Newsroom  Press releases  2003

9) Partnerships for rapid crop improvement (18 July 2003)

When dealing with crop improvement it helps if technology can hasten the process. And the improved crops can be introduced to the farmers more effectively if the international research institution partners with private seed companies and national agricultural research institutions.

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) organized two meetings with its partners. The first one was with the Indian private seed industry. The second was with the national agricultural research system (NARS) from India, Bangladesh, China, Pakistan and Vietnam, brought together by a project funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

According to Dr William Dar, Director General of ICRISAT, these meetings highlighted two of the institute's key strengths – global competence at using conventional and advanced breeding technologies for rapid crop improvement, and the ability to build and sustain partnerships.

“No single organization can achieve lasting results without building effective partnerships”, he said. “By joining hands with all the actors in the R&D continuum, ICRISAT is confident of delivering the outputs of its research to have significant and visible impacts on the poor farmers in the semi-arid tropics.”

Partnership with the Indian seed industry

In the year 2000, a number of private seed companies came together with ICRISAT to form hybrid parents research consortia for sorghum and pearl millet. Each seed company pays around Rs.2.5 lakhs to be a member of consortia, and thus partially support the crop improvement programs in sorghum and pearl millet. Currently 13 seed companies support sorghum and 16 companies support pearl millet crop improvement research. In 2003, two seed companies have joined hands with ICRISAT to form a pigeonpea hybrid parents consortium.

Over the past few years, core funding for ICRISAT has been reducing, but ICRISAT has been able to continue the need-based, critical research in crop improvement due to additional support from the private seed companies. The meeting on 15 July was aimed at further strengthening the research partnership with the private sector, in India and other countries.

More than 35 Senior Managers of 32 seed companies in India (and one from Egypt) participated in the discussion. The private seed company representatives value the parental lines provided to them, as they have been able to market several hybrids using the ICRISAT-bred lines. Appreciating the concern over declining core funds to ICRISAT and its consequences, the private companies have once again pledged enhanced funding support to the seed parents consortia.

The private sector breeding companies are open to many different modes of developing public-private sector strategic alliances and technology licensing arrangements. In the area of biotechnology, companies have most immediate interest in DNA fingerprinting for plant variety protection and seed purity testing, particularly in cotton, pearl millet and other hybrid crops. The demand is predominantly in the area of services, and also the development of standard protocols.
The likely market for these services would be several hundred thousand samples per year once the unit costs became favorable. However, there is longer-term interest in research and product development in marker-assisted selection, gene discovery and transformation.

It was felt that the Indian private sector needs considerable assistance in the regulatory process for transgenic crops. ICRISAT should play a much stronger role as a broker of unbiased information, particularly regarding the benefits and real risks of transgenic crops.

A biotechnology-assisted plant-breeding consortium was considered to be of substantial benefit to smaller companies who cannot manage to raise sufficient investment to establish their own autonomous research unit.

Establishing a biotech research program is prohibitively high for most companies due to the cost of equipment, operations and staff. However, companies will lose their competitive edge if do not go through transition from conventional to biotechnology-assisted breeding.

Thus it was considered that there are huge opportunities for alliances between breeding companies and ICRISAT. It was felt that companies would be particularly interested in biotechnology solutions for downy mildew resistance in pearl millet and grain mold in sorghum, which have been recalcitrant to progress through conventional means. In the longer term, with India's predominant focus on rainfed crops, it was felt that there would be interest in investing in solutions for abiotic stresses, particularly drought tolerance. It was also felt that biotechnology for quality traits would also become an important investment area.

ICRISAT in India is positioning itself as the World Dry Tropics Center for Biotechnology and Crop Improvement – a global center of excellence for releasing the value encapsulated in germplasm collections, creating, introgressing and evaluating new genetic variation plus developing new breeding methodologies.

In this respect, ICRISAT is involved with a range of consortium-based research activities including:

Private sector breeding company consortiums for conventional breeding of sorghum, pearl millet and pigeonpea. The new proposal is to establish a biotechnology-assisted crop improvement consortium.

Rapid crop improvement program in India, China, Vietnam, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). A new proposal submitted for funding from ADB is on community of practice in molecular breeding of sorghum, groundnut and chickpea with breeding programs.

Reaching out in Asia

The ADB-funded project also held its review and planning meeting. This program has been the flagship of ICRISAT's partnership-based activities in genomics. The involvement here is with the national agricultural research system of the project countries. The existing project, and the one submitted for funding, will have significant impact in addressing the developmental goals of enhancing the productivity, reducing the poverty and protecting the environment.

They will help multi-disciplinary and multi-sector teams to re-engineer their respective breeding programs to take maximum advantage of new tools in molecular biology, germplasm utilization, bioinformatics and biometrics. The resultant plant breeding programs will be able to rapidly generate new varieties in a highly responsive and targeted manner, thereby achieving substantial impact on crop productivity and food quality, and in turn enhancing livelihood security of the poor across Asia.

by ICRISAT. All rights reserved.