This blog highlights findings from a recently published articled by Glover, D., Mausch, K., Conti, C. and Hall, A., which can be accessed here.

Developing new crop varieties that respond to consumer and market demand should help better target international plant breeding investments and improve the uptake and impact of new varieties. Right?  Recent research by the CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals (CRP-GDLC) suggests predicting future demand for varieties is not as straight forward as it might seem.

A study of the widespread uptake of improved chickpea varieties by farmers in the state of Andhra Pradesh in Southern India during the 2000s reveals a success story that has its origins in strategic research choices that were made decades before there was a demand for chickpea varieties in this eco-region of India.

Robust and well adapted varieties are obviously important ingredients for success. However, equally important are a range of factors in the broader economic and policy context that make new technology attractive to farmers. A central message from the new research is that while  these factors evolve over long time scales, they are unpredictable and beyond the control of research organisations, yet are critical to the uptake of technology.  Breeding programmes need to be well prepared for these uncertain future scenarios.

The chickpea revolution in Andhra Pradesh – the conventional account of success

 Improved chickpea varieties now account for over 90% of chickpeas grown by farmers in Andhra Pradesh. Between 2000/01 and 2012/13, the area of chickpea cultivation grew from 0.22 Mha to nearly 0.6 Mha. This was mainly due to two improved chickpea varieties, JG 11 and KAK 2, that were developed by ICRISAT and partner organisations in the Indian national agricultural research system.

According to conventional accounts, this remarkable outcome came about due to the release of varieties well-suited to local agro-ecologies, farming systems and cropping patterns, coupled with joint efforts by ICRISAT and Indian research and extension partners to promote the varieties among farmers, led them to be widely appreciated and adopted. Efforts by ICRISAT and partners played a central role in ensuring the widespread adoption of the improved varieties. However, on closer inspection, this success story had a much longer gestation.

Reinterpreting success

 ICRISAT set itself the goal of improving chickpea cultivars in the mid-1970s. At that time, chickpea was primarily cultivated in Northern India; it was not even a minor crop in Andhra Pradesh. In the 1990s, however, this changed dramatically. The expansion of irrigation and high-input agriculture in Northern India led farmers to replace chickpea with wheat and other cash crops. Back in 1964-65, the chickpea area in these states was 5.14 million hectares, but in 2010, it was only 0.73 million hectares. The steep decline in production was not followed by a decline in demand, which led to official anxiety about scarcity. Production of legumes thus started to receive support from several government programmes. The competitiveness of chickpea in central and southern states of India, thus increased considerably over the decade.

Simultaneously, farmers in Andhra Pradesh were struggling with traditional crops. The cotton crop failed repeatedly in many districts of the state. Chilli and tobacco – the other two major cash crops – were plagued by heavy pest damage, rising fertiliser and pesticide prices, and falling output prices. Debt-ridden farmers, sometimes driven to suicide, urgently sought alternatives (ICRISAT, 2000) . Thus, the promotion of improved chickpea varieties by ICRISAT and partners happened at an opportune time.

At the same time, with the implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) under the Mahatma Gandhi National Reural Employment Guarantee Act 2005, rural wage rates began to increase. This raised labour costs for farm operators encouraged the development and commercialisation of machinery that could be used to mechanise farm operations. Tractors, power tillers, threshers, sprayers and pump sets became increasingly common in chickpea cultivation (Dhimate et al., 2018).

It was all of these factors together– promotion efforts by ICRISAT and partners, the decline of chickpea cultivation in  northern India, failure of cash crops and commercialisation of suitable machinery – which encouraged Andhra farmers to plant improved chickpea varieties. 

Figure 1: Chickpea in Andhra Pradesh, a timeline

Figure 1: Chickpea in Andhra Pradesh, a timeline

What lessons can we learn? 

 When ICRISAT set the goal of improving chickpea varieties, it had no way to know that this confluence of factors would eventually come about. A past generation of ICRISAT scientists deserves much praise for having identified key traits that would allow farmers to grow chickpeas more successfully in the warm and humid conditions of southern India (Bantilan et al., 2014; Charyulu et al., 2015). However, the eventual outcome of this decision – the “silent Chickpea Revolution” – was not deliberately targeted or anticipated beforehand. In fact, initial efforts to develop new chickpea traits were not immediately rewarding. It took approximately 30 years to establish relationships and systems that would connect farmers to a market where they could sell the new chickpea varieties. The chickpea area in Andhra Pradesh was 163,000 ha during 1999-2000 and 90% of this area was under the four-decade old chickpea variety Annigeri. From 1999 to 2009, the chickpea area increased from 163,000 to 628,000 hectares, 90% of which is under improved varieties, and production increased from 95,000 to 884,000 tons/year. Thus, Andhra Pradesh, once considered an unfavorable state for chickpea cultivation, has today the highest yields for chickpea in India, with an average yield of 872 kg/ha (ICRISAT, 2011).

Today’s research logic, both within the CGIAR and in the broader research landscape, is much different from 50 years ago. Nowadays, much attention is given to interventions that promise to deliver quick returns on investments (Conti et al., 2021; IPES, 2016). Donors expect more rapid and wider uptake of new technologies and the achievement of development impacts at a larger scale. These are key elements for making decisions about funding allocated to international agricultural research for development. This thinking is visible, for instance, in the promotion by the CGIAR Excellence in Breeding Platform (EiB) of the ‘product profile’, a concept borrowed from the private sector. A product profile guides breeding efforts by defining the characteristics of a future crop variety that can occupy an identified niche in farming systems or consumer demand (Sumberg and Reece, 2004).

The chickpea story shows the virtues of a different approach. For instance, it highlights the importance of basic plant breeding. The eventual success of chickpea breeding was built upon generating a broad range of potentially useful and effective technologies. This effort was supported during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s by a funding environment and strategic objectives that enabled ICRISAT to explore a mix of approaches within its mandate. This more patient approach eventually facilitated agile responses by farmers to emerging opportunities and equipped ICRISAT and its partners to respond to the farmers’ emerging needs.

This is not to discard the value of product profiles. Instead, it is to stress the importance and value of diversifying the research portfolios enough to allow short-term investments to meet present needs (e.g. product profiles) and longer-term funding to support more innovative research. Long-term research is essential to prepare for uncertain future scenarios, especially those emerging from the impending climate change scenarios.

The chickpea story serves as a reminder of the role of public international agricultural research organisations, which is not only to respond to present circumstances but future projects as well. It is also to look ahead to possible unknown future needs, trying to “plan for the unplannable” by implementing a sufficient diversity of options to be used when unexpected events (such as the COVID-19 pandemic) come about.

 Authors:  Dominic Glover, Kai Mausch, Costanza Conti and Andy Hall.

References:

  • Bhardwaj S. (2014) Mechanization of chickpea production in Andhra Pradesh: Meso and micro level analysis. Report submitted to the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics. Patancheru, Telangana, IN: ICRISAT.
  • Bantilan, C., Charyulu, D.K., Gaur, P., Shyam, D.M., Davis, J., 2014. Short-Duration Chickpea Technology: Enabling Legumes Revolution in Andhra Pradesh, India, Research Report no. 23. Telagana. https://doi.org/10.13140/rg.2.1.4375.4725
  • Charyulu, D.K., Bantilan, M.C.S., Laxmi, A.R., Moses, D.S., 2015. Analysing scientific strength and varietal generation, adoption and turnover in Peninsular India: the case of sorghum, pearl millet, chickpea, pigeonpea and groundnut., in: Walker, T.S., Alwang, J. (Eds.), Crop Improvement, Adoption, and Impact of Improved Varieties in Food Crops in Sub-Saharan Africa. CGIAR and CAB International, Wallingford, pp. 265–293. https://doi.org/10.1079/9781780644011.0265
  • Conti, C., Zanello, G., Hall, A., 2021. Why are agri-food systems resistant to new directions of change? A systematic review. Glob. Food Sec. 31, 100576. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gfs.2021.100576
  • ICRISAT, 2000. Science with a human face—ICRISAT annual report 2000.  ICRISAT Annual Reports. Patancheru, AP, India: International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics. http://oar.icrisat.org/5244/1/Icrisat_AR_2K.pdf
  • ICRISAT, 2011. Inclusive market-oriented development – ICRISAT annual report 2010. ICRISAT Annual Reports. Patancheru: International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics. http://oar.icrisat.org/305/1/157-2011_ICRISAT_Annual_Report_2010.pdf
  • IPES, 2016. From Uniformity to Diversity: a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. Brussels.
  • Sumberg J and Reece D. (2004) Agricultural Research through a ‘New Product Development’ Lens. Experimental Agriculture 40: 295-314.

Acknowledgment: This work was undertaken as part of, and funded by the CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals (CRP-GLDC) and supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.

 

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