The International Year of Pulses and Tropical Agriculture

From, by Harriet Kim
The International Year of Pulses and Tropical Agriculture

Manuele Tamò is an insect ecologist working at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Benin. He obtained his MSc and PhD from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Institute of Plant Sciences, Zurich, Switzerland and joined IITA in 1987. Manuele's current research focuses on the development and deployment of biological control and habitat management options against major insect pests in cereal–legume systems. Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Manuele on IITA’s research, insect ecology, and the International Year of Pulses.

Food Tank (FT): Can you give Food Tank readers a brief overview of IITA and what it does?

Manuele Tamò (MT):  The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture is an agricultural research center operating within the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, CGIAR. The Institute was founded in 1967 in Nigeria, and currently operates out of four main hubs: Ibadan, Nigeria for Western Africa; Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo for Central Africa; Lusaka, Zambia for Southern Africa; and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania for Eastern Africa. Our mission is to offer leading research for delivering agricultural solutions to enhance crop quality and productivity, reduce producer and consumer risks, generate wealth from agriculture, and look at agriculture as a business opportunity. These opportunities are not just for poor farmers to survive but also to engage youth in agricultural business. As outlined in our new strategic plan, IITA’s vision for 2020, in collaboration with its partners, is to raise about 11 million Africans out of poverty and to reclaim over 7.5 million hectares of underutilized, degraded, and marginalized land for sustainable agricultural use. This vision is directly feeding into the system level outcomes of the CGIAR, which are to reduce rural poverty, increase food security, and support more sustainable resource management.

Regarding pulses, IITA works on two legumes: cowpea and soybean. However, soybean is not strictly a pulse; I will be speaking mainly about cowpea. IITA participates in the CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes. This program is led by our sister organization, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in India, with collaborative research from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas. IITA works on other major staple crops like yams, bananas, cassava, and maize, which are our primary mandate crops, but we also work within systems, on soils and plant health. Regarding insect ecology, our main focus is to develop sustainable alternatives to pesticides.

FT: Pulses are described to foster sustainable agriculture, contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation, and promote biodiversity (among other benefits). What kind of role does insect ecology play in the life cycle of pulses and these benefits?

MT: The key pulse in sub-Saharan Africa is what we call cowpea, known as black eye pea in the United States, which is a dry grain from the cowpea plant. This legume is a primary source of vegetable protein for human food. It is also a valuable source of livestock feed, and this is particularly true for sub-Saharan countries. But this crop is attacked by pests and disease, and if not controlled, the yield will drop by 80 to 90 percent. Consequently, after a season of hard labor, farmers harvest only 10 to 20 percent of the expected yield.

How do farmers react? They do not have many choices. Some of these pests, called recalcitrant pests, unfortunately, do not have good sources of host plant resistance against their attacks, in spite of IITA and national program scientists having invested long years of considerable efforts. As a consequence, cowpea farmers, until very recently, have resorted to spraying synthetic pesticides, and very often inappropriate ones with unacceptable levels of toxicity. Under normal circumstances, farmers would wear protective equipment to minimize exposure to such toxic pesticides. However, given the hot and humid tropical weather conditions, it usually means that they are not wearing protective equipment because it is just too hot. Also, protective equipment is not always available or affordable, since it is an extra expense. As a result, farmers, and not infrequently their children, spray these chemical pesticides without any safety measure, with the imaginable deleterious impact on human health. This over-reliance on chemical pesticides also creates many environmental problems, including groundwater contamination and buildup of a resistance population of insects. These problems lead to a cyclical need to spray more frequently and with ever more toxic compounds, leading to a faster buildup of resistance. Doing this also wipes out the natural elements that would, to some degree, help fight these pest attacks.

The role of insect ecology is to try to understand the regulating mechanisms between plants and insects. We have a case study on a pest commonly known as the legume pod borer (a moth with the binomial name of Maruca vitrata). As the result of a joint collaborative effort, including the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in the U.S. and AVRDC - The World Vegetable Center in Taiwan, we found this pest to be of Asian origin and not indigenous to Western Africa. According to biocontrol theory, this means that in the pest’s area of origin, there might be much better natural enemies. We suspected this a while ago but did not have all the proof. Now we have evidence of its Asian origin, but more importantly, we discovered natural enemies in Asia better adapted to the pest than the local ones we have seen in Africa. Thus, we have introduced them into West Africa for experimental releases under strict quarantine regulations. The legume pod borer is not just a pest of cowpea but also of other cultivated legumes, like pigeon pea and beans. But more importantly for us, it is an insect feeding on several alternative legumes plants, including trees that grow close to rivers and flower during the off-season. Thus, knowing the cycle of the pest in the natural habitat, and not just in the cowpea field, is essential because if you release natural enemies of this pest, they will have to find refuge when cowpea is not planted. Insect ecology is providing science-based solutions which can be passed on to farmers for sustainably managing the relationship between insects and plants.

FT: This year is the International Year of the Pulses. What will 2016 look like for IITA in bringing together pulses with e-research and open access?

MT: As I am not a specialist in open access, I cannot speak much about the causal relationship between the International Year of Pulses (IYP) and IITA’s Year of E-research and Open Access. To some degree, it is a coincidence they appeared together on our website, but not entirely. One major event for the IYP is coming up at the end of February in Zambia, #Legumes4Africa, PanAfrican Grain Legume and World Cowpea Conference. This conference is one of ten signature events for the IYP, and the only one supported by United Nations and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization for Africa. IITA is one of the co-organizers, in partnership with Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Grain Legumes (Legume Innovation Lab), CGIAR sister organizations, and the Zambia Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock. During the conference, we will be live streaming plenary sessions and active on Twitter and Youtube. It is more related to communications than open access, but IITA, in respect to pulses, encourages scientists to publish open access, geo-repository linking to grain legume research.

FT: The thematic areas of IITA's research include natural resource management, agribusiness, and plant production and health. How will pulses as a source of food security play a role in these research programs of IITA?

MT: Concerning biotechnology, I mentioned breeding for insect resistance, but there are also other aspects that are important. Biotechnology can be used for marker-assisted selection to accelerate progress in resistance to factors such as abiotic stresses; for example, drought as a result of climate change and low soil nutrients. With biotechnology, we can better adapt crops to these conditions and forge faster progress in breeding varieties.

Legumes play an important role in natural resource management in the crop rotations with cereals, and diversifying cropping systems, especially because they can fix nitrogen in the soil.

Again, we are not only looking at agriculture as a coping strategy for poor farmers but also as opportunities for young farmers who want to venture in agriculture as a business, to add value to agricultural products and take on more of a value chain approach. Our actors are looking at the diversification in the use of legume, including its uses in fighting child malnutrition and school feeding programs. We are teaching mothers how to introduce healthy products for feeding kids.

Lastly, in regards to plant production, we want to produce healthy plants by reducing or completely removing the overreliance on chemical pesticides. I mentioned some natural enemies that can kill the pests, but we are also working with various partners to develop and deploy biopesticides based on botanical extracts, like neem extracts, or based on living microorganisms, like insect-pathogenic fungi and viruses, to induce a disease in the insect pest. Of course, we have to make sure they are very specific to target insects and do no kill any other species. They will need to pass all the tests for human, animal, and environmental safety before utilization.

FT: IITA has a long list of diverse partners, collaborators, and networks, including donor countries, international organizations, research centers, and universities. Can you tell us what we can look forward to regarding collaborative research?

MT: Our collaboration and partnerships are the vehicles for delivering our research. We are not just working in a small nucleus. We have regional, national, and international partners and collaborators, as this means faster progress in delivering solutions and innovations to legume farmers. Sometimes, researchers can be busy with their research, and it is challenging to see the farmers every day. We need partners who know the farmers and work with the communities, as well as partners who are conversant with our technology and can explain it in the local language of the farmers.

One partner, in particular, has helped us deliver educational animation in local languages, a program initiated at UIUC, called the Scientific Animations Without Borders (SAWBO). Along this collaboration, we always start with identifying what the needs are, and in this case, the educational needs at farmer level. Together, we develop the script for the animation, which we subsequently translate into as many local languages as required and send to our colleagues at UIUC to produce the related animations. These animations are easier to understand and can always be translated with voiceovers in any of the local languages. SAWBO is just one example of the many collaborations we have on the ground. We also have upstream collaborations for our work on population genetics, developing biopesticides, and researching natural enemies in controlling pests. Donors play a significant role in our broad spectrum of partners; a few of which are faithful to legume research, notably the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID, to whom I would take the opportunity to thank for their sustained support over the years.

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