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Feed the Future Research Series Part II: Successful Agriculture through Crop Improvement

By Christopher Chapman

Feed the Future strategies for food security are designed not only to accelerate agriculture-led growth and reduce undernutrition, but also to encourage sustainable and equitable management of land, water, fisheries, and other resources. Feed the Future Intern Christopher Chapman asked guest expert Irvin Widders to provide his insights on how improved varieties can help smallholder farmers overcome major challenges.

1. How are improved crop varieties created and how do they help farmers?

Widders: First of all, we need to understand that improved varieties don’t always possess high yield potential. Traits of improved varieties in addition to increased productivity can include:

  • Drought resistance
  • Increased nutritional value
  • A specific grain type desired by markets
  • Tolerance to high temperatures
  • Adaptation to low fertility
  • Shorter cooking time

The Feed the Future Dry Grain Pulses Innovation Lab* takes sustainability into account; thus “improved” is relative to the needs of the farmer, consumers, and the environment.

Improved varieties start with plant breeders and farmers selecting a number of plants with the desired traits and making crosses between these plants. Among the offspring, plants with the desired combination of traits are selected and then further crossed. It typically takes eight to ten generations of crosses before an elite genetic line (variety) is obtained that possesses all the agronomic and culinary traits that the breeder is seeking. Additionally, it is possible to not only develop a variety with a new adventitious trait (i.e. a disease-resistance gene), but to increase the expression of a particular trait, for example, increasing the size or color intensity of the grain.

2. What are the difficulties in this process?

Widders: The process itself works quite well; it is the application of the improved varieties that creates challenges. The field performance of a plant can be thought of as the interaction of its genetics with the environment. When improved varieties are developed, their genetics are changed in a way that enables them to perform in a superior manner under a particular set of environmental conditions. But there are so many different environmental factors—weather during growing season, day length, soil conditions, length of growing season, and disease and insect pressure—that can make an improved variety perform differently in alternative environments.

Choosing when and under what conditions to plant certain improved varieties can also be challenging because local weather patterns are unpredictable. During a particular season, farmers may face drought conditions, while excess rainfall the following season can cause major crop losses. If a farmer plants an improved drought-tolerant variety during a year when rainfall is not limiting, that variety may not be the highest-yielding as compared to other varieties.

The matter becomes even more complicated when one realizes that there are different types of drought (e.g., terminal and intermittent). A breeder selects for varieties that are adapted to the most prevalent agronomic conditions and stresses in a particular area. Farmers select varieties to plant which they like for multiple reasons; not just yield, but also traits such as early maturity (if there is a hunger period), cooking time, and flavor (culinary traits).

3. What do you think the future direction of research will be?

Widders: With the advent of genetic sequencing and the use of molecular markers, breeders can identify and select for specific genes controlling both observable and non-observable traits of interest, like physiological traits conferring improved drought tolerance or enhanced capacity to biologically fix nitrogen. This provides breeders with tools to more effectively and efficiently make crosses to obtain a desired phenotype that has the potential to be a highly successful variety for farmers.

Additionally, genomics is enabling breeders to exploit genetic diversity that exists in all crop species, through characterization of core germplasm collections and identification of new, previously unidentified traits that can be valuable in crop improvement. I am convinced that the genomics revolution will afford unimaginable opportunities to make future gains in increasing productivity and resilience of crop species to climate change.

There also needs to be more localized adaptive research and testing. This can ensure that new improved varieties really work in the areas they will be planted. Smallholder farmers also need to be educated about the advantages and weaknesses of improved varieties so that they can effectively manage the crop to achieve optimum varietal performance and to profitably use production inputs.

Irvin Widders is the Director of the Feed the Future Food Security Innovation Lab: Collaborative Research on Dry Grain Pulses* based at Michigan State University. The Innovation Lab contributes to economic growth and food and nutrition security through knowledge and technology generation that strengthens pulse (e.g., bean, cowpea, pigeon pea, etc.) value chains and enhances the capacity and sustainability of agriculture research institutions which serve pulse sectors in developing countries of Africa and Latin America.

*Formerly called the Dry Grain Pulse Collaborative Research Support Program.


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