4) A magic pea leads a new Green Revolution in the drylands

A new, improved, protein-rich pea is set to launch a new Green Revolution. This new variety of pigeonpea, called Pushkal, is the first commercially available hybrid legume in the world.

“With 40 percent higher yields than the best local varieties, Pushkal is truly the magic pea,” exclaims Dr William Dar, Director General of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).

Pigeonpea is a high protein dietary staple in many semi-arid tropical countries of the world. It is especially important in India, eastern and southern Africa, the Caribbean and Myanmar, areas where high protein foods are scarce. Pigeonpea provides 20 to 22 percent of the protein in most of the countries where it is grown extensively ( India, Myanmar, Nepal, China, south-eastern Africa). Globally, pigeonpea is cultivated on 4.92 million hectares (about 12 million acres), about the size of Texas or about 1/4 the area covered with corn) with a productivity of 898 kg (1975.6 lbs) per hectare (2.47 acres).

In India, dry, split pigeonpea often are cooked as dal, a traditional curry eaten with rice or bread. In addition, immature green seeds and pods are eaten as a green vegetable.

Also pigeonpea seeds are crushed to provide animal feed; in rural areas, its dry stems are used for fuel.

The new hybrid thrives in drought conditions and has greater resistance to diseases than the best varieties. It also creates a strong root system which aids greater nitrogen fixation to keep soils fertile.

The new variety which is very affordable for poor farmers comes during a global pigeonpea shortage which has caused prices to soar, creating misery among millions of poor people who cannot afford them.

Dr MS Swaminathan, the agricultural scientist considered as the father of India’s Green Revolution, compares ICRISAT’s breakthrough in developing a hybrid pigeonpea to the development of wheat and rice with dwarfing genes that launched the global Green Revolution for cereals in the 1960s.

Pigeonpea research is also being done in other parts of the world. “Our efforts in eastern and southern Africa have established an active pigeonpea research program that has already resulted in the release and adoption of improved varieties. African farmers are reaping the benefits from improved food security and enhanced incomes from the new varieties,” Dr Dar says.

In eastern and southern Africa, ICRISAT scientists have taken an entirely different approach to improving pigeonpea, using conventional cross breeding techniques to identify varieties that are disease resistant (Fusarium wilt) and specifically tailored to the temperature, altitude and soil conditions of a given area.

Breaking the yield barrier

ICRISAT scientists have been working with national programs in India since 1974, but was not able to develop new high yielding varieties before turning to a new breeding technology leading to the development of Pushkal (ICPH 2671), the world’s first cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS) based pigeonpea hybrid. The new hybrid technology provides the opportunity of achieving the long-cherished goal of breaking the yield barrier in pigeonpea.

Internationally, over a dozen legumes are cultivated by farmers but due to their self-pollinating nature, no commercial hybrids are available. At ICRISAT, scientists have used the partial natural out-crossing of pigeonpea to breeding hybrids. For this it was essential to develop a stable CMS line. This was accomplished after 30 years of dedicated research, a great achievement from the plant breeding point of view.

Male-sterile plants are those that do not have functional male sex organs. Hybrid production requires a female plant in which no viable pollen grains are borne. The expensive and labor-intensive method is to remove the male organs (anthers) from the plants. The other simple way to establish a female line for hybrid seed production is to identify or create a line that is unable to produce viable pollen. This male-sterile line is therefore unable to self-pollinate, and seed formation is dependent upon pollen from the other male fertile line. By developing a parental line that has the trait for male-sterility in the cytoplasm (or the cell fluid) it could be ensured that all progeny from this line were male-sterile.

“This new technology helped us break the yield barrier that has plagued Indian agriculture for the past five decades,” says Dr KB Saxena, ICRISAT’s principal pigeonpea breeder.

After successful testing by poor farmers in India, Pravardhan Seeds and other private and public seed companies began producing large quantities of Pushkal seeds.

Hybrid due for wide planting

To date, seeds for the new pigeonpea hybrid have been planted on some 5,000 hectares (12,500 acres), but Dr. Saxena predicts that the hybrid will be widely planted in the next few years as the low cost seed becomes more readily available.

“Because India has many private seed companies, we went through the private sector for production and marketing,” explains Dr Saxena. “That’s how we distribute the new seeds quickly.”

Plants and seeds developed by ICRISAT are not patented and remain in the public domain for use by public and private institutions.

The new hybrid technology has generated interest from a number of other countries, including Myanmar, Brazil, the Philippines and China.

In southern China, pigeonpea hybrids, because they have strong root systems, will be useful to preventing soil erosion, a huge problem in the hilly areas.

Although the new Pushkal hybrid has received the most attention, three new hybrid varieties developed at ICRISAT are under final testing.

A different approach for Africa

ICRISAT researchers have taken a different approach on African pigeonpeas which were until recently not carefully studied. Most of the research had been done in India, where small brown, quick-cooking beans are preferred; in Africa, the preferred pigeonpeas are white, larger and the whole seeds are cooked.

“Indian pigeonpea hybrids don’t adapt well to conditions in Africa, where altitude, climate, soil condition and rainfall are quite different,” says Dr Said Silim, ICRISAT’s regional director for eastern and southern Africa.

For example, Kenya, near the equator, has a natural increase in altitude from sea level to 5000 meters. The ICRISAT researchers charted the effects of temperature and day-length sensitivity at different altitudes, then duplicated conditions experimentally.

They discovered that plants mature in 180 days in warmer temperatures and 150 days in cooler, high altitudes in Africa.

Since wilt disease is a significant problem for African pigeonpea, various varieties were planted in local fields to find plants which were wilt resistant. Thus, researchers, working with local farmers, were able to incorporate in the African pigeonpea adaptation to temperature, climate and light. The pea had white grain and was wilt resistant.

“We developed niche varieties, knowing what we were targeting,” Dr Silim points out.

In Tanzania, for instance, this meant finding high yield varieties that cook fast and have the taste and aroma favored by the local population; the pea is resistant to wilt; and matures early.

Other varieties include bean varieties favored in India, where crops are timed for export between May and October when the country faces a pigeonpea shortage. This work has boosted income for local farmers and varieties that mature early give farmers two crops a year.

Spreading the word

In addition to continuing its active research program, ICRISAT wants to spread the word about pigeonpeas, to target areas with mono-culture crops by showing that by intercropping with pigeonpeas, both crops are more productive.

ICRISAT also wants to encourage canning processed pigeonpeas, the way black-eyed peas are canned.

In its pigeonpea research, ICRISAT works with national agricultural research systems, sharing germplasm, hybrid parents and breeding lines, as well as cutting edge knowledge and skills.

National partners include Australia, China, Fiji, India, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganda, and USA.

Likewise, a hybrid pigeonpea research consortium established by ICRISAT through its Agri-Science Park includes 22 private sector seed companies in India.

Partnerships with advanced research institutes led to the identification of the sterility mosaic virus, a major problem in India.

Farmer and women’s groups have aided with variety selection, integrated pest management work and production of hybrid seeds. On ICRISAT’s research anvil are transgenic pigeonpea varieties and hybrids resistant to the pod borer, Helicoverpa armigera. These are currently undergoing contained field trials at its hseadquarters in Patancheru, Hyderabad India.

ICRISAT is one of 15 allied Centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

For further information, contact Dr KB Saxena, at , or Dr Said Silim at .

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