A new multi-million dollar research programme aims to improve the livelihoods of up to 1 billion people by boosting the productivity of some of the most important – but long-neglected – smallholder food crops.
Grain Legumes – one of the 16 multi-partner CGIAR Research Programs (CRPs) – will develop new varieties of chickpea, common bean, groundnut, lentil, soybean, pigeon pea, cowpea, and fava bean. It aims to boost yields by more than 20 per cent – the equivalent of more than 7 million additional tonnes of food.
Often referred to as “the meat of the poor”, grain legumes are a vital source of protein for hundreds of millions of people unable to either afford or produce meat. But they have long been considered “orphan crops”, with international research focusing more on other globally-important staples such as rice, wheat and maize.
By developing improved varieties of grain legumes, the new partnership between lead centre ICRISAT, CIAT, ICARDA, IITA and several public and private organisations (including EMBRAPA from Brazil and ICAR from India), hopes to boost the role of grain legumes in the provision of dietary protein. By virtue of their ability to trap atmospheric nitrogen and transfer it to the soil, grain legumes also promise to improve soil fertility and reduce the need for chemical fertilisers.
Starting with a three-year initial phase, the program eventually expects to generate benefits to smallholder farmers in the region of USD $4.5 billion, primarily from increased food production and reduced fertiliser use.
With its headquarters in Latin America – the ancestral home of the common bean – and with substantial bean research impacts in Eastern and Southern Africa, CIAT will help develop improved common bean varieties, focusing on three specific traits: tolerance to drought and low phosphorous soils; heat tolerance; and improved nitrogen fixation. This should enable beans to be more resilient to some of the unpredictable and extreme weather expected to intensify as a result of climate change, and the persistent problem of low soil fertility that plagues vast areas of the tropics.
CIAT’s work will rely heavily on the collection of over 37,000 bean varieties conserved at its gene bank in Colombia. As the largest collection of wild and cultivated beans in the world, it contains many varieties that have already helped scientists develop improved beans. These include drought-tolerant bush beans in Nicaragua as well as several varieties of the very popular, high-yielding, disease resistant climbing beans in East and Central Africa – especially Uganda and Rwanda.
The CIAT-coordinated Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA), a network of bean research institutions that supports bean improvement work in 29 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa – with the support of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) – will also be critical to CIAT’s role in the new Grain Legumes program.
PABRA will help ensure new bean varieties are accessible to African farmers via local institutions, and that “starting materials” – bean samples currently held in the gene bank – are available to African scientists, whose breeding programmes can help further adapt the beans to local conditions.
The Grain Legumes programme was officially launched at ICRISAT’s headquarters, near Hyderabad, India, last week. CIAT Director General Ruben Echeverría, who attended the event, said: “This is an unprecedented opportunity for collaboration to improve these long-neglected, but vitally important smallholder crops.”
“This program shows that by integrating previously fragmented research efforts there will be a substantial increase in impacts for smallholders – one of the objectives of the recent CGIAR reforms.
“By working together we should be able to fulfill the promise of grain legumes as nutritious staple foods with strong markets, excellent resilience to climate change, and as reliable, eco-efficient options for smallholder farmers struggling with low soil fertility. This should see grain legumes coming out of the shadows of scientific research and into the mainstream, where they belong.”