Stories tagged: ICRISAT

Sprouting Grains for Stronger Bones: The Power of Finger Millet

In this guest blog post, Jerome Bossuet of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) explains the potential that the calcium-rich cereal finger millet has for combatting calcium deficiency around the world.

Calcium is key for growth and we need plenty of it in our daily food from a very young age. Yet, about half the global population, mostly in Asia and Africa, lack calcium in their diet and are prone to many related ailments ranging from cardiovascular diseases and diabetes to bone loss, which leads to crippling osteoporosis at old age.

Scientists from Aberystwyth University, UK and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) recommend biofortifying finger millet, an already calcium-rich dryland cereal grown in India and Africa, to combat this significant micronutrient deficiency.

One woman out of three and one man out of five will be exposed to bone loss and related fractures during their lives and the societal cost is rising fast, both in developed and developing countries. Think of a bone lifesaving account. Children need to get as much calcium as possible during their childhood to prevent osteoporosis which is very difficult to detect at an early stage. In the US, osteoporosis is costing around US$ 17 billion annually.

Different strategies are in place to prevent calcium deficiency with contrasting results. Food fortification e.g. breakfast cereals or flours, may not reach the most vulnerable, while supplementation tablets have well documented side-effects. Eating calcium rich food, like dairy products, seems to be the most efficient way to combat calcium deficiency. However, many cannot switch to dairy because of lactose intolerance, purchasing power or being vegan. Therefore, selecting (biofortifying) and promoting calcium-rich crops has a great potential to combat calcium deficiency. This is where finger millet stands out.

An Indian farmer’s organization in Kolli hills, in Tamil Nadu has been advocating for finger millet (called ragi in India) for years. They grow and market it, they eat it in various ways and value its resilience and health benefits. Here, children eat sprouted finger millet as part of their midday school meal. The group have been  processing and packaging this super grain for urban markets, with the support of the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), Bioversity International and IFAD.

Photo credit: Alina Paul-Bossuet

Children eating finger millet chappatis at school in India. Photo credit: Alina Paul-Bossuet

This is a survival dryland cereal which can grow with little rain, on poor soils, yet could reach yields of 10 tons per hectare when irrigated. It is the richest source of calcium among cereals, 3 times more than milk and 10 times higher than brown rice or maize. It is traditionally eaten as weaning porridge in some parts of India and Africa.

Under the CGIAR Research Program on Drylands Cereals, a nutrition profiling of hundreds (628) of finger millet varieties in Africa shows great variability in grain quality content. Breeding research has started working on calcium biofortification of finger millet, gaining a better understanding of what environmental factors and genes influence calcium grain richness without impeding its agronomic performance. Finger millet varieties in the pipeline with double the calcium of average varieties (up to 450 mg/100g edible portion) are now being tested by Kenyan and Tanzanian farmers. Dr Ojulong, ICRISAT research scientist working on finger millet highlights the vast potential of this work. “With the development of this biofortified finger millet that still performs well in the field, you need to eat a third less finger millet to meet your daily calcium requirements. Some Kenyan food processors are very keen on using it for the growing baby food market.”

Rural Kenyan women learn a new way to cook finger millet porridge for better nutrition. Photo credit: Alina Paul-Bossuet

Rural Kenyan women learn a new way to cook finger millet porridge for better nutrition. Photo credit: Alina Paul-Bossuet

However, eating finger millet is not enough to get its nutritional benefits, our body has to absorb it. This is what a nutritionist calls bioavailability, which is usually quite poor for grains, as it also contains compounds like phytates and tannins that prevent calcium absorption. However, such anti-nutrient compounds are important in plant growth and grain preservation. Tannins for instance prevent mould or insect damage. The way grain is processed and eaten highly influences calcium absorption. A nutrition study assessing women self-help group diets in rural Karnataka State, India showed that a portion of finger millet consumed two times a day together with one portion of pulses and vegetables, met the recommended calcium daily requirements.

The most nutritionally sound way to prepare finger millet is grain decortication followed by malting (germination and heat treatment).  But processed grains have a limited shelf life compared to decorticated grains. In Kolli hills, it works well because people have easy access to small village mills and can prepare small quantities depending on their immediate needs. The rest of the harvest can be safely stored for months.

Integrating the Kolli hills nutrition improvement practices could ensure calcium biofortified finger millet delivers its promises. Calcium deficient households could learn the best ways to cook finger millet to minimize the nutrient loss and recipes should suit their palate and preferences.

Increasing the market demand for this grain as a Smart Food would also incite farmers to grow it and local food processors would develop a range of value-added products reaching new consumers. MSSRF has been supporting farmer groups to raise the profile of this ‘climate-smart nutri-cereal‘, which they say can help in the fight against hidden hunger. India has already incorporated millets in the Public Distribution System food basket, and it would make sense for African countries to add finger millet in the food aid basket too. Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania have promoted finger millet to a high value crop because of high potential in malnutrition alleviation and also as a high value cash earner

To have a proof of concept for food security decision-makers, Dr Ojulong and his colleagues recommend support in scaling up the initial success of biofortified finger millet in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as implementing pilot nutrition studies for vulnerable groups (like children, nursing or post-menopausal women) in finger millet-eating communities to confirm the extent of finger millet calcium absorption and benefits.

Through this approach, which incorporates agriculture, nutrition and health, along with policy and market research, finger millet could combat calcium deficiency in coming years.

Fertilizer Microdosing on Degraded Soils in Sub-Saharan Africa

Land degradation affects more than half of Africa, leading to a loss of an estimated US$42 billion in income and 5 million hectares of productive land each year.  A precision-farming technique called “microdosing” is helping farmers address the problem of soil infertility.

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), a member of CGIAR, has carried out research on land degradation in sub-Saharan Africa, where overuse of soil and low, unpredictable rainfall cause poor levels of food production. Given the risks involved with an unpredictable climate, farmers are not willing to invest in fertilizers to replenish the soil, and consequently soils are depleted, yields and crop quality decline, and hunger and under-nutrition are exacerbated. A vicious cycle is created: unproductive land is left and farmers clear forests to free up new land to plow.

Microdosing involves the application of small, affordable quantities of fertilizer onto the seed at planting time, or a few weeks after emergence. The microdosing technique increases the efficiency of fertilizer use, and helps improve productivity. The method uses about one-tenth of the amount typically used on wheat, and one-twentieth of the amount used on corn in the US. The small dosage needed illustrates just how depleted of nutrients African crops are.

The microdosing method has been introduced to Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa, making fertilizer use a productive and economically viable option for the farmers.

However, there have been constraints to the technique, involving lack of access to fertilizer and credit, insufficient training and lack of supportive policies.

In eastern and southern Africa, ICRISAT is working with private fertilizer companies to identify appropriate fertilizer types and promote the sale of small packets suited to the resource constraints of small-scale farmers.

Working with its partners, ICRISAT hopes to increase the number of farmers using the microdosing technique from 25,000 to 500,000 in the next few years.

For more information on fertilizer microdosing, read the full case study from ICRISAT.

Food and (not vs.) Cash Crops

At the recent Borlaug Symposium in Ethiopia, ICRISAT researchers presented a paper examining the question of what the balance should be between food and cash crops.

The presentation used the examples of Ethiopia and Tanzania to show how crops have served both food and cash purposes, for the benefit of reducing poverty and hunger in developing countries.

In Ethiopia, chickpea production has been significantly boosted in recent years. Improved varieties and training programmes have resulted in a 40% increase in yields nationwide, with a 90% increase in yields in the East Shewa Zone in the Oromia region. With great increases in production by the tonne, earnings from exporting the crop have risen from $1 million in 2004 to $26 million in 2008. In Tanzania, similar impacts have been achieved with a key leguminous crop, the pigeonpea.The ICRISAT team stated,

As these examples illustrate […] the notion of a single, ideal balance point between food vs. cash crop may be too simplistic.

The presenter spoke of the insights they have gained in their Village Level Studies initiative, that have shown that poverty reduction is linked with improved connectivity between rural areas and urban markets.  ICRISAT refer to this concept, now the model for their Strategic Plan 2020, as ‘inclusive market-orientated development’ (IMOD).  In this plan, ‘markets’ are broadened to include the poor.

Their objective regarding food and cash crops is:

ensure food security first, then add income to the extent possible through cash crops.

The paper examines the need for a concept of ‘food and (not vs.) crops, whereby the balance between the two will depend on each farmers’ individual food security status.  The researchers say that stimulating staple food production, rather than growing high-value exotic products and export crops, will be the first trigger for IMOD, and will offer basic experience in supply chains before new crops are added to the mix.

The team also called for a comprehensive perspective on the entire value chain system, where farmers are supported by inputs, access to markets, infrastructure, credit and weather and market insurance, in a way that promotes equity and security.

The ICRISAT research emphasises the need for inclusion in market-access strategies, and also the need for full understanding of the context of each community, rather than blending all the poor into one bracket. They call for more information about the different categories of poor at local scales, to aid development work.

The presentation concluded:

The question should not be food vs. cash crops; it should be how to make food and cash crops work synergistically to propel farmers out of poverty. Ensure food security first, not in a way that creates aid dependency, but rather in a way that makes it a springboard towards market-orientated development.

Meeting the Grade: The Case of Groundnuts in Malawi

Work has been taking place in Malawi to enable farmers’ to achieve the grades and standards required to take part in broader markets. Whilst a lack of technical and financial capacities is often the greatest hindrance to meeting these targets, which cover food safety, quality, social and environmental standards, the ever-changing nature of the standards themselves exacerbates the challenges facing smallholder farmers.

Since 2003, ICRISAT have been working with the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi (NASFAM) to establish a “hybrid” system for ensuring achievement of standard requirements for the export of groundnuts from smallholder farmers’ associations in Malawi.

The project’s focus on groundnuts is the result of severe decline in the crop’s production, due to changing market requirements overseas, unavailability of seed in sufficient quantities and at affordable prices, and poor post-harvest handling.

Groundnuts are affected by aflatoxins, a naturally-occurring fungus which can infect crops during pod development or through poor post-harvest practices. Increasingly strict maximum allowable levels (MALs) of aflatoxin contamination in the European Union have prevented smallholder producers from accessing the European high-value markets.

According to the World Bank, the reduction of MALs to 4 parts per billion of aflatoxin has results in annual losses of over US$670 million for African countries.

The ICRISAT and NASFEM project objectives were:

  1. To increase productivity of groundnuts by providing improved varieties and the accompanying crop management options.
  2. To develop a system of grades and standards to enable smallholder farmers to participate in regional and international markets.
  3. To assist in development of a Market Information System.

Alongside training farmers in improved agricultural practices to increase yields and improve crop quality, the “hybrid” system created ‘production standards’ that would ensure farmers follow best practice to reduce the chances of infection by the fungus. These targets complement the ‘performance standards’ that are used in European markets, which determine the levels of a contaminant in a product.

The team also established an aflatoxin analytical laboratory in Malawi to help identify the sources of contamination and provide the necessary solutions, to help increase farmers’ chances of meeting the MALs.

Other steps also included organising farming groups into clubs who sell their produce at designated areas to allow for easy traceability.

ICRISAT has written,

The ability to accurately detect and quantify aflatoxin contamination at an affordable cost, allowed farmers in Malawi to re-establish groundnut exports to the quality-conscious European market, and stimulated interest in the approach in Mozambique and Zambia. Many other African countries are benefiting from this technology and appropriate management practices that reduce the initial aflatoxin contamination are being employed.