated several adaptation strategies, including changes in the sowing dates, soil nutrient status, and cultivar.

OAR link: http://oar.icrisat.org/10447/

Key and Smart Actions to Alleviate Hunger and Poverty Through Irrigation and Drainage

Authors:  Unver O, Wahaj R, Lorenzon E, Mohammadi K, Osias JR, Reinders F, Wani SP, Chuchra J, Lee P and Sangjun IM

Published: 2018, Irrigation and Drainage, 67 (1). pp. 60-71. ISSN 15310353

Abstract: In the pursuit of information to support policies and actions to alleviate hunger and poverty through irrigation and drainage, this paper attempts to provide correlations between water scarcity, communities and poverty. Many reviews have found strong direct and indirect relationships between irrigation and poverty. One of the main goals of the international community is to eliminate hunger and poverty and in this perspective, through the Millennium Development Goals, much progress has been achieved and evidence obtained. Sustainable Development Goals and various other United Nations initiatives intend to move forward this agenda by making it a part of broader development frameworks. In this paper, the important elements of irrigation and drainage that affect the alleviation of hunger and poverty are discussed.

OAR link: http://oar.icrisat.org/10449/

The climate-smart village approach: framework of an integrative strategy for scaling up adaptation options in agriculture

Authors:  Aggarwal PK, Jarvis A, Campbell BM, Zougmore RB, Khatri-Chhetri A, Vermeulen SJ, Loboguerrero AM, Sebastian LS, Kinyangi J, Bonilla-Findji O, Radeny M, Recha J, Martinez-Baron D, Ramirez-Villegas J, Huyer S, Thornton P, Wollenberg E, Hansen J, Alvarez-Toro P, Aguilar-Ariza A, Arango-Londoño D, Patiño-Bravo V, Rivera O, Ouedraogo M and Yen BT

Published: 2018, Ecology and Society, 23 (1) (14). pp. 1-15. ISSN 1708-3087

Abstract: Increasing weather risks threaten agricultural production systems and food security across the world. Maintaining agricultural growth while minimizing climate shocks is crucial to building a resilient food production system and meeting developmental goals in vulnerable countries. Experts have proposed several technological, institutional, and policy interventions to help farmers adapt to current and future weather variability and to mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This paper presents the climate-smart village (CSV) approach as a means of performing agricultural research for development that robustly tests technological and institutional options for dealing with climatic variability and climate change in agriculture using participatory methods. It aims to scale up and scale out the appropriate options and draw out lessons for policy makers from local to global levels.

OAR link: http://oar.icrisat.org/10452/

Proteome analysis of Aspergillus flavus isolate-specific responses to oxidative stress in relationship to aflatoxin production capability

Authors:  Fountain JC, Koh J, Yang L, Pandey MK, Nayak SN, Bajaj P, Zhuang WJ, Chen ZY, Kemerait RC, Lee RD, Chen S, Varshney RK and Guo B

Published: 2018, Scientific Reports, 8 (1) (3430). pp. 1-14. ISSN 2045-2322

Abstract: Aspergillus flavus is an opportunistic pathogen of plants such as maize and peanut under conducive conditions such as drought stress resulting in significant aflatoxin production. Drought-associated oxidative stress also exacerbates aflatoxin production by A. flavus. The objectives of this study were to use proteomics to provide insights into the pathogen responses to H2O2-derived oxidative stress, and to identify potential biomarkers and targets for host resistance breeding.

OAR link: http://oar.icrisat.org/10455/

Mixed-species allometric equations and estimation of aboveground biomass and carbon stocks in restoring degraded landscape in northern Ethiopia

Authors:  Mokria M, Mekuria W, Gebrekirstos A, Aynekulu E, Belay B, Gashaw T and Brauning A

Published: 2018, Environmental Research Letters, 13 (2). pp. 1-15. ISSN 1748-9326

Abstract: Accurate biomass estimation is critical to quantify the changes in biomass and carbon stocks following the restoration of degraded landscapes. However, there is lack of site-specific allometric equations for the estimation of aboveground biomass (AGB), which consequently limits our understanding of the contributions of restoration efforts in mitigating climate change. This study was conducted in northwestern Ethiopia to develop a multi-species allometric equation and investigate the spatial and temporal variation of C-stocks following the restoration of degraded landscapes. We harvested and weighed 84 trees from eleven dominant species from six grazing exclosures and adjacent communal grazing land.

OAR link: http://oar.icrisat.org/10457/

Investigation of gene action for resistance to early leaf spot of groundnut

Authors:  Tembo E, Charlie H and Tembo L

Published: 2018, International Journal of Agriculture, Environment and Bioresearch, 3 (1). pp. 21-29. ISSN 2456-8643

Abstract: Groundnut (Arachis hypogaea L.) is an important global oilseed crop and a major source of protein and vitamins in many rural areas of Africa. In Zambia, the production of groundnut is limited by several factors, among which Early Leaf Spot (ELS) caused by Cercospora arachidicola Hori, is a major destructive disease. Development of resistant varieties to ELS remains the most viable disease management strategy. The objective of this study was to investigate the type of gene action conditioning resistance to C. arachidicola in order to generate information for breeding of ELS resistant groundnut varieties in Zambia. The field work was conducted at Chitedze Research Station in Malawi which is a known hot spot for groundnut foliar diseases.

OAR link: http://oar.icrisat.org/10459/

Expression of Tolerance to Pod Borer, Helicoverpa armigera (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae) in Relation to Biochemical Content of Chickpea Leaves

Authors:  Bangar SS, Bangar HA, Dudhare MS, Gahukar SJ, Wadaskar RM, Akhare AA and Sharma HC

Published: 2018, International Journal of Current Microbiology and Applied Sciences, 6. pp. 223-229. ISSN 2319-7

Abstract: The pod borer (Helicoverpa armigera) is one of the most serious pest of chickpea and plant resistance is an important component for managing this pest. To develop cultivars with resistance to insects, it is important to understand the role of different components associated with resistance to insects. Therefore, in this study we characterized RIL’s (recombinant inbred lines) population for total phenol content leaves and organic acid profiles in the leaf exudates which are associated with tolerance to H. armigera.

OAR link: http://oar.icrisat.org/10462/

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