ICRISAT@50: Engagement with Development of Agriculture in Drylands

Anyone familiar with the combination of ‘biological material’ (high yielding varieties and hybrids), ‘water’ (assured irrigation), and ‘chemical inputs’ (fertilizers and plant protection chemicals) as the key to success in irrigated agriculture will be gullible to use the same principles for improving farming in the dryland ecosystems. The solutions to improving livelihoods in drylands, however, are far more complex and multifaceted. It is not enough to look for crops and varieties that survive, and then thrive in the little moisture possible with the intermittent rains and go on to produce a decent yield in the poor soils that are constantly degrading. Post-production value addition and accessing markets are equally important for better price realization by the farmers. While ‘wealth creation’ is the goal in irrigated farming, recovering ‘the cost and a little more’ is often an achievement in dryland farming.

The comparison between irrigated and dryland farming from the ‘profitability’ point of view alone is fundamentally wrong.  When the ‘givens’ are different in irrigated and dryland farming, the outcomes would also be different. While it is the contribution of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in case of irrigated agriculture the value of dryland agriculture is in GDP-plus. The ‘plus’ here is the unprecedented value that the people living in the dryland ecosystems bring to the nations – handling vast land resources while employing themselves in agriculture

Here are some of the serious concerns of the dryland systems

Drylands cover about 41% of Earth’s land surface and are inhabited by more than 2 billion people (about one-third of world population). Dryland populations on average lag far behind the rest of the world on human well-being and development indicators. The current socioeconomic condition of dryland peoples, about 90% of whom are in developing countries, lags significantly behind that of people in other areas. Existing water shortages in drylands are projected to increase over time due to population increase, land cover change, and global climate change. Transformation of rangelands and other silvi-pastoral systems to cultivated croplands is leading to significant, persistent decrease in overall dryland plant productivity. Among dryland subtypes, ecosystems and populations of semiarid areas are the most vulnerable to loss of ecosystem services. It is thought that some 10–20% of the world’s drylands suffer from one or more forms of land degradation. Desertification, which by definition occurs only in drylands, causes adverse impacts on non-dryland ecosystems. (https://www.millenniumassessment.org/documents/document.291.aspx.pdf).

Considering the enormity of geography, population and the challenges in dryland agriculture it was found that there is a strong need for a competent, specialist and dedicated institution to bring about positive changes. International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) was hence established by a consortium formed by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundation with the support of the Indian Government, as a global research institute in 1972). ICRISAT is the only International Agricultural Research Center with headquarters in India. ICRISAT, a premier non-profit and non-political research institute for dryland farming, works across the whole value chain and has specialized knowledge on the drylands, skills on crops of immense value to the nutrition and economics of the semi-arid tropics – dryland cereals (sorghum and millets) and grain legumes (chickpea, pigeonpea and peanut).

ICRISAT works with the following holistic mission goals:

  • Overcoming poverty and hunger through stable and productive crops and systems,
  • Reducing malnutrition by equipping smallholder farmers to grow more nutritious, resilient, and diverse foods,
  • Preventing environmental degradation through sustainable natural resource management,
  • Providing policy support to improve food availability and affordability.
File photo

File photo

ICRISAT takes a systems perspective to ensure holistic views to make sure key issues along the impact pathway are addressed, has a market-oriented focus, is committed to evidence-based solutions, adopts a multi-disciplinary approach to opportunities, and to finding and implementing solutions to challenges focussing on sustainability, from environmental to sustainable business models.

A glimpse of the ICRISAT’s contribution over five decades demonstrates the institute’s system-wide capabilities and impacts.

  • ICRISAT genebank is one of the largest repositories, which has curated 128,979 accessions from 144 countries covering the six mandate crops and five small millets, for present and future utilization in improvement of crops. ICRISAT genebank is a treasure trove of genes with several new sources for agronomic, adaptive, and nutritional traits and tolerance/resistance to abiotic and biotic stresses. The genebank has so far distributed more than 1.5 million seed samples to researchers in 149 countries.
  • ICRISAT published the genome sequence of pigeonpea in 2012, followed by groundnut (2016) and pearl millet (2017) pioneering research into these respective crops which garnered international attention from both bi-lateral and multi-lateral organizations.
  • As many as 1,181 varieties and hybrids have been released in 81 countries utilizing germplasm and breeding lines from ICRISAT genebank.
  • The Tropical Legumes project led by ICRISAT equipped 25 million smallholder farmers to produce 6.1 million tons of grain legumes worth US$ 3.2 billion. This was made possible through release of 239 new, improved varieties for cultivation, production and use of 380,000 tons of certified seeds, covering 4.02 million hectares in Africa, India, and Bangladesh. The impact of the project delivered the Africa Food Prize 2021, which is one among the many impactful projects implemented by ICRISAT. The world’s first pigeonpea hybrid is released by ICRISAT and ICAR way back in 1991. ICRISAT’s early advocacy for climate resilient crops and climate awareness delivered the Noble Peace Prize to ICRISAT’s West Africa Country Director, Dr Ramadjita Tabo in 2007 as a member of The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
  • ICRISAT has come out with biofortification innovations developing high-oleic acid groundnut, iron and zinc fortified pearl millet and sorghum varieties. India accounts for 67% and 80% of the global area of chickpea and pigeonpea, respectively. Varieties and hybrids developed from ICRISAT-bred materials account for 53% of the total indent of breeder seed for these crops in India. ICRISAT-related varieties cover over 90% of the chickpea area in Myanmar, where chickpea production increased 5-fold in the past 15 years; 60-70% of pearl millet hybrids in India are directly or indirectly based on ICRISAT-bred hybrid parents. Pearl millet productivity in India has increased @ 3% per annum in recent years.
  • Watersheds have silently revolutionized rainfed areas in India; the efforts of public, private and civil society organizations together have benefited 72 million hectares enabling double cropping while 30 to 60% farm losses are reduced due to improved access to water. ICRISAT’s project outcomes in India, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe indicate 28 to 313% increase in crop yields while 40 to 85% of farmers have reduced irrigation frequency.
  • ICRISAT’s Agribusiness and Innovation Platform influences the development and shaping of other agricultural incubators, catalyzes agricultural investment and augments ICRISAT’s scientific achievements with its holistic business enabling approach.
  • ICRISAT’s Digital Agriculture program positions ICRISAT at the forefront of digital agricultural technology that integrates smallholders into digitally supported agri-food systems in India and the global drylands.
With 50 years of experience and insights, state-ofthe-art facilities and committed staff, ICRISAT marches on as the unparalleled global leader in drylands working towards improving lives and livelihoods with its innovations and science-backed solutions.

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