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About Super Chickpeas and Silent Heroes

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ICRISAT researcher in test field

During my past visits to Kenya, Ghana, Mali and Burkina Faso, one common streak always came up when talking to farmers about climate adaptation techniques: they were all actively using new seed varieties for their different crops.

I had not really questioned where those seed varieties came from. I saw them in the shops of commercial seed traders, so I asked no more. A bit like a child does not ask where Santa comes from. A long and complex process of seed selection and breeding remained hidden for me.

A visit to ICRISAT, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics near Hyderabad in India, changed all of that. I discovered the world’s headquarter for the agriculture research on five crops: sorghum, pearl millet, chickpea, pigeonpea and groundnut. And I discovered the link between chickpeas, chickpea heroes and the war against hunger.

Food diets, malnutrition and chickpeas
Sufficient food, but also a balanced food intake are key to battle malnutrition. Often the world’s attention goes to staple foods like rice, maize or wheat. We often forget it takes other crops too, to make a balanced diet, in a global fight against hunger.

Chickpeas is one of those crops, and an important one, as they make up for more than 20 percent of the world pulse production. Chickpeas contain 22-25% proteins, and 2-3 times more iron and zinc than wheat. Chickpea protein quality is better than other pulses. …

So understandably, agricultural researchers, like Dr. Pooran M.Gaur, a principal scientist and chickpea breeder at ICRISAT, make continuous efforts to develop new chickpea varieties, adapted to fast changing environmental conditions. “Super Chickpeas”, as it were. Bred by –what I would not hesitate to call – “super scientists”, in the quiet isolation of agricultural research centers.

Agricultural research in service of food security
I meet Pooran amidst the ICRISAT chickpea test fields in Patancheru, near Hyderabad in India. He tells me a story which illustrates the importance, and profound impact agricultural research can have on food production, and food security: “In India, for hundreds of years, chickpeas have been grown in the relatively colder Northern areas during the dry winter season where they flourish in temperatures of 20 to 30 dgr C. The traditional chickpea varieties were not really suitable for the climate here in Andhra Pradesh for instance. They were late maturing and required longer duration (more than 120 days) to grow. That stretched the crop to grow into the hot season and moisture stress conditions. Ten years ago, only 160,000 hectares of chickpeas were grown in this state. The yield was only about 600 kgs/hectare.”

But things changed in recent years. Using a combination of different chickpea seed varieties which had a shorter growing season, and which were more resistant to higher temperatures, agricultural researchers like Pooran were able to breed varieties which needed only 90 to 95 days to mature.

“We distributed samples of these new varieties to universities and government institutes who tested them, and were impressed about the results. One particular variety, released as “JG11”, has thoroughly impacted the production of chickpeas in India, especially in the South.”

JG11 was rapidly adopted by many farmers in central and southern India. “Here in Andhra Pradesh, in just a few years, the total surface of chickpea cultivation increased to 630,000 hectares, a fourfold from before. But even more importantly, the average yield increased from 600 to 1,400 kgs/hectare, almost three times as much.”, Pooran explains.

Knowing how important chickpeas are in the typical Indian diet, one can say the impact of the new variety’s ninefold production increase had a profound impact.

But it is not the end of the road for chickpeas
As the “Super Chickpea” early varieties – like JG11 – are now widely used in India, and different parts of Asia and Africa, ICRISAT concentrates on other new varieties to help farmers adapt to the ever changing climate and environmental conditions.

“We use various parameters to select our breeding materials”, Pooran stresses. “We are developing varieties which are early maturing and high yielding, tolerant to drought and heat stresses, resistant to deceases and insect infestation, and have good seed quality”

ICRISAT supplies improved breeding lines to universities and government research institutes, who select the best lines, and release these as varieties. Further down the seed chain, the research institutes produce “breeder seed” which is used by the public and private seed sectors to produce “foundation seeds” and then “certified seeds”, which are sold to the farmers.
Up to now, ICRISAT -bred chickpea materials have led to the release of 73 new varieties in 10 countries.

Working for impact.
I ask Pooran if after 25 years working as a chickpea breeder, he ever thought of moving to another crop? “No way”, he answers, “chickpeas are ‘it’ for me. The world produces about 9 million tons of chickpeas per year, in 50 countries. These are not only used for their own production, but also as a cash crop, as over 140 countries import chickpeas. So the demand is high. For the poor in the world, combined with a staple food of rice, maize, sorghum, millet or any wheat, chickpeas make a perfect diet. It contains a lot of protein and is rich in minerals, amino acids and several vitamins.”

“But there is more to it: Chickpea is a hardy crop and can be grown in marginal lands on residual moisture, where the high-input crops fail to give economic returns. It is able to take much of its nitrogen requirement from the atmosphere by forming a symbiotic association with soil bacteria called rhizobium, and thus does not need much fertilizer.”

So when asked what his dream is, Pooran answers: “I would like to increase the global awareness of the qualities of chickpeas. Here at ICRISAT, we have already directly contributed to new varieties now used in semi-arid areas in several countries, including Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia, which are prone to hunger and malnutrition. But we can spread it further. We also need to emphasize to farmers that chickpeas are not just a low input or a diversity crop: with the new varieties we are breeding now, farmers should be able to select those varieties adapted to their fields, and the changing weather. They need to be taught proper crop production technologies, so their yields can further increase”.

“Mr Super Chickpea”, is clearly a man with a mission. And he is not alone in the battle against hunger. Every day, dozens of researchers at ICRISAT, and thousands like them in similar research institutes join in his cause, helping farmers around the globe to adapt to climate change.

We can rightfully call them, “the silent heroes in the war against hunger”.

The original article was published on the CCAFS blog

Written by Peter

February 19th, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Farmers adapting to climate change:
Naakpi Kuunwena from Ghana

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Vegetable farm in Ghana

His name is written “Naakpi” and pronounced “Naakwi”, that we understood fast. But it took us much longer to comprehend why Naakpi looked so tired, and walked around with a back bent as if he had a burden too heavy for one man to carry.

We understood even less as we walked through an opening in the earth wall surrounding his farm and stepped onto his vegetable field: This one hectare plot was the largest, greenest and best maintained vegetable field we had seen so far. The cabbage, beans, tomato, peppers all stood in straight lines. A perfectly geometric maze of five inch wide irrigation canals divided the field into small sub-plots devour of any weeds.

All of us stood in awe. The sight of green that lush came as a surprise. So far, during our West-Africa trip for the Adaptation and Mitigation Knowledge Network (AMKN), we had been interviewing farmers harvesting at this time, one to two months into the dry season. Here, in Lawra – Northeast Ghana, it had been no different. But Naakpi still had a green plot. Why then did it not make him a happy man?

“This is by far the nicest plot I have seen so far, Naakpi”, I said, and congratulated him. He looked at me with sad eyes and shrugged: “Give it one more month, and I will loose it all”, he said. He told us the story.

Naakpi’s vegetable farm needs water “Water is a must for vegetables”, he explained, “As we grow groundnuts, maize, sorghum and millet during the rainy season, we use the dry season to grow vegetables. In the past I used to have a small plot and watered the plants using buckets. As my plot grew to one hectare, we now use small irrigation channels, and need much more water.”

An NGO dug a borehole on his field, but as the weather changed, the rains started later, and stopped earlier, the water level dropped. “I can not get anything from that well anymore”, Naakpi said, “Maybe three or four buckets per day, that’s it. But I need much more.”

Naakpi pumps water from the riverSo he invested in a motor pump, to transfer water from the river next to his plot. “I also dammed the river”, he said, showing us the four foot high stone dam he cemented right under a bridge. “Each year, during the rainy season, we build this dam. At the end of the dry season, we break it down again. For several years, it guaranteed us of sufficient water, throughout the dry season. Now, it is different.”

The river in Lawra is running dry“Even though we were only two months into the dry season, the water level had dropped that low, I had to build a secondary earth dam, only four inch high, to keep the water from seeping through the stone dam. I know this little water will run out in a few weeks. It won’t cover until we harvest the vegetables.”

Naakpi stretched his arm and slowly turned over his plot. “All what you see here, all this green, will be lost. We will loose this crop. No water, no vegetables, as simple as that. Only a miracle can save us, otherwise within three weeks, all of this will turn brown, and die.”

A miracle could only come under the shape of rains, but as this was the dry season, there was no hope. The next rains would come in six months time, at the earliest.

Naakpi would indeed loose his crop. And now, I understood why he looked as burdened as he was. The only hope he had was for sufficient rains next year, but as the weather patterns had shifted in the past four year, even that looked very unlikely.

For the first time in my interview tour, I saw a farmer who was loosing the battle against climate change. For the first time I really understood the importance of the AMKN initiative sharing research and farmer adaptation methods: Naakpi was not the only farmer in the world battling drought. Solutions in enhanced water management and alternative irrigation methods existed. We need to make that knowledge accessible so that farmers like Naakpi, could turn the odds around.

Read my original post on the CCAFS blog

Written by Peter

December 25th, 2010 at 6:29 pm

Farmers adapting to climate change:
Ganame Ousseni from Burkina Faso

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Burkina Faso farmer

“You have no idea”, says Ganame Ousseni, a cattle farmer in Ninigui in the North of Burkina Faso, “You can not imagine. When I was a small boy, the grass was this high”, and he holds his arm above his head. “We used to hunt wild animals here. We had loads of cattle too.”

But now it is gone. The forest and the grazing grounds. The whole area is barren with a compacted crust as top soil. “What were we to do?”, Ousseni shakes his head, “We had to stay here to mind the crops, so we gave our cattle to nomads passing through. They herded them for us, taking the cows to the grazing grounds hundreds of miles away, all the way up to Mali. At the end of the dry season, when the cattle came back from the migration, we saw we lost more cattle each year. Some were stolen along the way, or were eaten by wild animals. Our herd disseminated. ”

“Remember when Adama told you how we learned to build small dams to stop the water from eroding the soil, and we started to have better crops? Well, the technicians from the farmers’ union also taught us how to use the stover to feed our animals. Ha, we went into the recycling business! We used our crops not only for the grain, but reused the stems and leaves.”, Ousseni smiles.

Years ago, when the forest and grass were plentiful, the stover from millet and sorghum were left on the fields. But now they are carefully stowing it as animal feed, to be used during the dry season.

Even though part of the herd is still migrating with the nomads, they can now keep larger parts in corrals. “We feed them the stover, so they grow fatter, and we can sell them.”, explains Ousseni.

Keeping the cattle in more confined areas allows farmers like Ousseni to also collect the faeces easily. “The technicians taught us how to make good compost, using cow faeces. We mix it with left-overs from the households”, he explains, showing a 20 by 30 foot square next to his corral. “This compost pit is about five foot deep. The compost at the bottom is ready to be used in the next rainy season. It is a simple technique. Just keep on stacking faeces and leaves on the top, and by the time the compost reaches the bottom, it is ready to be used as a fertilizer.”

During this trip where we took testimonials from farmers as part of the AMKN project, it became almost a mantra from the farmers battling the climate change: “As the world changes, as the weather is changing, we, as farmers, also have to change”, Ousseni says, “In the past, a farmer was a farmer, and a cattle herder was a cattle herder. But now everyone combines cattle and crops. We have seen how the two can complement each other. Stover gives us healthy and fat cows. The faeces give us good compost, and thus a good harvest.”

Read the original post on the CCAFS blog

Written by Peter

December 20th, 2010 at 12:14 pm

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Farmers adapting to climate change:
Joel Yiri from Ghana

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Ghana farmer

After his first two sentences, I knew Joel Yiri from Jirapa was the man I was looking for. I had asked Peter Kuupenne, an extension officer from Ghana’s Ministry of Food and Agriculture, to meet “a creative farmer”. And that is what I found: Joel was a man with a vision.

As we shook hands, and sat down in front of Joel’s house, he introduced himself in perfect English. I asked him how come, and if maybe he had been a teacher. But he shook his head: “You know, over here, you are born as a farmer’s son, so that’s what you do for your life: you farm. Just as your father and your father’s father. But that also includes the core challenge: with the current climate change, we can’t farm anymore like they did. We need to adapt our methods. Our fathers had fertile grounds. The rains were plentiful, and for generations they used the same tools, the same seeds and the same technologies. Our generation needs to change.”

From that moment on, I just knew it was going to be an interesting testimonial as part of the series we were recording for the AMKN project.

Joel inherited his plot of land from his father, but the soil had become infertile. For years, he was one of the many migrant workers who go south to farm on other people’s land. “But I realized I was wasting my energy. I work on someone else’s land, to earn money, and buy food. Why not farm my own plots?”.

With the help of his extension officer, Joel tried to use the manure from his two pigs. “I tried it on a small scale first, and found it worked much better than the mineral fertilizer. With the manure, you mix it with the soil, waiting for the first rains. No matter when the rains finally come, the soil is ready. But with mineral fertilizer, if it does not rain within a week, the soil turns hard again, and the fertilizer is wasted.”

Unfertile soil resembles sandHe gradually increased the size of his piggery, so he could also apply the manure to larger plots, and turn them fertile. He showed us the difference: the field treated with manure had green crops growing in a soft soil. Right next to it was a parcel he intended to start treating next year. For the moment, it was barren, with a hard top crust. “This soil almost resembles compacted sand”, Joel said, as he kicked his heel into it, “Nothing grows here. But look over there: with the manure, I harvest maize, soya, cowpeas, cashew and even mango. Untreated soil used to give me two or three bags of maize per plot, if I was lucky. Now, I get twelve bags.”

Joel keeps statistics on his cropsAnd he should know, as he keeps record of all input costs, and revenue on his farm. “My statistics showed me I was loosing on the traditional cash crop of ground nuts. I switched to soya beans and cow peas instead. Those yield better on my ground, and with the shortened rains. I also switched from the local millet and guinea corn to maize.”

Joel’s cashew trees in GhanaJoel does not sit still. He reckons the rainy season will continue to shorten in the years to come, so he planted mango and cashew trees on the plots where he also grows other crops. “Those trees go well in combination with the soya beans and cow pea, but I also combine it with bee-farming. The bees love the cashew flowers. I thought…, even if later on we will only have two short rains in a year, my other crops won’t yield enough. But the cashew and mango will, even with less rain. Combined with the revenue from the honey, I will still have an income, even if my other crops completely fail.”

Every year, the rains have started later, and stopped earlier. To make matters worse, the first rains are often followed by a drought, which sometimes lasts for a month. That’s why Joel is looking further ahead: “I want to take a micro finance loan, to dig a borehole on my land. If I have access to water, I could grow vegetables even during the dry season. A borehole with a simple irrigation system would cost about US$7,000.” A considerable investment, but Joel is sure he could pay back the loan in two years. “An NGO came to look at my plot. They found termite heaps and several indigenous scrubs indicating there is water nearby, so they won’t have to dig deep. My plot is ready. With my 65 pigs, I have enough manure to treat that surface, so only thing I now need is water. It would also benefit the other people on the nearby plots.”

“Farmers should be thinking of the future”, Joel concludes, “We should farm differently from our grand fathers. They took to farming only as a way to survive, to eat : if a crop failed, the next year they would try the same thing again, and again. No, that is not the way. We have to change. The way the climate is changing, we too have to adopt new crops, new seed varieties and new farming techniques.”

Read my original post on the CCAFS blog

Written by Peter

December 15th, 2010 at 6:17 pm

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Farmers adapting to climate change:
Helene Nana from Burkina Faso

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Helene Nana on her vegetable farm in Burkina Faso

“Twenty years ago, famine reigned our area”, says Helene. “The men went off to Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Togo and all countries around us. They farmed other people’s lands. But we, the women, we could not move. We had to raise the children. And it was hard.”

“You know, for a farmer, the crop is everything. As the weather changed, as the erosion took our soil away, we were left with infertile land. Whatever small crops we could still harvest, was not enough for our kids. They got sick, many died. Those were very hard times.”

Adama, the chairman from the farmers’ union, had told us how the village succeeded in constructing a dam. “That was good as a drinking hole for the cattle”, Helene explains, “but I realized we could do more with it, and thought about growing vegetables during the dry season. We never did that, I had no experience, but I wanted to give it a try. If you don’t try, you won’t learn, in my opinion.”

Indeed, the farmers in Ninigui, used to be idling during the dry season. “Once the harvest finished, everyone, young and old, sat in the shade of the trees, until the new planting season. So we thought of using the water from the dam to make plots with small vegetable farms so we could grow vegetables all year round, and not depend on the single crop from the rainy season.”

Helene on her vegetable farmThe village allocated several small plots for Helene and her group of entrepreneurial women, to try out vegetable farming. “It took me about five years before I had a significant yield”, she smiles, “But once I found out the basic techniques, it took off really fast. Now we have over one hundred men and women working in the lowlands around the dam. So now, in the dry season, everyone is busy. Some tend to the vegetable gardens, some harvest them, others go to the market and sell them.”

“For everyone starting a vegetable garden, my advice is: try it out! Vegetables will diversify your food basket, but will also allow you to create a second harvest, during the dry season. It is not difficult to get a vegetable crop. The only thing you need is water.”

As water was critical, Helene had a water hole dug on her vegetable plot. “But it was not sufficient, so I dug another one, and yet another one. As my vegetable farm grew, I took a microfinance loan and bought a small motor pump. It takes the water from the dam, fifty meters further and pumps the water to my plot. I share the water with other women on the neighbouring plots. They chip in to cover the gas and the maintenance of the pump.”

On her small plot of one hectare, Helene harvests 70 tins of onions per season. Each tin is about 20 kgs. “And with 25 kgs of potato seeds, I get about 600 to 700 kgs of potatoes. But I also do peppers, and cabbage.”

Asked about her future plans, Helene gives me a wide smile, and a fire glows in her eyes: “I don’t want to sit still. I want to experiment with vegetables uncommon to the people in this region: bell peppers, courgettes, cucumbers,…. I want to grow them, and see if I can create a market for them, that’s my next project.”

Read the original post on the CCAFS blog

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Written by Peter

December 10th, 2010 at 6:10 pm

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