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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  

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

Boosting the bottom line through tech for High Quality Cassava Peel production

By 2100, the African continent is projected to see some of the highest GDP growth in the world, a trend closely coupled with increased demand on livestock production. 

To feed this growing industry, however, stress on staple crops like maize and corn is increasing, creating competition between grain for human food and animal feed. In response to this challenge, CGIAR scientists have developed a livestock feed supplement that is relieving the stress on these staple crops by using an abundant agricultural waste product ­– cassava peels.

From waste to wealth

Over the last five years, scientists from International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) with support from the CGIAR Research Program on Root Tubers and Bananas (RTB) have developed a processing method that transforms wet cassava peels into high quality, safe, and hygienic animal feed ingredients, known as High Quality Cassava Peel mash (HQCP). This new component of the cassava value chain has the potential to become a USD2 billion a year industry on the continent and employ 100,000 more people, 80% of whom it is estimated will be women.

Normal cassava production and processing produces waste; 50 million tonnes per year of peels, stumps, undersized, or damaged cassava are either burned or left to rot in piles, both of which pollute the air, soil, and groundwater.

“Cassava peel heaps have been shown to yield significant quantities of bioethanol. Scaling the transformation and use of cassava peel into animal feed ingredients instead of letting them rot in heaps will reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” says Iheanacho Okike of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) who leads the Cassava Peel Transformation project.

In recognition of the success of the technology and its potential to benefit the environment, economy, and livelihoods, RTB awarded the project a grant through the RTB Scaling Fund. The funding, in addition, to support from RTB’s Flagship Project 5 on ‘Improved livelihoods at scale’, has helped the project to identify bottlenecks and corresponding solutions to scale the technology.

What was once a nuisance and a greenhouse gas emitter has become a potential additional income source for three million cassava producers. Some systematic roadblocks have constrained the industry from growing to its full potential, like widespread geographic distribution, limited knowledge of feed nutrition, and communication.

As part of scaling efforts, which also include training and access to credit, three ICT solutions have been developed and deployed by the project to help overcome these challenges and grow the industry.

Connecting the dots

Investors and entrepreneurs are excited about the potential of this commodity growing in value, however, finding the right cassava peel products and processing plant has been a risky. “Investors can take advantage of the Cassava Peel Tracker to locate factories that are central and in close proximity to clusters of cassava processing centers” explains Okike.

IITA scientists developed the Cassava Seed Tracker® an app that facilitates the identification and tracking of cassava planting materials by varieties. In collaboration with the project, that app was modified to make identifying sources of cassava peels and cassava peel products a safer bet. The app can show users not only where cassava processing centers are, but also the volumes of fresh peels generated daily at each location. The Cassava Peel Tracker app was developed and launched in November 2018 and has already geo-referenced more than 25% of the 5000 cassava processing centers in Nigeria. This information improves overall efficiency and profitability by supporting decision making on the optimal facilities to work with based on location and production.

Creating Communities of Practice

Additionally, the project is supporting the quickly growing community of peel production entrepreneurs and investors. The Cassava Peel First Movers group, a WhatsApp-based Community of Practice, now has over 180 active members. Members exchange information on trainings, technical aspects of peel production, and discuss economic information such as the costs of raw materials and fluctuations in market prices

Calculating feed recipe rations – there’s an app for that too

“It is no surprise that HQCP is getting into both the livestock and fish feed industries. HQCP inclusion in compound feed can only grow!” exclaims Okike.

Animal feedmillers have been incorporating the high-quality cassava peel mash into their recipes for both livestock and fish feed faster than initially anticipated. By the end of 2018, almost 800 new recipes included a ration of cassava peel mash, and with the help of a new app called FeedCalculator®, there’s only room for more. The project has deployed another app designed to help feedmillers and farmers formulate least cost, nutritionally-balanced rations for animal feed that incorporate the HQCP.

Thanks to its high nutritional content, Okike says “HQCP is relieving the stranglehold of maize on the feed industry by producing [a] cheaper source of excellent quality energy.”

High potential for HQCP

This new private sector-driven industry conservatively valued at USD450 million was born from a waste product and is now benefitting cassava producers, processors, entrepreneurs and consumers – with the potential to create 100,000 new jobs. By looking critically at the value chain and embracing ICTs to connect different groups, improve communication, share knowledge, and provide advice, the project is moving towards its goals. It is hoped that the success of using cassava peels as quality livestock feed will inspire other crop industries in the agricultural sector to think differently about their byproducts and investigate alternative uses for waste.

Breeding Better Bananas project team meets to take stock, track progress and plan

Photo by Random Institute on Unsplash

An international team of researchers that is revolutionizing banana breeding in Eastern Africa are this week (27‒29 May 2019) gathering in Mbarara, Uganda, to review progress and achievements made over the past 5 years under phase one of the Breeding Better Bananas project, and planning for future needs and activities.

The Breeding Better Bananas project, led and coordinated by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and working together with the National partners in Tanzania and Uganda, is focusing on breeding varieties that that are resistant to key pest and disease threats and which also meet users’ preferences and needs.

While millions of smallholder banana farmers in Tanzania and Uganda rely on banana as a staple food and as a major source of income, and the two countries producing over a half of all banana grown in Africa with an annual value of $4.3 billion, the farmers are producing a mere 9% of what is possible. This is largely attributed to attack by pests and diseases and use of local, low-yielding varieties.

“Bananas are immensely important in Uganda and the region but are being heavily attacked by pests and diseases. This project is enabling us to link with other breeding programs across the world, to exchange banana varieties, and use the best material in our breeding program. This is the first time this has happened on such a scale,” says Jerome Kubiriba, Head of the Banana Program, NARO who heads up the breeding activities in Uganda for the project.

The project is especially focused on the two most popular cooking bananas in the region—East Africa Highland banana (EAHB) also known as Matooke, and Mchare, which is grown mostly in Uganda and Tanzania. The major diseases it is addressing are Fusarium wilt, black leaf streak diseases (Sigatoka disease,) and banana bacterial wilt, while the key pests are the plant parasitic nematodes (microscopic worms) and banana weevils.

The project has seen over 200 Matooke hybrids further selected for yield evaluation in the field, with over 10,000 in the pipeline, while over 500 hybrid Mchare are currently under early evaluation in the field. In Tanzania, the team has seen the creation of the first-ever Mchare hybrid. Some of these hybrids are already being chosen by farmers in preference to traditional varieties.

Speeding up breeding of a sterile crop

“Banana is the most difficult crop to breed. Consequently, only a handful of banana breeding programs exist. Traditionally, national breeding programs guard their genetic resources with intense zeal. With a common goal to overcome challenges in breeding banana and to improve a staple food crop upon which millions depend, this patriotic protection has been set aside for the greater good, in what has developed into a demonstration of international harmony,” says Prof Rony Swennen, Lead Banana Breeder at IITA and the project’s team leader.

The researchers are working together, using advanced, cutting-edge techniques in the best laboratories across the world to address the challenges to banana breeding, improve efficiency, and reduce the time it takes to deliver much-needed, new, improved, disease- and pest-resistant varieties to farmers.

By investigating banana flowers, pollination has been boosted, increasing the numbers of seed produced. In the laboratory, the normal low germination rate of these seeds has been vastly improved.

“Our ability to greatly increase hybrid production and reduce the time required has substantially improved during our five-year phase. With our partners across the world, determining the genetic origin of our banana is fast being unraveled, aiding our ability to understand the genetic basis of resistance against our target pests and diseases. This includes the particularly devastating form of Banana Fusarium Wilt, which is threatening banana across the world. This platform is, therefore, helping banana production beyond the East African realm. Our program is having a truly global impact,” adds Rony Swennen.

This unique initiative brings together researchers from Tanzania, Uganda, and Australia and partners Belgium, Brazil, Czech Republic, India, Kenya, Malaysia, South Africa, Sweden, and the USA, to share their expertise, knowledge, and plant material towards improving this immensely important crop for the East African Region.

The project is also dedicated to building local capacity in banana breeding and to nurturing our next generation of banana researchers. Currently, there are 11 Ph.D. and 10 MSc students attached to the project, while technical training in advanced breeding techniques extends to all levels of staff across our partners. The project additionally facilitates the exchange of genetic plant material across countries, and even continents, in order that the best material for developing improved hybrids is used, establishing the foundations of a globally connected banana breeding system.

The regional breeding activities are being conducted at the Banana Breeding Programme of the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) at Kawanda and Sendusu, at regional Uganda research sites such as Mbarara in Uganda, and at the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology (NM-AIST) in Arusha, Tanzania in close collaboration with the regional Tanzania Agriculture Research Institute (TARI) in the banana growing areas.

“Research and innovation are the engines of East and Central Africa countries’ progress and vital to addressing the pressing challenges facing smallholder farmers. The development of new, high-yielding, pest and disease-resistant hybrid banana is essential to reversing the low productivity that is plaguing our banana farmers. This project will surely help us increase our productivity levels, from 10 to 15 tons/ha/year to 60‒70 tons/ha/year”, says Dr. Mpoki Shimwela, National Coordinator of banana research in Tanzania.

The project is unearthing the genetic foundation and diversity of existing banana varieties using modern, cutting-edge scientific techniques to identify and better utilize sources of resistance to the major pests and diseases. This is being complemented by studies to understand the spread and damage caused by these pests and diseases, as well as to develop rapid diagnostic tools and faster screening mechanisms to quickly identify resistant varieties.

The project is now planning to extend the benefits of Breeding Better Bananas, by engaging with researchers to better evaluate postharvest quality as well as seed system networks, to ensure that the most nutritious resistant varieties are released and that farmers gain access to these best varieties as rapidly as possible.

This project is being conducted within the framework of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas. 

This blog was first published on Breeding Better Bananas

FoodSTART+ Shares Journey on Gender: Rethinking and Working for Better Balance

The IPGN participants with Kapangan Mayor Manny Fermin during the community visit. Photo credit: CHARMP2.

The International Potato Center’s (CIP) FoodSTART+ project has come a long way in ensuring gender equity of the project activities since its inception in 2015. The project gender-related milestones, challenges, and lessons were shared during the 10th General Assembly of the IFAD Philippines Gender Network (IPGN) held in Winaca Eco-Cultural Village, Tublay, Benguet from 7-10 May 2019.

The IPGN is a platform for IFAD assisted projects in the country to review experiences, share good practices and discuss gender-related good practices and challenges faced during project implementation and agree on concrete actions to improve mainstreaming gender in the performance of individual projects.

This year’s theme is “Rethinking and Working for Better Balance which aims to focus on assessing the current knowledge of the participants, levelling-off definition of gender and gender balance, sharing of strategies of each project to achieve gender balance and to present practical gender analysis tools that will help the projects in analyzing gender issues.

Hosted by the Second Cordillera Highland Agricultural Resource Management Project (CHARMP2), the participants were exposed to the various activities that CHARMP2 has been working on – from agricultural innovations to supporting livelihood activities of indigenous groups in the Cordilleras. A practical application of the gender analysis tool was also done during focus group discussions with the beneficiaries in Kapangan, Benguet. Another highlight of the assembly was the poster session where each project showcased their gender activities and plans.

CIP has been a member of the IPGN since 2011, and its partnership with other IFAD assisted programs has strengthened along with its gender activities since.

Poster presented by Arma Bertuso, Senior Research Associate, and Camille Joy Enalbes, Communication Specialist at the 10th IPGN General Assembly

With the project nearing its completion, FoodSTART+ shared the journey of the project from planning, assessing, implementing and evaluating its gender activities. Through a poster presentation, the FoodSTART+ team proudly shared the various materials produced during the three-year project, including the gender checklist used to ensure that gender is adequately addressed in project workplans and interventions, a guideline on using participatory videos for farmers to gather information in a participatory and gender-sensitive manner, and the gender strategies which serves as a guide to use the gender lens in conducting activities and project objectives. These materials were developed under the guidance of FoodSTART+ Gender Adviser, Dr. Nozomi Kawarazuka.

The presentation was well-received by the participants, especially the representatives of the IFAD investment partners of FoodSTART+, namely INREMP and FishCORAL, who had a firsthand experience of the gender-sensitive interventions in their respective projects.

The next step entails the production of a coffee table book presenting outcome stories of FoodSTART+ beneficiaries and project partners. The book will primarily feature stories of women farmers involved in the project and will be available by the third quarter of the year.

This blog was first published on the FoodSTART+ website. 

Innovating for change: Interview with Maria Andrade a sweetpotato champion

An accomplished sweetpotato breeder and tireless advocate for improving the nutrition and wellbeing of rural children and families, Maria Andrade is also RTB’s first female flagship leader. She recently set aside time from her busy research and project management work in Mozambique to discuss her passion for science, plant breeding, and the power of education and climate-change awareness to transform the livelihoods of farming families in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. And with the UN’s observance of this year’s International Day of Families and its focus on climate action, Dr. Andrade’s everyday commitment to achieving the SDG 13 targets could not be more relevant.   

Maria Isabel Andrade, RTB Flagship Project 2 Leader, Country Manager, and Senior Sweetpotato Breeder for SSA & Asia, International Potato Center

1. What inspired you to pursue a career as a plant breeder?

Even as a child I knew I’d go into agriculture. I was around five years old when I told my mother I was going to study coffee and live and work in Angola to change the lives of people who suffer from hunger in Africa. Moving to the US to study at the University of Arizona was an eye-opener for me. I realized that if I was going to help solve Africa’s food security problems I needed to learn how to grow crops and increase yields. During an advanced class in plant genetics at the university, I began to see myself becoming a plant breeder.

2. What is it about sweetpotato that first attracted you to work with the crop?

After finishing my master’s degree, I returned to Cape Verde in 1985 and started collecting germplasm of cassava, sweetpotato, potato, and yam. But after working with these four crops I saw that my passion was for sweetpotato. It’s a vegetatively propagated crop that is very easy to grow and tastes sweet especially the orange-fleshed (OFSP) varieties. Sweetpotato is also considered a “woman’s crop” as they are easy to grow and prepare. My interest was further reinforced once I found out that children in Africa suffer from vitamin A deficiency (VAD) and that OFSP could help alleviate it. I learned too that individuals will change their eating habits if they can see real benefits.

3. How have the traits we target in sweetpotato breeding changed (or not) over the years?

The first sweetpotato variety I released in Mozambique had very low dry matter content was susceptible to drought and pests, and did not appeal to male tastes; they often said sweetpotato was “watery.” Today because of the careful breeding program supported by SASHA, we are proud to have increased dry matter very considerably and also improveddrought tolerance. Over the years consumers adopted OFSP as a healthier product than white-fleshed ones, and it is increasingly being incorporated into the diets of children, women, and men. Now, thanks to the work of CIP and our partners, about 31% of all sweetpotato grown in Mozambique are OFSP types, and some varieties are very well adapted to Mozambique’s different growing conditions.

4. How do these traits relate to women’s needs, preferences, and/or interests?

Women often love what their children like to eat, as well as what is easy to grow and to prepare. OFSP “fit the bill”: Children love them because of their taste and orange color; women like them because they’re easy to grow and simple to prepare at home. Women can also sell fresh roots of OFSP and often process them to sell in the market.

5. In 2016, you were one of four recipients of the World Food Prize for your innovative work to help combat micronutrient deficiency and food insecurity with biofortified OFSP. What are some of the ways that women in sub-Saharan Africa have benefited from OFSP?

Over the last 15 to 20 years, crop research and the development of seed systems have helped increase sweetpotato yields, from about 5–6 t/ha in 2003 to almost 14 t/ha in 2016 (FAOSTAT 2016); 30% of all sweetpotato grown in Mozambique is biofortified OFSP. Yield increases like these would not be possible if we didn’t involve men and women from the communities in training and assessing the potential of these varieties in their fields. The promotion of OFSP among communities was quite intense. Because most of those women did not read or write, we relied on community theatre as a powerful tool to disseminate messages about OFSP and engaging members of the community in the different dissemination activities. The government of Mozambique recognizes the significant contribution OFSP can make to food security and nutrition and now includes the crop in the country’s agriculture investment plan. Likewise, in the nutrition sector, OFSP has been adopted as a mainstream technology for combating VAD. This initiative was promoted by the Technical Secretariat for Food Security and Nutrition in Mozambique and is part of Mozambique’s strategy in the Scaling Up Nutrition movement. None of these positive results would have been possible without involving communities, particularly women and extension agents in our efforts.

6. As the new leader of Flagship Project 2, what do you hope to achieve through the flagship?

I am excited to lead the CGIAR’s Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Banana (RTB) Flagship Project 2 (FP2), Adapted productive varieties and quality seed. Being a flagship leader is an excellent opportunity for me to provide scientific and management leadership in RTB and to support other colleagues in their success and contribution to the program. I would also like to spend much more time and effort on helping to align FP2’s activities and contributions with very recent developments in the global funding landscape of breeding. In specific terms, the Crops to End Hunger Initiative, the Excellence in Breeding Initiative, and the Gender in Breeding Initiative, who are rapidly changing the mindset about how plant breeding is carried out in CG centers worldwide.

7. What are some of the gender-related challenges that the flagship is addressing?

One of the methods FP2 applies is participatory varietal selection (PVS), which draws on gender-differentiated assessments of varietal preferences to develop varieties with user-preferred traits. One of the strengths of PVS is that having both women and men assess varieties for preferred traits will make it easier for those selected varieties to be adopted. FP2 is committed to understanding gender aspects and incorporating them when it develops product profiles.

8. Women are deeply involved in the production, processing, and marketing of RTB crops. How is FP2 working to provide benefits for both women and men?

Although FP2 involves both men and women in production and processing, it is largely women who are involved in postharvest processing. FP2 supports the development of varieties with higher processing quality to enable producers to link with a wide range of processors, from industrial to small scale, which can create additional employment opportunities not only for women and men but also for youth groups, who in many communities are saddled with low-wage work or unemployment.

Ethiopian farmers help researchers select potato varieties that the market demands

Potato is important to food security and a cash crop in Ethiopia with high potential to improve the livelihoods of small-scale farmers, who account for 83% of the total population and hold 95% of agricultural land. It is widely grown in the highland areas and is one of the few fast growing commodities expanding into non-traditional areas.

The International Potato Center (CIP) has partnered with the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) potato breeding program since 1975 with the objective of improving the productivity and profitability of potato through research and innovation in science, technology and capacity strengthening. The collaboration has, so far, resulted in the release of about 29 CIP-bred varieties with late blight resistance, high yield, and good quality traits. Among those released varieties, ‘Gudene’ is the most widely grown because of its culinary characteristics and late blight resistance.

According to Gebremedhin Woldegiorgis, a potato breeder at EIAR’s Holetta Agricultural Research Centre (HARC), collaboration with CIP has enabled Ethiopia’s national potato program to obtain germplasm, technical support and training on germplasm evaluation and cleaning, as well as funding, all of which has positively impacted the livelihoods of the country’s potato farmers.

Over the last five years, researchers from CIP and HARC have selected the 15 best variety candidates based on yield, late blight resistance and organoleptic quality (characteristics such as flavor, appearance, smell, and consistency). Those clones were initially grown from true potato seeds imported from CIP headquarters in Peru.

In 2018, gender disaggregated participatory varietal selection (PVS) by farmers was undertaken to determine which of those clones was best suited to local preferences and needs. The 15 clones were planted at HARC along with three local checks (the varieties Dagim, Gudene, and Jalene). Famers were invited to evaluate those potatoes in the flowering stage, at harvest and 10 days after harvest for organoleptic characteristics.

According to CIP Researcher Hirut Getinet, the farmers’ criteria for selection differed according to gender. At flowering, female farmers selected materials with disease resistance, more stems per plant, thick and strong stems, broader leaves, and those with more abundant foliage, in order of importance. Male farmers preferred medium maturing materials, more stems per plant, disease resistance, and thick and strong stems. At harvest, the top three preferred selection criteria were the same for both men and women: high tuber yield, medium tuber size and tuber color (preferred by market).

Female representative Aselefech Telila, chairperson of the Gudina women’s improved seed potato producers association, together with her vice chair, Tewabu Diriba, and secretary, Belaynesh Tafa, were enthused about both the clones’ high yield potential and their resistance to late blight disease.

“My group considered number of tubers per plant and the appearance of the tubers – fewer buds and tuber color,” said Aselefech Telila.

The men who participated (Bedada Chala, Addisu Abebe, and Asrat Kifle) appreciated the opportunity to evaluate the new potato clones during the flowering stage as well as harvest.

“I am hopeful that these new varieties will reach the wider community. The tubers should be medium sized and without any cracks. Just like the women, we count the number of tubers per plant and the skin color of the tubers. Using these criteria, we rank them 1 to 3, one being very good,” said Bedada Chala.

“Women’s preferences for disease resistant and vigorous plants, expressed in the PVS evaluations, were related to the constraints they face in access to inputs and equipment to control a disease outbreak. Thus, the new high yielding, disease resistant varieties will contribute to enhanced productivity of both men and women, reducing the gap of unequal access to inputs that women face,” noted Vivian Polar, Gender and Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist for CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB).

Two clones, CIP312920.532 and CIP312920.515, were the most frequently selected by both men and women participants. The EIAR potato breeding program plans to propose one or both of them for release as new varieties, following multi-location field evaluation for stability.

At the end of the PVS evaluations, the farmer representatives reiterated the importance of the potato for food and income. They noted that potato’s yield per unit area is much higher than crops such as barley and wheat, also commonly grown in Ethiopia. Both groups expressed optimism that new varieties would be released from the trials, as the varieties commonly planted in the country are no longer high yielding.

“Gender differentiated participatory varietal selection can be considered as a supportive breeding decision tool for the selection of materials that meet end-user preferences, potentially increasing the adoption of new varieties,” explained CIP Breeder Thiago Mendes. He added that the variety candidates selected through PVS have the potential to improve farmers’ yields by 40% over the current most widely grown variety, Gudene, because they have greater resistance to late blight, which threatens the production of all the country’s potato farmers.

This work is funded by USAID and RTB.

The blog was first published on the International Potato Center website. 

Balangiga Farmer – Fisherfolk women learn how to make food products from dried cassava grates

Who knew so many different products could be made from cassava? Now thanks to the Aqua-based Business School (ABS), some Filipino fisherfolk women trained in food processing are ready to get down to business.     

Eight members of the Fisheries and Agricultural Crop Producers Association of Bacjao (FACPAB) from Balangiga, Eastern Samar, were trained on cassava food processing on March 25 – 26, 2019, at the Philippine Root Crop (PhilRootcrops) Research and Training Center of the Visayas State University, Baybay City, Leyte.

FACPAB is one of the 14 pilot groups composed of farmer – fisherfolks enrolled in the ABS in Eastern Visayas. ABS is a joint endeavor of the Food Resilience through Root and Tuber Crops in Upland and Coastal Communities of the Asia-Pacific (FoodSTART+) project of the International Potato Center (CIP), and the Fisheries, Coastal Resources, and Livelihood (FishCORAL) project of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, implemented in the Philippines. ABS is a value chain development methodology adapted from the farmer business school (FBS) first piloted by CIP in Indonesia in 2008.

The training is part of the group’s slated activities under the fifth ABS module, where the groups identify and test potential innovations. The group focused on cassava as their chosen commodity, for which they also were trained on production and farming practices by the Municipal Agriculture Office of Balangiga. Additionally, quality planting materials of a local cultivar (‘Kaplutan’) and a high-yielding variety (‘Rayong 5’) ideal for food processing from PhilRootcrops, were introduced in the area for mass propagation and distribution to other farmers in the community. Better varieties, coupled with improved farming practices, can contribute to a higher yield and quality of cassava.

During the training, Dr. Julie D. Tan, head of PhilRootcrops’ post-harvest division, spoke about the health benefits and livelihood opportunities of root crops. “Does eating root crops like cassava and sweetpotato (camote) help you lose weight?” asked Hilda Pabillo, training participant and FACPAB member.

“Yes!,” Dr. Tan answered positively, mentioning how both the low glycemic index of root crops and their high-fiber content help reduce weight.

The participants learned from Lucenita Estoy, PhilRootcrops’ resident food-processing expert, how to make various products from cassava using processing methods developed by Visayas State University–PhilRootcrops such as cassava chips, macaroons, pichi-pichi (cassava cake with coconut), espasol (rice cake), cookies, jolly roll, and yuca sticks (fried cassava sticks). Dr. Tan went on to discuss food safety and hygiene in food processing, a topic she strongly emphasized since the participants plan to venture into larger-scale commercial production.

Clockwise from top left: FACPAB ladies trying their hand in making cassava chips with malunggay (moringa) sheets, cassava espasol, Jojo Cinto discusses the cassava extruder, and a participant helps Lucenita Estoy fry yuca sticks.

Jojo Cinto, PhilRootcrops’ processing facility officer-in-charge, facilitated the group in their visit to the facility. There, he presented and discussed several kinds of root crop-processing equipment such as the cassava grates and flour system, extruder, vacuum fryer, and dehydrator. These are some of the equipment that FACPAB may acquire in the future if they decide to venture into a more complex enterprise.

FACPAB is one of the five groups from the first ABS batch that participated in the Stakeholders’ Validation Workshop (SVW) in Tacloban City on April 4 – 5 2019. At the workshop, FACPAB showcased their prototype cassava chips, macaroons, yuca sticks, and jolly rolls. On a 1 to 5 acceptability scale (with 5 being the highest), their products’ overall acceptability ranged from 3.7 (macaroons) to 4.5 (cassava chips). Not bad for a group that was trained only the previous week.

Cassava chips with malunggay leaves in plain and chocolate flavors.

The SVW is particularly important in the product development process of the ABS groups. They received helpful feedback for their products such as “yuca sticks and jolly rolls should be uniform in size,” “macaroons tastes good but is slightly burnt,” and “improve product presentation by improving labels and put additional information such as net weight and ingredients” for their packaging. The stakeholders asked all the ABS groups to provide their products’ complete nutrition information in order to break into a larger market. At a second SVW, held on April 24 – 25, the second batch of ABS groups presented their product prototypes to their stakeholders.

Together with other ABS groups, the FACPAB products will be showcased during the Business Launch organized by FishCORAL and FoodSTART+ on May 29, 2019, in Tacloban City.

Blog and photos by Guada Babilonia and first published on the FoodSTART+ website.

An Integrated, Economically-Sustainable Cassava Seed System is Emerging in Nigeria

The project “Building an Economically Sustainable Integrated Seed System for Cassava (BASICS)” came together with its stakeholders to review progress and plan the way forward between 11th and 13th of March 2019 at the IITA Headquarters in Ibadan, Nigeria.

The meeting, reflected on the activities of the project in the past three years to foster a sustainable seed system to assess the improvements catalysed across the seed value chain and to discuss ways to take the successes forward in an economically sustainable way beyond the project support.

Dr. Graham Thiele, CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) Program Director and the PI for BASICS project stated that the project falls under the RTB Flagship Project 2 “Productive varieties & quality seed”. RTB benefits the project by incorporating its global outlook to foster a new breeding mindset – gender responsive, targeting product profiles with a stronger focus on varietal replacement and bringing in learnings from seed systems work in vegetatively-propagated crops from across the world. RTB acts as an honest broker for players in seed systems and currently coordinates all the component partner activities under the project.

Dr. Hemant Nitturkar, BASICS Project Director

Dr. Hemant Nitturkar, BASICS Project Director, in his address, gave an overview of the achievements and challenges of the four-year project so far. “This year’s meeting is a time for reviewing, reflecting, and renewing what we set out to do. We have achieved some credible outcomes in the last three years, and we have also hit some roadblocks that we are trying to overcome. We had set out to develop an economically sustainable system to produce and sell cassava breeders seed, foundation seed, commercial seed of improved varieties so farmers can access and use quality seed of improved varieties that help improve their net productivity and income.”  Some of the highlighted achievements were:

  • Dedicated private seed businesses were established at IITA (IITA Go Seed) and NRCRI (Umudike Seeds). These new entities produce and market breeder and foundation seeds. This is a globally unique instance of a public-private sector partnership initiative to strengthen the early generation seed (EGS) system for vegetatively propagated crops like cassava.
  • An innovative rapid multiplication technology called SAH™ adapted from SAHTechno has been successfully tested and deployed, allowing quick bulking of planting material for breeder seed of different varieties.
  • Over 125 village seed entrepreneurs, signed on and trained by the project, are producing and selling certified commercial seeds to cassava farmers.
  • The National Agricultural Seed Council (NASC) has increased its capacity to offer market responsive seed quality regulatory services through the establishment of a seed diagnostic lab and adoption of an award-winning online tool, Cassava Seed Tracker, that connects all the seed value chain players.

Dr. Nitturkar recounted the project’s achievement, “In the ECOWAS report of 2015, there was no certified breeders seed, no foundation seed, and a limited number of certified commercial cassava seed. In 2018, BASICS facilitated production and sale of 4,556 bundles of breeders seed, 13,325 bundles of foundation seed, and 25,375 bundles of certified commercial seed.”

Dr. Olusegun Ojo, Director General of NASC enumerated the importance BASICS on NASC operations; “The BASICS project has enhanced all external projects of the council in terms of innovation, impact, and sustainability”. He further explained “the impact of the BASICS project has been overwhelming. The reports we receive daily from the field have been so encouraging. The production of certified cassava seed has increased tremendously and the need to use the certified seed is gradually becoming institutionalized.”  Dr. Ojo also commented positively on the Cassava Seed Tracker, and how NASC is looking to adopt it as the Nigerian Seed Tracker to apply to all crops being certified for seed.

Dr. Okechukwu Eke-Okoro, National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI) Director of External Projects, representing the Executive Director, Professor Joseph Ukpabi, stated “NRCRI has collaborated with IITA in many projects, and this collaboration has enhanced the accomplishments of NRCRI as a federal institution with the mandate of genetic improvement, production, storage, processing, and social economics of root and tuber crops. The BASICS project is changing the future of the rural farmers from growing food for consumption to earning higher commercial returns with its technology of providing multiple pests and decease-free planting materials of cassava through Semi Autotrophic Hydroponics (SAH™).”

Dr. May-Guri Saethre, IITA Deputy Director General, Research for Development, reaffirmed IITA’s commitment to improving cassava production and livelihoods in Africa while highlighting the efforts of BASICS in transforming the cassava value chain in Nigeria. “The BASICS project is critical for creating a sustainable commercial seed system that will equitably deliver improved varieties to men and women farmers through commercial markets.” Dr. Saethre further praised the SAH™ technology and the success of its deployment and increasing popularity as the technology for cassava rapid multiplication. l

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Program Officer for BASICS, Lawrence Kent, reiterated that “we want to build reusable bridges that deliver breeder seed to foundation seed to commercial seed to the farmers’ fields in a profitable manner. This is exciting because many people thought it wasn’t possible. Farmers were used to getting free seed. Through BASICS, we have been able to show what is possible. We need more time to consolidate this. I am very proud of this project and want to thank all partners. Together we can make sure that disease resistant improved varieties will benefit farmers in a sustainable way.”

The meeting was attended by national and international partners, policymakers, and development experts from Catholic Relief Services (CRS), National Root Crops and Research Institute (NRCRI), National Agricultural Seed Council (NASC), Fera Science Ltd. (FERA), Context Global Development, SAHEL Consulting, RTB, the International Potato Center (CIP) and IITA.

All the partners in the BASICS project identified IITA GoSeed Cassava, Umudike Seeds, SAH, village seed entrepreneurs, the Processor-led Model (PLM), Quality Seed and market responsive certification and Cassava Seed Tracker as key innovation packages to be scaled up to be able to establish an economically sustainable cassava seed system. Building on the good work done so far and the deliberations on what needs to be done going forward to make sustainable changes in the seed value chain, the project team agreed on a way forward to develop a concept note to be submitted to the donor to seek funding for a potential second phase of the project.

Building an Economically Sustainable Integrated Seed System for Cassava (BASICS) in Nigeria is a 4-year project, led by the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that seeks to create a commercially viable private sector cassava seed system in Nigeria that is compliant with improved seed certification standards implemented by the National Agricultural Seeds Council (NASC). More information on the project can be obtained from the project website –