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Institute for International Crop Improvement: Early promise, long road ahead

Newswise — The challenges facing global food security and smallholder farmers’ livelihoods over the past year may seem at first glance insurmountable, but IICI’s essential work continues to advance agricultural innovations that have impact where they are most needed.

From extreme heat in the Horn of Africa to historic flooding in South Asia, climate change is fundamentally altering the pace of food production in many parts of the world, while bringing with it new pests and diseases.

These changes come against the backdrop of Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has caused repeated disruptions to global food and fertilizer supply chains, often affecting the most vulnerable small-scale farmers.

As a result, figures released by the UN in July 2023 show that at least 783 million people Countries faced hunger in 2022, due to the convergence of climate extremes, repeated shocks to global supply chains, growing economic insecurity and conflict. Not only does hunger remain high around the world, it continues to rise, with 122 million more people going hungry last year than in 2019. In particular, the African continent remains the most affected region, with one in five people affected – more than twice the global average.

However, all these challenges serve to reaffirm the importance of innovative agricultural research and technologies, particularly in the context 10 percent small farmers in developing countries have access to the latest seeds developed using biotechnological tools. With time to address these challenges increasingly limited – given the accelerating impact of climate change – agricultural innovation must be at the forefront of our response to ensure a hunger-free and climate-resilient world for generations future.

Yet, both in IICI’s work and in the broader ecosystem of cutting-edge agricultural solutions, there remains much hope. African countries continue to adopt innovative agricultural technologies, including those developed collaboratively between IICI and many world-class partners, as the continent continues to transform its food systems.

Elsewhere, some countries and regional blocs are revisiting their historical opposition to the role of agricultural biotechnology solutions in modern food systems. In March 2023, the UK reached an important milestone Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act, which approved the commercial development of genetically modified crops. At the same time, the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, proposed a revision to its rules governing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), paving the way for more resilient crops engineered with new gene-editing technologies, such as CRISPR.

Furthermore, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which entered into force in January 2021, will soon celebrate its third anniversary. Equipping the continent’s farmers with the best agricultural technologies, including improved varieties of staple crops, will be key to unlocking the full potential of the trade deal and contributing to economic growth, resilient livelihoods and improved food security.

As we prepare for another year of groundbreaking impact in science and development, I look forward to continuing our vital work to translate plant science discoveries and innovative technologies into food and nutrition security solutions for people who need it most. As part of the work of our team, many achievements have been highlighted over the past year.

Pod borer resistant (PBR) cowpea recently celebrated its second anniversary of commercialization in Nigeria, where, as I wrote in an article opinion article in July, it laid the foundation for more impactful agricultural innovations for Africa as a whole.

Across Africa, cowpea is a vital, low-cost crop to support food security and livelihoods of vulnerable communities. Yet cowpea production in Africa is threatened by a range of pests, including the Maruca pod borer, which can cause losses of up to 80 percent for smallholder farmers.

IICI has worked closely with partners in recent years to deliver biosafety regulatory approvals for PBR cowpea in Nigeria and Ghana. Nigerian farmers have access to an improved variety that helps protect yields, reduce costs and contribute to food security goals, thereby safeguarding the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and their communities.

In particular, this innovation has helped farmers reduce pesticide sprays from eight per season to just two, significantly reducing pesticide costs while providing a similar level of protection for their crops.

The demand for this new variety was such that seed sellers’ stocks were exhausted within a few days. Now the focus should be on increasing the impact of PBR cowpea, as well as establishing better quality assurance.

The IICI has also been extensively involved in capacity building of the country’s seed systems. For example, this has involved a number of trips to Nigeria over the last year, where IICI has supported the National Agricultural Seed Council (NASC) in training the accredited seed inspectors who are needed to enable a increased production of PBR certified cowpea seeds. IICI also supported the training of NASC staff in sampling and molecular diagnostic methods of the International Seed Testing Association, detection and diagnosis of cassava virus diseases at the National Research Institute of Cassava plant resources in Uganda and seed analysis laboratory techniques in cooperation with Kenya. Phytosanitary inspection service. In doing so, the IICI has played a key role in not only helping to deliver improved crop varieties, but has also helped ensure that farmers can reap the full benefits of improved cowpea and cassava varieties with greater confidence in their quality.

Elsewhere, IICI’s work is progressing in improving key staple crops in the Horn of Africa, where food production systems face climate-related burdens including extreme heat and drought.

In April 2023, IICI worked tirelessly to obtain pre-market regulatory approval from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for a semi-dwarf variety of teff, an Ethiopian staple crop whose importance cannot be overstated, considering its daily use in a variety of varieties. of dishes – from Injera flatbreads to baby food mixes. Ethiopia is also growing at roughly more than 90 percent teff in the world.

Developed by IICI researchers in collaboration with the Ethiopian Agricultural Research Institute, this semi-dwarf variety has now paved the way for USDA production in the United States. The new teff variety, developed using new plant breeding techniques, has a reduced height to provide resistance to lodging or overturning, which can lead to yield losses of up to 25 percent, and can also make the plant more susceptible to diseases and pests. .

A first season of field testing at the Danforth Plant Science Center Field Research Site confirmed earlier greenhouse observations, with semi-dwarf teff showing exceptional resistance to lodging, even in the face of multiple storms during the season of growth. These initial results are very promising for the development and supply of this essential trait to Ethiopian breeders and farmers.

These advances serve to further strengthen teff as an essential staple crop for Africa’s food security, helping to address the growing challenge of hunger and the impacts of climate change, pests and diseases.

The IICI team also supported ongoing work to develop and scale up virus-resistant cassava for Africa (VIRCA), which could help ensure a resilient diet for a third of the continent’s population, which depends on this crop for the majority of its caloric intake. The first national performance trials of varieties with combined resistance to cassava brown streak disease and cassava mosaic disease were planted in Kenya in April this year, and a second trial season is expected to begin shortly. These trials are used to produce the data necessary for registering varieties and disseminating them to farmers.

As we approach the end of 2023 and the first-ever “global stocktake” of climate action at this year’s COP28 since the 2015 Paris Agreement, we will likely be reminded again of what The world is lagging behind in its support for climate adaptation. . Similarly, the AGRF African Food Systems Summit 2023, held recently in Tanzania, highlighted the need for “.

In both cases, however, we know that agricultural innovations that contribute to climate adaptation and resilience, particularly for the most vulnerable communities in our food systems, including women and youth, undoubtedly exist . The mission now is to ensure that funding and support helps these tools reach communities at large.

And as we have seen, in the complex landscape of agricultural innovations, there is cautious optimism in some places, while in others there is a need for continued engagement and progress.

The world now has an opportunity to build on the positive developments of the past year to continue working towards a food-secure and climate-resilient world for future generations. We are delighted that IICI continues to play its role in continually innovating for the world’s small farmers.

Don MacKenzie, Ph.D. Executive Director of the Institute for International Crop Improvement

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