Pulse sector faces ‘game changer’

Variety research, such as genetically modified chickpeas in India, could significantly reduce global imports

CESME, Turkey — India is contemplating commercializing the world’s first genetically modified pulse crops.

“This would be a game changer,” said G. Chandrashekhar, a global agribusiness and commodity sector specialist.

Researchers at Assam Agricultural University have developed a GM chickpea that is resistant to the pod borer insect and has shown yield gains of 20 to 25 percent in greenhouse trials.

As well, the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics has developed a pigeon pea resistant to the same insect.

Chandrashekhar said the two crops give hope to a country where pulse yields are 40 percent of what they are in Canada.

“The initial results are absolutely encouraging,” he told delegates attending the 2016 Global Pulse Convention.

A recent article in the Indian Express said India’s Group of Secretaries has recommended commercializing the two GM crops.

The group estimates the two crops would reduce pulse imports by 2.75 million tonnes. India imported 4.6 million tonnes of pulses in 2014-15 valued at US$2.8 billion.

Research spending was a hot topic at the convention.

“There is an urgent need to invest more in science and technology to enhance pulses production and reduce production costs,” said Mahmoud Solh, director-general of the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA).

Huseyin Arslan, president of the Global Pulse Confederation, echoed that concern in his address to conference delegates.

He said global pulse production has increased 54 percent since the 1960s compared to 188 percent for wheat, 306 percent for corn and 814 percent for soybeans.

Arslan said total annual research funding for all 13 pulse crops is estimated at $177 million, which is a drop in the bucket compared to the expenditure on other crops.

“We were an orphan child up until now, and we don’t want to be an orphan child from now on,” he said.

Solh said plenty of good work is happening on pulse research despite the dearth in funding.

ICARDA has created early-maturing varieties of lentils that are replacing rice fallow in India and Bangladesh. Rice is grown on 107 million acres in India, so this could be a significant breakthrough.

Farmers can now grow rice from July to October, lentils from November to February and sesame from March to May.

“You can simply harvest the rice and grow lentils directly without cultivating and this is very, very important,” said Solh.

“The director general of ICARDA in India is now leading a revolution in pulses in order to achieve self-sufficiency in the year 2018.”

ICARDA has also developed a cold tolerant chickpea that is allowing farmers in west Asia and North Africa to plant it as a winter crop instead of a spring crop.

“By moving the crop from spring, which is grown on residual moisture, to winter we can easily double the farmer yields,” he said.

A drought tolerant chickpea it developed is now grown on 85 percent of Turkey’s chickpea acres, delivering a yield advantage of 267 pounds per acre over other varieties.

“In 2007, when we had very serious drought, it was the only crop that farmers could make money on,” said Solh.

The variety provided Turkish farmers with an estimated additional $165 million in revenue that year.

ICARDA has also worked with the Ethiopian Institute of Agriculture Research to triple lentil production, double chickpea production and increase fababean output 40 percent over the last 15 years in that country.

It has developed iron and zinc rich lentil varieties to help nourish poor people around the world.

Other achievements include a heat tolerant fababean that has tripled production in Sudan, a low neurotoxin grass pea grown in India and Bangladesh and a lentil more suitable for combining.

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