I have to admit: I’d never given much thought to pigeonpea and pearl millet before last week. But on my second day in India last week I got a fascinating lesson in how work with those crops is helping the livelihoods of some of the world’s poorest farmers.
After the meetings in New Delhi that I covered in my last post, we flew to Hyderabad to visit ICRISAT (short for International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics), an agricultural research center supported by our foundation that focuses on crops grown in semi-arid climates, particularly certain cereals and legumes.
In the car from the airport, Sam Dryden, a senior fellow at our foundation, tutored me on legumes. They’re part of a family of plants that includes peanuts, soybeans, and peas. One defining characteristic of legumes is that their seeds, the peas and beans we eat, grow inside of pods. Beyond their importance as a high-protein food source, legumes are valued for their ability to enrich soil with nitrogen, which plants also use for food. That makes them a helpful neighbor to crops like maize and sorghum, and it means farmers can get two crops out of a field that might have typically grown just one.
The pigeonpea is a member of the legume family. Little known in the U.S., it’s an important crop in eastern and southern African, India, and other parts of Asia. The seed is used in a variety of foods such as dal, and its leaves and stems are an important feed for farm animals.
It’s also an example of what agricultural development people call an orphan crop, a crop that’s important to many of the world’s poorest people yet largely ignored by the big agriculture companies. Those companies focus on high-value crops like corn and soy that are building blocks of rich-world diets and industry. As a result, their research has boosted yields of those crops by making them more resistant to insects, disease, and drought. The orphans haven’t seen many, if any, of those kinds of improvements.
That’s where ICRISAT comes in. It focuses on coaxing higher productivity out of these neglected crops.
ICRISAT’s work with the pigeonpea is a great example. Traditionally, the varieties grown in Africa were low-yielding and susceptible to disease and pests. The plant’s small seeds also didn’t match the preferences of African farmers and consumers. The ICRISAT researchers described to me how they worked with other agriculture institutes and African government researchers to create a better pigeonpea. After decades of breeding, they developed the world’s first hybrid varieties – 23 so far -- with higher yields, faster cooking time, and a resistance to Fusarium wilt, a fungal disease.
The improvements mean that some African farmers have tripled their output to 1,200 kilograms per hectare since they started planting the improved seeds.
The results of that productivity are being felt in places like Ethiopia, Tanzania, Malawi, and Kenya. Of course, there’s a risk in raising yields: What if the increased supply drives down the price? Fortunately, farmers in those countries are now selling pigeonpea to India, which imports over 254,000 tons of the crop annually—a market so big that it can absorb the extra supply without affecting the price. Other changes—like connecting exporters directly to farmers—are also buoying prices. ICRISAT said that African farmers got about 80 cents per kilogram for the beans last year versus 20 cents per kilogram in 2005.
They also get insurance with the crop: Pigeonpea outlives maize in very dry conditions so when a drought strikes, farmers that plant both can rely on the hardier bean to survive.
The risk of drought drives a lot of research at ICRISAT since the dryland tropics it specializes in will absolutely see hotter, drier conditions in the coming decades. We owe it to the 2 billion people who live in those regions to develop drought-tolerant crops that can handle climate change. ICRISAT researchers are trying to meet that challenge through work on sorghum and pearl millet. We’ll tell that story later in a video from my visit.