Adopting the Orphan Crop

By Ipsita Mitra

Research. Innovate. Develop.

Three key words that describe the seed innovation in what agriculturalists call the orphan crop. An orphan crop is a crop, that is important to many of the world’s poorest people yet largely ignored by the big agricultural companies. The orphan crop does not see any investment and research to improve its productivity or to make it more resistant to insects, disease, and drought.

Bill Gates in his blog spoke about seed innovation by International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), where ICRISAT adopted the pigeonpea. He says,

‘ICRISAT’s work with the pigeonpea is a great example. Traditionally, the varieties grown in Africa were low-yielding and susceptible to disease and pests. The plant’s small seeds also didn’t match the preferences of African farmers and consumers. The ICRISAT researchers described to me how they worked with other agriculture institutes and African government researchers to create a better pigeonpea. After decades of breeding, they developed the world’s first hybrid varieties – 23 so far — with higher yields, faster cooking time, and a resistance to Fusarium wilt, a fungal disease.’

ICRISAT’s innovation is a good example of how research and technology can be used to bring about positive changes in the existing agricultural system. The seed innovation in pigeonpea was user-centered as it took into account the needs and constraints of the users and based on that it developed disease and drought resistant seeds. ICRISAT also mapped the changes in food production across the globe to understand how increased yield of pigeonpea would impact the global food market. ICRISAT’s research found that even though production will increase greatly in the African countries, the prices will not fall because the import requirements in India will absorb the increased yield.

As we can see, ICRISAT’s approach was focused on all stakeholders in the sector which increased its chances of being a success. This kind of approach underlines the importance of any innovation to be driven by people and not by technology alone.

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