Awards highlight myth-busting research on human and soil health, key breakthroughs in confronting water scarcity, and extraordinary successes in rice improvement
Montpellier, France (30 March 2010)—With chronic food shortages afflicting 2.5 million people in Niger, agricultural scientists are rolling out a solution for subsistence farmers that consists of small, market-oriented vegetable plots. Nearly 5,000 of the innovative market gardens have been established in Niger and other countries of West and Central Africa’s dry Sahelian region, and the stage is set for a major expansion.
The two international organizations leading the vegetable drive were recognized today with the Award for Outstanding Partnership, one of seven awards conferred by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) at the Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development, which is taking place this week in Montpellier, France.
Over the last decade, the World Vegetable Center and CGIAR-supported International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) have labored jointly across the Sahel to improve local vegetable varieties and create viable systems for their production, based on appropriate water management, using inexpensive, low-pressure drip irrigation and traditional water-harvesting techniques.
An improved tomato variety resulting from their work is spreading rapidly in Niger. For the first time ever, markets in the nation’s capital, Niamey, were well supplied with the vegetable during the last rainy season. A new onion variety shows equal promise, yielding 60 tons per hectare, nearly twice as much as other lines grown by farmers. The market gardens producing those and other vegetables have proved highly profitable, giving returns of up to US$1,500 from an area of only 500 square meters. Women capture most of the profits, since they dominate vegetable production and marketing.
ICRISAT has worked for decades to improve basic crops like sorghum, pearl millet and groundnut in the drought-prone Sahel. But by the late 1990s, it realized that, with crops failing in 2 out of 5 years, small farmers needed higher value alternatives for raising incomes and enhancing nutrition, in addition to more resilient staples. That realization prompted the partnership with the World Vegetable Center, which today offers new hope for the Sahel’s 100 million people, most of whom are subsistence farmers.
Water at the center of the food debate
The Sahelian market gardens provide convincing proof that, with the right support, small farmers in dry regions can improve the productivity not just of land but of scarce water. The scientist who put the concept of water productivity at the center of renewed debate about how to achieve global food security despite looming water scarcity has received the Award for Outstanding Scientist. He is David Molden, deputy director general for research at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).
From 2001 to 2007, Molden coordinated the Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture, which encompassed 50 years of global experience. The study produced influential scientific findings, which are considered to be the benchmark for gauging future efforts to cope with water scarcity in agriculture.
In addition to leading the development of a conceptual framework for the assessment, Molden kept a widely dispersed team of more than 1,000 scientists on track and translated their key findings into a compelling set of messages for policy makers. These are forcefully conveyed in a book entitled Water for Food, Water for Life, which Molden edited. The assessment also produced a map of global water scarcity, which has served as a focus for subsequent dialogue and development planning.
“David has shown extraordinary leadership in bringing the issue of water scarcity to prominence in the policy arena worldwide,” said Colin Chartres, director general of IWMI.
Giving the lie to false dilemmas
Two pioneering studies, whose results struck down persistent false dilemmas in development, shared the Award for Outstanding Scientific Article.
A study published nearly two years ago in The Lancet (arguably the world’s top biomedical journal) was the first ever to give direct evidence that interventions aimed at improving nutrition in early childhood are not only crucial for children’s physical development but can also have positive effects on their economic productivity and incomes in adulthood. For decades, some experts have insisted that such interventions, while clearly good for children, compete with investments in economic growth.
In search of evidence to the contrary, lead author John Hoddinott, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and four colleagues interviewed hundreds of individuals in rural eastern Guatemala who had received nutritional supplements under a program carried out 25 years earlier. Using cutting-edge statistical analysis, the authors showed that exposure to a nutritious supplement before the age of two had a significant effect on a man’s hourly wage rate.
The study thus provides compelling evidence that the first two years of life represent a critical window of opportunity for nutritional programs, both to enhance child development and generate life-long economic benefits. The second study, published during 2008 in the Soil Science Society of America Journal, flies in the face of the widely held notion that intensive agriculture is necessarily incompatible with soil health.
Based on analysis of soil samples collected over 15 years from four experiments begun during the 1960s, Roland Buresh, a senior soil scientist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), and three colleagues determined that continuous rice monoculture on submerged soils consistently maintained or actually increased soil organic matter. Their findings demonstrate that, if farmers remove crop residues from the field rather than incorporate them into the soil, this need not reduce grain yields, as long as the nutrients removed are replaced with appropriate use of chemical fertilizers.
The irrigated rice system that passed Buresh’s rigorous sustainability test occupies some 24 million hectares in Asia, accounting for about 40 percent of global production and providing food for 1.5 billion people.
A staggering record of success
The scientists responsible for maintaining a continuous supply of new rice varieties for irrigated production were recognized with the Award for Outstanding Scientific Support Team. Under the leadership of Parminder Virk, a senior plant breeder at IRRI, the Irrigated Rice Breeding Team has developed hundreds of new rice lines since the late 1970s, showing higher yield potential, better grain quality and resistance to diseases and insect pests.
One variety that epitomizes the team’s contribution is IR64, which has been estimated to occupy more than 13 million hectares in 12 different countries. It is among the 300 IRRI breeding lines that have been released as more than 600 varieties in all of the major rice-growing countries of Asia and other regions.
“About 70 percent of rice land worldwide is sown to modern varieties, and 75 percent of these have been derived from IRRI breeding materials—most of which have been developed by the Irrigated Rice Breeding Team,” commented Robert Zeigler, IRRI director.
Overcoming gender barriers to rural learning
As growing numbers of farmers in developing countries take up new rice varieties, they are also gaining assistance in building new knowledge about improved rice production and processing techniques. One approach that has proved extraordinarily successful for that purpose in Africa is the Rice Rural Learning Initiative, which earned the Award for Outstanding Communications.
Launched by the Africa Rice Center and various partners in 2005, the initiative has demonstrated how farmer-to-farmer videos, combined with the use of mass media, not only convey information about improved practices effectively but also stimulate further innovation, including stronger social organization.
“Even though women make up the majority of Africa’s 20 to 30 million rice farmers, they are usually left on the periphery during training programs,” noted Papa Abdoulaye Seck, director general of the Africa Rice Center. “By giving rural women a voice through video and by disseminating these materials through grass roots organizations and rural radio, we believe the gender barriers to learning can be partly overcome.”
Under the leadership of Paul Van Mele, a learning and innovation specialist at Africa Rice, the Learning Initiative has developed a set of 11 videos with farmers, translated them into 33 African languages and distributed them to more than 600 organizations in 44 countries. The videos have also been widely broadcast on television, reaching nearly 2 million farmers in Nigeria, for example. In addition, the content has been developed into radio scripts, which have been distributed to more than 300 radio programs with a combined audience of 850,000 rural people.
An impact study carried out in Benin during 2009 documented the effectiveness of the videos for promoting adoption of improved rice processing among rural women, which translated into higher income from rice sales.
A way with words and weeds
One of the rice videos shares a new approach for dealing with weeds, including parasitic species, which are among the most serious constraints of Africa’s rice production. The scientist who developed the approach and helped prepare the video—Jonne Rodenburg, weed specialist at the Africa Rice Center—has received the Award for Promising Young Scientist.
Since Africa’s small rice farmers can rarely afford to use herbicides, they need an integrated package of alternative measures, in which improved varieties can play an important role. For that reason, Rodenburg has focused much of his work, quite successfully, on identifying rice varieties that possess resistance to parasitic weeds as well as a strong ability to compete with weeds generally.
An article just published in the journal Field Crops Research, of which Rodenburg was the lead author, suggests that rice varieties developed by the Africa Rice Center, which it named New Rice for Africa (NERICA), effectively combine the high yield potential of Asian rice with the strong weed competitiveness of African rice. This is one of eight articles that Rodenburg, much admired by colleagues for his writing skills, has published in high-profile journals during the last 3 years.
Journalism at the service of Africa’s agriculture
Another professional who has put his way with words at the service of Africa’s agriculture is Zimbabwean journalist Busani Bafana, recipient of the Award for Excellence in Agricultural Science Journalism.
In a story entitled “A Better Banana for Africa,” which Bafana wrote for IPS (Inter Press Service) Africa, he reports on efforts in Kenya to improve banana yields and health, which are keys to “Africa’s potential banana boom.” Bafana offers a close-up view of the research, allowing readers to look over scientists’ shoulders, as it were, while they work with skill and commitment to provide farmers with more productive, disease-free plants.
In a letter endorsing Bafana’s nomination, Terna Gyuse, regional editor for IPS Africa, lauded the reporter for his sustained effort to “portray the realities of the agricultural sector, with a particular emphasis on the voices and experiences of the small farmers who are the backbone of the continent’s food security.”