RTB Annual Meeting 2018: “Staying the best”

The annual meeting for the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) took place from October 25-28 in Palmira and Cali, Colombia, hosted by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

The meeting, followed the 18th Triennial Symposium of the International Society for Tropical Root Crops, which also featured much RTB research, brought together more than 80 participants from the program’s five implementing centers, along with other partners attending the symposium. Full details are available from the RTB Annual Meeting Report.

“Our annual meetings are a chance to bring together our team from across the globe to dynamize research moving forward. We need everyone’s buy-in to ensure that RTB stays as one of the best CGIAR Research Programs,” said Graham Thiele, RTB Director, who opened the event. He went on to highlight six areas where RTB is excelling including adding value through synergistic cross cutting flagship research, scaling, gender research, communication, and its Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning platform (MEL).

“Part of what makes us one of the top performing CRPs are our strong partnerships. One of our goals through this meeting was to identify ways in which we can enhance our collaboration with key partners in 2019,” said Thiele.

Towards this, the first day of the event included a set of mini-workshops designed to strengthen cooperation with the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture (BIG DATA) and the Standing Panel on Impact Assessment (SPIA). During each session, participants including partner representatives, laid out plans of action identified areas of collaboration and their importance, bottlenecks for action and opportunities for resource mobilization.

The development of ontologies for RTB crops and agronomy, and their integration in data collection and data management systems was identified as a potential area of collaboration with BIG DATA, along with the creation of data-driven approaches to enhance transnational pest and disease surveillance and management.

For CCAFS, areas of collaboration included evidence-based awareness initiatives and policy influence, including developing adaptation plans with policy makers to consider the potential for adaptation to climate change and extreme weather events of RTB cropping systems.

Ways of enhancing collaboration with SPIA included supporting feedback and learning loops between scaling strategies and early impact assessments, unpacking the genetic fingerprinting data from impact studies to provide metrics around trait adoption to guide breeding programs and using periodic existing national representative agricultural surveys to include specific questions about technology adoption.

The following day, flagship project teams came together to identify concrete actions for 2019. Teams focused on cross-cutting areas which benefit the RTB program as a whole, assessing interactions among cross-crop and crop-specific clusters of activities, identifying ways they could improve, and highlighting their most exciting piece of research going forward.

Flagship Project 1 – Enhanced genetic resources 
The team from Flagship Project 1 highlighted their plans to make breeding more demand responsive by  incorporating tools such as product profiles and the stage-gate from the Excellence in Breeding Platform and the CGIAR Gender and Breeding Initiative. This would be implemented via the Breeding Community of Practice and link with implementing common sets of recommendations from the Breeding Program Assessment Tool (BPAT) assessments.

An important achievement of the flagship presented during the event is the wealth of genomic information captured from the most diverse crop genetic resources that will help define RTB’s main genepools. “Their relative genetic diversity and genetic distance is opening the unique opportunity to define heterotic pools to accelerate and improve the quantity and quality of RTB crops.  Knowing the relationship among heterotic groups is key for germplasm organization and variety development through hybrid breeding,” explained Luis Augusto Becerra, Flagship Project 1 leader and CIAT scientist. 

Flagship Project 2 – Adapted productive varieties and quality seed
The Flagship Project 2 group, including Karen Garrett from the University of Florida, also discussed the modernization of breeding programs. Additionally, cross-cutting collaboration was proposed around the use of ground penetrating radar for early bulking and root growth estimation in root and tuber crops, and for bananas to measure the growth of the corm. In the area of seed, collaboration was proposed around quality assurance looking at standards and regulations, which could build on work with the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions and Markets (PIM) on gathering evidence of impacts of inappropriate quality assurance standards in RTB crops. Additional effort is needed in shared communication and advocacy strategies to achieve appropriate quality assurance with certification agencies.

Flagship Project 3 – Resilient crops 
The team from Flagship Project 3, including Julian Smith of Fera Science Ltd, agreed that better integration of databases and digital tools for pest and disease monitoring and management is a key area for future work together with BIG DATA. Big data tools and analytics have immense potential to help support transnational surveillance and responses to crop pests and diseases, which are expected to intensify under climate change. Better ways to detect outbreaks are needed for early and effective contingency responses for pests and diseases, along with greater accessibility of this data to a wider user base.

Flagship Project 4 – Nutritious food and added value 
Anticipating changes in food choices by generating knowledge on urban and rural consumption habits of RTB crops, including products and trends, was identified by the Flagship Project 4 team. Better understanding the choices that consumers make and identifying future changes in consumption habits can help to develop behavioral strategies and develop more targeted interventions.

“The team is very passionate and dedicated to their profession and they see their flagship themes related to nutrition, food science and post-harvest as part of the core of RTB. Attending RTB annual meetings is fun for me because it’s an opportunity to meet people and put the names to faces. The annual meeting allows for discussions and planning in person and that enhances productivity. It’s was wonderful team building exercise for me in my new role as flagship leader,” said Tawanda Muzhingi, Flagship Project 4 leader and scientist with the International Potato Center.

Flagship Project 5 – Improved livelihoods at scale  
The Flagship Project 5 team will feature in reporting their progress on linking farm level modelling to strategic foresight which relates biophysical and socio-economic analyses. They highlighted the need to enhance the gender-responsiveness of scaling processes.

“Scaling of innovations is a hot topic that is high on the donor agenda. Flagship Project 5 featured prominently in the ScaleUP conference organised at Purdue and during the World Food Prize 2018 event in Des Moines where I participated in a panel on Science of Scaling. This gives us great momentum to put forward some of the tools, approaches and best practices from RTB, as we are obviously ahead of the game in terms of our thinking and decision support tools. It is important for us to translate our science on scaling into tangible products that can be used by donors and scaling partners to develop more cost-efficient scaling strategies,” said Marc Schut, Flagship Project 5 leader and scientist with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture and Wageningen University and Research.

The flagship also scheduled a ‘Blue Sky Retreat’ for 2019 to review and update the Theory of Change at flagship and at cluster levels and identify and develop outcome stories of how our investments have triggered or contributed to real changes or improved livelihoods. The retreat will also examine what additional or novel investments the flagship needs to make to further advance impact as part of RTB.

The event wrapped up with small groups working through the following strategic cross-cutting themes:

  • Implementing a stage-gate approach in RTB breeding programs
  • Use of the seed systems toolkit
  • Mobile apps and ICT for pests and disease diagnosis and surveillance
  • Gender differentiated end-user preferences for fresh and processed RTB foods, quality traits and breeding
  • Exploring opportunities for applying the scaling readiness approach

The positive and collaborative spirit of the meeting was summed up by Flagship Project 3 leader, James Legg: