By Syed Akbar
Hyderabad: “Biological diversity has been and continues to be the foundation for agricultural research for food security and poverty reduction across the world,” according to Director General William Dar of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) based in Hyderabad, India.
With the 11th Conference of Parties (COP11) of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) happening here this week, ICRISAT highlights examples illustrating the use and value of agro-biodiversity in the fight against hunger and poverty, and its impact on the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers particularly in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
A major part of ICRISAT’s 40 years of research-for-development work has much to do with generating benefits for the poor from agro-biodiversity. The ICRISAT Genebank is considered a treasure trove of genetically-diverse types of its five focus crops (pearl millet, sorghum, chickpea, pigeonpea and groundnut) that can be used in plant breeding to improve crop productivity and crop tolerance/resistance to diseases, insects and environmental stresses.
One example is the downy-mildew resistant pearl millet. Downy mildew is a fungal disease that thrives in moist climates and can result in massive crop damage with farmers often losing half of their yields.
ICRISAT scientists found mildew resistance in local farmer-evolved varieties from Africa and Asia, incorporating this trait in the improved varieties developed by the Institute. Without such resistance, it would have been impossible to conduct pearl millet hybrid selection.
In 1996 ICRISAT estimated that the annual benefits of the downy mildew resistant variety were worth US$50 million. Today they are far more, with a conservative estimate in India alone being almost US$200 million. This illustrates how crucial the impact of biodiversity is in terms of improved livelihoods of smallholder farmers.
Resistance to grain mold in sorghum is another example. Cultivated sorghum encompasses five sub-types or ‘races’, including Caudatum sorghum, a hardy and densely-packed grain landrace that emerged from farmer selection in Eastern Africa.
High-yielding Caudatum varieties of sorghum can become moldy when rains are unusually frequent, causing 30-100% yield losses, lower market value and even health hazards such as aflatoxin contamination in humans that consume them. In 1992 ICRISAT estimated the annual economic losses in Asia and Africa as US$130 million. Moderately-resistant land races were found, while Guinea sorghum races are inherently resistant, enabling the production of grain mold tolerant hybrids, recently released in India.
Early-maturing groundnut is greatly appreciated by poor farmers worldwide. It enables them to harvest food and receive income sooner, and to escape many droughts. The groundnut line most utilized in breeding this trait, ‘Chico’, has contributed earliness to cultivars released across Africa and Asia such as ICGV 91114, now having major impact in Anantapur district, India – the largest groundnut growing district in the world; and Nyanda (ICGV 93437), cultivated on about 50,000 hectares in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, and South Africa.
Early-maturing chickpeas are having a major impact in Ethiopia, India and Myanmar. Benefits to Ethiopia alone over the period 2001-2030 are projected to be worth US$111 million. The land area sown to chickpea in Myanmar, and also the grain yields per unit land area both doubled during 2001-2009. In Andhra Pradesh state, India, the early-maturing varieties stimulated a five-fold increase in sown area plus a 2.4-fold increase in yield over the same period.
ICRISAT and partners have also utilized Cajanus cajanifolus, a wild relative species of pigeonpea, to develop the world’s first hybrid seed system for any grain legume crop, with an average 30% higher grain yield than the best available local variety. This will have enormous impact and help restore India’s grain legume self-sufficiency, as these hybrids are widely disseminated to farmers.
These are just a glimpse of what impact biological diversity has in the fight against poverty and hunger. Research innovations in molecular biology and genetics will certainly improve and quicken the study of these biological resources.
Dr Dar calls on every nation to recognize the global economic benefits of biodiversity and highlight the growing costs of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, making conservation and use at the center of their development agenda.