Getting More Nutritious Crops on the Plate ~ Pigeonpea Research and Development

Posted by on September 18th, 2014 | 0 Comments »

India’s success in expanding into horticulture and crops other than wheat and rice will be highlighted in our upcoming 2014 GAP Report.

Pigeonpea, also known as Cajanus cajan, is an important nutritional grain and a staple in many diets in India, particularly among vegetarians. Mostly cultivated in the tropics and sub-tropics area, it is the second most important “pulse crop” (important in peoples’ nutrition) in India with an average productivity of 780kg/hectare.  Besides its dietary value, this crop also improves soil health, structure and quality by being an excellent source of organic nitrogen, thereby (in theory) giving framers multiple reasons to grow pigeonpea (Sustainable Agriculture Green Manure Crops).

Photo credit: Sharmi Blog

Photo credit: Sharmi Blog

Unfortunately, farmers are not producing enough of this nutritious food. Shifting from traditional crops such as wheat and rice and corn into pigeonpea can pose risks for farmers (Kulkarni and Panwar, 1981). Despite perceived benefits, farmers are hesitant to start production without support and good extension advice. Because of piegonpea’s recent low yields, which are attributed to the “non-availability of knowledgeable cultivars, poor crop husbandry and prolonged exposure to a number of biotic and abiotic stresses,” farmers are reluctant to grow it (International Initiative for Pigeonpea Genomics). Farmers are risk-averse and want to maximize their returns on their crop production, and usually only have one chance per year to grow a product with sufficient returns to support themselves. Therefore, they are unlikely to risk growing new or more challenging crops, such as piegonpea. As a result, supply has not kept pace with demand over the last 10 years, and therefore, a new wave of supply innovation is needed.

Research & Development to Help Farmers Grow More and Risk Less

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) initiated a pigeonpea research program to increase yields via a new technology-hybrid breeding system. If pollination can be manipulated, certain production problems can be avoided. Pollination broadly refers to how the plant grows and regenerates itself. If that process is unable to occur, the plant dies, which makes it impossible to yield sellable crops.

Photo credit: ICRISAT

Photo credit: ICRISAT

The new pollination system was a challenging task because pigeonpea is a self-pollinating crop, with only 20-25 percent cross pollination. ICRISAT breeders are working to produce hybrids that are superior to the original self-pollinating crop because hybrids are more likely to pollinate and subsequently grow into profitable crops for farmers. This technology was later transferred to the Indian Council on Agricultural Research (ICAR), which helped increase India’s production.

ICRISAT and its partners are now working on a stronger breeding program incorporating wild species traits into pigeonpea varieties. Presently new pigeonpea lines have been bred and more than a dozen are in the final stages of development, showing promise for fertility restoration. This is helping alleviate the problems in seed production.

Expanding Pigeonpea Production

The new lines of hybrid pigeonpea produced 30-40 percent greater grain yields than original versions of crops for farmers across India. This is important because hybrids offer many advantages to the farmers, such as increased seed production, drought resistant plants, and greater crop pollinations (meaning a continuation of growth after being planted). Such improvements are even helping make pigeonpea suitable for being a farmer’s sole crop, thereby increasing supply from each farm and allowing farmers to build trust in the product’s future. This technology is also being transferred for use in multiple countries in Asia, Africa, and countries such as Australia and the United States.

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