Scientific innovations developed by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) are empowering dryland farmers hurt badly by global crises, it has been claimed.
First it was the global food crisis, and now the financial meltdown. Easily the worst affected are poor farmers of the semi-arid tropics of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. But they are coping better, with some help from the ICRISAT.
Although food prices have fallen from their peaks in early 2008, they are still higher than what the prices were before they soared in 2007. This can affect poor dryland farmers, who are usually net food buyers. Due to the financial crisis, there is also a shortfall in credit available to farmers and prices of inputs are also high. This could have an adverse impact on poor farmers, both in terms of reduced investments in agriculture and lesser food for their families.
In addition to contributing to the national food basket, agriculture in the semi-arid regions of developing countries supports the livelihoods of a large segment of these countries' population. In India, for instance, two-thirds of cultivated lands are semi-arid. Hence, an adverse impact on dryland farming can result in decreased livelihood options for a substantial percentage of the population.
But the crops that ICRISAT works on, namely pearl millet, sorghum, chickpea, pigeonpea and groundnut have greater tolerance to drought and can grow in semi-arid conditions. ICRISAT's research focuses on improving the productivity of these crops, developing early maturing varieties and hybrids, and developing drought and disease tolerance, points out the Institute's Director General Dr William Dar.
"Usually, the poor dryland farmers have very little margin for risks, and when two shocks come one behind the other, their ability to recover is quite diminished...but our interventions give them the resistance to tide over the crisis with less damage," Dar said.
To hasten the speed of crop improvement and overcome limitations inherent to conventional crop breeding, ICRISAT harnesses crop biotechnology. Using molecular marker assisted selection and breeding, ICRISAT developed a pearl millet hybrid - HHB 67 Improved - that is resistant to downy mildew disease. Using the same technology, ICRISAT scientists in Nairobi identified and transferred genes that confer Striga
resistance to sorghum. Striga
is among the deadliest weeds in Africa.
When the genes for resistance is not available within the same plant, then ICRISAT scientists have successfully identified and introduced genes from different organisms. Through this transgenic research, ICRISAT has developed groundnut resistant to the Indian peanut clump virus and the rosette disease, and chickpea and pigeonpea resistant to the pod borer (Helicoverpa armigera).
Through community watershed management, ICRISAT provides options to the dryland farmer. Through this approach, ICRISAT and partners provide technological options through natural resource management, soil and water conservation, improved cropping patterns, better crops and diversified livelihoods.
ICRISAT's model on integrated community watershed management is being replicated in India, China, Thailand and Vietnam. The model is also being adapted for a few pilot studies in eastern and southern Africa.
For the farmers living in the Sahel at the edge of the Sahara desert, it is important to diversify the bread basket, to increase the income from multiple sources. Through its African Market Garden and Sahelian Eco-Farm, ICRISAT promotes crop diversification through the cultivation of vegetable and fruit trees along with food crops. These are then irrigated with low-pressure drip irrigation systems.
The fertilizer microdosing technique introduced by ICRISAT in different parts of sub-Saharan Africa allows poor farmers to apply small, affordable and effective amounts of fertilizer for improved soil health and crop production. Farmers who use microdosing apply 6 gram doses of fertilizer - about a full bottle cap or a three-finger pinch - in the hole where the plant is placed at the time of planting. Crops in some parts of Africa are so starved of nutrients such as phosphorous, potassium and nitrogen that addition of even this micro amount often doubles crop yields.
The poor farmers of the drylands have no control over global developments. At most of the times they do not understand the cause and effect of these changes. When ICRISAT's scientific innovations helps them overcome their day-to-day problems, their resilience to global challenges gets strengthened.