The visit of ICRISAT Governing Board Chair Dr Prabhu Pingali provided an opportunity for staff at headquarters to present the organization’s work and accomplishments and update on the latest research in the pipeline. Interacting with the staff, Dr Pingali shared his appreciation on the work being done. His observations mainly centered on creating greater visibility for ICRISAT’s success and impacts, taking the lead in publishing research and aiming at a bigger role in the global drylands by contributing to greater food and nutrition security, improved livelihoods and climate resilience of smallholder farmers.
Dr Pingali had broad discussions on different subjects with the leadership of ICRISAT – Dr Jacqueline d’Arros Hughes, Director General, Dr Arvind Kumar, Deputy Director General – Research, Mr Angshu Sen Gupta, Director Finance and Operations and Mr Kunal Sarkar, Interim Director Human Resources.
Dr Pingali also visited laboratories as well as research fields and had detailed discussions with scientists of different disciplines on research progress. On day one, the tour started with Mr Ram Kiran Dhulipala presenting an overview of the work and innovations in Digital Agriculture. Answering a query from the Board Chair, Dr Srikanth Rupavatharam cited the research publications authored by ICRISAT staff and mentioned the high-profile partners and universities ihub is collaborating with and the income-generating avenues that were created. He also spoke of the growing use of apps like Plantix and drone technology. Dr Pingali evinced keen interest in the digital products like the Meghdoot app developed for the Government of India to deliver weather information to farmers. He took time to watch live the ICRISAT M&E tool MEASURE. He appreciated the fact that ICRISAT’s digital products were in demand amongst other CGIAR centers and public-private partners.
At the Center for Excellence in Genomics and Systems Biology, Ms Annapurna Chittikineni explained about the facilities and services at ICRISAT including providing low-cost genomic technologies to a range of crops in more than 20 countries. Dr Rachit Kumar Saxena explained in detail the contribution of genomic technologies with regard to ICRISAT crops in terms of productivity, disease resistance, nutrition, stress tolerance and rapid generation. He said that there is a growing demand to apply these technologies to other crops as well. On a query from the Board Chair about visibility of our work, Dr Rajeev K Varshney, Research Program Director – Accelerated Crop Improvement, updated the Board Chair on publications in prestigious international journals and the global impact of ICRISAT’s work on integration of advanced genome discoveries in crop improvement.
The many success of the ICRISAT Development Center in scaling of proven technologies for holistic and significant transformation in the project sites through Natural Resource management and introduction of improved varieties were shared by Dr Kaushal K Garg, Dr KH Anantha and Dr Girish Chander. Successful initiatives with the Government of Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, and in the Bundelkhand region were shared. Mr Pushpajeet Lokpal Choudhari explained about the magnitude and importance of the soil analysis work at the internationally accredited Charles Renard Analytical Laboratory. The Board Chair browsed through the Soil Atlas created for Odisha state and a sample of the health cards distributed to farmers.
ICRISAT’s progress in modernizing breeding was detailed by Dr Harish Gandhi, emphasizing on the many merits of data-driven decision making for advancement of breeding material and rapid generation technologies.
Dr Sobhan Babu Sajja walked the chair through the process diagram from seed harvest to packaging of improved seed. A demo of the various machines for sorting and grading seed was followed by a peek into laboratories with restricted entry.
Emphasizing on the global importance of ICRISAT’s genebank work, Dr Vania Azevedo shared a detailed account of the wide and varied activities including the safety duplication at Svalbard Global Seed Vault. She spoke of the efforts being made to barcode all of ICRISAT’s accessions and the modernization and renovation that was being done at the cold storage units.
At the Rapid Generation Advancement facility, Dr Anupama Hingane informed that the facility with options for controlled light, humidity and temperature was unique to the public sector in India and can be availed by external agencies. She said that the RGA protocols developed by ICRISAT could shorten the time for developing breeding lines by almost two years.
The day ended with presentations by the Crop Protection team, Dr Rajan Sharma talked about the work of the Plant Quarantine unit and the various disease-screening procedures they follow to ensure safe germplasm exchange and their engagement with the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources. Dr Mamta Sharma gave an overview of the work at the Center of Excellence on Climate Change Research for Plant Protection delineating the trend between rising temperatures and increased soil-borne diseases. Her work on the impact of high temperatures and carbon dioxide levels on decreased plant nutrition (especially iron and zinc) caught the interest of the Board Chair. Team members Dr Hari Kishan Sudini, Dr Jaba Jagdish and S Gopalakrishnan gave brief updates of their work.
Field Visit on Day 2
Day two started with a visit to the Agribusiness and Innovation Platform. Dr Kiran Kumar Sharma briefly explained how the unit fosters public-private partnerships to bring science-based technologies, innovations, knowledge and products to the market for the benefit of smallholder farmers and the role of the Agri-Business Incubator and NutriPlus Knowledge Program for product development of nutritional foods and food safety initiatives. Ms Priyanka Durgalla explained about the various products developed by processors trained by ICRISAT in the Giri Poshana project that went into the making of the ‘’nutri-basket” distributed to women and children.Dr S Aravazhi informed that a similar approach will be implemented for the Walmart Foundation project.
Dr Pooja Bhatnagar-Mathur during the visit to the Cell, molecular biology and trait engineering lab, shared updates on the aflatoxin research in groundnut, rancidity in pearl millet, Striga resistance in sorghum and improving protein content in pigeonpea. The Board Chair was shown the tissue culture lab and invitro tissue culture repository of the Genebank, where over 200 critical accessions of sorghum and pearl millet are being maintained for back-up and safety duplication as per international standards.
During the field visit, the Board Chair enquired about the yield of biofortified sorghum variety Dhanshakti and on the agroecologies suitable for finger millet cultivation. Highlighting an innovation for hybrid sorghum, Dr Harish Gandhi presented a poster on evaluation of Trifluoro methane sulfonamide to induce male sterility as an alternative to regular hand emasculations.
The success of pearl millet in the areas of mainstreaming nutrition, developing hybrids and fostering public-private partnerships was presented by Dr SK Gupta. The Board Chair expressed that successes like these have to be shared widely.
Dr Prakash Gangashetty talked about the super-early pigeonpea and showed on field the difference in vigor between promising short duration pigeonpea hybrids and normal varieties. He explained about the role of cytoplasmic male sterility in developing short duration pigeonpea hybrids for improving yield gains.
At the groundnut fields growing high-oleic varieties Girnar 4 and 5, Dr P Janila said that modern technologies have helped reduce the breeding cycle substantially. She mentioned about the growing demand for these varieties that come with health benefits and better shelf life. The keen interest shown by the Telangana Government to develop the value chain of these varieties reaffirmed the value of ICRISAT’s work.
Dr S Srinivasan in his presentation spoke on how breeding cycle time was drastically brought down in chickpea through Rapid Generation Advancement technologies leading to growing more than 6-7 crops in a year. He also spoke of the growing demand for machine-harvestable chickpea in India and Africa and the growing cultivation of chickpea in Africa.
Presenting a poster on product pipelines, Dr Ashok Kumar explained the advance planning that went into developing varieties and the continuous R&D that went into the breeding pipeline to create better replacements for existing varieties in line with market demand.
The field trip ended with a visit to the ICRISAT heritage watershed site. A lush rainfed sorghum crop intercropped with pigeonpea was standing in the field. Dr Kaushal Garg explained to the Board Chair how improved varieties when grown with good soil and water management practices give the best results. He said that the ICRISAT Development Center (IDC) creates the synergies for the coming together of crop research and agronomy, adding enormous value to the work of ICRISAT and resulting in enhanced yields and improved farmer incomes.