World's Dryland Farmers Need New Agricultural Technology

'Green Revolution' Never Reached Them


For a wide swath of arid and semi-arid countries holding one-fourth of the world's population, scientists of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research are developing new breeds of crops and animals that grow faster and stronger, need less water, and are genetically selected for high levels of nutrition.

The results, which will revolutionize farming in dry parts of Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America, have produced plants on which animals can graze, and which then regrow for human harvest; a pigeonpea that sprouts to maturity in 110 days instead of 180; and sheep that thrive on crop residues -- stalks and roots left over after harvest.

An estimated 1.6 billion people currently live in developing countries and regions affected by insufficient rainfall. Approximately half of the workforce earns its living in and from agriculture.

"Given the prevailing water shortages, the usually hot and harsh climates, and soils degraded by erosion, deforestation and desertification, it is not surprising that the rural people in these countries constitute the poorest of the world's poor, many living on less than a dollar a day," says Ismail Serageldin, Chairman of CGIAR and World Bank Vice President for Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development.

"These huge marginal regions have not been touched by the Green Revolution which only boosted grain yields where ample water for irrigation was available. They have not attracted commercial investments in agricultural technology improvement because their markets are small and it is hard to step up productivity when water scarcity limits plant growth. A special effort must be made for these dryland farmers."

Population growth in the arid and semi-arid regions continues to be high, with national annual increases ranging from 3.6 percent in the southern Mediterranean region to 3 percent in sub-Saharan Africa, 2.1 percent in the Central Asian Republics and over 2 percent in the Indian subcontinent. With growing populations and increasing food deficits, efforts to intensify agriculture have in many places depleted and degraded the natural-resource base of agriculture to an alarming extent.

Overpumping has resulted in sinking groundwater levels; rangelands are overgrazed because of rapidly rising stocking rates, while soils are eroded by wind and rare but heavy downpours and often impoverished by long-term monocropping. Because of rising demand for timber and fuelwood, the remaining natural forests and open woodlands have suffered badly. In large areas, the natural vegetation has all but disappeared, and desert is spreading.

"The deterioration of natural resources in the dry areas, the loss of natural vegetation and its irreplaceable biological diversity urge a reformulation of the development paradigm," says Chairman Serageldin. "From forcing nature to give what it cannot give for more than a brief span of time, we must move to carefully husbanding and rebuilding natural resources. From unsustainable farming methods and livestock ranching we must move to more productive and sustainable practices. Otherwise there is no chance that the world's worst poverty and hunger will ever be abolished. The only way to reverse the trend is to revolutionize agricultural technology and resource conservation through scientific research."

Two of the 16 international research centers supported by the CGIAR are working to develop new technologies for dryland agriculture:

Both centers are active in all developing regions, with a special focus on Asia, the Middle East and Africa. A priority of their work is to improve the main staples of the dry regions: hardy food and feed crops that provide a minimum of food security under harsh climatic conditions and with little water: the major dryland cereals millet, sorghum and barley, groundnuts, and legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, pigeonpeas, and faba beans.

Major crops: Although mostly little known and traded in world markets, these crops constitute the main product of 800 million farmers in dry regions, and the population's basic food.

Barley -- Barley is suitable for marginal lands with low rainfall and helps to support livestock production in the Middle East. In Latin America it is mainly used for direct human consumption. In one of its driest sites in Syria, ICARDA succeeded in breeding a barley variety which almost doubled grain yield to over 1 ton per hectare (over 0.4 ton per acre) and also increased straw yield. ICARDA is now breeding barley together with farmers who plant the new lines simultaneously with ICARDA in its test fields. The best cultivars are then jointly selected according to the farmers' criteria; they may, for instance, prefer better straw quality to more grain yield.

Sorghum -- Sorghum originated in Africa. Half of India's hybrid sorghum acreage is planted to ICRISAT-derived varieties. Early maturing ICRISAT-derived varieties which avoid late season drought are helping stabilize production in many countries of the sub-Saharan Africa. ICRISAT is also working to make sorghum more nutritious for humans by increasing the grain's protein content, while also improving the crop's yields and drought tolerance.

Pearl Millet -- A hardy plant important in south Asia and Africa, pearl millet needs very little water. Nearly half of India's pearl millet acreage is derived from varieties improved by ICRISAT in collaboration with the national research program which combine higher yields with resistance to downy mildew, better drought tolerance and higher protein levels.

Groundnut -- Groundnuts are important for direct consumption and as oil crops, especially in Asia and Africa. Early maturing and disease resistant ICRISAT-derived varieties promise a breakthrough in southern African groundnut production. Overall, CGIAR scientists are working to improve disease resistance, oil extraction quality, and taste.

Lentil -- ICARDA has developed drought-tolerant varieties of this important pulse crop which has its origin in western Asia. The new strains have been widely adopted by farmers in Jordan, Libya and Syria because they give economic returns even in dry years. Genetic material from the Middle East and Argentina has been used by ICARDA and ICRISAT to improve south Asian lines, and a number of new varieties have been released to farmers in Bangladesh, Nepal, India and Pakistan.

Faba Bean -- Often called the poor man's meat, faba bean is important in China, the Middle East, Ethiopia, Eritrea and parts of South America. The new high-yielding varieties and better production practices have helped Egypt achieve self-sufficiency and strongly increased output in Sudan, Ethiopia and other countries.

Chickpeas -- An important, protein-rich legume that originated in western Asia and is directly consumed. ICARDA and ICRISAT have jointly with national programs developed cold tolerant and disease resistant chickpeas cultivars which can be planted in winter -- instead of spring -- to take advantage of seasonal rains. Yields have increased by 60 percent. Chickpea research is enabling increased use in rotation with rice because of the chickpea's ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, and for its nutritional and income generating aspects.

Research strategies: In their work to improve crops and farming systems in the dry and semi-arid regions, the CGIAR scientists seek to dramatically shorten the growing season for all crops. While the Green Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s succeeded in shortening the growing season for irrigated crops, thus allowing farmers to harvest two or more times a year, progress has been much slower in the dry regions.

Without supplementary irrigation, most dryland areas can produce only one harvest a year, during the rainy season. CGIAR scientists are combining a variety of measures to allow farmers to reap more than one harvest a year. Quicker growing plants mature before summer heat and drought can affect them; water-harvesting techniques allow concentration of available water where it is most needed. Better water management methods developed by ICRISAT in Ethiopia, for instance, have helped farmers optimize the use of their most precious resource.

Biological control of pests permits farmers to save on pesticides and protects the farmer's health and the environment. ICRISAT, for instance, introduced among farmers the use of a small insect, the mud wasp, to control the pod borer, the world's most devastating chickpea pest. Integrated pest management (IPM) integrates biological control, breeding for resistance, cultural control and judicious use of pesticides in a robust and viable system that sharply cuts use of chemicals.

Both CGIAR centers collaborate closely with the national research programs in their mandate countries, as well as with non-governmental organizations, advanced research labs in North and South, the private sector, and farmers' associations. In setting their priorities, the centers actively seek the guidance of their partners, especially women who constitute half of all farmers in the dry and semi-arid regions. In southern and eastern Africa women predominate as farmers. Improving the crops they grow for their families and rendering their work less hard and time-consuming is one of the most effective ways of reducing poverty - and drudgery.

Livestock and mixed farming: -- In addition to their efforts to improve crop production, the CGIAR centers also seek ways to improve dryland livestock production and the combined crop-livestock systems. Vast tracts of arid and semi-arid land are unsuitable for crop production but support livestock, especially small ruminants such as sheep and goats, which not only constitute a vital supply of protein but an important sector of the economy by providing the livelihood of some 300 million pastoralists worldwide from land that would otherwise be unproductive.

Marginal land rehabilitation using sheep -- ICARDA has succeeded in using sheep to transfer legume seed from improved pasture fields to neighboring marginal or degraded land. The sheep are left all day grazing on the improved pasture. For the night, they are moved to a degraded field. It was found that the legume seed passed the digestive tract of the sheep undigested and then germinated, thus improving the marginal land.

Water harvesting -- ICARDA has developed simple but effective water harvesting techniques which are rapidly adopted in Jordan, one of the world's water-poorest countries. At a project in Syria, ICARDA is developing methods to use classified satellite data and data on topography, drainage systems, soil types, vegetation and climate for planning water harvesting on a large scale. The methodology is expected to be suitable for all similar areas of the world.

Germplasm conservation -- Both ICRISAT and ICARDA, like other CGIAR centers, devote a major effort to gathering wild relatives and landrace varieties of the dry areas' important food and pasture crops. ICARDA's genebank, for instance, holds about 111,000 germplasm samples collected from more than 40 countries. This precious collection accounts for more than one fifth of all accessions held by CGIAR centers, which together constitute the world's largest collection of agricultural biodiversity. The genetic material serves as the key source of genes resistant to pests and diseases, and tolerant to extremes of temperature, drought, and toxicities in the soil.

ICARDA is located in the heart of an area which is a birthplace of agriculture, and of some of the world's greatest civilizations. The ICARDA region contains three of the world's eight centers of crop origin. Archaeological findings have shown that, some 10,000 years ago, barley, wheat, lentil, pea, flax, and vetch were all domesticated in the ICARDA region. Landraces and wild relatives of these crops, containing precious genes for breeders to develop new varieties, are found in the region to this day. From material jointly developed by ICARDA and national programs, over 230 varieties of barley, lentil, faba bean, bread wheat, durum wheat, kabuli chickpea, pea, and forage legumes have been released in both developing and industrialized countries, and the center has trained over 7,500 young researchers, many of whom now occupy key positions of responsibility in their national programs.

ICRISAT serves the needs of the semi-arid tropics where one-sixth of the world population lives, half of them (380 million) in absolute poverty. ICRISAT's mandate areas are marginal lands such as the fringes of the Sahara where starvation and malnutrition are recurrent. The center's work has resulted in the release of 365 new crop varieties which improved the quantity and dependability of the food supply of the rural poor, and the entire population. Of these varieties, 20 provide an estimated annual benefit of 230 million dollars to poor farmers, over seven times ICRISAT's budget. These achievements are the result of ICRISAT's close collaboration with national programs and other research partners.


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