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March 04, 2009

High-protein pigeon pea is ideal for drought-hit farmers

by Jim Lobe

Agricultural researchers are reporting a major breakthrough in the development of a new, high-yielding variety of pigeonpea, a protein-rich legume that can be grown in marginal lands and is highly resistant to drought.

Pigeonpea is particularly important in areas where high-protein foods are scarce, including India, where it is often cooked as dal, eastern and southern Africa, the Caribbean and Burma. It currently provides between 20 and 22 percent of the protein in most countries where it is grown extensively.

Called "Pushkal," the new variety is the world’s first commercially available hybrid legume, according to William Dar, director-general of the India-based International Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), which is part of an international consortium of agricultural research centres based at the World Bank.

"With 40 percent higher yields than the best local varieties, Pushkal is truly the magic pea," Dar said, noting that the new variety’s low cost should result in a major expansion in its cultivation. Currently, pigeonpea is grown on nearly five million hectares worldwide.

"Our efforts in eastern and southern Africa have established an active pigeonpea research programme that has already resulted in the release and adoption of improved varieties," he said. "African farmers are reaping the benefits from improved food security and enhanced incomes from the new varieties."

Developing new hybrids of crops that can survive and even thrive despite the projected impact of climate change has moved increasingly to the top of the international-development agenda, particularly since last year when prices for food commodities, including corn, wheat, soy beans, and rice hit record highs.

The World Bank and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among other major donors, have directed a growing proportion of their funding toward agricultural research and development, especially in Africa, the world’s poorest region and the one least affected by what has been called the "Green Revolution."

While the sharp drop in oil prices since last summer has brought food prices down as well, experts here warn that the relief may only be temporary. According to a new forecast by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), average prices will remain relatively higher in the coming year than during 2006 and 2007, when prices began their climb.

"This is going to be again a tough year (for poor countries)," USDA’s chief economist, Joseph Glauber, told the Financial Times.

Like other food commodities, pigeonpea prices also increased substantially during last year’s price spike, thus reducing the protein intake of millions of people who could not afford them.

ICRISAT has been working in India since 1974 but was unable to develop high-yielding commercial varieties of pigeonpea, or any other legume, because its self-pollinating nature. After 30 years of research, scientists there developed a stable cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS) line that made it possible to breed a hybrid.

"This new technology helped us break the yield barrier that has plagued Indian agriculture for the past five decades," according to K.B. Saxena, IRCISAT’s principal pigeonpea breeder.

After successful testing by poor farmers in India, private and public seed companies began producing large quantities of Pushkal seeds that so far have been planted on some 5,000 hectares. Saxena, however, predicts that planting will expand quickly due to the large number of companies that are involved in the distribution and the seeds’ low cost.

Plants and seeds developed by ICRISAT and the 14 other research centres that make up the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) are not patented.

The new hybrid technology has generated interest form a number of other countries, besides India, including Burma, Brazil, the Philippines, and China.

Pushkal, however, is not appropriate for Africa, where pigeonpeas are white, larger, and the whole seeds are cooked, in contrast to Indian pigeonpeas where small, brown split peas are preferred.

"India pigeonpea hybrids don’t adapt well to conditions in Africa, where altitude, climate, soil condition and rainfall are quite different," according to Said Silim, ICRISAT’s regional director for eastern and southern Africa. Moreover, African pigeonpeas are particularly susceptible to wilt disease, so ICRISAT had to identify varieties that were especially resistant to wilt.

And, due to wide variations in temperature, climate and light in the region, researchers focused on developing specific varieties for specific regions. "We developed niche varieties, knowing what we were targeting," said Silim.

In Tanzania, for example, ICRISAT developed high-yield, wilt-resistant varieties that cook quickly and have the taste and aroma favoured by the local population.

It has also developed varieties in Africa preferred by Indian consumers. Their growth cycle is timed so that they can be exported between May and October when India faces a pigeonpea shortage, thus providing local farmers with more income on crops that can be harvested twice a year.

ICRISAT is also promoting the cultivation of pigeonpeas beyond regions where they have been most popular, particularly in areas with mono-culture crops. It has accumulated evidence that intercropping with pigeonpeas makes both crops more productive.


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