Category Archives: News

Guiding farmers to safer use of pesticides in Rwanda and Burundi

Cassava plant showing symptoms of mosaic disease in Burundi. Photo credit Joshua Okonya, CIP

It’s hard to overstate the importance of root, tuber, and banana (RTB crops) for smallholder farmers in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. Thousands of farming households here depend on orange-fleshed sweetpotato, yellow cassava, east African cooking banana and table potato for their daily meals. These families also rely on the cash generated from the sale of surplus RTB crops to cover home expenses, often including school fees and medical care.  

Despite the prominent role RTB crops play in the livelihoods of farmers in the region, their production is constrained by numerous pests and diseases that can hamper yields and cause significant postharvest losses. The African sweetpotato weevil and diseases such as potato late blight, cassava mosaic disease, and banana Xanthomonas wilt place high pressure on crop health and yields and are spreading to new areas with changing climatic condition.

“Quantifying crop losses from pests and diseases with high accuracy is difficult,” explains Joshua Okonya, Research Associate – Crop Protection, at the International Potato Center (CIP). “Official statistics don’t exist, and farmers rarely keep records.” Okonya estimates that losses would be in the average range of 10-30% depending on crop type, pathogen, weather conditions, and crop management. Crop losses significantly affect smallholder farmers’ livelihoods and food security.

In a bid to control these threats, farmers in Rwanda and Burundi are increasingly using pesticides to reduce yield- and postharvest losses. Yet information on pesticide use practices in RTB crops in these two countries is lacking, and there are few studies on farmers’ use of personal protective equipment (PPE), exposure symptoms, handling, and pesticide misuse.

Knowledge gaps in safe pesticide handling, the importance of PPE and a lack of working application equipment and safe storage pose significant hazards to farmers and their families. Neither Rwanda nor Burundi had or enforced regulations on safe pesticide use and handling, essentially leaving it to commercial sellers—many of them untrained—to advise farmers on how to store, package, label, transport, and handle these hazardous and often unlabeled chemicals.

“If nothing is done, cases of pesticide poisoning will continue to rise leading to ill-health among those who apply pesticides, hence reducing productivity and increasing expenditure on medical care,” says Okonya, a co-author of the paper published in 2019 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. However before potential interventions can be designed, a clearer picture is needed to capture farmers’ knowledge, attitudes, and practices about the role of pesticides in managing RTB pests and diseases. 

A farmer shows the enumerator a fungicide she bought and keeps in an un-labeled plastic bag. Photo credit Joshua Okonya, CIP

What the survey revealed

In 2014 a team of researchers from the International Potato Center (CIP), the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Bioversity International, the Rwanda Agricultural Board, and the Institut des Sciences Agronomique du Burundi surveyed 811 RTB crop farming households in two watersheds, Ruhengeri in Rwanda and Rusizi in Burundi.

The survey gathered data on existing pest and disease control methods, toxicity levels of pesticides and frequency of application, protective measures against exposure, cases of acute poisoning while handling pesticides and descriptions of farmers’ level of knowledge regarding pesticide handling and use of PPE.

Results of the household survey paint a detailed picture of how farmers are managing the main pests and diseases of each of their RTB crops through the use of pesticides, cultural control methods such as single stem removal, crop rotation, and early harvesting, or a combination of different practices.

More than half of surveyed farmers applied pesticides with damaged knapsack sprayers, meanwhile use of PPE such as eye protection, face, and nose masks, gloves, and waterproof jackets were low. Farmers typically wore face-covering such as handkerchiefs, which provide poor protection. Farmers were reluctant to use PPEs while applying pesticides, citing cost and lack of availability as barriers.

As a result, all surveyed farmers reported some type of symptoms (e.g. itchy skin, irritated eyes, headaches, and nausea) following field application of pesticides, and in both countries, they knew of cases where some farmers have died from accidental poisoning.

Where future efforts should go from here

The household survey offers insights and information that can be used when designing vector control programs, intervention programs, and integrated pest management (IPM) approaches, including the safe use and handling of pesticides.  

The results can be of great value to other stakeholders in the pesticides value chain and can feed into efforts to raise awareness of the need to enforce pesticide legislation and alternative control methods.

Given the high risk of pesticide poisoning, it’s imperative that farmers and agrochemical retailers of pesticides alike be trained on how to use and handle pesticides safely, and that IPM approaches that are more sustainable and environmentally friendly be prioritized and promoted through increased policy and institutional support.

On farm: exploring the genetic diversity of RTB hotspots

Project sites and crops included in the RTB on farm diversity! project.
Photo credits: Stef De Haan/CIP, Erik Delaquis/CIAT, Gabriel Sachter-Smith/consultant, Bioversity International

This June, scientists from all over the world convened in the south of France for a unique conference. Held every ten years or so since 1997, the Harlan Symposium showcases research on the origins of agriculture, crop domestication & evolution, and the diversity and utilization of genetic resources. Named after Jack Harlan, professor of plant genetics, a passionate advocate of agrobiodiversity, and early crop diversity collector, this year’s edition explored diverse topics ranging from the domestication of the Asian elephant to using citizen science to document banana diversity.

Attending the symposium was a group of CGIAR and CIRAD scientists who took the opportunity to launch a three-year initiative in the spirit of Harlan’s legacy: to document and understand the genetic diversity of RTB crops in three continents.

Building on several years of previous work in the CGIAR-RTB research program, the project ‘On farm: Exploring the genetic diversity of RTB hotspots’ (or ‘RTB on farm diversity!’ for short) takes on the challenge of evaluating and documenting genetic diversity in hotspots of some of the world’s most important staple crops.

Farming communities continue to shape and maintain the diversity of crops the world over. It is through the interaction of farmers and crops that functional diversity in each species is shaped and maintained in an ever-evolving process of adaptation, selection, breeding, and maintenance. In this way, farming communities are the stewards of crop-variety diversity.

However, the FAO 2019 state of the world’s biodiversity for food and agriculture report highlights alarming declines in biodiversity at both species and genetic levels – and increases in the threats responsible for this erosion. Though it is on farms where crop wild relatives continue to breed with landraces, introducing new genes into breeding pools, over 95% of such species are still inadequately represented in gene banks. In this perilous context, understanding on farm diversity management is more critical than ever to safeguard the future of our food supply.

Three sites were chosen for the RTB on farm diversity! project:

  • Peru, where the Andean topography generates an array of microclimates from tropical forests to glacial peaks, accompanied by primary centers of diversity for staple crops including cassava in the steamy lowlands, and the bewildering diversity of potato on high altitude plateaus.
  • Papua New Guinea, the planet’s most linguistically diverse country, with a stunning array of bananas to match. Here there is undocumented diversity of many globally important RTB crops – included for evaluation in this project are banana, yam, and sweetpotato.
  • Benin, a long, club-shaped country in West Africa’s center of crop diversity, where the yam represents more than just food. Over 95% of the world’s yam production remains in Africa; particularly in the Western continent where the crop takes a paramount role in nutrition and markets, but also in ritual beliefs and social customs. Africa is also a secondary center of diversity for cassava, the result of centuries of crossing and selection by farmers following the crop’s introduction from South America.

Representatives from Bioversity International, CIAT, CIP and CIRAD (IITA participated virtually) gathered in Montpellier to launch the project ‘On farm: Exploring the genetic diversity of RTB hotspots.

Despite their differences, these three sites are reservoirs of crop diversity, each facing the transformative pressures of a world undergoing rapid environmental and social change. The research in this project is vital, not only to understand how the human-crop relationship continues to shape both parties but also to identify gaps in existing ex-situ gene bank collections, bringing to the fore what we risk losing without concerted efforts to protect and manage crop diversity.

In this project, Bioversity International, CIAT, CIP, CIRAD, and IITA join a wide array of national partners; integral project members who make it possible to document the genetic resources in these hotspots. Together the group will share each other’s strengths, expertise, and methods, shedding new light on global RTB crop diversity.

Major partners include Grupo Yanapai and Universidad Nacional Daniel Alcides Carrion in Peru, Laboratory of Biotechnology, Genetic Resources and Plant and Animal Breeding (BIORAVE) at the University of Abomey in Benin, and the National Agricultural Research Institute in Papua New Guinea.

Climate change and rising population put pressure on essential crops in low-income regions

Crops such as bananas, potatoes, and cassava are essential to food security in the world’s poorest regions. By 2050, their importance will increase, but climate change and population growth will put unprecedented pressure on production

Climate change and population growth are increasing concerns for global food security. Modeling future agricultural trends that account for these seismic shifts is essential to understanding food supply and income generation, especially in low-income countries. Research often focuses on widely consumed cereal crops, which form a substantial portion of the global diet. But roots, tubers, and bananas are the mainstay of diets in many of the world’s poorest regions, and a new analysis shows these crops have great potential for reducing malnutrition and poverty through 2050, as long as they are on the receiving end of appropriately targeted investments.

Known as RTBs, these crops include plantains, cassava, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, and tropical and Andean roots and tubers. They are some of the most valuable crops in the world’s poorest regions. Rich in nutrients, vitamin A and carbohydrates, RTBs often outperform cereals in terms of energy per cultivated hectare, and can produce high yields under harsh conditions – including extreme climate events that go hand-in-hand with climate change.

These traits make RTBs particularly important for undernourished populations such as in sub-Saharan countries, where they contribute up to 50 percent of the daily calorie intake. What is more, they have a significant role in income generation and are frequently grown and marketed by women.

“RTBs are the mainstay of diets and rural livelihoods in many poor regions,” said Guy Hareau, a researcher at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru and co-author of the analysis published in Global Food Security. “However, overcoming the productivity and market challenges are constrained by underinvestment.”

RTBs only receive a fraction of the attention given to other food commodities. The number of researchers dedicated to RTB crops in Africa, Asia, and Latin America during 2010-2014 was only one third the number of those dedicated to cereals and livestock, according to the analysis. This underinvestment is also mirrored in the gap in the literature on RTB crops, which is needed to inform food security interventions and policy.

Increased attention is warranted not just because of food security and nutrition. Some RTBs are being grown for industrial purposes, including cassava for starch, and potatoes for biofuels. Growth in these industries could increase demand even further than projected.

“One understudied issue is the extent to which industry will increase demand on these staple crops to produce biofuels and starch,” said Steven Prager, a co-author from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and co-leader of the CGIAR’s Global Futures & Strategic Foresight initiative. “We need to take a serious look at how these humble crops are hooked into global markets and how policy decisions around the world can affect the markets for these crops, today and well into the future.”

Enoch Kikulwe, a co-author from Bioversity International echoes the sentiment: “A rising demand for biofuel or industrial starch is likely to exert pressure on RTB crops, especially cassava, which can result in an increase in prices, depriving poor people from accessing their staples as predicted in this research.”

RTBs, today and tomorrow

The analysis was conducted by researchers at five CGIAR research centers – CIP, CIAT, Bioversity International, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) – within the framework of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB).

Growth in RTB production has increased steadily in the last 50 years, most rapidly in Africa, albeit slower than cereals. Asia has now become the largest RTB-producing region, with much of growth concentrated on potato and sweet potato production in China. In Latin America, RTBs are important staples and cash crops throughout the region.

Their key role in providing calories and nutrition makes it crucial to examine long-term trends in RTB supply and demand to better understand how focused investments can bolster their production. The existing studies, however, consist of primarily inadequate projections (limited in terms of geographic coverage, time horizon, and range of crops) that do not capture the impacts of socioeconomic drivers and climate change.

The study builds on research by IFPRI and other CGIAR centers that explores future trends for crops. The IFPRI study provided a baseline projection for 2050, including an assessment of the different agricultural investments to understand future changes in matters of food security. The projection takes into account socioeconomic and climate change pathways – namely the Shared Socioeconomic Pathway 2 and the Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5, developed by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change – which follow a business-as-usual scenario of fairly rapid change in the population, economic growth and climate change.

“In this research, we were happy to join with CGIAR colleagues to look at the prospective role of RTBs under a future in which we face challenges not only from increasing total demands and shifting diets but also potentially adverse effects of climate change on production systems,” said Tim Sulser, a co-author from IFPRI. “Investments in research and development for RTBs are important for addressing the imminent challenges we will be facing in the coming decades.”

Using the study’s baseline scenario and the assessment related to RTB crops, the new study examines how RTB agriculture will look like in 2050. Climate change and water availability will be key factors for crop productivity: whereas banana and potato are sensitive to water stress, cassava, yam, and sweet potato are drought tolerant. Agro-ecological conditions and poverty will cause the consumption of RTBs to increase, especially in Africa, indicating their growing importance for food security. While potato stands out as the crop most affected by changing preferences, especially in China, the banana will exhibit the highest growth in supply and demand across all regions.

The analysis also reveals that targeted, localized investments can strengthen the role of RTBs as food security crops. Specifically, investments that aim at increasing productivity offer greater benefits than investments in marketing improvements.

This blog was first published on the CIAT’s website.

How RTB researchers try to develop the potential of RTB seed systems

Roots, tubers and bananas share one characteristic that unites them in the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tuber and Bananas (RTB): farmers multiply them vegetatively, rather than as true seeds produced by sexual reproduction. Of course, they are also extremely important for the food security, nutrition and livelihoods of the most resource-poor farmers on Earth. And that makes a recent paper in the journal Food Security, which asks why interventions in RTB seed systems do not reach their full potential, important to policy-makers and farmers alike.

Together with RTB colleagues, Conny Almekinders, of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, examined 13 previous efforts to improve seed systems for potato, sweetpotato, cassava, yam and banana. “We began to look at these cases in 2014,” Almekinders said, “as it became clear that an increasing number of RTB projects were introducing new varieties and improved multiplication practices, especially in Africa.”

“The case study documents did not show us evidence of many efforts to understand target seed systems,” Almekinders added.

Too often, the projects did not consider the fact that they were intervening in an existing local seed system or farmers who were known to be local seed experts. Many projects simply assumed that some farmers would specialize and become seed-supply entrepreneurs to fill the gap where the public sector could not reach, and the private sector was absent or uninterested. Such projects were often founded on the idea of a central source of high-quality foundation stock, usually produced with advanced technology, such as aeroponic micro-potatoes, yam mini-setts, and tissue culture bananas. These would then be passed to “decentralized multipliers” who would create further generations for distribution.

This approach succeeded sometimes, as with sweetpotatoes in Rwanda, where there was a good link to market for the products. In other cases, Almekinders says, “without project support and subsidies, the technical and economic viability of these decentralized multipliers is not clear.”

One problem, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, is that many farmer cultures consider it inappropriate to pay or to ask for payment for planting material. This reticence may be partially overcome in the case of new varieties, but otherwise is likely to limit the opportunities for business-based informal RTB seed systems.

Some projects, such as the introduction of orange-fleshed sweetpotato in Mozambique, focused on health and nutrition and barely considered the seed system. Despite this, adoption and spread, via the informal seed system, have been impressive. “Orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes are now being grown by thousands of women on small plots of land,” Almekinders said. Varieties will spread and be adopted if farmers see a benefit.

RTB community of practice on one of their learning journeys, a joint visit of KEPHIS laboratories in Nairobi, Kenya

Pros and cons

Vegetative reproduction means that the variety keeps its genetic characteristics, unlike sexually produced seeds. This is a boon when getting new material into the hands of farmers, because it means they can share the improved material in their communities. The flip side, however, is that viruses and other diseases can accumulate in the planting material, reducing its performance.

Farmer-to-farmer diffusion remains the primary route for adoption, as farmers with good experiences multiply the improved material and share it with others. For banana, cassava and potato, the cases show that farmers often share new material with five or more others.

Unfortunately, diseases often spread along with the crops, as they have recently for viruses of cassava in eastern Africa and banana bunchy top virus in the Congo basin. Such degeneration is perhaps the most common reason for farmers to seek RTB planting material off their farm. Although this suggests an additional motivation for decentralized multipliers, there is little evidence that farmers will pay for clean planting material of varieties they already have.

What farmers want

The lack of demand is not simply because farmers do not understand the benefits; in many cases they lack other essential resources to make use of better planting material, such as capital or knowledge. Researchers may insert ‘demand’ in their project proposals, but when the project fails to distribute the expected amount of material, they seldom analyze the reasons why predicted demand did not materialize.

“Improved assessment of farmers’ demand will contribute to improving seed system interventions,” said Almekinders.

Government policy represents another barrier to improved seed systems. Certification schemes that guarantee the quality of planting material may raise costs beyond the reach of most farmers. But the absence of such schemes leaves farmers open to the sale of poor-quality seed.

Potential delivered

A 1990 study of potato identified many of the same problems as this more complete and wide-ranging survey of RTB seed interventions. “Not much seems to have changed since,” said Almekinders. But change is now in the air. The International Potato Center is already applying a diagnosis of existing seed systems to all projects going forward. And the project has started to create change beyond RTB.

“Just last week I learned that our framework is being used in a PhD project in Eritrea,” Almekinders said. “The key to progress is to pay attention to what works where, and for whom, and how to scale up good practices. We have not been good at understanding RTB systems or listening to what farmers really need. If we want to improve RTB crops, we have to improve RTB seed systems too.”

Understanding farmer concerns to improve pest and disease management

 

Enumerators use photos to help farmers identify the exact pests and diseases of RTB crops.

Insect pests and diseases are high on the list of concerns for farmers of root, tuber, and banana (RTB) crops across much of sub-Saharan Africa. For every RTB crop grown, there are several pests and diseases that can reduce yield, lower the quality and profitability of the crop or even wipe out the entire harvest. In addition, farmers also face mounting crop losses due to a lack of clean planting material, soil infertility, infrequent rains, and drought. This not only contributes to food insecurity and reduced household incomes but also discourages investment.

In Rwanda and Burundi in particular, the popularity of RTB crops has been on the rise in recent years as rural households respond to acute food and nutrition needs caused by a mix of biotic and abiotic constraints affecting yields and production. Private sector investment in the processing industry has also spurred demand for RTB crops as a source ingredient for products like cassava flour and sweetpotato-derived confectionery and flour. But can crop yields keep up?

Little is known about the magnitude of yield and postharvest losses in East and Central Africa. “It is hard to quantify losses with high accuracy due to lack of official statistics,” explains Joshua Okonya, Research Associate Crop Protection, International Potato Center (CIP) and a coauthor of the paper published in 2019 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.  What’s more, a changing climate is enabling pests to migrate to previously pest-free areas. “Increasing temperatures, linked to climate change, is resulting in more favorable conditions for virus vectors at higher elevations,” says coauthor James Legg, Plant Virologist for the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and leader of RTB’s Flagship Project 3 on Resilient Crops.

Before integrated pest management (IPM) packages can be developed, researchers need to better understand the science of climate impacts and how farmers of RTB crops perceive the relative severity of different biotic constraints, says Legg.

To do just that, a team of researchers from CIP, IITA, Bioversity International, the Rwanda Agricultural Board, and the Institut des Sciences Agronomique du Burundi conducted a household survey in 2014 to better understand farmers’ concerns about pests and diseases affecting RTB crops. The team surveyed 810 farming households in 54 villages, 27 each in Rwanda and Burundi. All surveyed households reported farming as their main source of income. Most farmers grew at least two of the four main RTB crops for both home consumption and as a cash crop. The survey asked farmers to report on four key dimensions: (1) RTB crop production constraints, (2) pests and diseases threatening their crops, (3) estimated crop loss due to pests and diseases, and (4) whether their household experienced any form of food insecurity due to pests and diseases in the previous cropping season.

Enumerator use photos to help farmers identify the exact pests and diseases of RTB crops.

The survey captured detailed perceptual differences for each crop. Despite some similarities between the two countries, overall productivity was slightly higher in Rwanda, whereas the prevalence of pests and diseases and reports of food insecurity were higher in Burundi. Additionally, farmers listed poor quality planting material due to seed degeneration and the lack of certified seed commercially available as major constraints.

The study highlighted the significance of pests and diseases such as potato late blight, Xanthomonas wilt of banana, cassava whitefly, and sweetpotato butterfly, and their devastating effects on the livelihoods of many of the farmers. The survey also found that more farmers in Burundi than Rwanda had stopped growing some of the RTB crops due to damage by pests and diseases. Okonya observed that “in the low altitude areas of Kabezi in Burundi, the majority of farmers no longer grew banana because it was wiped out by Xanthomonas wilt of banana.”

Banana bunchy top disease

The research team suggested that a package of interventions is needed to control the impacts of the reported pest and diseases, and thereby strengthen the food security of these farming communities. Such interventions would combine the supply of healthy planting material of varieties that are pest and disease resistant with appropriate cultural control measures. “Although affordable and effective control measures are already available for many of the most common diseases of RTB crops, more research still remains to be done in Rwanda and Burundi to develop and adapt comprehensive integrated pest and disease management packages that can tackle all of the major pests and diseases affecting these crops,” the study concluded.

“It is envisaged that the survey findings will be used by researchers in national agricultural research systems and national plant protection organizations, as well as by NGO and extension staff. Additionally, the results could also provide valuable insights for other countries in East and Central Africa with mid- to high-altitude production systems,” explains Guy Bloome, a coauthor of the study who works on integrated banana and seed systems at Bioversity International. Not only will the findings generated by the survey be important first steps to understanding farmers’ perceptions of pest and disease constraints, but the knowledge and insights gained will also be useful in guiding policy, development interventions, and research to design sustainable strategies for managing such threats to RTB crops productivity. “Once this happens,” says Legg, “the future for RTB farmers in the region should be bright.”

Understanding farmers’ willingness to pay for root, tuber and banana crop planting material

Experimental auctions reveal the true willingness of farmers to pay (WTP) for various farming inputs. This is one of the main findings of scientists with the CGIAR Research Programs on Policies, Institutions and Markets (PIM) and Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) now working to strengthen seed systems. Using this method, which is on the rise for smallholders in low- and middle-income countries, farmers bid for quality farming inputs with real cash.

Understanding the supply and demand of quality seed for farmers would allow scientists to forecast the effects of policy changes on consumption, according to Marcel Gatto, Agricultural Economist with the International Potato Center (CIP).

Experimental auctions provide incentives for farmers to truthfully reveal values, Patrick Ward of Duke Kunshan University pointed out, explaining that they elicit people’s ‘homegrown values for goods’. Data from the auctions can be used to generate demand curves, estimate product market shares and relative WTP or price premiums for enhanced product quality.

With support from the PIM project, “Strengthening seed systems and markets”, a workshop on 21-22 March in Nairobi, Kenya explored the usefulness of experimental auctions and how to adapt them to local contexts. Scientists from various CGIAR centers, national agricultural and research organizations (NAROs) and local and international universities focused on understanding farmers’ willingness to pay for quality seed of vegetatively propagated crops such as potatoes, sweetpotatoes, and cassava.

The workshop included a mock auction in which participants bid for a bar of chocolate. After being presented the chocolate, they were asked to submit their individual bids on a form that included some survey questions. A price was then generated using a random price generator. The participants who submitted a bid equal to or above the randomly drawn price were able to purchase the bar at the random price.

Exploring farmers’ WTP for quality seed in root, tuber and banana crops

Eliciting demand for seed is an important research topic for the work of RTB. Farmers still do not invest in quality seed in RTB crops. Over 90% of RTB farmers access planting materials through informal channels (i.e. other farmers or traders) or use recycled planting materials from their own production. Formal options through extension services or private sector are limited. Furthermore, there is little awareness about quality planting material and regulatory bodies do not often have the capacity and enforcement ability to monitor seed production and distribution through the formal sector. In Nigeria, for example, it was noted that there are few inspectors trained to examine the quality of cassava seed.

Seed producing farmers/entrepreneurs also have limited access to early generation seed coupled with other issues, such as insufficient transport and storage facilities. The case is the same for Rwanda, where low yield persists due to the lack of access to quality planting material. Most farmers still rely on social networks to obtain sweetpotato vines.

CIP Agricultural Economist, Srinivasulu (Srini) Rajendran identified potential opportunities for the PIM team to collaborate with the RTB seed system team in conducting experimental auction studies on various RTB crops. For instance, follow up studies could be conducted with farmers who participated in the experimental auction studies to explore gender aspects through qualitative assessments.

For the two proposed studies—estimating demand for quality planting material of improved cassava varieties in Nigeria and WTP for sweetpotato planting material of OFSP in Rwanda—context matters. The availability of sweetpotato vines that are distributed for free is a problem and could become a substitute product. As free distribution is often done with high quality vines, it can be hard for farmers to attach a value to vines in an auction if substitute is equally good and available free of cost. Participants agreed that if a farmer’s WTP depends on the price of substitute goods, then freely available seeds will reduce demand.

Julius Okello, CIP Impact Assessment and Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist, affirmed that the auction must be held at a time when farmers need materials. “Just before the planting season would be a perfect time to conduct auctions. Considering that the shelf life of sweetpotato vines is short, the timing of the auction experiments is critical to elicit farmers’ true WTP,” he noted.

Gender considerations are important as the valuations made by men and women are different. “In Malawi women said they would rather buy poor quality seed that they can afford rather than their families go hungry,” Netsayi Mudege, Gender Research Specialist at CIP, pointed out. The research design must take into consideration the different valuations of quality seeds by men and women and how that can influence bidding, she emphasized.

Mywish Maredia of Michigan State University shares insights on studies about farmer willingness to pay for seeds.

Way forward

Drawing lessons from previous studies conducted by Mywish Maredia of Michigan State University on the role of quality signaling on WTP for potato planting material in Kenya and the theory of value elicitation provided by Patrick Ward, the workshop was successful in discussing and aligning methods across the two case studies identified. Local partners from Kenya including the University of Nairobi, Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Development Board (RAB) and National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI) in Nigeria provided valuable contextual insights.

As a next step, the methodologies will be revised to take into consideration the various issues and challenges raised in the workshop. Jointly with NRCRI, Tesfamichael Wossen, Postdoctoral Fellow – Agricultural Economist with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) will carry out a study on cassava. In Rwanda, Julius Okello, Srini Rajendran and Kirimi Sindi from CIP will collaborate with RAB to look at factors that influence farmers’ WTP for quality sweetpotato vines. These studies will be co-funded by PIM and RTB, and will be implemented over the coming planting seasons in the respective countries.

This blog was first published on the CIP website

A day to remember: Scientists and processors exchange on the changes in the cassava value chain in Colombia over the past 20 years

With funding from the Roots, Tubers and Bananas Research Program (RTB), the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) led a Field Day on “Changes in Cassava Starch Extraction Processes in the Last 20 Years,” held in the Department of Cauca on 25 February 2019. The purpose of the event was to present to cassava processors (known as rallanderos) the results of a PhD project carried out by Luis Alejandro Taborda, a visiting researcher at CIAT, on the evolutions of cassava starch processing between 1995 and 2017. Key findings were increased mechanization accompanied by a concentration of the production in the hands of fewer cassava processing factories.

“We shared the results of the research in the Cauca region and gave recommendations based on the doctoral thesis ‘Evaluation of the sustainability of the cassava starch value chain in the department of Cauca’. At the same time, we are bringing together institutions with active participation in the cassava value chain and in training and research such as SENA and the Colombian Agricultural Research Corporation (AGROSAVIA). These institutions have recently released new cassava varieties adapted to the climate in the Cauca, with improved yields and agro-industrial potential”. Luis Alejandro Taborda, CIAT visiting Researcher and PhD student in agroecology at the National University of Colombia (UNAL)

Hernán Granda, one of the rallanderos, said that “this initiative is excellent because the research must be shared with the community. I highlight the work of CIAT and AGROSAVIA because they have been a driving force for producers in the last five years and because they have had a more dynamic presence in the territory. The impact of the work is visible with increased starch production, and the fact that the rallanderias earn more money”.

During the day, Agrosavia presented the technological advantages of the new varieties: Corpoica Cumbre and Corpoica La Francesa. After the keynote presentations, a workshop was held where researchers from UNAL, CIAT, Universidad del Valle, CIRAD and AGROSAVIA interacted with rallanderos. Eight thematic stands presented the results of recent research projects in the cassava and starch sector. Topics such as the use of cassava shells for the production of edible mushrooms, wastewater purification, small-scale flash drying technology for starch or bagasse, technological alternatives for starch extraction, quality control of the expansion and baking of cassava bread, among others, were highlighted.

“These meetings are important to create opportunities for the actors of the cassava production system to meet, and to present to them what we do and where we are going in terms of research and development. We are producing new cassava varieties as well as advancing post-harvest technological developments. The idea is not only to stay in research, but to carry out evaluations under real production conditions in terms of yields, dry matter content, starch content, and other quality traits of cassava products “. Thierry Tran, Cassava Program Scientist, CIAT

The Field Day was attended by representatives of the National University of Colombia (UNAL), the University of Valle (Univalle), the Autonomous Regional Corporation of Cauca (CRC), the National Learning Service (SENA), the Colombian Corporation of Agricultural Research (AGROSAVIA), producers and rallanderos. “These initiatives help to have a global vision of the chain. There are genetic resources, crop management, processing, added value and trade; when all the actors are brought together in an event like this, there is a lot of exchange of information and knowledge because there are the segments of the chain: research, development, farmers and processors,” said John Belalcazar, research scientist for the cassava program at CIAT.

The impact that these types of initiatives have on the community is fundamental, particularly in the insights that can be generated on current environmental and socioeconomic hurdles, which in turn can inspire new initiatives between the community, authorities, and research institutions. Major issues that were discussed included reduction of water consumption and purification of wastewater effluents, management of agro-industrial waste, and the effects of the process on the quality of the end product. These elements can translate into research and development programs for the department of Cauca and other regions of Colombia in the future.

Written by Sylvia Pineda and first published on the CIAT website in Spanish

Agrobiodiversity essential to sustainable food systems for the future

Heirloom tomatoes at a novel food market in Rotterdam. Photo by Stef De Haan (CIP)

A new book from MIT Press proposes and develops an expanded concept of agrobiodiversity, which, it points out, will be essential to sustainable food systems for the future. Agrobiodiversity: Integrating Knowledge for a Sustainable Future is the result of a Strüngmann Forum that brought together experts from diverse disciplines to consider the solutions agrobiodiversity offers for greater sustainability. The book reflects the forum and discussions and calls for an integrated framework that pulls together evolutionary ecology and biocultural interactions, human health and nutrition, global change and governance.

“New ideas that build on and integrate transdisciplinary insights need to be set in motion,” say Stef de Haan, Andean Food Systems Researcher at the International Potato Center (CIP), and Karl Zimmerer, Professor of Environment and Society Geography, Ecology, and Rural Sociology at Pennsylvania State University, who organized the forum and co-edited the book. Broadening the definition of agrobiodiversity, to acknowledge that it is “simultaneously social and biological by nature, applicable to microbiomes, genes, species, habitats, and landscapes as well as to diets, historical, cultural, and social dimensions,” is a key step. Without that, as the title of the lead chapter on food systems makes plain, more of the same will result in more of the same.

Farmers and food system diversity

In the 1970s, people predicted that new, highly productive varieties would wipe out the diversity in farmers’ fields. The catastrophe was not as bad as people feared, because farmers know a lot more about biodiversity and how to use it than many researchers previously gave them credit for. Yet, accelerated global changes exert new pressure on agrobiodiversity, while its adaptive potential requires continuous monitoring. “Current challenges and opportunities, from climate change to food system transformations, require the new agrobiodiversity framework,” notes Zimmerer. That is a key insight that the book brings to the science and policy communities.

Indigenous people and smallholder farmers seek to minimize risk and to provide locally valued foods, rather than to maximize production, and they use agrobiodiversity to do so. Growing traditional crops alongside new varieties smooths out differences in harvests and market prices from year to year, offering stability.

“It is a mistake to associate smallholder farming with being less productive,” says de Haan. “Such systems are intensive and efficient in their own right.”

Farmers with a pachamanca in Tayacaja, Huancavelica. Photo by Stef De Haan (CIP)

Learning from farmers

Pioneering work by the CIP with farmers in northern and central Peru resulted in the Catalog of ancestral potato varieties from Chugay, La Libertad, published in 2015, and the Catalog of native potato varieties from the southeast of the department of Junin – Peru in 2017. These two catalogues identify 129 and 147 farmer varieties respectively, and include information on each type’s nutritional potential and genetic and ethnobotanical characteristics. They also record farmers’ knowledge about their potatoes, bearing witness to “a vast ancestral culture” while simultaneously making a valuable contribution to scientific knowledge.

The CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) is expanding this kind of research with farmers as equal partners, working in Benin, Papua New Guinea and Peru to document the diversity of root and tuber crops in their fields. Today’s results provide a baseline for monitoring changes in diversity in the future and will also allow researchers to compare in-situ diversity with the material collected in the past and now stored ex-situ, in genebanks.

Stef de Haan says that this type of research demonstrates that the role of CGIAR is not to replace landrace diversity, the old view. “Rather, we want to understand how diversity interacts with new technologies and societal change to maximize the benefits for family farming.”

Of course, under some circumstances there is a need to augment landrace diversity. “There has not been the wipe-out predicted in the 1970s,” says de Haan, “but diversity in farmers’ hands is dynamic and some things get lost while others are added.”

Zimmerer adds “A major motivation for the research and new vision of our book has been to move beyond the old view of agrobiodiversity as traditional and outdated, on the one hand, and all changes as modern and antithetical to agrobiodiversity, on the other.”

 

On-farm diversity of Peruvian chili’s. Photo by Stef De Haan (CIP)

More agrobiodiversity needed

New needs arise too. The climate crisis, for example, has seen the spread of pests like the potato tuber moth and increasingly unpredictable weather, including unexpected frosts, more severe hailstorms and drought. It has also seen potatoes climb the Andes to 4,400 metres above sea level, expanding the area in which the crop can provide sustenance for local people. Not only in the Andes, but everywhere farmers depend on agrobiodiversity, they will need new and old varieties.

Some will come from genebanks. CIP pioneered repatriation of potato varieties, returning genebank samples collected some time ago to today’s farmers. Others will come from the farmers themselves, as they make new selections and share them among neighbouring communities. RTB plans to evaluate all the strategies employed to promote in-situ conservation and use of varietal diversity, including repatriation, community seed banks, market development, catalogues and benefit-sharing mechanisms.

“It is time to document best practices and the shortcomings of different strategies and interventions,” de Haan says.

Beyond the climate crisis

While the changing climate is an important driver of changes in agrobiodiversity, urbanization and the transition to more globalized and industrialized food systems are other drivers that could have a disproportionate impact on roots, tubers and bananas.

Urbanization has exerted a particular pull on young people, anxious to find a better life off the farm. “This trend will be difficult to reverse,” de Haan admits. Here too, though, agricultural biodiversity has a part to play. “Smallholder farmers in centers of high diversity cannot compete for bulk, but agrobiodiversity and high value niche markets can offer options.”

While the book points out how important agrobiodiversity is for future sustainability, it also recognizes that if it is to meet its potential, national governments will have to get on board. To help them do so, the authors call for new policies “informed by scientific analyses and scholarly understanding”.

De Haan says that current agrobiodiversity and nutrition policies “frequently provide perverse incentives”. Instead, policies could offer an enabling environment for informal drivers and networks that would allow agrobiodiversity to thrive rather than being exclusionary and restrictive.

Examples exist. Some countries have recognized farmer varieties as an official category and permit farmers to exchange and even sell seed. In other countries biodiversity seed fairs and upgraded traditional markets have expanded the exchange of varieties. That sends a clear message that food system transitions can be inclusive of agrobiodiversity. Other countries, including Sri Lanka, Brazil and Peru, have adopted nutrition policies that formally recognize the links between biological diversity and dietary diversity and the importance of both to good nutrition.

Looking forward

The book’s contributors acknowledge that the prevalent focus on yield and the need to feed more and more people in the face of climate change is misguided.

As the editors point out, “nutritional and food security, the provision of ecosystem services, and the protection of cultural values are essential components for achieving sustainable food systems.” And, as the entire volume makes clear, agrobiodiversity underpins them all.

Today’s diets are eating away at our future food supplies, but we can change this

Photo by Andres Felipe Valenzuela Parra on Unsplash

“Monitoring the status of genetic diversity of agrobiodiversity (of which RTB crops are part of) in genebanks, on farms, and in the wild is essential for trait discovery and for adaptation to changing climatic and environmental conditions. The work being carried out in RTB flagship 1 on exploring the genetic diversity of RTB crop on farm in hotspots areas of key RTB crops, namely banana, cassava, potatoes, sweet potatoes and yams, aims at documenting the varietal and genetic diversity and storing the information in a dedicated RTB in situ conservation monitoring information system, which would become an important data source for monitoring genetic diversity of RTB crops over time using the ABD index methodology.”    

Ehsan Dulloo, Bioversity International.

Thousands of overlooked yet beneficial crop species are threatened unless we learn to conserve, farm and consume them, writes Juan Lucas Restrepo.

Juan Lucas Restrepo is the director general of Bioversity International.

In addition to the rhinoceroses, elephants, and frogs that are often presented as the poster children of the extinction crisis, our crops and their wild non-domesticated relatives are also threatened. And crop biodiversity arguably has a far greater and more immediate effect on us.

More than 6,000 edible plant species exist, and yet fewer than 200 are used today to feed the world. Of these, only three crops  – maize, wheat, and rice – supply around 60% of humanity’s plant-based calories. And within these three crops, the genetic diversity arriving in our platters is also shrinking.

This poor use of agricultural biodiversity, or “agrobiodiversity”, is bad for farming, as it makes harvests more vulnerable to bad weather as well as to pests and diseases. It is also bad for human health since less varied diets are less nutritious and are more prone to making people less healthy.

And it is also bad for the environment, as it impacts soil and water quality and reduces the number of pollinators, on which as much as $577 billion of annual global food production is reliant.

Boosting the use of agrobiodiversity could help us all. Under-utilised plants like some millets and sorghums are more nutritious than the grains which dominate our plates, and they use less water. Growing crops that can tolerate new pests and diseases and perform better under climate variability will feed the world with lower risks and lower “true costs”.

Supporting a mosaic of land uses across a landscape and across agroforestry systems can improve water and soil quality, reduce pests and stem land degradation.

So, agrobiodiversity can help humanity by lowering trade-offs between improving nutrition, health, farmers’ incomes, and the environment. However, every day, the crops that could help improve diets and build resilient and sustainable food systems are being lost.

To help raise awareness and to promote positive change, we have just launched the Agrobiodiversity Index across a sample of ten countries that will serve as prototypes. The Index is a tool that allows governments, businesses, and investors to see how diverse their food systems are and understand if they are doing enough to conserve and use agrobiodiversity in a sustainable manner.

With its information, the Index provides advise to decision-makers on how they can act to improve nutrition, sustainability, and resilience across the food system. The Index also tracks how effective actions are in boosting agrobiodiversity, indicating where public and private money should be spent.

Smart investments in promoting agrobiodiversity can have high payoffs. Globally, more than two billion people suffer from undernutrition, costing the world USD $3.5 trillion annually.

This is disproportionately shouldered by individuals and families in developing countries. Improving agrobiodiversity is one of the cheapest and most straightforward measures to cut this cost down while promoting economic growth.

Promoting agrobiodiversity requires nudges to motivate people to eat and therefore produce new foods. On the consumer’s side, it requires to create and popularise new dishes as well as promoting changes in eating habits in schools.

For farmers, it requires research and extension to help farmers increase varietal and species diversity on their farms. For businesses, it is about embracing a more diversified value chain that provides more economic opportunities as markets expand.

Many of these forgotten foods are grown locally already. Some of the best ways to improve agrobiodiversity are to encourage people to consume indigenous crops, forest foods and animal breeds produced close to home.

Take amaranth, an iron-rich leafy vegetable which also produces a gluten-free, high-protein grain. While many amaranth species are demonised as weeds, some have a long history as being an extremely nutritious crop that is easy to grow.

We must work towards providing healthy food to 10 billion people by 2050. Increasing agrobiodiversity may be one of the most effective ways to achieve this while protecting Earth, our home. Let’s preserve our agricultural biodiversity by using and consuming more of it.

By Juan Lucas Restrepo

The blog was first published on EURACTIV.com.  

Major investment in Food and Nutrition Security research at NRI

On behalf of CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas we would like to congratulate the Natural Resource Institute on their award from the Expanding Excellence in England fund to put in place a Food and Nutrition Security Initiative (FaNSI)! As this initiative aims to expand research capacity through partnerships, NRI’s is well suited as one of its strengths is bringing together natural and social scientists to carry out excellent quality interdisciplinary research. The initiative’s added focus to addressing climate change, food loss and waste, sustainable agricultural intensification and food systems for nutrition is important and necessary. This award is well deserved, and we look forward to strengthening our strategic partnership with NRI through this new initiative. 

Graham Thiele, Director

CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas

The Natural Resources Institute (NRI) of the University of Greenwich is delighted to announce that it has been granted an award from Research England’s ‘Expanding Excellence in England’ (E3) Fund to increase its research on food and nutrition security. Through a highly competitive process, the E3 fund aims to support the strategic expansion of excellent research units and departments in Higher Education Institutions across England. 

Using this new investment, NRI will implement a Food and Nutrition Security Initiative (FaNSI) to expand its research capacity with a specific focus on addressing climate change, food loss and waste, sustainable agricultural intensification and food systems for nutrition.

Universities and Science Minister, Chris Skidmore, said: “Pushing the boundaries of knowledge and conquering new innovations are what our universities are known for the world over. This programme led by the University of Greenwich will consider how to improve food supply and nutrition in developing countries. The Expanding Excellence in England Fund will support projects throughout England to master new and developing areas of research and industry. Made possible through our record R&D spend delivered by our modern Industrial Strategy, the investment will support researchers to develop solutions and opportunities for UK researchers and businesses.”

Professor Andrew Westby, Director of NRI said, “This funding from Research England is transformational in terms of increasing NRI’s capacity to contribute to food and nutrition security, especially in Africa. Working with our partners, we look forward to undertaking high-quality research, with outcomes that improve people’s lives.”

Read more about award on the Natural Resources Institute website