ICRISAT Governing Board recently concluded its 98th board meeting, the third virtual board meeting since the Covid-19 pandemic began. The Board deliberated on the pandemic to find ways to shield smallholder farmers from its fallout, prevent worsening of the food security situation in vulnerable regions and to continue the Institute’s mission while keeping its staff safe. The Board also welcomed new members, discussed changes to the Institute’s research structure and contemplated ways to leverage the 2023 International Year of Millets UNGA resolution to improve diets, food and income security in drylands.
Prof Prabhu Pingali, Chair, ICRISAT Governing Board, said the pandemic has given the Institute important lessons in food security threats and will shape the way we move ahead. Some implications for agricultural research and other systems working for food security in drylands is the reduced funding support given the increased demand for resources to fight the virus.
Emphasizing the need to adapt to a changed working environment, Prof Pingali encouraged the management to delve into what the changes mean for ways of working in the future. He also called for strengthening collaborations with national agricultural research systems across Asia and Africa, and working towards establishing South-South collaborations.
Dr Trilochan Mohapatra, Director General, ICAR, who is the Board’s Vice Chair, called the pandemic challenging and mentioned it has had national and global impact in institutions across sectors. He also said that estimates suggest India’s agricultural production in 2021 have surpassed last year’s output. He urged ICRISAT management to keep staff motivated during the pandemic and expressed satisfaction in the Institute’s ongoing work in Asia and Africa.
Dr Jacqueline Hughes, Director General, ICRISAT, informed the Board that the pandemic did not deter ICRISAT from achieving a surplus in 2020 following measures for efficiency gains. ICRISAT now has a revised 2021-2025 Strategic Plan and a renewed research strategy, Dr Hughes emphasized stronger partnerships as being a key mechanism to take ICRISAT forward. She also conveyed to the Board that the Institute will have in place a rolling three-year Medium-Term Plan with quantifiable indicators for both research and services groups.
The Board approved the research strategy and the audited financial statements for 2020. It also welcomed Prof Yaye Kene Gassama to her first Board meeting as member. Prof Gassama is a Senegalese national and Professor in plant biotechnology at Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar (UCAD), Senegal. Prof Gassama has held high-ranking positions in the academia, governance and policymaking. She was Senegal’s Minister of Scientific Research in 2005 and chaired African Union’s high-level panel on emerging technologies in 2017. She has chaired and has been on several committees and academies, and has consulted for several international organizations including UNEP, IRDC, CORAF and FAO.
The meeting also confirmed the appointment of two new Governing Board members, Dr Jim Godfrey and Ms Cathy Reade, who commenced their first term on 22 April. The Board bid farewell to Prof Wendy Umberger, who chaired the Program Committee. Dr Yilma Kebede has been appointed the Chair of the Program Committee. The 98th Governing Board meeting was held during 15-21 April.
Important developments and key opportunities
Dr Hughes apprised the Board of important developments over the past year. These include
- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi dedicating to India the Girnar groundnut varieties that were developed through ICRISAT collaboration.
- Launch of Odisha Soil Maps and opening of referral labs in Odisha
- Opening of modern seed processing facilities at ICRISAT, Patancheru
- FoodTec conference highlighting opportunities for South-South collaboration
- Visit of Mali agriculture Minister to ICRISAT-Mali.
- Svalbard black box backup of further accessions of our genetic resources
- ICAR-CGIAR Annual Meeting and strong presentation of ICRISAT’s work by the Deputy Director General for Research
- Corteva collaboration Steering Committee Meeting highlighting joint progress and reinforcing commitment to joint activities and facilitation
- GMR Group visiting ICRISAT, Patancheru, discussion of opportunities to work together and MoU signing to launch the relationship
- Visit of UK Minister Lord Tariq Ahmad, and the British High Commissioner to India, to ICRISAT, Patancheru
- Recruitment of two new senior staff members: Dr Arvind Kumar (Deputy Director General for Research) and Mr Angshu Sengupta (Director – Institutional Finance and Services)
The Board was also informed about outward-facing opportunities around the new Konark Wheel at ICRISAT’s Patancheru campus, of ICRISAT’s 50th anniversary in 2022 and events being planned across locations to mark the occasion. An outline of actions to be taken to use the momentum created by the International Year of Millets 2023 UNGA resolution was presented.
Discussion on future research structure and research highlights
Dr Arvind Kumar, Deputy Director General-Research, suggested that ICRISAT moves forward with a structure that will focus on key issues and opportunities in the drylands: building resilience; accelerating crop improvement; and enabling systems transformation. He also stressed that strong interdisciplinary linkages underlie the future structure. He recommended stepping up efforts to highlight the importance of ICRISAT’s mandate crops for climate, livelihood and nutrition; the Institute’s contribution in genomics, breeding and seed systems; work on natural resources and nutrient management; GIS-remote sensing and digital agriculture; value chain development-startups and capacity development.
There are areas or new avenues where ICRISAT can contribute to make a greater impact include livestock, agroforestry and crops beyond mandate crops, Dr Kumar pointed out.
Dr Kumar, who is also the interim Research Program Director Asia, went on to summarize research outcomes from the region during last year. He told the Board about new varietal releases in groundnut (ICGV 06189 and 06420), forage sorghum (Pant Chari-12, 13 and 15), chickpea (RLBGK 1, RVG 204, JGK 6, NBeG 810, NBeG 452 and Phule Vishwara) and pearl millet (TSFB 15-4 and TSFB 15-8). He summed up developments in multi-location trials and evaluations of all the ICRISAT mandate crops while pointing out that despite the challenges posed by the pandemic all efforts were made to save breeding material.
Modernization of breeding continued at ICRISAT, India, in 2020 with rapid generation advancement pilots for pearl millet, sorghum, groundnut and chickpea; opening of a modern seed processing facility; early generation multi-environment testing of advanced breeding lines of six crops in 72 environments and using simulation for optimizing the sorghum breeding scheme.
As part of Integrated Crop Management activities, six chickpea genotypes with durable sources of resistance to Fusarium wilt were identified. Five pigeonpea lines with combined resistance for wilt and sterility mosaic disease were identified. To combat blast in pearl millet, 36 blast isolates from Karnataka were characterized for virulence diversity of which one isolate was selected for greenhouse screening. Sorghum lines with blast resistance (5), tolerance to charcoal rot and shoot fly (12), white/red grain resistant to mold (31) were identified.
ICRISAT Development Center launched a soil fertility atlas for the Indian state of Odisha, and paired it with an interactive geo-portal that provides information on soil nutrient status and nutrient requirements (based on analysis of 40,000 soil samples from the state’s 30 districts). In Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Karnataka and Maharashtra states, 7,500 demonstrations were undertaken to show farmers the benefits of nutrient management, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and new varieties. Around 1,200 hectares of farmland was rejuvenated through balancing of plant nutrients and use of climate-smart varieties that helped farmers realize yield increases ranging between 10 and 40%. In Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh state, 2.5 million m3 of water storage was created with 40 water harvesting structures.
East and Southern Africa (ESA)
Dr Rebbie Harawa, Research Program Director, ICRISAT-ESA, mentioned the release of three finger millet, three chickpea varieties and clearance obtained for cultivation of three groundnut varieties in Malawi, release of a new sorghum hybrid in Zimbabwe and development of 20 medium and long elite pigeonpea lines tolerant to Fusarium wilt in Kenya.
SourceTrace digital platform was used in Kenya to reach over 20,000 households to disseminate nutrition, health and agriculture messages. In crop protection, Dr Harawa shared with the Board that five accessions were identified following screening of sorghum mini-core collections for Fall armyworm resistance in Malawi.
Dr Harawa also recounted that cultivated lands increased by 44% and vegetation by 16% between 2010 and 2020 due to integrated watershed management in Yewol highlands and Afar region of Ethiopia. In Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, smart water management and agricultural innovation platforms led to crop yield increases ranging between 28 and 313% and income increase of 43-94% in farm households.
West and Central Africa (WCA)
Dr Ramadjita Tabo, Research Program Director, ICRISAT-WCA, informed the Board of progress in operationalizing the Regional Crop Improvement Hub in Bamako, Mali, through procurement of equipment and recruitment of personnel. The outcomes of crop improvement activities include sharing of 451 advanced lines with National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) through preliminary and regional trials, and in response to direct requests.
In sorghum, six hybrids were submitted by Institut d’Economie Rurale (IER) to Malian national release committee for registration in the seed catalogue. Regional trials with 24 hybrids and three checks were done in over 20 locations in WCA.
Dr Tabo pointed out that Africa’s first iron-biofortified pearl millet variety, Chakti, has had a huge impact in Niger. In Burkina Faso, the first commercial stay green, dual purpose, medium maturing pearl millet hybrid showed 35 to 40 % higher yield compared to local and improved OPV Misari-1.
The warrantage system has helped ICRISAT bridge gaps for farmers and continues to show benefits. According to Dr Tabo, 17 innovation platforms collected cereals worth US$260, 954. The collection helped negotiate microfinance to the tune of US$ 123,605.
ICRISAT partnered with the Government of Niger to organize the second annual International Millet Festival, focusing on production, processing and consumption of millets to create wellbeing and better dietary diversity. Through the Smart Food campaign, ICRISAT-WCA made contributions to Mali’s national plan for nutrition, Dr Tabo informed the Board. In other impact and policy achievements in WCA, 30 people with hearing impairment were trained in groundnut seed production, seed quality control, seed business development and processing of groundnut into high value confectionary products.
ICRISAT helps countries make their agriculture climate-smart. In continuation of those efforts, ICRISAT-WCA helped develop climate-smart agriculture (CSA) profiles for Ghana, Mali and Niger. The CSA country profiles synthesize opportunities for addressing climate change challenges and economic growth prospects in the agricultural sector from the perspective of climate-smart agriculture. For the farmers, tailored and downscaled weather and climate information services (WCIS) were disseminated.
Innovation Systems for Drylands (ISD)
Dr Anthony Whitbread, Research Program Director, ISD, updated the Board on efforts to provide smallholder farmers in Africa climate advisories and insurance support, helping fisheries and farmers in South Asia manage climate risks and efforts to scale-up climate-smart agriculture in India. ICRISAT leads the CGIAR Research Program Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS)’s work in West Africa, is actively involved with the CRP’s work in other regions and through bilateral engagements.
Further, Dr Whitbread shared with the Board that as part of CCAFS work in WCA, 11 climate-smart villages were developed as pilot sites in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Niger and Senegal. ICRISAT is developing two such villages in Niger through a Catholic Relief Services-funded project. Five climate-smart communes were established by CCAFS and ICRISAT through the Projet d’Appui à l’Agriculture Sensible aux risques Climatiques or Supporting Agriculture Sensible to Climate Risks (PASEC) project to promote climate-smart agriculture in Niger. CSA is also being mainstreamed into projects through bilateral funding.
Dr Whitbread also briefed the Board about ICRISAT’s efforts in developing a mandal-wise climate exposure index for Telangana state in India. In Zimbabwe, efforts are being made to model two pathways- Green Zimbabwe (a path of slow economic growth but sustainable development) and Gray Zimbabwe (a path of rapid economic growth with limited concern for environment).
Presenting the concept of a comprehensive advisory system to help farmers in decision making, Dr Whitbread mentioned the launches of Meghdoot and Mausam mobile applications in India. Together, both the apps have grossed 320,000 downloads. Meghdoot was downloaded in all districts of India.
Dr Rajeev Varshney, Research Program Director, Genetic Gains, conveyed to the Board that genome sequencing work that ICRISAT does has helped establish the Institute as a center of excellence in the drylands.
Describing efforts to take benefits of upstream science to farmers, Dr Varshney mentioned the development and release of drought-tolerant and wilt resistant chickpea varieties in India and Ethiopia. One such variety released last year, Pusa Manav, has 28% yield advantage and resistance to Fusarium wilt. Dr Varshney also detailed efforts in haplotype-based breeding and genomics prediction. ICRISAT has been building up on chickpea genetics work and has in recent years re-sequenced 429 chickpea accessions.
Efforts are underway with Corteva Agriscience to improve shelf life of pearl millet flour through gene editing, Dr Varshney further informed. Given the potential growth of millet and flour markets, finding ways to increase shelf-life and to control rancidity is essential. A dysfunctional pearl millet lipase gene responsible for reduced rancidity has been identified for editing.
CRP Grain legumes and dryland Cereals
Dr Kiran Sharma, Director, CRP-GLDC, highlighted the impacts of CRP’s common bean work that includes release of over 60 varieties and related efforts to reduce poverty for 2.2 million families in Ethiopia. In India, two high-oleic groundnut varieties that were approved for commercial use in 2019 were dedicated to India by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on World Food Day in 2020. In Zimbabwe, households growing beans have managed to increase yield and are now equipped to profit from it.
Dr Sharma informed that the CRP is facilitating ICRISAT and ICARDA to study gender integration in breeding. The Village Level Studies in South Asia (VDSA), which ICRISAT began doing in 1970s, is also being used to understand women’s access to assets in designing programs, interventions and policies.
In the markets and partnerships space, a framework for exploring market opportunities in transforming agri-food systems was released. The adoption of chickpea in Andhra Pradesh was also analyzed. Three studies on analyzing opportunities for GLDC in– growing markets for functional foods and plant-based meats, influencing consumer patterns, and flour blending policy in Kenya—are underway.
To build capacity, the Pre-breeding and Trait Discovery Flagship Program of the CRP (FP5) reached nearly 3,500 people with online trainings and webinars. Common Bean for Markets and Nutrition (FP6) enhanced skills of 1,260 people in bean-based flour production, development of beans seed road maps, crop breeding and communications.
Ensuring continuity during Covid-19
Across the regions it serves, ICRISAT continues to operate while ensuring the wellbeing of its staff. This has required increasing reliance on digital tools, regular assessments of the pandemic situation at national, regional and global levels in addition to complying with Covid-19-appropriate guidelines at workplace.
Dr Tabo presented the approaches to overcome challenges posed by Covid-19 in WCA. He showed that digital communication platforms can be used to disseminate knowledge, train farmers and to conduct business. To ensure that the pandemic’s food security threat can be tackled, ICRISAT worked on strengthening partnerships with national partners and governments. In Nigeria, for instance, a joint effort saw ICRISAT organize distribution of seeds of improved sorghum varieties to farmers through the state and local governments.
Dr Harawa informed the Board that a regional Crisis Management Team in ESA continuously reviews the pandemic situation and develops action plants. Most staff have been asked to work from home and use virtual platforms. For research continuity, field operations are being overseen by staff residing near research sites. The Genebank in ESA is also operating in a similar manner and germplasm is being well maintained.
In India, ICRISAT employees began returning to workplace in September last year. However, owing to rise in number of cases in India in March 2021, currently ICRISAT has about 40% of staff on campus in Patancheru predominantly in field-related activities, but most staff are encouraged to work from home.
Farewell to Prof Wendy Umberger
ICRISAT Governing Board bid farewell to outgoing member Prof Wendy Umberger. Prof Umberger, Executive Director of the Center of Global Food & Resources at University of Adelaide in Australia, was appointed to the Board in 2015 and served two terms. The Board recounted and commended her contributions to ICRISAT and remembered her as candid and passionate towards work.
“India holds a special place in my heart, and it saddens me to not say goodbye to the wider Team ICRISAT in person. I’m very grateful to all my colleagues in the Board, you are amazing people to work with. I wish to give special thanks to our Indian Government-appointed Board members – you are greatly appreciated and I’m honored to have worked with you. For those that I served a long time with – you well know that I joined the ICRISAT Board when my daughter was barely walking, and now she’s all grown up. It just made me realize how much time I spent with the Institute and how much learning it has brought to all of us. I deeply care about ICRISAT and am thankful for the opportunity to serve.”
The Board welcomed Ms Cathy Reade and Dr Jim Godfrey
Dr Jim Godfrey, a UK national, until very recently was the Chair of IRRI’s Board of Trustees. He is the Director and Chairman of UK’s National Institute of Agricultural Botany, and was the President of the Royal Agricultural Society of England. Dr Godfrey has been appointed to several Boards and has chaired many of them, including those of CGIAR centers. He is the former Chair of CIP and of the Alliance of the 15 CGIAR centers, and founder of the CGIAR Board Orientation Program.
He was the Governor of Roslin Research Institute in the UK between 2006 and 2008. For his services to agricultural research in Scotland, Dr Godfrey was awarded the OBE.
Ms Cathy Reade, an Australian national, is the Director of Outreach at the Crawford Fund. She spent her early career working for a range of advocacy groups and later established the public awareness program for the Fund. She also developed and manages a master class in communications for scientists in developing countries, and directs the Fund’s NextGen suite of activities. The Alliance of CGIAR Centers recognized her contributions with a special award in 2007. Ms Reade was on the Board and Executive Committee of the World Vegetable Center from 2014-2019, and chaired their Nominations Committee.