An agri-food revolution for tropical root and tuber crops

“When, where and how will tropical root and tuber crops lead to the next agri-food revolution?” More than 200 participants have gathered in Cali, Colombia, this week for the 18th Triennial Symposium of the International Society for Tropical Root Crops (ISTRC), to share research and experiences under the theme of this guiding question.

The event kicked off today, Monday 22 October, at the headquarters of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and brings together some of the world’s foremost experts on root and tuber crops, including cassava, potato, sweetpotato and yam.

Group photo of participants from the first day of the ISTRC meeting. Photo: CIAT

Over the span of the four-day conference, participants will identify opportunities for new research and collaboration, propose strategies that can strengthen public-private partnerships and suggest areas of intervention for more favourable policies. The event brings together four out of five implementing centers of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) – the International Potato Center (CIP), the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD), and CIAT, along with numerous other program partners.

The event was opened by Ruben Echeverria, the Director General of CIAT, who invited participants to take advantage of the gathering and contribute to “the great future of these crops, which feed around 20% of the world’s population.”

The ISTRC president, Keith Tomlins, also welcomed delegates to the event by painting a picture of the world 50 years ago when the Society was first founded in Trinidad; man had not yet landed on the moon and Chairman Mao was the leader of China. “What contributions have root and tuber crops made in those last 50 years?” he asked. Thanks to progress in breeding and understanding of genetics “…we now have varieties with higher yields and we can combat pests and diseases. The savings here, through increase increased yield and pest and disease resistance, must amount into the billions of dollars,” he said. Tomlins also highlighted the shift in thinking around the nutritional value of the crops and the great strides made in biofortification, which will feature as a session topic during the event.

Day one featured a session on scaling, with an opening presentation by RTB’s Flagship Project 5 leader, Marc Schut, who introduced the program’s approach to scaling. “What we are trying to do under RTB is scaling ‘the new way’,” he said. “That means we start thinking about scaling before we start writing the project proposal and before we start doing the work. This ensures that we have skilled people in the project team from the outset who know how to do the scaling – scientists who understand the research, those who understand the business and the people who understand the policy,” he explained.

The ‘Scaling Readiness Approach’ used by RTB treats innovation as a flexible package of technological, organizational and institutional components that may include crop varieties, equipment, management practices, legislation and marketing. An innovation may be ready in a technical sense, for example a new crop variety may thrive in the local environment, but if farmers lack funds to buy seed or if the policy environment discourages the uptake of new varieties, it may not be adopted. This approach assesses the potential of technologies and other innovations supported by RTB to be used at scale, and guides researchers and other stakeholders in implementing these innovations in practical contexts.

The importance of considering gender for creating scalable technologies was also discussed in a presentation by CIP social scientist, Nozomi Kawarazuka, who emphasized the importance of understanding the differing needs and interests of women and men when developing agricultural machinery. Her presentation unpacked examples from case studies conducted under the GENNOVATE project, including sweetpotato silage chopping machines in Uganda and potato grading equipment in Bolivia. Adjustment was needed to make these machines more suitable for women farmers due to their body size, physical strength and limited experiences of using the equipment.

Modifying machinery to meet women’s needs is often undervalued in the process of development and introduction, but it is a very important factor to increase adoption. Based on findings from the case studies, RTB developed a set of guidelines to support project leaders, researchers and development workers to ensure that gender is adequately addressed in research design and interventions in agricultural machineries.

RTB Director, Graham Thiele, together with Kawarazuka – who is also a trained chef – delivered a compelling presentation later in the day on the power of ‘culinary innovation’ to both transform the perceptions of roots and tubers, and support scaling by creating demand. Their session introduced the Participatory Market Chain Approach used by CIP to develop a market for native potato varieties in Peru, where a thriving gastronomic scene has played a role in its sustained success. Other examples were also described, including a growing export market for cassava liquor in Cambodia.

RTB scientists will continue to present research throughout the event, on topics ranging from next-generation breeding, management and monitoring of pests and diseases, seed systems, and more.

Following the conclusion of the event, RTB will host the program’s 2018 Annual Meeting onsite at the CIAT campus on Friday 26 October. The meeting will provide an opportunity to review progress across RTB’s five flagship projects and to plan for the coming year.

Watch a livestream of the ISTRC event here: https://ciat.cgiar.org/event/istrc2018/
Join the conversation and follow live updates on Twitter using: #ISTRC2018