By Dr. William Dar
Dr. William Dar is Director General of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT.) He has had a long and distinguished career as an educationist, agricultural scientist, administrator, and humanitarian in his native Philippines and abroad in the Asia Pacific region and sub-Saharan Africa.
ICRISAT director general William Dar at the Melkassa Research Center in Ethiopia where local sorghum and millet varieties are being studied to identify traits for drought and pest resistance. (Photo Credit: ICRISAT)
The 11th Conference of Parties of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is happening this week in Hyderabad, India. Two years after the missed ultimatum to slow down the loss of biodiversity, this international meeting hopes to mobilize consciences and resources of everyone from governments and corporate organizations to citizens. We need to be “aware of the values of biodiversity” and act “to conserve and use it sustainably “, as described in the twenty biodiversity conservation targets of the new CBD roadmap for the decade 2010-2020.
These goals are challenging because biodiversity is an abstract and global concept that seems too far removed from the daily lives of citizens, when compared to the current worries of unemployment and declining purchase power.
As CBD shows through the global study ‘The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity’ (TEEB), many economic activities benefit enormously from biodiversity and its loss incurs huge costs for our society.
To illustrate the value of biodiversity for agriculture and food security, the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) gives ten examples, 5 of which are described below, of the use of biodiversity for important smallholder crops, and its impact for millions of smallholder farmers in Africa and Asia.
1. Pearl Millet – Resistance to the downy mildew fungus
Downy mildew is a fungal disease that thrives in moist climates can result in massive crop damage with farmers often losing half of their yields.
ICRISAT scientists found mildew resistance in local farmer-evolved varieties (or landraces) from Africa and Asia, and could incorporate this trait in the improved varieties developed by the institute. Without such resistance, it would have been impossible to conduct the 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. We just need to think of this in terms of farmer livelihoods to see how crucial the impact of biodiversity is.
2. Sorghum – Resistance to grain mould
Cultivated sorghum encompasses five sub-types or ‘races’, including Caudatum sorghum, a hardy and densely-packed grains landrace that emerged from farmer selection in Eastern Africa. High-yielding Caudatum varieties of sorghum can become mouldy when rains are unusually frequent, causing 30 to 100 percent 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.
3. Early maturity groundnut
Early maturation of the crop is a trait that 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.
4. Early maturity chickpea
Early-maturing chickpeas are having a major impact in Ethiopia, India and Myanmar. Benefits to Ethiopia alone over the period 2001 to 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 to 2009. In Andhra Pradesh state, India, the early-maturing varieties stimulated a fivefold increase in sown area plus a 2.4-fold increase in yield over the same period.
5. Hybrid Pigeonpea seed system
ICRISAT and partners utilized Cajanus cajanifolus, a wild relative species of pigeonpea, to develop the world’s first hybrid seed system for any grain legume crop, with on average 30 percent higher grain yield than the best available local variety. This will have an enormous impact and help restore Indian grain legume self sufficiency, as these hybrids are widely disseminated to farmers.
Protecting biodiversity is crucial for our future food security
These five examples are just a glimpse of what impact biological diversity has on our food security. Research innovations in molecular biology and genetics will certainly improve and quicken the study of these biological resources.
The current biodiversity crunch makes our world poorer and less resilient for coming generations. Recognizing the value of biodiversity should help put it at the center of governments’ agendas.