March
Issue No: 1844
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Farm successes


Ms Cheryl L Anderson, Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator for Africa Bureau, USAID, Dr Ramadjita Tabo, Research Program Director, WCA, ICRISAT and Mr Scott Dobberstein, Mission Director, USAID Mali, discussing the results. Photo: N Diakité, ICRISAT

Ms Cheryl L Anderson, Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator for Africa Bureau, USAID, Dr Ramadjita Tabo, Research Program Director, WCA, ICRISAT and Mr Scott Dobberstein, Mission Director, USAID Mali, discussing the results. Photo: N Diakité, ICRISAT

Feeding the future: Millet and sorghum grains make big gains in Mali

USAID delegation visited Mali to see impacts from projects undertaken by three CGIAR institutions

A recent study revealed that sorghum and millet yields increased up to 51% and 72% respectively during the period 2014-2019 in Mali. This was achieved by enhancing farmers’ knowledge of and improving their access to available productivity-enhancing technologies, including seed treatment, integrated soil fertility, Striga management, biological control of the millet head miner, open-pollinated varieties and hybrids of sorghum and millet, and so on. This was part of the project ARDT_SMS1, wherein three CGIAR centers – World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and ICRISAT – collaborated.

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A total of 48 tons of certified seeds was distributed among project beneficiaries in order to disseminate improved varieties through Farmer Field Schools and demonstration plots. Seed multipliers under project supervision have produced more than 403 tons of certified seeds, resulting in a total of 68,299 hectares being covered by above improved technologies. 10,799 demonstration plots were established in Sikasso and 34 Innovation Platforms were set up (29 in Sikasso; 5 in Mopti). In all, 285 villages covered for 1,500 beneficiaries.

These impacts were shared with Ms Cheryl L Anderson, Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator for Africa Bureau, USAID, and Mr Scott Dobberstein, Mission Director, USAID Mali by Dr John Nzungize, Senior Project Manager and Technology Uptake Specialist.

They discussed scalability of the three CGIAR centers’ proven technologies. Key issues high on the agenda were empowering women and attracting youth to agriculture through ICT and agribusiness incubation.

The visiting delegates and ICRISAT staff at ICRISAT Mali, Bamako. Photo: N Diakité, ICRISAT

The visiting delegates and ICRISAT staff at ICRISAT Mali, Bamako. Photo: N Diakité, ICRISAT

ICRAF presented impacts of the project ‘Scaling up Climate-Smart Agroforestry Technologies for improved market access, food and nutritional security in Mali (SmAT-Scaling)’ while ILRI focused on the Feed the Future Mali Livestock Technology Scaling Up Program.

Mali’s Tubaniso Agribusiness and Innovation Center, supported by the World Bank Group, is planned to become the largest incubation and acceleration center in the Sahel and will target hundreds of agro-entrepreneurs, noted Dr Ramadjita Tabo, Research Program Director, WCA, ICRISAT. He also highlighted the upcoming Innovation and Technology City at ICRISAT Sadore research station, as part of Niger government’s ‘Niger 2.0’ program. The center, developed around clusters (including agribusiness and high tech), will be hosting a startup and small-medium enterprises acceleration and incubation center, training and certification center, coding academy, business center, national data center and assembly lines for digital and other equipment required by start-ups for ideation and prototyping.

Ms Cheryl Anderson and other delegates visited ICRISAT Mali on 22 January 2020.

For more on our work in Mali, click here.

For more on our work in Niger, click here.

Project: Africa RISING’s large-scale Diffusion of Technologies for Sorghum and Millet Systems (ARDT-SMS)
Funder: USAID-Mali
Partners: Compagnie Malienne pour le Développement du Textile (CMDT), Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Mali Agricultural Market Trust (MALIMARK), European Cooperative for Rural Development (EUCORD), Association des Organisations Professionnelles Paysannes (AOPP), Institut d’Economie Rurale (IER), Aga Khan Foundation (AKF), my Agro, World Vision and ICRISAT.
CGIAR Research Program: CRP-Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals

This work contributes to UN Sustainable Development Goal.
2-zero-hunger 8-industry-innovation 17-partnerships-goals 


Farmer Chandrakant Deshmukh with Phule Vikram crop.

Farmer Chandrakant Deshmukh with Phule Vikram crop.

Indian farmers reap profits from machine harvestable chickpea

Machine-harvestable chickpea variety ‘Phule Vikram’, which was launched two years ago in India, is helping farmers circumvent labor shortage during harvest in major chickpea producing states like Maharashtra. Besides reducing cost, Vikram is also proving highly remunerative, given its yield potential. Farmers are reporting yields between 3 and 4 tons per hectare against Maharashtra state’s average productivity of 892 kg per hectare for chickpea.

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“I cultivated Phule Vikram on 20 hectares and harvested 60 tons during 2018-19. The produce was sold as seed at Rs 70,000 per ton (US$ 1000),” said Mr Chandrakant Ambadasrao Deshmukh, a farmer from the Indian state of Maharashtra, who reported earnings of Rs 3.4 million (US$ 48,600) from his produce. Mr Takalimiya and Mr Rajendra Patel, two other farmers from the state, also said they achieved high yields with the variety.

Shortage of labor in agriculture, mainly for harvesting and threshing, is a challenge chickpea farmers in India are increasingly facing. As a result, high-yielding machine-harvestable varieties are sought. This rising demand led to the release of machine-harvestable varieties, including Vikram, for all of India’s central zone.

In Maharashtra, one of the Indian states where Vikram was first released in 2017, the cultivation of machine-harvestable varieties has been rising. The average chickpea productivity in the state in 2017-18 was 892 kg per hectare resulting from total production of 1.84 million tons on 2 million hectares. Farmers cultivating Vikram have reported yields ranging between 3 and 4 ton per hectare.

Vikram was developed by a team of scientists including Dr NS Kute, Dr. SR Gadakh, and Mr LB Mhase from Mahatma Phule Krishi Vidyapeeth from ICRISAT’s breeding line ICCV 08108.

MPKV has strong collaboration in chickpea breeding with ICRISAT, which has yielded many varieties besides Vikram—Vishal, KAK 2, Virat, Vihar JG 11 and JAKI 9218.

Project: Developing Chickpea Cultivars Suited to Mechanical Harvesting and Tolerant to Herbicides

Funder: National Food Security Mission (NFSM) of the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers Welfare, Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, Government of India.

Partners: ICAR-Indian Institute of Pulses Research (IIPR), Kanpur; ICAR-Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi; Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana; Rajmata Vijayaraje Scindia Krishi Vishwavidyalaya (RVSKVV), Gwalior; Mahatma Phule Krishi Vidyapeeth (MPKV), Rahuri (not a partner in the project, but involved in evaluation); Acharya NG Ranga Agricultural University (ANGRAU), Hyderabad; University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS), Dharwad; and ICRISAT

CGIAR Research Program: Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals

New initiatives


Dr Peter Carberry and Dr Pooja Bhatnagar discussing plant growth in one of the testing bed facilities. Seen are sorghum and pearl millet plants.

Dr Peter Carberry and Dr Pooja Bhatnagar discussing plant growth in one of the testing bed facilities. Seen are sorghum and pearl millet plants.

First public research facility to put agriculture on fast-forward launched at ICRISAT

Crop breeding at ICRISAT took a giant leap forward with the unveiling of RapidGen, a state-of-the-art facility which will significantly lower breeding cycle, by up to 40%, and cost of crop improvement. It is a first for any public sector agricultural research system, including CGIAR.

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Hyderabad, 14 February 2020: Efforts to modernize crop breeding took a giant leap today with the unveiling of ICRISAT’s new facility, which is projected to significantly lower time and cost of crop varietal development. The state-of-the-art facility is a first for any public sector agricultural research institution.

Called RapidGen, a moniker for Rapid Generation Advancement, the facility will accelerate plant lifecycle in light-, temperature- and humidity-controlled conditions. Presently, breeding a new crop variety takes about a decade or more, with six or seven years spent in seasonal generational advancements to arrive at the elite lines that go for testing and release as varieties. RapidGen will shorten the six-seven year window significantly. When used with the full suite of breeding acceleration techniques, RapidGen can reduce the breeding cycle by an estimated 40% for most crops.

“Climate and exponential population growth have to be considered for rapid development of improved food crops is essential. But we also need to look at what has been achieved to sustain food security and achieve nutrition security,” said Dr Peter Carberry, Director General, ICRISAT. “With facilities like RapidGen, crop breeders can overcome the limitations of seasons and photoperiod to develop the elite generations in fraction of the time and cost it would take if done in fields.”

The light deprived polyhouse facility with overhead automized canopy drawn across to mimic night-time conditions for plants.

The light deprived polyhouse facility with overhead automized canopy drawn across to mimic night-time conditions for plants.

RapidGen, is comprised of three installations—testbed optimization chambers, lighting controlled greenhouse bays, and a temperature-regulated light deprivation polyhouse. Depending on the crop and the requirements of breeding programs, researchers can scale-up their activities in either controlled greenhouse bays or in the polyhouse facility after using the testbeds for protocol development. Largest of the three installations, the polyhouse can be used for over 30,000 crosses in one go. Each of the installations are equipped to finely regulate temperature, light and humidity.

“Every crop is unique in the way it responds to a set of environmental parameters. We have to mimic the right set of conditions within these closed installations to convince a plant to grow faster at high density and to reproduce quickly. These set of conditions, which we call ‘recipes’, are crop specific-protocols to hasten the crop cycle while producing healthy, viable seeds,” said Dr Pooja Bhatnagar-Mathur, Theme Leader at ICRISAT.

Dr Jan Debaene, Dr Kiran Sharma and Dr Peter Carberry at the inaugural of the facility.

Dr Jan Debaene, Dr Kiran Sharma and Dr Peter Carberry at the inaugural of the facility.

Dr Kiran K Sharma, Deputy Director General-Research, ICRISAT, informed that protocols for chickpea, groundnut, pearl millet and sorghum are already in place. “Protocol development is the first step before a breeding program can take advantage of facilities like RapidGen. With their development, our partners and collaborators, both public and private, can integrated these modern techniques into their breeding programs.”

ICRISAT is collaborating with several agricultural research institutes under Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), State Agriculture Universities and industry partners to mainstream rapid cycling of the crops for which protocols have already been standardized.

“Through RapidGen, we are attempting to herald a new era of breeding in agriculture research systems across the world. Moving forward, rapid cycling will be integrated with early generation testing using advanced technologies to take further advantages of modern methods to increase genetic gains,” said Dr Jan Debaene, Global Head-Breeding, ICRISAT.

ICRISAT scientists at the polyhouse after its opening on Friday. The facility can be seen with the canopy folded and under naturally lit conditions.

ICRISAT scientists at the polyhouse after its opening on Friday. The facility can be seen with the canopy folded and under naturally lit conditions.

“RapidGen is a case of many firsts, including a first for CGIAR, the group of research institutions of which ICRISAT is a part of, and which is the world’s largest agriculture research system striving to ensure a resilient, food and nutrition secure future,” he further said.

RapidGen’s infrastructure took almost a year to build and is supported by major donors through the CGIAR initiatives— Excellence in Breeding (EiB) Platform, Crops to End Hunger (CtEH), and Grain Legumes and Dryland cereals (GLDC)—and the Accelerated Varietal Improvement and Seed Delivery of Legumes and Cereals in Africa (AVISA). Industry partner Corteva Agriscience provided the technical and engineering support for setting up these futuristic facilities required for scaling up crop breeding pipelines.

For more information, please contact:

Jan Debaene at j (dot) debaene (at) cgiar (dot) org
Pooja Bhatnagar at p (dot) bhatnagar (at) cgiar (dot) org
Rohit Pillandi at +91 9949513812 or p (dot) rohit (at) cgiar (dot) org


Dr Esther Njuguna, Senior Gender Scientist, ICRISAT ESA. Photo: ICRISAT

Dr Esther Njuguna, Senior Gender Scientist, ICRISAT ESA. Photo: ICRISAT

Launch of the Seed Revolving Fund, Youth Engagement and Gender Inclusion Initiative in Tanzania

A Seed Revolving Fund initiative for sorghum and groundnut value chains has been launched in Tanzania to tackle the challenge of limited access of quality seeds of improved varieties in rural regions. The ‘Seed Revolving Fund, Youth Engagement and Gender Inclusion’ initiative will work with research institutions, seed companies, agro dealers, grain off-takers, farmer organizations and youths. It will draw insights from a similar fund for pigeonpea and groundnut that was successful in Malawi. The initiative is designed to be gender inclusive as well as youth responsive.

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In Tanzania, farmers generally source low-quality seeds from the grain market, eventually compromising the productivity and quality of grain. This is despite the release of many improved varieties of groundnut and sorghum that tackle different biotic and abiotic stresses. There is a high demand for high-quality groundnut and sorghum grains in Tanzania. However, while off-takers are unable to obtain the groundnut grain volumes and quality that they need for their destination markets, farmers who grow improved varieties and use best agricultural practices struggle to access markets for their surplus production. The initiative offers a unique and rare opportunity to young men and women to contribute to enhancing quality at the different nodes of the value chains, thereby meeting the needs of the off-takers.

How it works:

  • Farmer seed producer groups (or large-scale farmers) are trained in quality seed production.
  • The initiative contracts them to produce foundation seeds at agreed buy-back prices.
  • Foundation seed is sold to local seed companies for multiplication into certified seeds.
  • Seed companies then sell to a larger number of farmers through agro-dealers.
  • Proceeds from sales are ploughed back to cover operational costs such as staff, inspection and certification, warehouse, seed packaging and transport.
Dr Chris Ojiewo, Global Coordinator, Tropical Legumes III, HOPE II and AVISA

Dr Chris Ojiewo, Global Coordinator, Tropical Legumes III, HOPE II and AVISA

To ensure that the knowledge on quality seeds of improved varieties reaches the targeted farmers, the initiative will work in collaboration with the Centre for Behaviour Change and Communication (CBCC Africa) to develop social and behavior change communication initiatives that are aimed at increasing farmers knowledge and trust for quality seeds of improved varieties. This will, in turn, increase the adoption of quality seeds of improved variety. Mr Phillip Kinyota from CBCC Africa noted, “Often people’s behavior is molded by their communities, and thus, before changing how one individual functions, the entire community should be sensitized. Hence our holistic approach to behavior change”.

Through facilitated process, the meeting identified potential commodity corridors for both groundnuts and sorghum. Implementable action plans were discussed in the corridor teams that had a grain aggregator, a private seed company, and government administrators.

Proposal to rename the initiative as the ‘Peter Mlengula Initiative’.

One of the private sector actors impacting value chains operations, standards and quality for different grains, as grain aggregators, is the Raphael Group. Mr Peter Mlengula, Director, Raphael Group, participated in the Seed Revolving Fund meetings and gave insights into the operationalization of the initiative’s work in the Southern Highlands Corridor. Unfortunately, he fell ill on the second day and passed on while receiving treatment at a hospital in Dar Es Salaam.

In appreciation of his personal commitment to value chain development, the meeting proposed to name the initiative ‘Peter Mlengula Seed Revolving Fund, Youth Engagement and Gender Inclusion Initiative’. It is intended to plan activities on 18 or 19 December every year in his memory. May his soul rest in eternal peace.

At the launch, Hon Robart Msalika, Regional Administrative Secretary, Tabora Region, highlighted the youth engagement and gender inclusion aspect of the initiative, saying, “This effort is well aligned to the Tanzania government’s priorities and initiatives in which there is a policy for regional governments/district councils to set aside 10% of revenue generated to support women empowerment (4%), youth engagement (4%), and persons with disabilities (2%).”

Dr Esther Njuguna, Senior Gender Scientist, ICRISAT ESA, spoke on behalf of the Regional Program Director, ICRISAT ESA, as she acknowledged and appreciated strong partnerships among national institutions in Tanzania and funds from donors. She explained how the initiative could reach, benefit and achieve gender and youth empowerment through seed systems by involving stakeholders across all the value chains from the onset.

According to Dr Chris Ojiewo, Global Coordinator, Tropical Legumes III, HOPE II and AVISA projects, seed systems are indeed the best way to engage the youth. “The whole idea of the SRF model is that proceeds from sales must revolve to enable further investments, so that a little seed money has a ripple effect to engage youth and women profitably and equitably,” he said.

Dr Essegbemon Akpo, Seed Systems Specialist, ICRISAT ESA, explained that the revolving fund covered all seed classes – pre-basic, basic, certified and Quality Declared Seed (QDS). “The SRF has been put in place to fill the gaps in the private sector that currently limit them from diversifying their portfolio to include grain legumes and cereals,” he added.

The Seed Revolving Fund, Youth Engagement and Gender Inclusion Initiative was launched on 16 December 2019 at Dar es Salam, Tanzania.

To know more about our work on seed systems, click here.

Participants at the meet pose for a group photo. Photo: ICRISAT

Participants at the meet pose for a group photo. Photo: ICRISAT

Project: Accelerated Varietal Improvement and Seed Delivery of Legumes and Cereals in Africa (AVISA)
Funder: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Partners: ICRISAT (lead), International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and National Agricultural Research Systems partners (NARS) from 7 African countries
CGIAR Research Program: CRP-Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals

This work contributes to UN Sustainable Development Goal.
2-zero-hunger 4-gender-equality 17-partnerships-goals

In the media


Mohammad Sarvar with his wife Razia Begum on their farmland in Kothapally village, India, on July 31, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Roli Srivastava

Mohammad Sarvar with his wife Razia Begum on their farmland in Kothapally village, India, on July 31, 2019. Photo: Roli Srivastava, Thomson Reuters Foundation

As students map the weather, an Indian village bests its water woes

The village school in Kothapally, in southern India, has only a handful of amenities – blackboards, desks and chairs, a playground with a wooden bench under a tree. But it has one unusual resource: an automatic weather station, set up by ICRISAT which undertook watershed development work in the village in the late 90s.

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Nestled among farms, the government school is the only one in the southern Indian state of Telangana – and possibly in the country – to have a weather station on its premises, scientists overseeing the station said.

Ninth graders, all children of local farmers, record rainfall, humidity, wind speed and the air temperature as part of a bigger project led by an international crop research institute to customize the village’s farming to its water availability.

“I understand how this works. I know if it rains well the previous day it is a good time to put fertilizer on the crops the next day,” said Vamshi Voggu, 14, who doesn’t much like science lessons but enjoys his morning weather-monitoring job at school.

“My parents are farmers. This information helps them,” Voggu told the Thomson Reuters Foundation during a class break, with his giggly friends chiming in on how farmers in the village benefit from the device.

Two decades ago, Kothapally faced an acute water crisis, with little available to irrigate farms or to drink and women walking miles to fetch water.

Nearly half the village’s children were out of school, many herding cattle to supplement family incomes, villagers said. Read more

For more on our work in watershed interventions click here.


As climate change continues, severe weather events – from cyclones to droughts – will become increasingly frequent and intense. But there is a simple way to boost climate resilience for farmers in vulnerable regions: investment in goat markets. Photo:Project Syndicate

As climate change continues, severe weather events – from cyclones to droughts – will become increasingly frequent and intense. But there is a simple way to boost climate resilience for farmers in vulnerable regions: investment in goat markets. Photo:Project Syndicate

Goats Against Climate Change

In 2019, Cyclone Idai swept across Mozambique. Its powerful winds and heavy rains led to massive floods, hundreds of deaths, and the large-scale destruction of crops and property. An estimated 140,000 people were displaced, and six months later, nearly one million people, including 160,000 children under five, are still facing food shortages and a nutrition crisis.

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BULAWAYO – Earlier this year, Cyclone Idai swept across Mozambique. Its powerful winds and heavy rains led to massive floods, hundreds of deaths, and the large-scale destruction of crops and property. An estimated 140,000 people were displaced, and six months later, nearly one million people, including 160,000 children under five, are still facing food shortages and a nutrition crisis.

Idai was not the first cyclone to upend the lives of farmers in southern Africa, and it won’t be the last. As climate change continues, such storms will become more frequent and intense, as will droughts, with which farmers in Mozambique already struggle. But there is a simple way to boost climate resilience for farmers in vulnerable regions: investment in goat markets.

Goats are a relatively low-maintenance livestock. They do not require much up-front investment in housing or equipment. And they are hardy: goats are much more likely to survive a long dry period than, say, grains. They even eat failed crops.

Like other forms of property, a herd of goats can function as a kind of savings account for farmers, who can purchase more animals when they have cash to spare, and sell some off in times of trouble. This is particularly true in Mozambique, where demand for goat meat is booming, prices are rising, and large abattoirs are actively seeking to purchase goats from smallholder farmers.

Yet farmers in Mozambique struggle to take advantage of this opportunity, owing to factors like poor market conditions and rampant theft. These are the problems that my colleagues and I at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics – together with the Agricultural Research Institute of Mozambique and the Center for Development Research at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna – are now endeavoring to solve.

We have launched an initiative to link farmers in Mozambique’s drought-prone Marara district with agricultural extension services and local governments, abattoirs, and farming-goods suppliers. This “innovation platform” – which now includes 60 farmers in six villages – has enabled the development of collaborative solutions that are suited to local conditions. It works to improve goat markets by providing direction and incentives for agricultural extension services and investments.

Consider livestock theft. In Marara district, farmers were hesitant to invest in more animals, because unknown perpetrators were regularly stealing free-roaming goats. Thanks to the innovation platform, villagers, local government, and police were able to work together to devise a strategy to combat the thefts, centered on erecting roadblocks in strategic locations.

The platform has also facilitated the creation of a more structured goat market that better suits farmers’ needs. Traditionally, goats in central Mozambique have been traded through a single market. But reaching that market often requires farmers to travel a considerable distance with their goats, which lose weight during the journey. Because a skinny goat is worth less to the abattoir, it fetches a lower price for the farmer. To avoid the journey, farmers might have to rely on unscrupulous middlemen.

Since the introduction of the innovation platform, abattoirs and farmers have begun working to establish new, smaller sales points, closer to both buyers and sellers. So far, our data suggest that farmers who are participating in the innovation platform have been better able to meet market demand and are earning more for their goats. In fact, some farmers are prepared to expand their production, and are working with abattoirs to establish a quality-based pricing system.

Establishing a structured, well-functioning goat market helps to create a positive feedback loop. If farmers are confident their goats will not be stolen, and can sell them at a decent price, they are better able to invest in improving their production system.

Here, too, the innovation platform is helping. For starters, we have trained farmers how to improve their soil by expanding legume crops, the residues of which can be used as goat fodder. Recognizing the benefits of these practices, farmers immediately began increasing crop density, applying manure, and rotating crops, thereby increasing yields and producing more feed for healthier goats. We have also trialed on-farm soil analyses that can help farmers detect soil health problems and devise their own solutions – for example, growing more legumes or adding manure and compost.

More broadly, the innovation platform has kick-started a process in which farmers support one another to build a stronger market. For example, more successful goat farmers in the Marara district are advising their poorer counterparts on how to get started.

With support from government agencies and development organizations, goat markets could continue to grow, increasing the incomes and resilience of farmers in Marara district and beyond. Such support could include investment in technical extension services for livestock farmers, particularly for women and poor farmers, mediation of price negotiations between buyers and sellers, and the establishment of reliable metrological services.

To enable such progress, it is vital to keep the innovation network alive. As climate change continues, the challenges smallholder farmers face will only grow. Their best chance of weathering them is by acting together.

The work described here was carried out with the assistance of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land, and Ecosystems (WLE) and was funded by the Austrian Development Agency (ADA).

About the author:

Dr Sabine Homann Kee Tui
Senior Social Scientist,
Markets, Institutions, Nutrition & Diversity,
Innovation Systems for the Drylands Program


Photo: ICRISAT

Photo: ICRISAT

Repurposing Public Policies for Sustainable Water Management in Indian Agriculture

The importance of sustainable management of water in a changing climate cannot be over-emphasized. Depleting water resources, besides land degradation and desertification; loss of biodiversity; and negative impacts of weather variabilities on crop production are direct manifestations of climate change in the agriculture production system. In such a critical scenario, conservation and sustainable management of natural resources, including water, warrants priority action in the policy agenda.

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A few startling facts reflecting Indian farm water use trends that beg attention are:

First, in Maharashtra, as per expert observations, a water intensive crop like sugarcane occupies only four percent of the cropped area but uses almost two-thirds (60 %) of irrigation water.

Second, is India’s export of ‘virtual water’ that accompanies export of food and livestock.  Producing a kilogram of rice requires about 3,500 liters of water.  India exports a substantial quantity of rice (basmati and other types) and thus, the ‘water’ that goes out of India’s boundaries needs to be accounted.  A study based on data from 2006 to 2016 revealed that India exported an average ‘26,000 million liters of water’ annually.

Third, a recently released World Economic Forum (WEF) report (January 2020)  ‘Incentivizing Food Systems Transformation’, talks about over exploitation of groundwater due to subsidies on electricity to farmers in the state of Punjab. The report states, “The state’s rice production alone requires more than three times the amount of water Punjab receives in rainfall”.

The extent of unsustainable use of groundwater calls for the attention of policymakers, businesses, civil society, researchers, and above all, the farming communities. Based on available evidences and existing policy preferences by central and state governments, the following strategies are suggested.

Promoting water-use-efficiency:

‘More crop-per drop’ has been the mantra of current public policies around irrigation water. Water used for Indian agriculture accounts for 78% of total fresh water resources and therefore, efficiency savings are always advocated for additional food production for an increasing population.  Promotion of micro-irrigation practices through government programs has been localized in a few States–7.7 million hectares of micro-irrigation, 95 % of which is in 10 states. Micro-irrigation should proliferate to larger crop areas; its potential extent of use in India is estimated at 69.5 million hectares. We need to move from supply-based to demand-driven system to reach the huge micro-irrigation potential.

A number of new production techniques and specific agronomic practices have also been suggested.  System of Rice Intensification (SRI) or Alternate Wetting and Drying (AWD), direct seeded rice, conservation agriculture, furrow irrigation, etc. are practices often advocated for efficient use of irrigation water for crops like paddy without yield disadvantages.

Adoption of sustainable water management technologies:

Crop specific irrigation management practices should be aimed at improving or restoring natural ecosystems.  In many high value crops, precision irrigation models and controls like variable-rate drip irrigation and other micro-irrigation systems are gaining wide acceptance including in India.  Smart irrigation systems with increased usage of information and communication technology (ICT) and remote sensing have been in use in advanced economies like USA, Japan and Israel.  Uses of PVC water-conveyor pipes and underground pipeline systems in canal irrigation commands have also been proved to enhance water use efficiency. Growing adoption of laser land levelers in parts of North India, despite high cost and sophistication, is indeed good news. In specific instances, improving effectiveness of traditional irrigation systems has been suggested to maintain local ecological equilibrium. Farmers need to be sensitized about sustainable irrigation water management and the resulting economic and environmental benefits.

Re-orienting Policy incentives:

Subsidy-based approach to irrigate farm lands has led to negative environmental consequences in India.   Punjab is a case in point, where over exploitation of groundwater due to subsidized electricity (it’s free) has led to an alarming situation.  Studies indicate that groundwater is depleting at a rate of 0.3 to one meter annually.  As per a NASA study, the annual withdrawal of groundwater from North-West India is 13 to 17 Km3 without aquifer replenishment. Could it not be fixed? Definitively yes!  But, it needs political will and a suitable offer of an alternative portfolio to tillers to maintain or raise the present levels of farm income. Diversification with crops likes nutri-cereals (sorghum and millets), maize, soybean, fruits and vegetables, etc. have been suggested to obviate the problem.  Adoption, however, will depend on suitable policy framework with market linkage, creation of supportive infrastructure and public investments.

The World Bank supported ongoing project titled ‘Paani Bacho, Paise Kamao’ (save water, earn money) could throw practical insights into future public policies to address a very alarming situation.  Farmers want water for irrigation and not free electricity.  Designing a framework in which payment is made for efficient water use through Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM) of resources by farmers’ groups may prove to be a better governance model, as demonstrated in some parts of India. Pricing of irrigation water on volumetric basis has also been successfully pilot-tested. In some urban and peri-urban areas, treated sewerage is being used to irrigate farm lands.  However, scaling-up these measures would depend on a defined policy framework and associated structural issues.

Watershed management approach:

In-situ soil and moisture conservation with the involvement of communities can best be addressed through the watershed management approach.  Integrating both on-farm and non-farm activities in watershed areas leads to sustainable livelihood options for communities, mainly the disadvantaged.  The impacts of the interventions demonstrated successfully by institutes like ICRISAT have shown recharging of groundwater that has enabled farmers to grow more crops per year and enhancement of productivity of diverse crops.  In the tribal pockets of Odisha, it was seen how a holistic approach of watershed management transformed lives of rural poor, besides meeting the core objective of sustainable natural resources management. Social, economic and even political empowerment, mostly of rural women, was achieved through effective implementation of watershed schemes in backward pockets of the state. Convergence of schematic interventions through National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), Neeranchal, Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana (PMKSY), etc. for groundwater recharging, revival of traditional water bodies and creation of water harvesting structures would go a long way in water conservation.

Use of solar pumps:

Increased usage of solar pumps has been recommended by policymakers while addressing the challenges arising from ‘water-energy-food’ nexus. Government of India’s KUSUM (Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthan Mahaabhiyan) is paving the way for installation of standalone off-grid solar pumps for drawing water from surface or underground. The Union Budget that was presented early in February before the Indian Parliament has proposed installation of two million solar pumps and 1.5 million solarized grid connects to enhance farmers’ incomes.  However, while promoting solar based irrigation systems in agriculture sector, we must monitor groundwater extraction to ensure its sustainability.

Investments in research and innovation:

Prescriptions for better and sustainable irrigation water management have to be evidence-based.  Research on irrigation practices and technologies, drainage water management, tools for sustainable agroecosystem management, breeding drought-tolerant high-yielding crops, etc. should therefore be the focus of agricultural research systems.  Unfortunately, the water management aspects of crops are still under-invested and deserve enhanced research outlay.

The water productivity of major crops in India has recently been mapped by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) that calls for urgent attention to shift areas covered by water-guzzling crops like rice, sugarcane, etc. to other remunerative options.  With increasing weather variabilities, climate change would continue to pose risk to water availability for agriculture.  The political economy has to take cognizance of this and repurpose both irrigation and power policies that should incentivize farmers to save water.  Focus on sustainable water usage under climate change could be a long-term solution to the challenges of inadequate food and water supplies.

Dr Arabinda Kumar Padhee
Director, Country Relations and Business Affairs – New Delhi,
ICRISAT.


Photo: PS Rao, ICRISAT

Agriculture in Budget 2020: Implementation key to make a real difference

Like many other agriculture policy enthusiasts, I too had made my wish list expecting specific announcements in the Union Budget 2020-21. I even shared my thoughts in the social media, much to a broad acceptance of friends following me. In fact, few of the 16 points agenda of the Finance Minister, directly or indirectly, have addressed some of my commonsensical recommendations, emanating from experience in the agricultural policy space and little bit of domain knowledge. While this has made me happy, but few obvious imperatives missing from the policy intentions have again pushed the ‘doables’ to future years. I try to analyze here the budget announcements in the sector amidst challenges to make Indian agriculture climate-resilient and profitable to farmers.

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The Positive Steps

Long pending Structural Reforms: It is very heartening to note that the Finance Minister has proposed to encourage States to implement much needed structural reforms like land leasing; agricultural marketing and contract farming. These legislations have been advocated by the National Commission on Farmers; Committee on Doubling Farmers’ Income; NITI Aayog and a number of think tanks working in agricultural policy arena. Even model laws have been circulated to States for their consideration. The reasons for delay in implementation of these game-changing reforms agenda is not unknown to researchers or policy-makers. Political will in many instances is not forthcoming because of vested interests blocking the move. As agriculture is a state subject, a push from center with specific incentives to States could set the trigger. Let’s take for example the land leasing laws. Except in very few states, land leasing is not legalized thus impeding private investments which would otherwise have come from the share-croppers/tenants/lessees. This is because of a lurking fear amongst the land owners that a populist government might record the cultivated lands in the names of tenants in future years. However, a well laid out law, if enforced with explicit provisions to allay such fears, would not only encourage the land owners, but also help the tenant farmers in accessing credit, technology and other services offered by the public service delivery system. The announcement of the Finance Minister doesn’t contain any specific measure that might encourage State governments to follow these model acts propounded by the Central Government. The NITI Aayog may advise for a suitable model of incentivizing states for promoting these ‘pro-farmer’ legislations.

Focus on Animal Husbandry and Fisheries: The Economic survey 2019-20 presented to the Indian Parliament just ahead of this year’s budget has acknowledged the role of livestock and fisheries in overall growth of agriculture sector. It states that the livestock sector grew at a CAGR of 7.9% during last five years, while the agriculture sector as a whole had 2.8% annual growth rate. It is in this context, the focus of the government to promote animal husbandry, milk processing and development of the blue-economy is a welcome step. The Government has since created separate Departments for all these verticals and therefore, targeted investments is expected to yield productive outcomes. To free all livestock of diseases like FMD (foot and mouth diseases) and Brucellosis in cattle and the PPR (peste des petits ruminants) in sheep and goats by 2025 is a very significant announcement considering these diseases responsible for livestock productivity loss. Similarly, raising milk processing capacity to double figures from the existing level (53 million tons) would make safe milk available to a large population and thus, enhance income of dairy farmers. The target to enhance fish production and promotion of FPOs for fish farmers are also very laudable steps.

Read the full article here

About the author:

Dr Arabinda Kumar Padhee
Director, Country Relations and Business Affairs
ICRISAT

Partnerships


Photo: PS Rao, ICRISAT

Indo-Australia genomics project for chickpea drought tolerance gains momentum

India and Australia have joined hands in a multi-institutional project to enhance drought tolerance in chickpea. The project, ‘Functional Genomics of Chickpea to enhance drought tolerance’, will see The University of Western Australia (UWA), ICAR-Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and ICRISAT leverage their expertise in genomics.

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Under the project, ICRISAT will undertake genome sequencing, setting up of drought tolerance experiments and phenotyping analysis as well as transcriptomics work. UWA is set to perform physiological analysis, proteomics and metabolomics analysis. Experiments on breeding cycles and yield trials will be conducted by IARI while JNU will analyze samples for metabolomics differences.

ICRISAT’s Center of Excellence in Genomics & Systems Biology recently organized a meeting of partnering institutions to deliberate the way forward for the project. Prof Harvey Millar, Professor, University of Western Australia’s School of Molecular Sciences and the project’s Coordinator for Australia, spoke about the importance of such collaborations between research organizations for the benefit of farmers. Prof Millar is also the Director for Australian Research Council’s Center of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology.

Highlighting the efforts underway to modernize breeding, Dr Peter Carberry, Director General, ICRISAT, said, “We need to integrate our upstream genomics research with downstream applications as part of efforts towards modernizing our breeding programs. I am sure outputs of this project will feed in to deliver on this objective.”

Participants at project planning and second bilateral meeting of project ‘Functional Genomics of Chickpea to enhance drought tolerance’. Photo: P Srujan, ICRISAT

Participants at project planning and second bilateral meeting of project ‘Functional Genomics of Chickpea to enhance drought tolerance’. Photo: P Srujan, ICRISAT

According to Drs KK Sharma, Deputy Director General-Research, and Rajeev K Varshney, Research Program Director, Genetic Gains, ICRISAT, the project will further ICRISAT’s partnership with Australia and India through UWA and IARI. Such a collaboration is well poised to deliver outcomes, they said.

Dr Kadambot Siddique, Director, UWA Institute of Agriculture, and Co-PI of the project, said, “UWA and ICRISAT share a two-decade collaboration. This project is in continuation of that long-term relationship.”

“We are also excited to have this new partnership with Jawaharlal Nehru University. Having partners from multidisciplinary expertise will allow us to deliver and deploy outcomes of this genomics project at scale and pace,” added Dr Varshney, who is the project’s India Coordinator and will be working alongside Dr Bharadwaj Chellapilla, Principal Scientist, Division of Genetics, IARI, and Prof Ashwani Pareek of the School of Life Sciences, JNU, and their teams.

Deliberations among partners at the meeting resulted in formulation of action items for each partner. The project aims to do transcriptomics, metabolomics and proteomic analysis on introgression of lines developed through integration of several QTL-hotspot in several genetic background.

Project: Functional Genomics of Chickpea to enhance drought tolerance

Donor: Department of Biotechnology, Govt. of India and Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, Australian Government through the Indo-Australia Biotechnology Fund (IABF) scheme

Partners: (In India and Australia): ICRISAT, ICAR – Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Jawaharlal Nehru University and The University of Western Australia, Australia

CGIAR Research Program: Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals (GLDC)

Priority setting


Dr C Tara Satyavathi, Project Coordinator, AICRP-Pearl Millet updates the participants on pearl millet hybrid developments at the meeting. Photo: PS Rao, ICRISAT

Dr C Tara Satyavathi, Project Coordinator, AICRP-Pearl Millet updates the participants on pearl millet hybrid developments at the meeting. Photo: PS Rao, ICRISAT

When science and industry synergize to develop better crops

Setting priorities for research in hybrid pearl millet, sorghum and pigeonpea in India

Over 70 participants from 40 public and private sector institutions recently discussed and selected the highest research priorities to develop hybrid parents and hybrids of sorghum, pearl millet and pigeonpea

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The following are the some of the key takeaways and recommendations distilled from their discussions.

  • Greater attention required towards the A1 Zone (West Rajasthan, South Haryana and North Gujarat; <400 mm annual rainfall) comprising almost 50% of cultivated area for pearl millet in India to address both food and nutritional security. –Dr C Tara Satyavathi, Project Coordinator, AICRP-Pearl Millet
  • Different traits and preferences required in sorghum for diverse growing ecologies in rainy/post-rainy/rice-follows etc., with special emphasis on end-use specific breeding. –Dr C Aruna, Principal Sorghum Breeder, IIMR
  • 70% of millet area in India is now under hybrids. Also, the pigeonpea program must invest on high-density planting and farming systems for production to scale up. –Dr RS Mahala, Chairman of Advisory Committee-HPRC
  • Since success of pearl millet hybrid technology has not yet been demonstrated in Africa, it is a great opportunity for pearl millet breeders and seed –Dr Peter Carberry, Director General, ICRISAT
  • High demand for fodder requirement in India necessitates stronger collaborations between
    ICAR, ICRISAT and the seed industry to develop
    multi-cut sorghum and pearl millet cultivars. –Dr Vijay Kumar Yadav, Director, IGFRI
  • ICRISAT and NARS partners should focus on early to mid-early pigeonpea cultivars, with higher emphasis on C scarabaeoides-based cytoplasmic male sterility females. –Dr IP Singh, Project Coordinator, AICRP-Pigeonpea
  • Current trends and future needs in pearl millet, sorghum and pigeonpea three crops emphasizing the future focus for research – Dr C Aruna, Dr Pushkar Vaidya, Dr Satyavathi, Dr Virendra Singh Deora, Dr IP Singh and Dr Bijendra Pal.
  • Focus on addressing grain mold, shoot fly and Fall Armyworm challenges in sorghum
  • Improving blast resistance, lodging tolerance, and developing better breeding products for drought-prone environments in pearl millet
  • Hybrid development using stable sources of CMS and strengthening of seed production systems in pigeonpea.

The meeting was held on 23 January 2020 at ICRISAT, Hyderabad.

To know more about our work on pearl millet, click here

To know more about our work on sorghum, click here

To know more about our work on pigeonpea click here

Projects: Pearl Millet Hybrid Parents Research Consortium (PMHPRC) – Phase V; Sorghum Hybrid Parents Research Consortium; PigeonPea Hybrid Parents Research Consortium

Funders/Partners: Ajeet Seeds Pvt. Ltd; Arya Hybrid Seeds Ltd; Adriana Agricola Ltd.; Bayer BioScience Pvt Ltd; Daftari Seeds (OPC) Pvt Ltd; Bisco Bio-Sciences Pvt Ltd; DCM Shriram Ltd – BioSeed Research; Eco Agri Seeds Private Limited; Ganga Kaveri Seeds Pvt Ltd; Hi-Yield Agri-Genetics Pvt Ltd; Hytech Seed India Private Limited; JK Agri Genetics Limited; Kamadgiri Seeds LLP; Kanchan Ganga Seed Co. Pvt. Ltd; Kaveri Seed Company Pvt Ltd; Kartik Bio Seed; Metahelix Life Sciences Limited; Nandi Seeds Pvt Ltd; Nath Biogenes (I) Ltd; Nu Genes Private Limited; Nuziveedu Seeds Ltd; Rasi Seeds (P) Ltd; Pioneer Hi-Bred Pvt Ltd.; SeedWorks International Pvt. Ltd.; Sungro Seeds Private Limited; Super Seeds (P) Ltd; UPL Limited (Advanta); Classic Hybrid Seeds Pvt Ltd; KD Seeds Pvt Ltd; UPL-Mexico; JK Agri Genetics Ltd

CGIAR Research Program: Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals


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File photo

Spotlight on pearl millet – biofortification and drought tolerance

Pearl millet scientists discussed the ‘Future micronutrient breeding strategy in pearl millet’, and agreed that phenotyping for micronutrient trait was the most important component needed to strengthen and mainstream biofortification activity in pearl millet. This was at the HarvestPlus Pearl Millet Biofortification Review (2019) and Planning (2020) Meeting.

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Dr Wolfgang Pfeiffer, Global Director, Product Development and Commercialization, HarvestPlus, commended the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the All India Coordinated Pearl Millet Improvement Project (AICPMIP) for fixing the minimum levels of iron and zinc content as a criterion for cultivar release/promotion in pearl millet in India. “Crop development needs to ally with the public sector, the private sector and CGIAR centers for testing of products and commercialization,” he said. He advocated harmonization of the seed systems across all of the targeted regions.

Dr KK Sharma, Deputy Director General – Research, mentioned that we need to better understand the bigger challenges which pearl millet crop will face when we enhance its utilization, and there is strong need to work on technologies related to processing and packaging. He briefed the group about some recent initiatives by ICRISAT in the area of processing and packaging technology, such as Smart Food and the ICAR-Nutri-Cereal campaigns which were creating awareness about the nutritional value of certain crops.

Dr SK Gupta, currently the Principal Investigator of the project, affirmed ICRISAT’s efforts on mainstreaming of micronutrient traits in the pearl millet breeding program, along with continued efforts on targeted breeding for these traits. Dr Gupta presented a strategy to mainstream micronutrient traits into the main breeding program. Dr M Govindaraj, Senior Scientist, Sorghum Breeding, informed the partners that the online XRF facility of the biofortification lab was now available for phenotyping services.

Dr C Tara Satyavathi, Project Coordinator, AICPMIP, revealed that six hybrids and one open pollinated variety (OPV) with high iron content have been released so far at the national level through specially designed high-iron cultivar evaluation trials. She also explained that iron and zinc content and grain yield were the key targets for the immediate future breeding efforts.

Dr RS Mahala, Research Director, Seedworks International Pvt Ltd., emphasized the need for a negative selection protocol after F2 generation, saying that a marker panel that helps in screening the genotypes was very necessary at this juncture.

The HarvestPlus Pearl Millet Biofortification Review (2019) and Planning (2020) Meeting was held on 24 January 2020 at ICRISAT, Hyderabad.

Drought tolerance

Focusing on the drought-prone A1 Zone of pearl millet (India)

Pearl millet scientists brainstormed on breeding suitable material for the highly drought-prone, hot and less fertile A1 Zone, which comprises of West Rajasthan, South Haryana and North Gujarat which receives less than 400 mm of rainfall per annum.

Dr Tara Satyavathi recommended, “The A1 Zone should be re-classified into Arid, Highly arid and Hyper-arid zones and breeding strategies be developed accordingly,” while Dr Jan Debaene, Global Head, Breeding, said, “The mechanism of drought tolerance needs to be better understood for implementation of effective breeding program for A1 Zone.”

Dr Harish Gandhi, Regional Breeding Lead, mentioned the need to develop directional plans for A1 Zone and said, “Working in partnership with public and private sectors will be key to enhance cultivar diversity in this zone.” Dr SK Gupta talked about the shuttle breeding approach which is underway with CAZRI to generate drought-tolerant breeding lines, with selection and evaluation of material done at CAZRI, followed by generation advancement at ICRISAT in the off season.

All attendees unanimously agreed that intensive genetic diversification of seed and restorer parental lines for
A1 Zone is the need of the hour. Target traits like earliness (D50%F <47 days), plant height, high tillering, high biomass, resistance to different diseases, seed size, seed shape, and grain color should be focused on while breeding for A1 Zone.

Dr Rakesh Srivastava, Principal Scientist, Trait Discovery and Genomics, informed that diagnostic markers were available for drought tolerance and that mapping of seedling stage heat tolerance was underway.

Other significant points such as standardizing procedures for thermo tolerance, screening for blast and downy mildew resistance, developing screening indices for drought tolerance, rancidity studies, extra-early material from West and Central Africa were discussed.

An action plan was developed on the key identified research areas which will now be jointly addressed by ICRISAT and ICAR centers.

The meeting “Enhancing pearl millet cultivar diversity to increase productivity in drought-prone A1 Zone through ICAR-ICRISAT collaborative activities” was held on 6 February 2020 at ICRISAT, Hyderabad.

To know more about our work on pearl millet click here

Photo: PS Rao, ICRISAT

Photo: PS Rao, ICRISAT

Project: Genetically enhanced pearl millet with high grain iron density for improved human nutrition in India

Funder: HarvestPlus

Partners: CCS Haryana Agricultural University; Junagadh Agricultural University; Vasantrao Naik Marathwada Agricultural University; MPKV College of Agriculture; Prof. Jayashankar Telangana State Agricultural University;
Sri Karan Narendra Agriculture University; Karnataka State Seeds Corporation Limited; Maharashtra State Seeds corporation Limited; Ajeet seeds Ltd.; Bayer BioScience Pvt. Ltd.; Bioseed Research India Pvt. Ltd.; Ganga Kaveri Seeds Pvt. Ltd.; Hi-Yield Agri Genetics Pvt. Ltd.; Hytech Seed India Pvt. Ltd.; JK Agri Genetics Ltd.; Kaveri Seeds Company Pvt. Ltd.; Metahelix Lifesciences Pvt. Ltd.; Nirmal Seeds Pvt. Ltd.; Nu Genes Pvt. Ltd.; Nuziveedu Seeds Pvt. Ltd.; Pioneer Overseas Corporation and ICRISAT

CGIAR Research Programs: Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH), Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals (GLDC)

Project: Sub-project 1.5 (Pearl Millet) of ICAR-ICRISAT Collaborative Work Plan 2019-2023

Funder: Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR)

Partners: ICAR-All India Coordinated Millet Improvement Project, Jodhpur; ICAR-Indian Institute of Millets Research, Hyderabad; ICAR-Central Arid Zone Research Institute, Jodhpur; Indian Grassland and Fodder Research Institute, Jhansi; ICAR-Indian Agricultural Research Institute; State Agricultural Universities and ICRISAT

CGIAR Research Program: Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals

Digital agriculture


Photo: PEAT GmbH/ICRISAT

Photo: PEAT GmbH/ICRISAT

Artificial intelligence to track pests and diseases in India

A smartphone AI-based app that can identify pest and diseases in crops with high precision is helping farmers globally. The app, Plantix, has more almost 12 million users across the world.

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When Dr Srikanth Rupavatharam saw hundreds of farmers dumping their tomatoes in front of an abandoned market in rural India, he started to rethink his role as an economist.

“Every day, I watched as farmers jumped out of tuk tuks in the morning with piles of tomatoes, but by evening, dumped them on the ground as there were no buyers or the price was too low.

“This heap of rotting tomatoes highlighted to me that the critical issue here was in delaying the shelf life so that farmers could provide a quality crop at harvest and postharvest, and make enough to cover the cost of reaching distant markets for their tomatoes.”

This revelation got him thinking about the importance of extension. And, the role of digital tools in getting better information, like market prices or post-harvest techniques, to farmers.

Now a digital agricultural scientist in Hyderabad, India, with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Dr Rupavatharam’s journey has led him to bring such information to millions of farmers.

“Farmers need high-quality, specific information. You can’t bombard tomato farmers with information about cotton. They want specific information, at specific times, to avoid post-harvest losses and drive economic acceleration.”

“I realized the vast potential of digital extension for farmers who often are tricked by traders when they seek agricultural inputs like seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and other agro chemicals. Digital extension enables a voice for the poor, to empower them in the conversation,” he said.

It was while working at ICRISAT on digital extension that he came across the work of two PhD scientists and their digital application called Plantix.

Simone and Robert Strey had set off into the Amazon forest in search of soil data. What they discovered instead, was overwhelming demand from local farming tribes they encountered to solve specific pest and disease problems. The result of their mission was to abandon their original idea of collecting soil carbon data, to instead build what is today an award-winning app for farmers. When they approached ICRISAT for a possible collaboration, Dr Rupavatharam jumped at the idea.

Plantix, powered by the Strey’s Berlin-based startup PEAT GmbH, now uses machine-learning and scientific image data supplied by ICRISAT and local research institutions to bring 75,000 daily users information about pests and diseases.

The app helps farmers diagnose pest damage, plant disease and nutrient deficiencies by taking a photo of their affected crop. Users can discuss possible causes and solutions with each other, or with experts paid to monitor infestations and provide scientifically verified solutions. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that between 20 and 40 percent of global crop yields are reduced each year because of plant diseases and pests.

“What Plantix brings to the table is a way to help farmers minimize crop losses, for free. Most farmers in India have smartphones. As researchers, we can work with the science, tech companies, and government to bring what we know to more people.”

Detection success is now at 85 percent accuracy. Some diseases with shorter life-cycles needing only four hundred pictures to help identify the problem. Others may require 5,000 pictures to train algorithms to detect disease. There are currently 500 diseases in the database, with a focus on those affecting groundnuts, rice , wheat, tomato and cotton. The app has been downloaded by almost 12 million users globally, with the majority of these in India, where it is available in eight local languages.

“One of the main challenges we face is keeping accuracy high. Diseases and pests are evolving all the time. Staying ahead is a continuous process, and we can never say we’re finished as Plantix keeps evolving. At this very moment there are more than 400 pests and diseases that still need to be entered.”

“This app is an empowerment tool. The value is in the intangible benefits, in giving a voice to the farmers, getting the information to the farmers and in giving them a voice. That is the real outcome – to give a voice to the poor,” said Dr Rupavatharam.

Project: Developing Chickpea Cultivars Suited to Mechanical Harvesting and Tolerant to Herbicides

Funder: National Food Security Mission (NFSM) of the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers Welfare, Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, Government of India.

Partners: ICAR-Indian Institute of Pulses Research (IIPR), Kanpur; ICAR-Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi; Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana; Rajmata Vijayaraje Scindia Krishi Vishwavidyalaya (RVSKVV), Gwalior; Mahatma Phule Krishi Vidyapeeth (MPKV), Rahuri (not a partner in the project, but involved in evaluation); Acharya NG Ranga Agricultural University (ANGRAU), Hyderabad; University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS), Dharwad; and ICRISAT.

Capacity building


Participants and speakers at the AdaptNET workshop. Photo: PS Rao, ICRISAT

Participants and speakers at the AdaptNET workshop. Photo: PS Rao, ICRISAT

Empowering young scientists with new skills to develop genomic-assisted climate-resilient crops

A recent training course sought to enable young scientists, professors and breeders in the area of genomics-assisted crop breeding for climate-resilient agriculture. The participants were from partner institutes both from the public and private sector.

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“It is the need of the hour to embrace, adopt and integrate genomics technologies along with other modern science tools and practices such as big data, precision agriculture, remote sensing, etc. to cope with impact of climate change resulting into extreme weather conditions and affecting crop production and productivity”, said Prof Praveen Rao, Vice-Chancellor, Professor Jayashankar Telangana State Agricultural University, Chief Guest at the training course  inaugural event.

Dr Rajeev Varshney, Director- Research Program Genetic Gains, and Principal Investigator of AdaptNET project at ICRISAT, said, “Availability of genomics tools and technologies is not a challenge anymore, but the crop breeder should be empowered with scientific acumen to decide which tools to use and integrate in their crop improvement program to accelerate development and delivery of climate-resilient crops.”

“Such training courses help to collate and adopt modern day tools available with different partners in the interest of developing climate-resilient crops and in addressing the issue of food and nutrition security,” said Dr Peter Carberry, Director General, ICRISAT. He also delivered an engaging science talk on “Realism in managing climate change and variability and role of crop improvement”, and gave five takeaway points:

  • Agriculture’s narrative is one of success
  • Future challenge must be met with research as a major source of innovation
  • Smallholder farmers and consumers need to benefit from innovation
  • Risk-mitigation practices, tools and policies necessary along the full agrifood system
  • With South-South collaboration, India’s success should be leveraged in Africa.

“New technologies have the potential to supplement and boost conventional plant breeding,” said Dr PK Gupta, Honorary Emeritus Professor, CCSU Meerut & INSA Honorary Scientist, delivering the keynote lecture “Climate Resilient Crops for food & Nutrition Security in Post-Genomics Era: A Challenge”.

A one-day international workshop was conducted as part of the training course with a panel discussion on “Way forward for climate-resilient agriculture”, chaired by Prof Swapan Datta, Ex-Vice Chancellor, Visva-Bharati University and former, DDG- CCS, Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Govt of India. Summarizing the deliberations of the panel discussions, Dr Datta said, “A smart decision needs to be made by our crop breeders for developing climate-smart crops while ensuring that we minimize the cost of R&D, time of delivery and increased genetic gains.”

Q&A Session during Dr Peter Carberry’s presentation. Photo: B Anjaiah

Q&A Session during Dr Peter Carberry’s presentation. Photo: B Anjaiah

Deliberations were led by eminent panelists including Dr NP Singh, Director, ICAR-Indian Council of Pulses Research; Dr T Radhakrishnan, Director, Directorate of Groundnut Research; Dr Tara Satyavathi, Project Coordinator, All India Coordinated Research Project on Pearl Millet, and Dr.Rajeev Varshney.

Dr Yogendra S Verma, President, R&D, Kaveri Seed Co Pvt Ltd, expressed confidence that the training would empower breeders with new knowledge and skills to ultimately improve breeding programs and help develop climate-resilient, market-ready crops.

The week-long “Fifteenth Training Course and International Workshop on Next Generation Genomics for Developing Climate Resilient Agriculture”, was organized by ICRISAT’s Center of Excellence in Genomics and Systems Biology (CEGSB) and supported by project co-PIs Ms Anu Chitikineni and Mr Nilesh Mishra, as part of the AdaptNET project funded by the European Union’s Erasmus+ program.

More than 60 participants from AdaptNET partner institutes and Kaveri Seed Company Limited, India attended this training course held from 10-15 February 2020. National and international invited speakers including Prof Eric von Wettberg, The University of Vermont, USA; Dr Bunyamin Tar’an, University of Saskatchewan, Canada; Dr Lee Hickey, The University of Queensland, Australia; and Dr Yusaku Uga, NARO, Japan.

Project: AdaptNET “Strengthening education, research and innovation for climate-smart crops in India” an ERASMUS+ CAPACITY BUILDING project

Funder: ERASMUS+ program of the European Union

Partners: The Agricultural University of Athens, Greece coordinates this project with seven other executing partners (Assam Agriculture University; Tezpur University; University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad; ICRISAT; Academy of Athens; University of Milano and Polytechnic University of Marche) and two associated partners (SPREADNE and Ecosystems).

CGIAR Research Program: Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals

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