Agri-research organisation, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, has been working on improving agricultural productivity, reducing malnutrition and environmental degradation in dryland tropics. ICRISAT director general Jacqueline d’Arros Hughes spoke to Swati Rathor about the future of agriculture:

How will agriculture change in the post-Covid world?

Covid-19 has highlighted opportunities for improved agri-food systems – digital extension systems, increased farm mechanisation, decentralised markets and improved farmgate procurement in addition to improved farmer-consumer connect and more efficient value chains. Without protection against the virus, agriculture will continue with less face to face contact. I hope the changes in agriculture will focus on areas exposed by the pandemic as these will also contribute to the long-term goals of sustainable development.

How can farming be made profitable?

Farming is a complex and high-risk activity; the risk is higher in smallholder rain-fed systems. There is no single answer as farming is profitable for a variety of reasons and unprofitable for just as many reasons. Better pest and disease management, soil fertility and good agronomic practices, increased resilience to climate change, availability of quality seed of improved varieties, better access to markets, addressing workforce shortages through mechanisation, improved post-harvest practices and processing options, strengthened value chains and a supportive policy environment can make farming profitable.

How can farmers gear up for climate change?

Agriculture is affected by climate change and also contributes to it. In India, where more than 65% of farms are small and rain-fed, climate change is felt most prominently in variations in rainfall intensity, the duration of intra-seasonal dry days during monsoon, and the occurrence of extreme weather events. Agriculture must both adapt to, and contribute to mitigating climate change. Agriculture must minimise the contribution made to greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon sequestration, and must be climate-smart.

The threat of climate change to our food systems, and the threat caused by our current food systems, must be highlighted to consumers. Unless consumers demand food produced in ways that are good for the environment, farmers have little incentive to adopt appropriate farming technologies.

How is digitisation impacting agriculture?

Digital technology has the potential to make agriculture significantly more productive, reduce drudgery, and make agriculture more profitable. Due to the digital lag, the latest, most appropriate and most efficient technology may not always be available to smallholder farmers in the drylands of Asia and Africa. That said, there is a large ecosystem of startups and entrepreneurs, including many collaborating with us, working to make the benefits of digital technology available to smallholder farmers through the widespread availability of smartphones and internet connectivity.

In what ways is ICRISAT working towards reducing malnutrition in India?

The organisation is geared towards improving nutrition in the drylands of Asia and Africa where these crops are grown and consumed. The development of India’s first naturally-bred biofortified pearl millet at ICRISAT led to minimum iron levels being defined for pearl millet breeding. Through our agri-business incubator we support startups to develop value-added food products that combine dryland cereals and legumes in healthy, delicious and easy to consume ways. The Smart Food campaign works to diversify consumption through an approach which is ‘good for you, good for the planet and good for the farmer’. In India, we work in a focussed manner in predominantly tribal districts to combat malnutrition and improve livelihoods.

How are you maintaining genetic diversity of seeds?

Genetic diversity minimises risk to farmers; genetic diversity is one of the building blocks of new, adapted varieties. Our Genebank, located in India and Africa, holds over 1,53,000 accessions of dryland crops that support breeding programmes around the globe. Genes have been identified for resistance to pests and diseases; tolerance to high temperatures, less moisture, poor soils; and to confer high levels of iron, zinc and other essential elements in the consumed parts of crop plants. Of the total accessions in the Genebank, 1,13,653 have been safety duplicated in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault to ensure their safety and availability for future generations.

How can women in agriculture be empowered?

Women are more than half the agriculture workforce and yet are often marginalised. In agricultural research for development, we must empower women, but as a part of the total agricultural workforce and not in isolation. We need to look at gender equity as a precursor to gender equality. Ensuring equitable access to information and appropriate policies would be a good start.

What are the new areas that you will be focussing on in the next decade?

We will validate and use technologies such as AI and ML [machine learning], gene editing, seed science and remote sensing, as well as technologies yet to be imagined, to minimise the risk to farmers and ensure that consumer demand for a readily available, affordable and diverse diet comprising nutritious and climate-adapted foods in the semi-regions is supported and championed.



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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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