Category Archives: News & Events

The transformative power of culinary innovation: Changing perspectives on traditional staples

Roots, tubers and bananas are often seen as “traditional” foods. Yet their colors and flavors vary, and they can be exciting gastronomic ingredients, as well as healthy functional foods. However, despite their many benefits, they tend to fall out of favor as people move to towns and diets change to “modern” and perhaps more convenient foods. Typically, traditional staple foods lack a spokesperson or voice, while industrially processed products are widely promoted through advertising campaigns. That lowers demand for traditional staples and can impact the livelihoods of smallholder growers who produce them. But what can be done to change perceptions?

Women prepare a colorful harvest of native Andean roots and tubers which vary in texture and flavor, making them exciting gastronomical ingredients. Photo: S.DeHaan/CIP

Around 15 years ago, researchers at the International Potato Center (CIP) had the idea to work with top chefs and gastronomy schools in Peru to enhance demand for native potatoes. Here, with more than 3,000 varieties, the country’s native potato biodiversity is the largest in the world, yet farmers growing them often lived in poverty. The idea harnessed the power of gastronomy and influential chefs to shift perceptions about native potatoes, which were not valued as important foods and not well known in urban markets.

Peru is home to more than 3,000 varieties of potato. Photo: CIP.

“The Participatory Market Chain Approach (PMCA) was used to engage farmers and other value chain actors including supermarkets to promote innovation of a range of new products, including colored chips made from native potatoes which were sold to urban consumers, tourists and through export markets. While fresh native potatoes as a gourmet new product were sold in supermarkets,” says André Devaux, Latin American and the Caribbean Regional Director for CIP, who pioneered the approach.

“We worked with the chefs to show them the huge diversity of native potatoes available, to try out new dishes and to promote native potatoes in new venues such as the Mistura gastronomy fair in the capital Lima,” adds Devaux.

Native potatoes on display at Mistura festival, Lima, Peru in 2014. Photo: V.Durroux/CIP

Native potatoes became one of the star products in the new Novo Andino Cuisine, leading to a marked increase in demand for native potatoes in Peru with benefits for farmers through higher prices. Innovation proved to be a crucial component of the approach – creating new products from well-known but neglected crops.

Building on this success, CIP researchers have recently begun to reach out to a new wave of restaurants in Peru, including the world-renowned Central Restaurant through its research group Mater Iniciativa. Chef Virgilio Martinez designed a special 10-dish tasting menu of potatoes which was shared in a session on culinary innovation during the World Potato Congress earlier in the year in Cusco, Peru. Gonzalo Urbina of Mater Iniciativa explained that “cuisine is the point of intersection of biodiversity and society, so it can play a key role in the revalorization of Andean products and the creation of social value. We are excited to work with CIP in this area.”

A dish prepared using native potatoes served at Virgilio’s restaurant ‘Mil’. Photo: Central Restaurant

At the World Potato Congress session, Chef Marcia Taha of the Gustu restaurant in Bolivia also presented novel culinary innovation developed from native potatoes and other Andean crops. The Gustu initiative is linked to broader transformative culinary education through the Manq’a schools. Manq’a, or “food” in the Aymara language in this region, is a project of cooking schools that seeks to generate life opportunities for young Bolivians with the revaluation and consumption of local products.

The power of culinary innovation has also been harnessed elsewhere, including in Japan where the consumption of indigenous sweetpotato was declining.

Sweetpotato custard pudding topped with dried sweetpotato is one of many innovative dishes developed in Mie, Japan.

“In Mie, Japan, there was a very successful case for transforming the image of indigenous sweetpotato, called Kinkoimo. Before the project, the indigenous sweetpotato was just dried and consumed locally as a snack. However, the younger generation had no interest in the product, which they regarded as “uncool”. The market demand declined sharply,” explains Nozomi Kawarazuka, CIP social scientist.

“To transform its image, a project was established by municipal government, farmers organization, university researchers, chefs and package designers, and utilizing social and traditional media. The dried sweetpotato was then turned into products and now it is viewed as a cool and fancy food,” she adds.

Transforming the image of the crop brought multiple benefits to the community including increased incomes and more tourists. “Most importantly, farmers became proud of their produce,” says Kawarazuka.

A trained chef, Kawarazuka is further embracing the power of gastronomy by teaming up with Graham Thiele, Director, CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) to create a series of cooking videos using RTB crops. Through the videos the pair hope to share dishes across cultures and demonstrate that RTB crops are global foods that are staples in traditional dishes worldwide. The first three videos in the series feature the chefs speaking Swahili while preparing patacones – a Latin America snack of fried plantain fritters, sanguche de chicharron – a Peruvian dish made from pork, sweetpotato and bread), and potato samosas.


Indeed charismatic chefs have played central roles in shaping the images of a crop, but the difficulty lies in disseminating the image beyond the restaurant to wider populations. 

“Culinary innovation can be more sustainable if various stakeholders are involved early on. While chefs play a key role, they are also less connected with producers. Agricultural research organizations can bridge relationships between farmers and restaurants, and with the private sectors and governments which can provide financial resources to sustain and scale up,” explains Kawarazuka.

As shown in countries as far apart as Peru and Japan, culinary innovation can play a critical role in changing the perceptions of urban consumers around the use and value of root, tuber and banana crops. Creating an enabling environment for value chain interventions means that the market can scale innovations, leading to sustained livelihood benefits for small-scale farmers.

An interpretation of a traditional Peruvian “pachamanca” served at Central Restaurant. Photo: Central

Refining the use of innovation platforms to support scaling

Guidelines are helping the agricultural research for development sector to rethink how and when to use ‘innovation platforms’ to most effectively develop and scale technologies.

Innovation platforms are increasingly used in agricultural research for development initiatives to help researchers, farmers, food processors, government officials and other actors design effective innovations. An innovation platform is a group of individuals and organizations with different backgrounds, expertise and interests who come together to diagnose problems, identify opportunities, and find ways to achieve their goals. They may design and implement activities together or as individual members.

Based on early successes, innovation platforms are now being used widely in agricultural research for development to test local innovations and take them to scale at the national level by increasing the collaboration, exchange of knowledge and influence mediation among stakeholders. However, these cases often involved highly motivated people in well-supported initiatives.

“Innovation platforms are fast becoming part of the mantra of agricultural research for development projects and programs. However, innovation platforms run the risk of being promoted as a panacea for all problems in the agricultural sector. Recent studies have shown that there are some practical limitations that must be considered, which led us to develop a set of guidelines on how to best use innovation platforms,” said Marc Schut, social scientist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture and Wageningen University, and the leader of RTB’s Flagship Project 5.

Continue reading the story in the RTB 2017 Annual Report: From science to scaling

Decision-support tools remove the guesswork from agronomic innovation

Decision-support tools being piloted in Nigeria and Tanzania can help cassava growers decide if agronomic recommendations will be profitable under their local conditions.  

Crop yields in Africa are often limited because farmers and extension agents lack reliable agronomic recommendations that are tailored for their local conditions. For example, judging the most effective quantity of fertilizer depends on knowing fertilizer and labor costs, expected weather, soil type, cropping history and past soil management. Crops in different locations may respond to fertilizer in different ways. Or, the market may reward farmers with high crop prices in one area, but not in another. As a result, farmers may not be able to judge if an investment is worthwhile before trying it. 

Since 2016, the African Cassava Agronomy Initiative (ACAI), a project managed by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in partnership with national and international research institutes, universities, development organizations and the private sector, has developed tools to support cassava growers and extension agents in Nigeria and Tanzania to make decisions by tailoring investments in agronomic practices to farmers’ local conditions, maximizing profits. 

Continue reading the story in the RTB 2017 Annual Report: From science to scaling

Toolbox to understand and enhance root, tuber and banana seed systems

A suite of tools for understanding root, tuber and banana seed systems are helping document and guide the implementation of on-going seed interventions.

Root, tuber and banana crops are clonally propagated, meaning they are grown by planting tubers, suckers, stalks, or vine cuttings, referred to as ‘seed’. This presents several challenges for farmers, including low seed multiplication rates, bulky and perishable planting material and rapid seed degeneration leading to low crop yields.

RTB centers have collaborated to develop tools that allow practitioners to understand and systemically diagnose seed systems and determine how to effectively intervene in them. In 2017, experts from Wageningen University and the RTB centers met to incorporate and describe these tools in a single toolbox using a standard format.

“This toolbox is a much-needed guide, a collection of 14 tools that enables researchers to come to grips with the seed systems of vegetatively propagated crops, and to overcome social, economic and market constraints,” said Jorge Andrade-Piedra, seed expert and plant pathologist at the International Potato Center (CIP). The toolbox is being validated in 14 projects in Asia, Africa, and South America across all major RTB crops.

One of the tools, a ‘multi-stakeholder framework for intervening in root, tuber and banana seed systems’ will be used in all locations to allow the designers of new seed projects to identify the major stakeholders, their roles, and critical bottlenecks of vegetatively propagated seed systems. So far, the framework is being used in ongoing interventions in Nigeria for cassava, in India for potato, in Ethiopia for sweetpotato, and in Uganda for banana. It has allowed researchers to organize multi-stakeholder workshops to analyze the seed system, identify appropriate interventions and to guide the design of household questionnaires to probe deeper into key constraints to seed use.

Continue reading the story in the RTB 2017 Annual Report: From science to scaling

Making storable orange-fleshed sweetpotato purée a commercial reality

Orange-fleshed sweetpotato purée is a profitable and nutritious commercial product to meet urban consumers’ needs in Kenya.

Vitamin A deficiency is a serious problem in East Africa. Through the efforts of the International Potato Center (CIP) and its partners, many vitamin A-rich, orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP) varieties have been made available to rural households. As Africa is rapidly urbanizing, more people want to buy food that is ready to eat or easy to prepare.

Earlier research in Rwanda demonstrated that OFSP purée (steamed, mashed roots) was an economically viable ingredient in baked products when the purée was produced and used in the same bakery. Between 2010 and 2014, CIP and the Rwanda Agricultural Board worked with a bakery, Urwibutso Enterprises, to make biscuits and donuts from sweetpotato purée. The bakery made its own purée and used the waste for animal feed at their piggery. However, most bakeries do not want to make purée or deal with the waste.

“The challenge for us as researchers was to develop a more complex market chain that could take orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes all the way from the field, through processing and baking, to reach consumers with bread that was rich in vitamin A,” noted Dr. Tawanda Muzhingi a food scientist at CIP. In 2014, the Center began to work with a wider range of value chain actors in Kenya to develop baked goods made with OFSP. During product development, the food technology specialist at Euro Ingredients Ltd. created improved OFSP bread, buns and cake recipes.

Continue reading the story in the RTB 2017 Annual Report: From science to scaling

Sharing best practices for banana germplasm conservation and exchange

Banana (Musa) diversity is conserved in more than 60 ex situ collections worldwide located mostly in banana producing countries. To ensure the long-term conservation on a cooperative basis, and facilitating the increased use of banana genetic resources, Bioversity International – through the Global Musa Genetic Resource Network, MusaNet – organizes a series of activities.

Field work during the MusaNet Regional Workshop on Musa Characterization and Documentation in Costa Rica. Credit: M.Ruas/Bioversity International

The most recent was a Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) Regional Workshop on Musa characterization and documentation, held in Costa Rica from 12–17 November 2018. The workshop was hosted by our partner Corporación Bananera Nacional of Costa Rica (CORBANA) at their research station and field collection in Guápiles.

It was the fourth in a series of regional MusaNet workshops covering the four banana regional networks: Innovate Plantain, BARNESA, BAPNET and MusaLAC. These workshops have allowed national collection curators, many of whom had never met before, to share their knowledge and experiences in best practices for banana germplasm conservation and exchange, disease prevention and management and field management of their collections. The opportunity to share the top ten most popular banana varieties in each country was also very valuable, as this information could be important for future evaluation studies and trials in the region.

This time, 14 curators from the LAC region were joined by experts and staff from CORBANA and Bioversity International. Together they forged a standard methodology for their collections using hand-held tablets to easily and quickly characterize and identify banana accessions in the field. Over three mornings, a practical exercise of characterizing four representative accessions was carried out on tablets with the new application MusaTab. Another application developed in partnership with CIRAD, MusaID, was introduced to help identify accessions based on a probability matrix of characterization data. Both applications were met with great enthusiasm for their efficiency and user-friendliness.

Participants in the MusaNet Regional Workshop on Musa Characterization and Documentation. Credit: M.Ruas/Bioversity International

Sessions on the optimal management of accession data using the Musa Germplasm Information System (MGIS) focused on the new features available to the public, as well as the treasure trove of passport data available from collections across the globe. Important points on data protection and rights through Data Sharing Agreements with Bioversity International were also made, and all collections at the workshop have now signed the agreement.

CORBANA researchers also shared early screening methods for priority traits such as resistance to nematodes and Black leaf streak, practices on biological control and improving nutrition. Discussions also focused on the prevention of Fusarium Wilt Tropical Race 4, which poses a serious threat to the LAC banana-producing region.

The workshop was funded by GIZ and the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) and the Genebanks Platform, which are supported by CGIAR Trust Fund Donors.

This article written by Rachel Chase originally appeared on Bioversity International. 

Is technology the silver bullet for addressing climate change impacts on agriculture?

Deep changes in agricultural systems are required for adaptation to climate change impacts such as higher temperatures, more extreme climate events and increases in pests and diseases. The Technology Advantage event, part of the larger Agriculture Advantage 2.0 event series at COP24, explored opportunities to tap into next generation technologies to rise to the challenge of transforming food systems under climate change.

Panelists at the Technology Advantage event discussed the ability of next gen technologies to help transform global food systems under climate change. Photo: R.Sepitvita/CCAFS

Opened by Hon. Winifred Masiko, Member of the African Gender Network (AGN) and Uganda Gender and Climate Change focal point for UNFCCC, the event covered a range of technological solutions to help food systems meet food security, and climate adaptation and mitigation goals. Moderated by Hugo Campos, Director of Research at the International Potato Center (CIP), the discussion ranged from just how transformative technological advances are likely to be, to the potential drawbacks of change.  

Technology alone will not be transformative

Can the fourth technological revolution help us speed up adaptation and mitigation to climate change?” asked Sean de Cleene of World Economic Forum (WEF). A new WEF report assesses the potential of 150 technologies and hones in on the impact of 12 of them. Alternative proteins and meat are one of these: if we reduced our meat intake by 10–15% we could reduce land use by 400 million hectares—the size of the EU.

But technology alone will not be transformative. An ecosystem approach is required to bring together the financing, policy, and other essential enabling factors that can allow technological innovations to have a significant positive impact. Access to good quality data is another key ingredient for a technological revolution, and better coordination is needed:

“How can we develop a shared data system across different levels, from government, to farmers, to the private sector? A solution will need a lot of joint thinking. We are getting closer, but there is a long way to go.”

Sean de Cleene, Head of the Food System Initiative, World Economic Forum
(pictured below).

Photo: R.Sepitvita/CCAFS

The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security’s (CCAFS) Transformation Initiative, presented by Ana Maria Loboguerrero (Head of Global Policy Research at CCAFS), is also undertaking an assessment of the potential of a range of blue-sky technologies to accelerate the transformation needed in food systems to meet global climate goals.

But rather than develop new technologies one by one, we need to take a holistic, system-wide approach, developing a suite of technologies to respond to particular challenges.

The challenge of keeping up with climate change

Technology may help us to keep pace with climate change, but it won’t be easy. For instance: roots, tubers and bananas are often neglected crops, but they are the backbone of farming systems in many developing countries. As a result of new climate change-related challenges—an increase over the next 30 years in aggressive potato diseases in Ethiopia, for instance—varieties currently on shelves will soon not be fit for purpose. And increased temperatures and prevalence of drought in East Africa, the predominant region for sweet potato cultivation in Africa, will also have a negative impact on production. 

“Climate change happens so fast that technology just cannot keep up, as it takes time to develop new technologies. To stay ahead of the curve, we need to identify climate impacts now and align our current research activities to breed varieties that will be able to cope with these changes.”

Graham Thiele, Director, CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB), (pictured below).

Credit: CCAFS

Today we have a better understanding of plant genes, and climate smart breeding can draw on many new genomic technologies, including gene editing that can accelerate the development of new varieties in response to climate change. However, we need to be very careful that we understand how climate will change to make sure that those new varieties will have the right set of traits

Furthermore, distribution of new varieties must take into account the diversity of the users—farmers—and their specific contexts and needs. The success of technological innovations depends on these users; to achieve large-scale changes, new innovations need to be accompanied by behavioral change.

Closing the production gap under climate change

“The production gap will not be sustainably closed without other crops that are introduced to the system, in rotations.”

Jacques Wery, Deputy Director General, Research, International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA)

Many governments are currently struggling to find ways to sustainably close production gaps in their countries. In some regions affected by climate change, production increasingly depends on irrigation. Solutions must respond to the twin challenges of increasing production while reducing water use. The creation of employment opportunities for youth, who suffer from high levels of unemployment in many of the most affected countries, is also an important consideration.

Solutions could feature systems that incorporate adaptive rain-fed cropping, irrigation, and markets, all adapted to the specific rainfall in a given year through technologies, modeling and good quality data from the ground. 

Making it happen, together

The application of technology can easily go wrong, ultimately hurting the farmers and other beneficiaries it was intended to help. But when carefully considered, it can also nurture trust, openness, credibility and inclusivity, benefitting all. 

But we will need to work together to scale up existing technologies and to develop and implement new ones, said Tobias Baedeker of the World Bank, who closed the session. “We need both parts of R&D—the research and the development—to bring all of this to scale. Rather than cannibalizing each other, we should get together.” 

Couldn’t join the event? Watch the web recording (click “Join the event” to watch after the event).

Read more:

Blog by Fatime Traore, Communications Student Assistant for CCAFS; Marissa Van Epp, Global Communications and Knowledge Manager for CCAFS; and Luja von Köckritz, Research and Communications Student Assistant for CCAFS.

The right tools for the job: enabling breeding programs to be gender-responsive

Over the past few decades, gender initiatives across CGIAR have created broad awareness among scientists about the need to consider the impact of new agricultural technologies on both men and women. However, even with this heightened awareness, breeding programs typically ask questions about the gender impact of a new plant variety or animal breed only in the final stages of evaluation or release.

Women’s trait preferences often differ from men’s, and consequently, varieties may not be adopted because women’s interests were not considered, or varieties that are adopted can even have a negative impact on women’s well-being – such as by exacerbating their daily workload or leading to less control over marketing decisions.

New crop varieties or animal breeds developed without considering women’s needs or preferences could have a negative impact on teir well-being. Photo: H.Rutherford/CIP

In this context the CGIAR Gender and Breeding Initiative (GBI) envisions the development of a comprehensive toolbox aimed at the analysis and incorporation of gender perspectives from the very beginning of a breeding program, right through to implementation and impact assessment. The toolbox will be used to assure the gender relevance of tools in the CGIAR Excellence in Breeding Platform (EiB) but will also provide support to national agricultural research institutes and other breeding programs.

Towards this, the Initiative held a workshop from November 12-13 at Cornell University to create a space for gender specialists, breeders and others to review two prototype tools and jointly work toward their refinement for the next step of field testing. The two complimentary tools are the G+ Customer Profile Tool and the G+ Product Profile Development Tool.

“A G+ Customer Profile identifies and disaggregates by gender the users for a specific product of the breeding program,” says agricultural economist, Alastair Orr, who presented an overview of the tool.

“So just as a product profile defines the new breeding product, the G+ Customer Profile gives the breeding program a clear picture of who will potentially be using the new variety – paying special attention to gender issues. It outlines the number of users, their geographic location, socio-economic characteristics, varietal preferences, and the reasons for these preferences,” he explains.

Incorporating this gender dimension means that the traits that are important for women are both captured and reflected in the design of new products. Using the tool will help ensure that breeding programs explicitly address the needs and preferences of different segments of a target population.

A young woman in Nigeria toasts gari, a processed product made from Cassava. Photo: H.Holmes/RT

In small working groups, participants prepared and discussed examples of G+ tool implementation, identifying what worked and what should be improved moving forward. In the customer profile session, groups developed case studies for virus resistant chickens in Tanzania, cassava for young women in Nigeria, potatoes in Kenya, and groundnut in India.

“We found that the tool is a great starting point to discuss in specific details who the ‘customer’ is, what their needs are and how many they are and how we are positioned to serve them. Having this conversation helps us to interrogate our intentions and plans more sharply,” says Esther Njuguna-Mungai, gender specialist at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics.

‘’A key constraint that came up during our discussions is the realization that programs don’t always have enough information or data, that is available in the form and rigor required, to be a basis for decision making about the customers, at the time when the decisions need to be made. An evidence table could collate information on all the market segments, and more specific criteria developed for selecting target segments,” adds Esther.

Participants prepared and discussed examples of G+ tool implementation. Photo: Cornell University

Another key point that arose during the group discussions was the need for a process involving structured conversations between breeders, gender specialists, marketing specialists and others to arrive at the final customer segmentation and prioritization for breeding.

Building on the customer profiles, working groups had a first go at testing the product profile development tool for sorghum in West Africa based on prior detailed gender work by Eva Weltzein, Honorary Associate, Agronomy Department, University of Wisconsin – Madison.

A typical product profile is a set of targeted attributes which a new plant variety or animal breed is expected to meet in order to be released. Attributes are described as traits with a specific value, for example, grain yield of 11 tons per hectare or higher.

“The G+ Product Profile Development tool provides a way for breeding programs to inspect the gender dimension of these traits when they are included in a product profile to determine whether it has any implications for gender equity. It assesses whether a trait meets the minimal ‘do no harm’ standards and allows breeding programs to characterize the benefits of a trait for women users,” explains Vivian Polar, gender, monitoring and evaluation specialist with the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas.

A group photo of workshop participants. Photo: Cornell University

One major point that came up from the discussion was that the exercise of using the tool should carefully weigh the importance of addressing the status quo versus a future projection through foresight analysis.

“Traits that are desired today, and their impact on women, will change in the future and this is particularly important because breeding takes time. Factors like urbanization, increasing incomes, climate change, and mechanization among others, play a role in influencing this, and need to be considered too,” says Vivian.

The workshop made good progress toward understanding the G+ prototype tools and the refinements they need. The tools will be further revised, and their concepts incorporated into a proposal for a project to test the G+ product profile development tool in selected pilots with breeding programs.

These pilots will ultimately lead to a seamless integration of gender-responsive trait prioritization into breeding programs. The EiB will be the principal conduit for the G+ tools, but they will also be used by a range of other teams outside the Program.

GBI will continue to analyze the need for new tools and protocols and develop them based on demand and resources.

Blog by Holly Holmes and Clair Hershey.

Read the original post on the GBI website. 

Understanding cassava seed networks to curb disease spread in Southeast Asia

If you have a garden, you probably buy seeds from the store, or maybe even swap some varieties with your friends or relatives. Exchanging seed can be a very simple act. But how is it accomplished when billions of plants are involved, and exchanges take place at the national or international scale? A new publication asks this question for Southeast Asian cassava, the backbone of production for millions of smallholder farmers.

The 3.5 million hectares of cassava planted every year in Southeast Asia requires around 40 billion plants to be established in the right place, and at the right time. But how the seed gets there without the existence of a formal seed sector remains surprisingly poorly understood. Unravelling how varieties, diseases and information move between farmers is critical to effectively target plant health surveillance and interventions.

Cassava stem traders unload trucks in Eastern Cambodia. Photo: CIAT

We often glimpse the silhouettes of seed movement by observing side effects – a new variety appears far from where it originated, or a slow-moving pest or disease hopscotches between distant farms. These hints have indicated that cassava stems are being moved widely in Southeast Asia, but how and by whom remained a mystery until recently, when researchers from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) undertook the first comprehensive evaluation of cassava seed use and exchange in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Cassava production over time (1961-2014). Mouse over the data for more detail, or click on the legend to switch regions on or off and take a closer look.

How is the spread of pests and diseases related to cassava seed? To explain we need a quick refresher on plant biology.

In agriculture the word ‘seed’ is often a catchall for the different types of plant tissues used to produce new crops. These include actual botanical seeds, but also other plant parts such as stems, roots, and rhizomes. For many root and tuber crops, including cassava, farmers have mostly done away with the use of true seeds altogether through the special ability of ‘vegetative propagation’.

Thousands of years ago, our ancestors discovered that some plants could be snipped, planted, and re-sprout identical little copies. But the repetitive cycle of cutting and replanting also poses risks. Mother plants may acquire diseases during their lifetime, and then pass them on to daughter plants in the following generation. Insect pests can easily hitchhike on the big, bulky planting stems. The gradual decline in seed quality caused by these accumulating factors – in particular viruses – is referred to as ‘seed degeneration,’ and makes studying seed systems very important.

Cassava planting stakes. Photo: CIAT

In Vietnam and Cambodia, we interviewed 840 farmers to gather information on seed use in 31 districts. We asked farmers about their seed use during the past year, including all exchanges they made with others (both who they acquired seed from, and who they gave it to). The interactive graphs below allows you to explore some data from four contrasting provinces with different production characteristics:

Farmer seed acquisitions in 2016-17. Interact with the data by clicking and dragging the categories.

We found that seed exchanges in the high production intensity sites in both countries are overwhelmingly managed by male farmers, while the low intensity production sites have quite equal male and female participation. The result shows that male farmers manage most of the seed acquisition from traders, and only men interacted with the other ‘commercial’ seed sources. This shows that, in addition to the biological importance of seed systems, social factors such as gender, trust, and accessibility influence seed exchange.

Farmer provision of seed to others in 2016-17

In this figure we can clearly see that one province (Tay Ninh) is responsible for most of the seed supply to traders, indicating the presence of a stronger stem export network. It is also interesting to note that only 9% of seed supply was provided to farmers that the respondent did not personally know.

The data also reveals elaborate regional flows of seed between different types of actors in the seed system, including farmers, cassava root collection centers, and specialized traders. To better understand the spatial structure of the network, we constructed a map showing the seed exchange network at the provincial level, providing a snapshot of seed transport across the region.

Cassava planting material exchange in Vietnam and Cambodia (2016-17). The country squares indicate cases where planting material came from a given country, but the reciepient did not know which province. usually this occurs when a stem trader transports the material.

In just a single season, cassava seed travelled long distances to and from the farmers in our sample, moving around the region and freely crossing international borders. There is a lot to unpack in the data, but here are five major takeaways about local seed systems from the recent publication:

  1. The cassava seed system is farmer and trader-driven and regulated through social networks, with very little ‘formal’ seed production or quality control. 
  2. Frequent seed exchange occurs between farmers in the same community, but re-use of the farmer’s own seed supply remains the most common source of seed. 
  3. Volumes reaching several thousand planting stakes moved distances exceeding 300km in the study year. 
  4. Dedicated cassava traders have a robust network, and play an especially important role in cross-border transactions. 
  5. International movement of cassava seed is common, supplying 20% of stakes used at the national scale in Cambodia. All of the exchanges recorded went into Cambodia from neighboring countries; none went out.

These findings give us new insights on how varieties, diseases, and information spread through farmer networks. The results are particularly timely, as a spate of seed-vectored pests and diseases (including the newly arrived cassava mosaic virus) are making inroads in cassava fields across the region.

An increased understanding of seed use patterns helps us to identify key points for plant health surveillance and interventions, and to explore the potential for quality controlled seed production systems to gain a foothold in Southeast Asia. Work is ongoing to document the functioning of official sources of seed, like government multiplication centers and NGO or private sector sponsored activities. Evaluating the costs of seed production and mechanisms of seed dissemination will help to create strong interfaces with farmer seed networks, improving access to healthy seed across the region.

Blog contributed by Erik Delaquis, Associate Researcher, CIAT

The full manuscript is available for free at this open-access link (Delaquis et al., 2018).

This research was undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB), with funding support provided by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and CGIAR Trust Fund contributors. 

Next generation technologies: Tackling climate change in agriculture

Recent reports that greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have reached record high levels and that the world is currently on track to overshoot the targets of the Paris Agreement heighten the importance of developing technologies to help farmers adapt to climate change. This is especially urgent for the poorest and most vulnerable farmers, who already struggle to produce enough food.

There is an urgent need for crop varieties and technologies that help smallholder farmers adapt to climate change. Photo: A.Frezer/CIP

In order to achieve food and nutrition security for the world’s poor, agriculture has become a priority area for climate action for many developing countries. To support such efforts, CGIAR Centers and Research Programs identified 10 best bet innovations for adaptation in agriculture, which can help countries achieve food security under a changing climate, while also delivering benefits for environmental sustainability, nutrition and livelihoods. This includes the development and deployment of stress tolerant root, tuber and banana crops, innovations that are being driven by the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) and its lead center, the International Potato Center (CIP).

Why root and tuber crops?

More than 300 million people living below the poverty line in developing countries depend on root, tuber and banana crops for food and income, particularly in Africa, Asia and the Americas.

These crops, which include banana, cassava, potato, sweetpotato and yam, have immense potential for reducing hunger and malnutrition and helping smallholder farmers adapt to climate change. A major advantage lies in their resilience and ability to produce nutritious food in less time than many other crops. They are thus particularly critical for food security in Africa and will become even more fundamental in the coming decades as the continent undergoes rapid urbanization and population growth.

“With climate change, varieties will need to respond to hotter and drier conditions, but also more weather variability and extreme events, higher salinity with rising sea levels and more attacks from pest and diseases as higher temperatures increase incidence and severity,” notes Hugo Campos, Director for Research at CIP.  

To improve farmers’ capacities to produce more nutritious food in a climate-changing world, CIP and the other RTB Centers are undertaking groundbreaking research to improve RTB crops, seed systems, pest and disease management and postharvest innovations.

Sweetpotato breeders in Mozambique. Crop improvement needs to be enhanced and accelerated to respond to climate change. Photo: M.Andrade/CIP

Climate-smart breeding

With improved varieties needed urgently, scientists are raising the bar for breeding a next generation of RTB crops that are more climate-resilient, nutritious and desirable to local consumers.

CIP has promoted an accelerated breeding scheme that cuts the time it takes to develop and release a new variety from eight years to four. In Mozambique, this approach led to the released of 15 pro-vitamin A rich, drought tolerant orange-fleshed sweetpotato varieties in 2011 and an additional four varieties in 2016. Those climate-resilient varieties now constitute about one third of the sweetpotatoes grown in Mozambique, a country where extreme weather events frequently destroy crops. One of them, Irene, is especially popular because its narrow leaves can be eaten as a vegetable 60 days after planting, and its delicious orange-fleshed roots are ready to harvest after 100 days. 

Breeders have likewise developed potato varieties tolerant to drought, heat and salinity, such as the widely cultivated Unica and Tacna, developed and field tested in Peru; Kinga,

Meva, Kinigi varieties in Africa; and the Raniag variety in the Philippines. Tacna, which was introduced to China under the name Jizhangshu 8, covered over 20,000 ha there in 2008.  More recently developed climate change-resilient potatoes include the drought- and soil salinity-tolerant variety Sarnav, released in Central Asia (Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) and the heat and soil salinity-tolerant BARI Alu-72, released in Bangladesh.

Mozambican farmers with Irene, the most popular of the country’s drought tolerant, orange-fleshed sweetpotato varieties. Photo: B.Rokatoarisoa/CIP

“RTB breeding has already begun to modernize, but climate change is moving the goal posts so we need to change a whole lot faster, better, and smarter,” says Graham Thiele, Program Director, CGIAR Research Program on RTB. 

Graham and other RTB scientists have proposed a six-step framework for climate-smart breeding that involves downscaling climate change models and crop modeling to look into the future and anticipate the kinds of varieties needed in 20 and 50 years. The framework also includes identifying and understanding key climate change responsive traits and transforming breeding and varietal selection by drawing on increased knowledge of the genome with next generation tools such as gene editing. Big data should also be harnessed to understand how varieties respond in different environments to accelerate genetic gains, and management options developed for climate-smart varieties. The framework also highlights the need for climate-proofing seed systems so that new varieties can reach growers and consumers.

Graham will discuss climate-smart breeding at an official COP24 side event in Katowice Poland, on next generation technologies to tackle climate challenges in agriculture. The event takes place on 6 December, 18:30 – 20:00, Bug Room, COP 24 venue and is part of the Agriculture Advantage 2.0 event series at COP24, a collaborative effort of more than 15 organizations with the mission to transform agricultural development in the face of climate change. Click here to see the series of events at COP24.

Climate smart seed systems

As new varieties are released, managing seed systems is crucial for ensuring that farmers adopt them and maintain quality planting material in the face of increasing incidences of drought and floods.

Sweetpotato farmers plant vine cuttings, and prolonged dry periods can result in widespread shortages of that perishable planting material in sub-Saharan Africa. CIP researchers are thus promoting a practice that allows farmers to produce their own vines in time for the planting season. Known as Triple S – for storage in sand and sprouting – it consists of storing sweetpotato roots in dry sand following the harvest, planting them in seedbeds six to eight weeks before the rainy season, and watering them to produce enough vines to plant when the rains begin. With support from RTB, researchers are scaling this technology, which can result in earlier harvests, providing food and income at a time that is commonly known as “the hunger season”.

In order to maintain disease-free planting material, farmers in high virus pressure areas are using net tunnels to guard against insect vectors such as aphids and whiteflies, which spread viruses.  The net tunnels are effective in reducing infection by sweetpotato virus disease, ensuring availability of clean planting material for higher yield. Such tunnels also contribute towards moisture retention, reducing the amount of water needed for irrigation.

Moving ahead

As climate change deepens food insecurity through factors such as yield losses, the need for crop tolerance to climatic stresses will be greater than ever. Whether it’s early maturing or stress tolerant varieties, the need for more resilient RTB crops is increasingly urgent. Funding for enhanced breeding systems will be crucial for deploying promising next generation technologies to tackle climate change in agriculture.