How do we tackle some of the biggest and critical global nutritional health/environmental issues in unison? How could we achieve greater impact in sustainable agriculture at scale?
The Solution: Joining forces for the good of the consumers, planet and the farmers. A Memorandum of Intent for the establishment of a strategic partnership to make our foods smarter was signed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Bangkok, in November 2018, to strategically align the Smart Food and Future Smart Food initiatives.
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Smart Food, founded by ICRISAT, focuses on foods that fulfil all criteria of being good for you (healthy and nutritious), good for the planet (environmentally sustainable) and good for the farmer. A key focus is to diversify staples to be able to have a major impact. This complements Future Smart Food, led by FAO, which focuses on popularizing a broader range of neglected and underutilized species that are nutrition dense, climate resilient, economically viable and locally available/adaptable.
This partnership will deliver joint outcomes which will have significant impacts on changing the global food system. It brings together international organizations and will create a global movement.
The first Smart Food Culinary Challenge was launched with 58 student chefs from 16 culinary institutes across India. They were competing to be the finalists to play-off for the grand finale to be held at the Organics and Millets International Trade Fair in Bengaluru 18-20 January 2019. From traditional to continental cuisine, foxtail millet-banana flower biryani to pearl millet ghevar, the student chefs tested their culinary skills to compete to create a three-course meal in cooking millets and sorghum.
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Ranging from first-year graduates to postgraduates, these young chefs were determined to put their best foot forward into making a three-course meal with three different millets.
The Smart Food Culinary Challenge was held at the Faculty of Hotel Management and Catering Technology, M S Ramaiah University of Applied Sciences, Bangalore on 5 December, 2018, and is part of Organic and Millet International Fair – 2019, an annual millet fair organized by the Government of Karnataka (GoK).
The challenge was captured on video alongside the play-offs and journeys of these young chefs, including their experiences in creating new recipes by substituting rice and wheat with millets and millets-based ingredients.
“Since millets are gluten free, the dough doesn’t bind well like wheat. We had to challenge ourselves to use millets in wheat-based pastries” – a young chef told the judging panel during the presentation.
For more details on the upcoming challenge sign up at – http://www.smartfood.org/culinarychallenge/.
The Smart Food Culinary Challenge received 29 teams that created over 80 dishes with at least 50% millet. They were judged by an eminent panel comprising Chef Ramaswamy Selvaraju, Executive Chef, Vivanta by Taj, Bengaluru, Chef Vinod K Batti – Range and Commercial Manager, IKEA Food, India, Dr Anitha Seetha, Nutrition Scientist, ICRISAT, and Mrs Suchitra Muralidharan, celebrity Chef from Kannada cooking show Oggarane Dabbi (Spice Box). The panel selected the top 7 dishes based on the appropriate use of millets, accompaniments, taste, portion size, the degree of complexity and overall garnishing and presentation style.
While asking the students to name all the 9 kind of millets, Chef Vinod Batti congratulated the participants for their attempt and encouraged them to continue experimenting with millets. The seven teams that made it to the finals will be announced online before the fair.
Overseeing the competition were officials Nandhini Kumari, Managing Director, Karnataka State Agricultural Produce, Processing and Export Corporation (KAPPEC) and Karnataka Micro-Irrigation Corporation (KAMIC) and Dr Govind R Kadambi, Pro Vice-Chancellor, MSRUAS.
The millet recipes (starters, main course and dessert) presented in the challenge ranged from authentic to fusion and western cuisines. The Smart Food Culinary Challenge has set the stage for the hotel management industry to introduce millets in the curricula and encourage upcoming chefs to use them as they are Good for You – the Planet – the Farmer.
On the scenic slopes of Western Ghats, fondly called ‘Sahyadris’ or the benevolent mountains in the state of Maharashtra, the groundnut is attempting a comeback. A new variant, locally referred to as ‘tees taintalis’, could herald its return.
Starting in 2011, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and ICRISAT set out to breed new oil-rich groundnut varieties by borrowing desirable traits from existing lines. This resulted in ICGV 03043, a variant with 53% oil content, which is higher than other cultivars used in India. The forage of this high-oil variant is protein-rich fodder for livestock as it remains green until harvest. Resistance to leaf spot disease was also bred into tees taintalis, which in English reads ’thirty forty-three’.
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High on yield
At his field in the village of Mouje Digraj, a six-hour drive from Mumbai, Mr Tukaram Maruthi Kadam is set to harvest the first crop of tees taintalis. This 38-year-old insurance agent-turned-farmer was cultivating an aging variety before being introduced to the new variant earlier this year. He took to trying it and convinced a few other farmers to join.
“The pod numbers in the new variant are significantly higher than in existing varieties. The output could be nearly twice what was harvested previously. I have been approached by other farmers with requests for the seed,” says Mr Kadam.
Mr Kadam and other smallholder farmers in Sangli, Satara and Kolhapur districts in the Kolhapur region, do not cultivate groundnut for oil production. Instead, it is grown as an intercrop with sugarcane mainly for local consumption. Groundnut is ready for harvest at the onset of winter before sugarcane tillers turn dense. In addition to seed stashing for next sowing, the produce is sold to the food industry and as seed to farmers across the state.
Battling it out
Short duration cropping, ease of cultivation, improvements to soil fertility and high profitability of soybean saw groundnut’s share among oilseeds fall in the 1980s. As a result, in Maharashtra, land under groundnut cultivation as a percentage of total land for oilseeds fell from 22.6% in 1991 to 7.5% in 2011 while that of soybean increased from 7.2% to 75.2% in the same period.
Cut to 2016, groundnut production in the Kolhapur region registered a modest 18% increase over the previous year. The trend continued in 2017.
“Early and medium duration groundnut varieties with farmer-desired traits and rising demand from confectionary industry is pushing groundnut’s return in Maharashtra,” says ICRISAT’s Principal Scientist, Dr P Janila.
ICGV 03043 was released in 2017 in partnership with Junagadh Agricultural University, Gujarat and ICAR’s Directorate of Groundnut Research. In July, it was distributed among over 200 farmers in Maharashtra for sowing on small land patches as part of a demonstration project supported by OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID). Scientists from ICRISAT and its partner Mahatma Phule Krishi Vidyapeeth (MPKV), an agriculture university in western Maharashtra, assessed crop performance at the time of harvest.
More power to women
Ms Savita Janugade of Janugadewadi village in Satara district told visiting scientists that tees taintalis is easy to harvest, unlike other varieties in use. For women who end up working in drudgery-intensive activities, an easy-to-harvest crop is important to reduce workload.
“Harvesting is seen as a woman’s job. Women keep the earnings from the portion of harvest sold as seed. With this variant being easier to pull out and peel, a woman can get her share of money without working too hard for it,” says Ms Janugade, who chairs a self-help group for women. The SHG supports the village’s economy by lending money at low rates.
Janugadewadi, where each of the nearly thousand inhabitants share the last name – that of the village, is poised to play a crucial role in the dissemination of tees taintalis seed across Maharashtra.
“A fall in soybean price and introduction of new varieties have renewed farmer interest in groundnut. In this changing scenario, informal farmer-to-farmer networks are important for seed distribution,” says Dr Milind
P Deshmukh, Associate Professor, Soybean and Groundnut Plant Breeding, MPKV.
With government support, increasing demand, changing climate and farmers’ need for new varieties that can withstand unseasonal rain, groundnut is finding more takers in western Maharashtra. Benevolence of the life-sustaining Sahyadris may just be that ‘one more thing’ the humble goober needs to peg a comeback.
ICRISAT-Patancheru has been saving over 100,000 liters of potable water every day since 2015. That is enough water for an adult to drink in 173,082 years or practically speaking, can quench the thirst of the 2,000-strong campus for 86 years.
Water savings resulted from an unassuming device installed at the entrance of Patancheru campus in 2015. The device, a specialized pressure-reduction valve of Israeli design, proved a solution for a decades-old problem. Data with Farm and Engineering Services (FES) shows the 500,000-rupee (approx. US$7,050 at today’s rate) device has translated into 15.16 million rupees (approx. US$214,000 at today’s rate) in cost-savings just on supplied water.
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At Patancheru, water used for all purposes other than farm irrigation is a mix of ground and supplied water. Before it arrives for use the water is treated and pumped to the 150-foot tank at the entrance, arguably the campus’s defining structure. When released, it exits the base of the tank with a pressure of 4 bar, enough to push to ground a standing adult says Mr Chinnarigari Buchappa, Senior Manager, Farm Services.
“With a pressure of 2 bar, water can easily be used for all non-irrigation purposes on the campus. Without intervention, the height of the tank makes for twice that pressure which is damaging to the pipeline network,” he said.
The tank’s lofty design ensures availability of water at appreciable pressures to the farthest corners of the campus, should the need arise in the future. However, without intervention in the present time, it causes pipelines to crack.
“The pipeline breakdowns were frequent, engaging significant manpower and material. Such instances are now rare,” said Mr J Ramulu, the water plant operator.
It took numerous consultations, evaluation of several options and three years for Mr Buchappa and his team, including Senior Engineer Mr Chilvery Srinivas, to arrive at the solution in August 2015. A year before, ICRISAT had used 162 million liters of water.
“The campus was using more water about a decade ago when fewer structures existed, compared to the present day. The reduction in pressure has helped save water and money,” Mr Buchappa said.
The usage dipped to 141.82 million liters by the end of 2015. It was 109.24 million liters in 2016 and 108.41 million in 2017.
The pressure reduction valve sitting at the entrance is solar-powered and remotely controlled. At present, it halves the pressure of water exiting the tank and has helped save 126.35 million liters in the last three years.
A 21-day treatment process to improve the nutritive value as well as taste of crop residues as feedstock has been demonstrated in Karnataka, India.
Agricultural crop residues are the biomass left in fields after harvest. Crop residues are traditionally utilized as animal feed in many arid and semi-arid regions. Basically, they are low-density fibrous materials that are low in nitrogen, soluble carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins, and with varying amounts of lignin which acts as a physical barrier impeding microbial breakdown. Increasing livestock population and changing animal husbandry practices require a corresponding increase in the types of fodder needed. Along with a shortage of green and dry fodder, especially in the drylands, many smallholder farmers are also unaware of scientific methods of fodder production. For example, to meet nutritional requirements of livestock feed, the residues need processing and enrichment with urea and molasses.
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In this context, ICRISAT organized a demonstration on crop residue enrichment for livestock feeding at Lingadalli village, Ballari District, Karnataka, in November 2018. Dr Prakashkumar Rathod, Visiting Scientist, ICRISAT, briefed farmers about enriching crop residues using urea, especially during fodder scarcity. The process, involves addition of 4-6% urea to the crop residues and storage at 30-40% moisture level stored for 21 days under anaerobic conditions. This enrichment could be performed on crops with thick stems, e.g. straw of sorghum, maize, pearl millet, napier grass, sugarcane etc. This method improves palatability and fiber digestibility, as well as supplies valuable protein in the form of nitrogen.
Dr Mukund Patil, Visiting Scientist, ICRISAT, talked to the farmers about the objectives of the ongoing Phase-II of the project. The goal of the second phase is to stabilize the model developed during Phase-I and scale it up to surrounding villages, with a special focus on enhancing agricultural productivity and profitability in the communities.
Efficient water use, higher crop yields and improved farmer incomes
Impacts of huge investments in irrigation schemes in Africa are often not realized. However, a series of ingenious irrigation schemes in Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe have shown multiple impacts including lesser water use, reduced conflict, higher crop yields and improved on- and off-farm household incomes. This was the outcome of over five years of work with two innovative tools for soil moisture and solute monitoring (Chameleon and FullStop Wetting Front Detector respectively). These were used along with a social process through Agricultural Innovation Platforms (AIPs).
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Research on this component of the project showed the following impacts:
“Many farmers remain trapped in poverty due to low crop productivity, weak institutional arrangements and water governance, weak market integration and, in some cases, even abandonment of irrigated lands,” said Dr Anthony Whitbread, Research Program Director, Innovation Systems for the Drylands. “This is why these impacts we have are significant.”
Why the tools were introduced
The twin questions of “when and how much to irrigate” are critical to the success of irrigated agriculture. “The Chameleon and FullStop Wetting Front Detector (WFD) are two of a suite of tools introduced to build literacy around soil water and solute monitoring among researchers, extension workers and farmers,” says ICRISAT scientist Dr Martin Moyo.
What the FullStop WFD does
It is a funnel-shaped device buried in the soil with an indicator above the soil surface. It is used for –
What the Chameleon soil water sensor does
It was developed as a complimentary tool to the WFD to measure soil moisture. It consists of three or four sensors that are permanently installed at different depths in the soil. A portable handheld reader is connected to each group of sensors and displays the soil moisture as colored lights.
Learning from the water monitoring tools
The tools helped farmers to learn the following –
How AIP leveraged the learnings
The AIP served as a catalyst, bringing farmers and related stakeholders in irrigation together into an informal network to develop their capacity to solve problems and/or innovate. Farmers could meet with input suppliers, crop buyers, extension officers and government officials. Together they were able to have an in-depth look at the constraints and opportunities and developed a set of actions to work towards a collective vision for individual schemes.
The AIP-initiated activities have been diverse. Farmers have visited other irrigation schemes, which have inspired them to try out new, high-value crops such as groundnut and take up vegetable farming, especially garlic.
The above diagram shows the process of how learnings from the water monitoring tools lead to positive outcomes.
These findings are from work funded since 2013 by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE). The scientific findings of this study are being featured in a forthcoming special issue of the International Journal of Water Resources Development.
A second phase of this work focuses on how best to scale out these findings through the project “Transforming smallholder irrigation into profitable and self-sustaining systems in Southern Africa”.
Efforts to develop pearl millet with improved resistance to drought and blast disease recently got a major boost. The identification of promising introgression lines after multi-location trials, will help accelerate development of new varieties and increase pearl millet production and productivity.
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Pearl millet is an important source of nutrition for millions of people in the drylands of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. However, pearl millet blast and extreme weather conditions are serious threats to its cultivation. This underlines the importance of identifying sources and breeding for drought and blast resistance.
Supported by the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT) and the CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes and Drylands Cereals (CRP-GLDC), ICRISAT scientists from the Pre-Breeding Theme are addressing these challenges under the project ‘Synthesis of new abiotic and biotic stress tolerant genepool through introgression of alleles from wild species into pearl millet cultivars’.
“We have developed four pre-breeding populations to improve terminal drought tolerance, flowering-stage heat tolerance and blast resistance in cultivated pearl millet. For pre-breeding, we used two wild Pennisetum violaceum accessions as donors, four pearl millet cultivars comprising a forage variety, a germplasm line and two hybrid parents as recipients,” said Dr Shivali Sharma, Theme Leader and Principal Investigator of the GCDT-ICRISAT collaborative project.
Dr Sharma’s team then evaluated these populations for heat tolerance in the summer months of 2017 and 2018 across three locations in western and northern India – SK Nagar and Tharad (Ahmedabad, Gujarat) and Agra (Uttar Pradesh).
These tests were conducted in collaboration with partners from Pioneer Overseas Ltd, Bayer BioScience Pvt Ltd, and Metahelix Life Sciences Ltd. This resulted in the identification of 33 heat-tolerant introgression lines that show more than 70% seed set under air temperature above 40°C.
These populations were also assessed for drought adaptation in the rainy season in 2017 and 2018 at two locations in North India – Bawal and Hisar (Haryana) – in collaboration with Chaudhary Charan Singh Haryana Agricultural University, Hisar. This led to the identification of 25 introgression lines with improved drought tolerance based on the panicle harvest index.
Of these, 10 introgression lines show tolerance to both heat and drought. The preliminary screening of selected introgression lines against five pathotypes of the blast disease, caused by Magnaporthe grisea, has resulted in the discovery of introgression lines with resistance to one or more pathotypes.
These four pre-breeding populations would now be taken forward by the National Agriculture Research System (NARS) partners in Niger through the ICRISAT pearl millet breeding team.
These key results from the ongoing research were discussed during a field day organized at ICRISAT during 3-4 October 2018. The event was attended by representatives from the public and private sector across five countries – India, Kenya, Niger, Iran and Brazil. It provided an opportunity for participants to visit the pre-breeding material facility at ICRISAT and gain a deeper understanding of utilizing promising introgression lines in breeding programs.
An improved, early-maturing sorghum variety is helping farmers in Burkina Faso attain nutritional and financial security.
Simba is a village located about 170 km east of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. On 3 October 2018, Mr Kossima Kaboré was the first producer in the village to harvest the improved sorghum variety named Jakunbe. This former gold miner rejoices on his discovery: “I sowed at the end of June and I have already harvested. My family will have enough to eat this year,” he says.
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Back from the gold mining site without a penny, Kossima and his family faced poverty and hunger until the day he attended a field day in a participatory varietal selection trial organized by the Departmental Union of Cereal Producers (UDPC), a farmers’ cooperative. “One look at the grains of Jakunbe, and I immediately made my choice,” he recalls.
“Participatory varietal selection trials are regularly organized for farmers in the various agro-ecological zones to select the best varieties of sorghum resistant to climate change and drought,” says Mr Denis Yameogo, President of UDPC. Mr Hamidou Kaboré, a young farmer from Simba, shares the same view. He is also on his first try of improved varieties. “I planted 1.5 ha of CSM 63 E (aka Jakunbe) and ICSV 1049 varieties. In the local language Bambara, Jakunbe means ‘the variety that is resistant to drought’. This is the first time I am seeing my field with so much well-filled grain pod.” Mr Hamidou explained that the local varieties he was using earlier were late-maturing ones that took about 110 days to harvest, while the improved varieties, Jakunbe and ICSV 1049, mature in just 75 days.
In the 2018 cropping season, Mr Hamidou, Mr Kossima and all 1,200 members of the UDPC Union planted 600 ha using improved varieties. “All households in Simba and neighboring villages have sown at least two improved varieties,” says Mr Yameogo.
UDPC is made of about 60 groups. The participatory varietal trials are generally carried out in the fields of a producer. “This time around, the test was organized in the village of Simba. Next time, it will be the village of Tempella, and so on. That way, more and more people will be covered,” Mr Yameogo concludes.
Mr Yameogo is well versed with the participatory varietal trials. During field visits, he often helped out as facilitator on behalf of the ‘Association Minim Song Panga’ (AMSP), one of the partners in charge of scaling out the activities of the HOPE II Project in Burkina Faso.
To know more about ICRISAT’s work in Burkina Faso, click here.
Can farm earnings be estimated before doing anything on the ground? A new tool promises to do just that.
Researchers from Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia (https://www.csiro.au/) demonstrated the use of Crop Livestock Enterprise Model (CLEM), a systems modelling tool that can simulate outcome scenarios on a farm. Interventions are often modelled before being considered for testing or for implementation on farms. The Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) and ICRISAT are collaborating in a project that aims to demonstrate the use of modelling in 10 districts across three Indian states. The above demonstration was conducted under the aegis of the project.
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“The outcomes of farm-level interventions in highly complex smallholder farming systems are uncertain. Many variables determine the profitability, scope of manpower reduction and eventually, the adoption of an intervention. It is not feasible to try all available options on the farm before finding the right one. Therefore, the need for whole-farm systems modelling tools,” says Dr Shalander Kumar, Principal Scientist, Innovation Systems for the Drylands (ISD), ICRISAT.
Besides helping scientists and policymakers visualize possible outcomes, systems modelling tools like CLEM and the Integrated Assessment Tool (IAT) which ICRISAT’s modelers currently use, can prove a game changer in convincing farmers to adopt context-specific interventions for increased whole-farm income, says Dr Kumar.
To familiarize ICRISAT and partner scientists with CLEM, a more user-friendly and sophisticated version of the IAT, CSIRO’s Senior Experimental Scientists Dr Di Prestwidge and Ms Alison Liang held a workshop from 19 to 22 October at ICRISAT India. Explaining the model, Dr Prestwidge said CLEM can track farm resources like crop, fodder, livestock, labor, land and even money used in farm-related activities.
Modelers from the Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture (www.crida.in) also participated in the workshop. In continuation of the exercise, the ISD team organized a hands-on training session for ICRISAT colleagues from Niamey, Niger. Held from 21 October to 2 November, the two-week session aimed to build capacity on whole-farm systems modelling tools for sub-Saharan African locations.
This work contributes to UN Sustainable Development Goal.
A new initiative has begun to better support value chains where farmers’ welfare is one key component, through the creation of social entrepreneur clusters. Social entrepreneurs are helping change the food system by taking a triple bottom line approach which involves caring about farmer welfare as well as the environment and ensuring the food is healthy and nutritious. These values are aligned with Smart Food, i.e., food that is good for you, the planet and the farmer. In a bid to identify models that will support social entrepreneurs and ultimately smallholder farmers, ICRISAT organized the first gathering of private and public sector organizations at New Delhi on 1 November 2018.
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The first Smart Food social entrepreneurship clusters will be developed around millets and later expanded to other Smart Foods. The clusters will be instrumental in strengthening the whole value chain by providing more marketing and negotiating power to the social entrepreneurs, more credibility to the products and companies and more support for the farmers. A team will be set up to develop the model and core to this will be satisfying the criteria of being ‘good for you, good for the planet and good for the farmer’. This is expected to also evolve into a full certification program.
Perspectives from the broader economy were presented by Mr Ashish Bahuguna, who has vast experience given his former positions of Chairperson of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India; Agriculture Secretary, Government of India; and ICRISAT Governing Board Member. He shared lessons from India’s agriculture economy and urged entrepreneurs to think about balancing sustainability with the needs of the farmer. Mr Bahuguna has agreed to continue as a key advisor for setting up the model. Given the importance of insights from farmers’ perspective and the broader economy, Farmer Producer Organizations were also represented at the meeting.
Also important will be the formal structures to be put in place to operate the clusters. Lessons learnt on setting up SME clusters were shared by Mr Ashwini Saxena from JSW, who has years of experience with the UN in developing these. He has agreed to continue in an advisory capacity to develop the cluster.
Setting criteria for Smart Food and certification will be another important component. Quality Council of India (QCI) played a key role in providing direction with presentations from Mr Rajesh Maheshwari, Director, and Dr Manish Pande, Joint Director, Project Planning and Implementation Division.
Traceability along the value chain was identified as helpful in certifying Smart Food and to connect to the future block chain movement. Mr Rishabh Sood, Senior Manager, Rabobank, presented an overview on traceability and provided examples of financing opportunities including that for a new initiative for climate smart agriculture set up by Rabobank and USAID. Mr Anil Nadig, Co-founder of Jivabhumi Agritech, showcased “FoodPrint”, an app that uses block chain for traceability.
The group discussion marked issues raised by government organizations, (Odisha Millet Mission, QCI and RICH (Telangana government)), not-for-profit organizations (MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, The Akshaya Patra Foundation, SEWA, S3IDF, JSW Foundation and ICRISAT) and SMEs (SanLak Agro, Crop Connect, Taru Naturals, Mrida Associates, Jivabhumi Agritech, SlurpFarm, Gobhaarati, Rigdam, Vijaya Foods and Millenova foods). Following a discussion of the challenges and opportunities, the cluster model was recognized by the group as an initiative that can help empower farmers, support social entrepreneurs, ensure nutritious and healthy food for the consumer, grow the millet markets and better support the future food system with a triple bottom line.
Comparing ‘climate smart’ agricultural strategies just became easier. A framework that can lead to right farm interventions in these times of changing climate has been designed by a multi-institutional team of researchers.
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A recently published study titled ‘A framework for priority-setting in climate smart agriculture research’, in the journal Agricultural Systems, describes a six-element framework to inform where research investments should be made. This is done by determining the effect of multiple research options on the Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) pillar triad and estimating research impact. The framework resulted from a writing workshop held last year in Galway, Ireland.
According to the authors, agriculture can be termed ‘climate smart’ if it is in sync with realities of climate change. The goal of CSA is to achieve food security by sustainably increasing productivity, adaptation to climate change and mitigating greenhouse emissions – collectively called ‘CSA Pillars’.
“Often, implementing CSA will involve addressing tradeoffs between the three pillars and weighing the costs and benefits of different options based on stakeholders’ objectives,” according to authors of the study led by Dr Phillip K Thornton of the International Livestock Research Institute, Kenya. Dr Thornton leads the flagship program – Priorities and Policies for CSA, which is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) considers that sub-Saharan Africa, South and South-East Asia are most vulnerable to climate change as it threatens production of crops, livestock, forestry and can affect millions of smallholder producers. An increase of up to 75 % in agricultural output may be required to feed the world’s population in 2050, the study’s authors warn.
“Climate-smart initiatives in agriculture are the need of the hour but finding context-specific solutions is critical for successful adoption. This framework can help narrow down choices for optimal resource allocation, playing a key role in efforts to tackle climate change,” says Dr Anthony Whitbread, one of the authors of the study and Research Program Director – Innovation Systems for the Drylands (ISD) at ICRISAT.
“Appropriate solutions can be elusive without a systematic guide for priority setting. The framework helps weigh multiple possible solutions irrespective of research methods used,” says co-author of the study Dr Shalander Kumar, Principal Scientist, ICRISAT.
The CSA framework can be used by responding to six questions (the framework’s elements). These questions seek to determine how the pillar triad is likely to be affected by CSA activity, whether the activity can have other social and environmental impacts beyond the farm, and what needs to be done to facilitate research impact.
The authors add that outlining impact early in a research project’s lifecycle can bridge the gap between knowledge generation and development outcomes.
Phytosanitation – prevention of introduction of plant pests into new areas – is critical to maintaining and sharing of plant genetic material. A CGIAR-wide program to raise awareness on phytosanitation highlighted the challenges and responsibilities of organizations engaged in storage and distribution of germplasm.
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“Over the past 40 years, over 65 pests (fungi, viruses, insects/mites and weeds) have been intercepted at various entry points in India,” said Dr Kavita Gupta, Principal Scientist, Division of Plant Quarantine and Officer-In-Charge, Priority setting, Monitoring and Evaluation, ICAR-NBPGR*. Dr Gupta was speaking on ‘Phytosanitary Policies and Procedures Governing Exchange of PGR’. She emphasized the need to support research, training, capacity-building, networking and information sharing activities, both at national and international levels.
Dr J Alice RP Sujeetha, Director (Plant Biosecurity), NIPHM#, talked about ‘Recent pest threats to India’. “Fast-paced globalization and advancements in transport, travel and tourism, coupled with liberalization of trade has created a new situation wherein possibility of invasive alien species and exotic plant pests moving into a new ecosystem is a matter of great concern,” she stated. The recent entry of the Fall Armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) into India during 2018 is a relevant case in point.
Dr Pooran Gaur, Research Program Director-Asia, said Germplasm Health Units (GHUs) were carrying out critically important work for safe exchange of germplasm, and should be accorded due recognition. (For more information on the excellent work being done by ICRISAT GHUs, click here.)
As part of the International Phytosanitary Awareness Week (22-26 October), the GHU at ICRISAT invited experts in the field to share their knowledge on the subject in a seminar ‘Phytosanitary Awareness Week: GHUs in Invasive Pest and Disease Control’ on 24 October 2018. The seminar was organized by Dr Rajan Sharma, Head, Plant Quarantine Unit, ICRISAT, who underlined the role of ICRISAT PQU/GHU as a vital support for genebanks, breeding programs and international distribution and conservation of pest-free germplasm.
*NBPGR-National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources
#National Institute of Plant Health Management
In Mozambique and Malawi, the agriculture sector offers huge potential to improve the lives of rural households, which make up a signficiant share of the local population and depend mainly on farming for their livelihoods. Estimates suggest that agriculture employs up to 80% of the active workforce in these two countries.
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Compared to maize that has traditionally been grown in the region, soybean is one of the key crops that are currently being promoted in Southern Africa, promising to provide a way out of poverty to smallholder farmers as well as boost their household food and nutrition security. However, many smallholder farmers have missed out on these potential benefits due to a major constraint limiting the crop’s continued expansion: the lack of improved quality seed.
With the recognition that effective integration of gender issues in breeding and scaling out seed systems program will help in improving food security, livelihoods and community well-being, a new study, undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals (CRP-GLDC), aims to understand the role of gender and identify potential barriers for men’s and women’s participation along the soybean seed value chain.
A major focus of various cluster of activities (CoA) under the Priority Setting and Impact Acceleration flagship program of CRP-GLDC is on enhancing gender integration and social inclusion in the drylands. Putting the spotlight on key areas of soybean seed value chain such as access to input supply, production and marketing, the study titled “Assessing Opportunities for Women’s Involvement in Soybean Value Chains of Mozambique and Malawi” will be used to select and design gender interventions specific to the local context.
The study employed a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods, including interviews with men and women which were conducted during focus group discussions. Each focus group was comprised of at least 10 individuals. Some of the questions asked during interviews were aimed at exploring how gender roles and power relations influence availability and accessibility of improved soybean seed varieties among men and women farmers.
480 men and women participated in these sessions in Lilongwe, Mchinji, and Dedza districts of Malawi from August-September. Nearly 1,800 farmers are taking part in a similar exercise in Nampula, Manica, Tete, Zambezia provinces of Mozambique.
The ongoing data collection and subsequent analysis will help identify factors and behavioral patterns that create gender inequalities which can lead to valuable insights for future investments in the development of the soybean seed value chain.
Path-breaking village-level studies with over 40 years of data will be available at ICRISAT for further research with support from the Jim and Wendy Ryan Endowment Fund. Instituted by the former Director General of ICRISAT, Dr Jim Ryan and his wife Wendy Ryan, this new fund will support researchers undertaking agricultural economics studies with data from the Village Level Studies (VLS) and the Village Dynamic Studies in South Asia (VDSA) that have been carried out by ICRISAT.
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The VLS and VDSA data have provided various socio-economic insights on policy and on institutional constraints in agricultural development. Recognized by World Bank as an International Public Good and ‘the goose that lays golden eggs’, these datasets have been extensively cited since they provided valuable insights on development concerns.
Snapshots from the past: Vintage pictures of Dr Jim Ryan and Wendy Ryan. Photo: ICRISAT
Leader of the Economics Program at ICRISAT from 1974 to 1983, Dr Jim Ryan served as the institution’s Director General from 1991 to 1997. Speaking of why they set up the fund, Dr Ryan said, “My wife and I have a deep affection for India and for ICRISAT. Having spent almost 15 years there, we thought we would like to leave a legacy that builds on the work. I was associated with ICRISAT in the early days, setting up Village Level Studies and putting in a lot of work, that built an international reputation. We thought the best way we could encourage people to make use of that database, which is rather unique, was to lend support to magnetizing scholars from around the world to make effective use of that data, for the rural poor of the semi-arid tropics.”
Several new research papers are expected to be published using this data.
For more information click here.
It was a gamble that 30-year-old Fuseini Zaanyeya realizes was worth taking. For, quality healthcare and primary education are well within reach since he returned to agriculture under the third phase of Tropical Legumes Project. TL III aims to boost legume production in drought-prone sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
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Before starting under TL III, Zaanyeya had migrated to the Ghanaian capital city of Accra in search of work, leaving the farming community of Gberimani-Tibogu behind. When those efforts proved to be in vain Zaanyeya returned to his hometown, Tolon. Enthused by a new tractor and renewed hope in agriculture, courtesy of the project, he took up cowpea production. For four years now he has chaired a farmers’ group engaged in cowpea seed business with Heritage Seeds Company. Stories like Zaanyeya’s echo from several households of West and Central Africa.
“With improved yield and higher income, I can now afford to pay school fees and hospital bills for my children,” a beaming Mr Zaanyeya told the TL III team, which visited West and Central Africa in September.
Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, TL III is being executed in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda and the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh to improve production of chickpea, common bean, cowpea and groundnut. It is being jointly implemented by ICRISAT, International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and national partners in target countries. During the first two phases of the project, 163 new seed varieties were released to replace older variants and seed production increased 221%, generating over US$ 1.3 billion in added value.
In Bichi, Nigeria, the TL III team learnt of 20 young farmers producing Samnut-24, an improved groundnut variety while working with the IITA and Bayero University (Kano, Nigeria). For young farmers like Zaanyeya, inter-organizational partnerships built across the value chain under the project are crucial.
Explaining benefits of cooperation reaped by the stakeholders, Mr Alhaji Zakaria Iddrisu, who runs the Heritage Seeds Company, says, “By engaging farmers from the region we are producing large quantities of improved variety cowpea and groundnut seeds, for which the foundation seeds are supplied by CSIR-SARI.”
“This arrangement not only allows us to have quality seeds but also empowers farmers with higher yield and improved income,” adds Ms Noba Francalini, owner of Epam Seeds in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
During this visit, the team also learnt of increased participation by women in strengthening seed systems. Self-help initiatives like Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLA), that resulted from a partnership between TL III and the NGO Social Enterprise Development, have increased access to credit, seeds and land for women. The team noted that increased participation of women boosted efforts to replace a dated Chinese variety of groundnut, ‘Shi Tao Qi’, with newer varieties developed under TL III.
Commenting on the project’s progress, its Principal Investigator, Dr Rajeev Varshney, says, “The project’s role in strengthening capacities of National Agriculture Research Systems is visible in groundnut and cowpea breeding programs in Ghana, Burkina Faso and Nigeria. I am happy to note the progress made on ground with the strong support of our implementing partner IITA and dedicated efforts of our NARS partners – Institute for Agriculture Research at Ahmadu Bello University, Centre for Dryland Agriculture at Bayero University, Federal University of Agriculture, Makurdi, and ADPs.”
Under TL III, at least 50 resilient and productive legume cultivars with farmer-preferred agronomic and market traits are planned for delivery.
For more on ICRISAT’s work in Nigeria.
For more on ICRISAT’s work on groundnut.
A special ‘Synthesis’ issue that collates research outputs from participating CGIAR centers was one of the key action points discussed at a workshop on Land and Water Solutions (LWS) – Flagship 2 of the CGIAR Research Program Water, Land and Ecosystems. Scientists presented their work and brainstormed on topics related to gender equity, sustainable irrigation and watersheds. As a follow-up, a ‘Science Synthesis Workshop’ was planned.
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Progress report of the LWS flagship
In the introductory session, the flagship leaders Dr Anthony Whitbread, Research Program Director, Innovation Systems for the Drylands, ICRISAT, and Dr Jennie Barron, Professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden, presented the key achievements for 2017-18 and the next steps (See Box 1).
The brainstorming sessions centered on sustainable intensification given the CGIAR focus on sustainable landscapes and included issues such as soil fertility, rainwater management, smallholder climate resilience and water productivity. Developing a synthesis paper for gender; guidance/tools for out-scaling and upscaling technologies, and benchmarking of medium- and large-scale irrigation were discussed.
One of the key issues discussed was on influencing the donor community in West and Central Africa, where scaling landscape solutions has limited government support. Solutions suggested included developing an investment case for watershed restoration and developing indicators for impact assessment of watersheds given the complex interventions. Citing the example of the Ethiopian watershed, ICRISAT scientist Dr Tilahun Amede said that it was important to “create a social movement” to garner the support of policy makers.
On the issue of meeting the growing demand for solar irrigation, International Water Management Institute scientist Dr Alok Sikka stressed on the power of incentives and promoting solar irrigation service providers. In his presentation “Smart use of solar powered irrigation” he highlighted an innovative concept in India that linked farmers’ solar irrigation pumps to the electricity grid with the choice to sell surplus power.
Presentations by participants
Brisk question and answer sessions after each presentation got participants reaching for their thinking hats. The presentations were on the use of solar-powered irrigation; new innovations to test soil moisture; modeling tools to improve land and water productivity; watershed work and impacts; small-scale irrigation technologies; and gender issues. Dr Sreenath Dixit, Principal Scientist and Theme Leader, ICRISAT Development Center, spoke of ICRISAT’s work in the Bundelkhand region that contributes to the Indian Government’s Goal of doubling farmers’ income by 2022.
Scientists who made presentations included Dr Dawit Mekonne (International Food Policy Research Institute); Ms Bezaiet Dessalegn (International Center for Agriculture Research in the Dry Areas); Dr Petra Schmitter and Dr Alok Sikka (International Water Management Institute); and from ICRISAT Dr Martin Moyo (Zimbabwe), Dr R Padmaja (India) Dr Tilahun Amede (Ethiopia), Dr Birhanu Zemadim (Mali) and Dr KH Anantha (India).
The LWS Science Workshop was held from 7-9 October at ICRISAT, India.
One of the first things that occurs to me when I think about Digital Agriculture is the ICT4D conference. ICRISAT has been closely associated with this event since 2017 as a co-organizer, leading the agriculture track along with Catholic Relief Services (CRS). ICRISAT hosted the ninth edition of ICT4D at Hyderabad and continued to be one of the organizing partners for the tenth edition in May 2018 at Lusaka, Zambia. I was joined at the tenth edition of ICT4D by Mr Ram Dhulipala, Theme Leader – Digital Agriculture & Youth, also a co-leader of the agriculture track.
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What the 2018 GAP Report® recommends
Is the world prepared to feed nearly 10 billion people by 2050? What role do consumers, producers, policy makers and other stakeholders play in ensuring that adequate and nutritious food does not cost us the earth, literally? A comprehensive report on the state of global agricultural productivity – the GAP Report® – outlines the answers to these critical questions.
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“For the fifth consecutive year, global agricultural productivity is not growing fast enough to sustainably meet the needs of a growing population,” according to the 2018 Global Agricultural Productivity Index™ (GAP Index™), an indicator of agricultural productivity growth introduced by the Global Harvest Initiative in 2010. The annual Global Agricultural Productivity Report (GAP Report®) analyzes progress made every year towards sustainably increasing worldwide agricultural output.
The recently published 2018 GAP Report® explores consumer trends influencing the global food system and highlights challenges towards sustainably feeding a world population of nearly 10 billion people in 2050. It emphasizes that multiple institutions, communities and governments need to work together as one to ensure that the burgeoning population is kept nourished without damaging the earth’s natural resources irreparably.
Dr Kiran Sharma, Deputy Director General – Research, ICRISAT, was one of the panelists at the launch of the GAP Report® on 17 October as part of the World Food Prize events. He gave his insights, as an agricultural innovation leader, on the sustainable production of affordable and nutritious food and agricultural products.
Since 2010, global Total Factor Productivity1 (TFP) growth (a measure of agricultural productivity) has been increasing only by 1.51%, against 1.75% – the required average annual rate to double agricultural productivity by 2050. The report predicts that if this trend continues, farmers in low-income countries (where TFP growth is even lower at 0.96%) will use more inputs and resources to get higher outputs, disrupting natural resource bases.
Some key trends emerging out of an evolving global population include:
These strategies resonate well with ICRISAT’s goal of making agriculture productive and profitable to smallholder farmers, tackling malnutrition and preventing environmental degradation globally, and especially in the drylands.
The 2018 GAP Report®, therefore, provides an actionable roadmap not just for agricultural research-and-development organizations such as ICRISAT, but also for the private sector, governments and civil society to reach the ambitious, yet realistic goal of providing wholesome nutrition and health to all world citizens by 2050.
About the author:
Strategic Marketing & Communication,
1Total Factor Productivity (TFP) is the measure of agricultural productivity (including crops and livestock) while keeping inputs (land, labor, feed, etc.) constant. It is a ratio measuring changes with regard to how efficiently agricultural inputs are transformed into outputs.
Agriculture in India contributes to about 17% of GDP but employs nearly 55% of the population. There are about 140 m Small Holder Farmers (SHF) in India practicing subsistence farming with limited participation in markets beyond the local level. About 80% of these farmers are smallholders with landholding of less than 2 ha and nearly 62% of agriculture land has no irrigation system in place (Canal, borewell etc). It is increasingly clear that Indian Agriculture isn’t structurally well positioned to double farmer income by 2022 as envisioned by PM Modi. Digital technologies today have the potential to deliver two big themes within the agriculture sector that could potentially enable small holder farmers reach their economic potential – disintermediation and uberization.
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Productivity and price are the two pillars on which small holder profitability hinges. SHFs need to increase their yields to grow more with less. Gains in productivity can be achieved through a combination of applying good quality inputs, mechanization and knowledge. Farmers can capture better prices by selling into more lucrative and transparent markets that see participation from diversified buyer groups and also through market oriented agriculture. Coincidentally, the traditional structures and systems that deliver inputs and knowledge to the farmers in the last mile are characterized by high levels of intermediation. The agriculture input and output supply chains are intermediated due to the heterogeneous, fragmented nature of demand which is a consequence of small farm sizes and smaller lot sizes. The agriculture markets that the small holders sell into are not only highly intermediated but are also subject to rampant abuse of free market principles in spot markets (Mandis) through cartelization. Digital commerce/e-commerce platforms supported by strong fulfilment processes can potentially disintermediate the agriculture input as well as output markets. This space has attracted the attention of a number of agritech startups like KhethiNext,Kalgudi, Agrostar etc. These platforms not only enable small holders buy quality inputs at lower prices directly from input manufacturers but more importantly, create a transaction history of the smallholder farmer’s economic activity which has traditionally been part of the invisible rural informal economy. A consequence of the digital capture is the ability of financial institutions (FIs) to offer institutional credit to small holder farmers. The transactional data in combination with new age analytics based techniques can enable FIs compute risk scores for small holder farmers which in turn can help FIs price various financial products for the small holder farmers. In the current system, FIs are forced to work with joint liability groups (JLGs) due to the absence of such granular farmer level data.
Agriculture knowhow/knowledge which is another critical lever to productivity enhancement has traditionally been perceived as a “public good” and is generally created in agriculture universities/research institutions. This knowledge is transferred to the SHFs through the Extension model which is part of the traditional Agriculture Knowledge Information System (AKIS) which has an overarching goal of transfer of knowledge to small holders. As per an FAO report from the year 2000, An AKIS for rural development and sustainable agriculture links people and institutions to promote mutual learning and generate, share, and utilize agriculture-related technology, knowledge, and information. As part of this model, Govts recruit agriculture graduates as agriculture extension officers (AEOs) who work in villages and undertake technology/knowledge transfer through trainings, demo plots etc. They act as a bridge between the universities and the farmers. This model however is highly expensive and has quite not yielded the intended results. Digital platforms that can build the skills and knowledge of the farmers can be an effective supplement if not an alternative to the costly extension model. Digital MOOCs platforms that can offer training and impart skills on demand are a great revelation. Digital trainings can be disemminated through pluralistic channels. While the most common template of MOOCs in agriculture has been to use experts to create crop specific learning courses, an innovation here is to design courses with progressive farmers and thereby facilitate peer to peer collaboration.
Apart from knowledge, Extension is also meant to offer advisories/support decisions of farmers on various aspects from pre-season planning (choice of crop, soil preparation etc) to in-season tactical management of crops (irrigation, pesticide etc). However, given the overstretched extension system and the absence of human capacity to deal with such complexity, public extension systems haven’t successfully delivered on these objectives. It is worth noting here that rich farmers pay for private extension services which underscores the importance of these services. Digital platforms that can collate, curate and contextualize advisories for farmers can be an effective means to plug this gap. Developing systems that offer contextualized advisories based on the famer location, weather, soil etc would need significant investment into knowledge engineering processes which could translate agriculture knowledge (which is descriptive and static) into rule based representations or algorithms. This way, descriptive knowledge can be encoded into a computer program and can be used to offer contextualized advisories to farmers at scale.
Another important lever for productivity improvement is farm mechanization. SHFs are unfortunately capital constrained and unable to invest in mechanization. This is where the sharing economy offers innovations. Uberization of tractors, harvestors and other farm equipment is emerging in a few pockets. As these models mature and stabilize, agriculture mechanization will acquire the flavors of a service and reduce the capital needs.
About the author:
Busy. That’s the first word that comes to your mind as you wind your way through Eastleigh. It is the neighbourhood of one of Africa’s oldest slums, Majengo, Easteleigh is also home to one of the biggest business centers, in Nairobi, Kenya, involving business of over 600 million dollars every month. “You can find everything in Eastleigh,” laughs Clive Wanguthi, as I wonder how to describe him – local guide, community worker, leader, activist or preacher – perhaps, all of these. Weaving his way expertly through the milling crowd, Clive cautions, “Stay ahead of me, I want to ensure that you are safe.” Indeed, after getting nearly hit by two vehicles, I take his advice and stay more cautious, which is somewhat difficult, given the riot of activity around. “I’ve got your back,” the former self-proclaimed outlaw, encourages me, as we walk through multiple distractions. “You can’t be too careful here.” A street-side store with the cheeky name of ‘Donald Trump’ blares its wares, while gold jewelry in little trays gleam at you for a song in dim lanes. Lines of steaming chapatti-beans food stalls and glowering gun-toting cops assail your senses, as Clive calls out an ‘As-salaam-alaikum’ every few seconds to an acquaintance. Everyone is busy.
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Adjoining Eastleigh, the Majengo slum, is also the largest second-hand retail market in the continent. Clothes, shoes, linen, even undergarments arrive here, are sorted and segregated category-wise, before hitting the many small lanes, packed so closely with products, buyers and sellers. People move almost involuntarily amidst the surging crowd, pushcarts and headloads of goods. However, Majengo, is not just about shopping. It has also been an area vulnerable to illegal activities. One can come here to buy arms and ammunition while sex workers have been pushing their trade here for decades. In spite of how busy it is, Majengo is however extremely food insecure and also vulnerable to violence, extremism and gang activities. As we glide through, a young man stops Clive for earnest conversation. He tells us he’s looking for a job. Though bustling with business, changing tax laws and crackdown on unregistered vendors have made it more difficult for the livelihood of young people. “I do my best, to create opportunities – like these”, says Clive pointing to a youth-manned bike-wash center. “If there’s no work, youth become easy targets to be exploited or recruited into unlawful ways.”
It is business also, that brings us here, though, of a different sort. Over the past two decades, the number of malls in Eastleigh has grown meteorically from just 3 to 88 malls now. A constant influx of refugees here, has made it difficult to peg the exact population. While official estimates are around 50,000, as many as 200,000 people may be living in this 10 square kilometer area. Spearheaded by Somali business acumen, the area not only channels a huge retail market, it also is a hub for goods that travel across rural Kenya, setting the trend for the rest of the country. As we peer into a food store and eye the tinned infant cereals and imported processed foods, the shopkeeper tells us that these are more popular than traditional foods that people used to consume. These are the products that initially line the numerous godowns here before eventually setting out each day to remote areas. This is where much of the trend and taste for Kenyans takes shape.
This is where, also a connect between urban and rural agricultural value chains is seen as an entry point for development – through agribusiness. Over the past few months, Dr Michael Hauser of ICRISAT has been pacing the slums of Nairobi probing socio-economic pathways to this issue. “Instead of starting with farmers, we experiment with consumer-led value chain development. Micro-enterprises around nutritious, high-value food groups, grounded in social entrepreneurship thinking, can make a difference. We are looking at agribusiness strategies for women and men, different age groups, ethnicities, family backgrounds and socio-economic status. This can create remunerative jobs, and help recognize youth as indispensable members in Kenyan society. The true potential of youth-led agripreneurship in high-density areas, however, is yet to be established.”
ICRISAT’s work in agribusiness incubation has focused on entrepreneurs and rural communities to enhance livelihood opportunities. However, by working with community based organizations that help counter entry of youth into illegal activities, another perspective of agribusiness impact emerges. The slums of Nairobi, have not just been running large business volumes, they have also been setting trends for rural Kenya as daily truckloads of essential commodities and products make their way from here to every nook and cranny of the country. The youth in slums who hail from remote regions, engage in odd jobs here and are key influencers in vulnerable areas that are difficult for development workers to approach.
A group of young people in the local community hall canvas for money for a friend’s funeral – another of the many ways where they have rallied around for one another. With the same energy can the pushcarts and the godowns of Eastleigh, rally around for other regions changing food value chains for the country?
Substituting expensive foods with locally produced agri products may not be easy, unless it is a good enough business proposition.
“I believe it will work,” says Clive. “Look at what has happened here and how the place is a hub of activities. Show these young people the direction, and they can, in fact be the change that transforms lives of rural communities in Kenya.” However, knowing what works best requires research, what ICRISAT does. Possibilities, potential. It will however, be one long walk.
About the author:
Receives American Society of Agronomy fellowship for contributions to Genomics & Molecular breeding
The American Society of Agronomy (ASA) conferred its prestigious 2018 fellowship to Dr Rajeev K Varshney, Research Program Director, Genetic Gains, ICRISAT, in Baltimore, USA. Fellow is the highest recognition bestowed by the ASA for Dr Varshney’s meritorious contributions to genomics and molecular breeding for crop improvement. He is the only Indian scientist and one of three non-US scientists to have received the fellowship this year. Only up to 0.3 per cent of the Society’s active and emeritus members receive this honour each year.
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“All our success was made possible by our collaborations across the globe. With support from donors and partners worldwide, we at the ICRISAT’s Center of Excellence in Genomics & Systems Biology (CEGSB), have made rapid strides in genomics research and sequenced genomes of nine crops. This includes pearl millet, groundnut, chickpea and pigeonpea which are important for the nutrition and livelihoods of smallholder farmers in the drylands of sub-Saharan Africa and India,” said Dr Varshney.
The CEGSB at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) has been leading genomics and molecular activities for over a decade now. Genomic resources, tools and technologies developed by CEGSB in collaboration with several international partners have been successfully utilized in developing superior lines through molecular breeding products not only at ICRISAT but also several other institutes such as ICAR- Indian Institute of Pulses Research, Kanpur (India), ICAR- Directorate of Groundnut Research, ICAR- Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research and Egerton University in Kenya.
As a result of the intensive efforts of several collaborators, superior lines of chickpea for drought tolerance and disease resistance and of groundnut for foliar disease resistance and high oleic acid have been developed. These lines are at advanced stages in field trials for release as superior varieties.
“It is a benediction for the global agricultural and scientific community that the importance of genomics breeding for advancements in agriculture is being expansively recognized. Dr Varshney’s efforts in leading several international genome sequencing consortia to decode the DNA of dryland crops will give way to many more significant breakthroughs to the benefit of the smallholder farmers across the globe,” said Dr Peter Carberry, Director General, ICRISAT.
The ASA is a scientific and professional society of agronomists and scientists of related disciplines. The society was founded in 1907 with the objective to increase and disseminate knowledge concerning soils, crops, and the conditions affecting them. Two daughter societies were subsequently formed, the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) and the Crop Science Society of America (CSSA).
Dr Varshney is also an elected fellow of CSSA for 2015 for his work in the area of crop science and the first Indian to receive the Young Crop Scientist award from CSSA in 2013.
Scientists from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Niger say that 99 percent of the media and research coverage on the fall armyworm focuses on the invasive pest’s deadly threat to maize.
And deservedly so: The fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) is indeed a major problem for maize—more than 40 nations in Africa, where hundreds of millions of people depend on maize, are rushing to find a solution to the pest that can travel long distances and reproduce in large numbers.
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However, management methods solely addressing the fall armyworm’s damage on one crop could leave communities that rely on additional drought-resistant crops, like sorghum, at a disadvantage.
“The fall armyworm is polyphagous, which means it feeds on various foods,” says Muni Muniappan, Ph.D., director of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management. “We saw serious damage on the sorghum fields we visited during our last trip to Niger and damage on millet, as well, the nation’s staple crop. Not only is a diversified diet important for food-insecure nations, but it’s very common for a community of people not to eat a certain food simply because it doesn’t look or taste like their preference, which means we can’t just look to save one crop in this crisis. A one-track, one-crop solution for a multi-track pest could be very dangerous.”
Sorghum ranks as the fifth most important cereal crop in the world, but it is the second most important cereal in Africa. Its value is insurmountable to Sahelian countries that have a dry, hot climate. In Niger, maize can typically only be grown during the short and singular rainy season, or under irrigation, on which Sahelian countries cannot consistently depend. Protein- and fiber-rich, sorghum is a nutritious food and is also a vital source of income given its many uses as fodder, for fermentation, industrial purposes, syrups, biofuel, and more.
Malick Ba, Ph.D., principal scientist at ICRISAT in Niger, says that sorghum is the fall armyworm’s second host preference, and local reports of the pest on the valuable crop in the Sahelian region have been unending.
“Fall armyworm damage on sorghum has been reported in Burkina Faso, Mali, Northern Nigeria, Niger, Chad and elsewhere,” says Ba. “Infestation in the whorl of sorghum can reduce grain yields by 55 percent to 85 percent. Putting all the control efforts on maize would even worsen the situation on sorghum and other host plants. It is largely understood in the scientific community that research on fall armyworm should have a holistic, integrated approach going forward, to include all targeted crops.”
Every year, Africa loses almost half of crop yields due to pests; given the recent urgency to mitigate the fall armyworm problem, pesticides have been the primary management method thus far, but the use of chemicals continues to be expensive and over-reliance on them can lead to resistance developing in fall armyworm populations. Muniappan said such downsides further solidify the case for an integrated approach to managing the fall armyworm. In addition to botanicals, biopesticides, and other forms of control, the IPM Innovation Lab will soon implement biological control in several African nations to weaken the spread of the pest.
The team has already found two local egg parasitoids and four local larval parasitoids with collaboration from ICRISAT and the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), optimistic that a multitude of approaches for a multitude of threatened crops will be a more effective way for smallholder farmers to address the fall armyworm issue and begin to regain control of their farms.
“Given the circumstances of farmers,” Ba says, “who live on very little land, are often less educated, and have limited resources, emphasis for pest control should be put on methods that are accessible, which includes the use of local natural enemies, like parasitoids and predators.”
Not only will the IPM Innovation Lab’s implementation of biological control benefit all fall armyworm-vulnerable crops, but the method itself is also easily transferable from region to region. The team and collaborators at the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sorghum and Millet have already sent technicians from Niger to Egypt and technicians from Kenya to Niger to learn the technique of mass-multiplying and releasing parasitoids. In Niger and Kenya, colonies of the natural enemies are now being developed.
Niger has on record some of the highest malnutrition and mortality rates in the world—last year, more than 1.5 million people in the nation were affected by food insecurity. Still, possible, practical solutions exist that could spread from region to region, crop to crop. During the IPM Innovation Lab’s recent trip to Niger, farmers worked above the orange, dusty desert floor in the immense heat of the day; when asked where exactly they had seen the fall armyworm on the farms this year, one of them waved their hand in one slow swoop across the land to suggest, simply, everywhere.
KULIMA – Promoting Farming in Malawi: Improving the access to and use of agriculture research innovations by Malawian farmers
Funder: BMZ-GIZ thru International Potato Center (CIP)
Grant period: 15 May 2018 – 31 July 2019
Principal Investigator: Dr Patrick Okori
Research Program: Eastern and Southern Africa
Agriculture Resilience: Linking Insurance and Technology with Climate Adapted Farming Systems (RIICE III India Chapter)
Funder: Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC)
Grant period: 10 October 2018 – 30 June 2021
Principal Investigator: Dr Sreenath Dixit
Research Program: Asia
(RIICE: Remote sensing-based Information and Insurance for Crops in Emerging economies)
Accelerated varietal improvement and seed delivery of legumes and cereals in Africa (AVISA)
Funder: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Grant period: 16 October 2018 – 30 September 2022
Principal Investigator: Dr Jan Debaene
Research Program: Office of Deputy Director General – Research
Enhancing resource use efficiency through integrated land and water management practices in the watershed villages of Badiangara and Douentza, Mopti region
Funder: Food For Peace, United States Agency for International Aid (FFP USAID) through CARE
Grant period: 1 November 2018 – 31 October 2019
Principal Investigator: Dr Birhanu Zemadim Birhanu
Research Program: West and Central Africa
Genomics strategies for improvement of yield and seed composition traits under drought stress conditions in soybean
Funder: ICAR – National Agricultural Science Fund (NASF)
Grant period: 1 December 2018 – 30 November 2021
Principal Investigator: Ms Annapurna Chitikineni; Co-Principal Investigator: Dr Rajeev K Varshney
Research Program: Genetic Gains
Zimbabwe Agricultural Growth Programme: Agricultural Knowledge and Innovation Systems (ZAGP-ZAKIS)
Funder: European Commission through Deutsche Welthungerhilfe (WHH)
Grant period: 1 August 2018 – 31 July 2020
Principal Investigator: Dr Kizito Mazvimavi
Research Program: Eastern and Southern Africa
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