Local gains from African breakthrough

29 Dec, 2016 02:00 AM
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Andrew Noble (right), ICARDA, talks agriculture with a group of farmers from the Nile Delta in Egypt.
Andrew Noble (right), ICARDA, talks agriculture with a group of farmers from the Nile Delta in Egypt.

A RANGE of ground-breaking agricultural research and development work being conducted in Africa will help push sub-Saharan Africa towards food security, but may also have big benefits for Australian agriculture.

Deputy director general of research at the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) Andrew Noble said there had been some breakthroughs in wheat varieties with heat tolerance.

Varieties have been developed that are able to withstand heat shock at critical periods of development.

"We have varieties that can withstand temperatures up to four degrees Celsius hotter than previous lines, which is a massive advantage when planting in areas subject to heat at critical times during crop development," he said.

"It is a great thing for sub-Saharan Africa and will mean wheat will be able to be produced in non-traditional areas, such as in Sudan, where it will be able to be grown under irrigation."

Dr Noble said other crops, such as sorghum and millet, had traditionally been grown in many areas, but said the preference was for wheat.

"The consumers want wheat products, there is $15 billion worth of wheat being sold to this part of Africa alone, so any improvements in production within the region would really help."

He said the benefits of the research into heat tolerance would not just benefit Africa.

"Australian breeders are very interested in working with our material, with the high risk of spring heat stress in Australia it could have some real application there," he said.

Researchers have identified heat shock as one of the major annual causes of yield losses in Australia.

Dr Noble said the material used in the heat tolerant lines primarily came out of Middle Eastern wheat landraces (wild relatives).

"There are 154,000 lines of landraces in the ICARDA gene bank so we have plenty of material to work with," he said.

The ICARDA team's work is not the only exciting research and development being conducted in agriculture in Africa.

Kindie Tesfaye, a scientist with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), is working on a project to transform and intensify crop production, with a similar overarching aim of avoiding over-reliance on imports and meeting future food security needs.

Dr Tesfaye said there were major challenges in ensuring African farmers met food demand without excessive clearing given the population in the region was likely to grow 2.5 times by 2050.

He said an integrated approach was required to boost yields.

"Central to closing the yield gap is cropping system intensification, involving increasing productivity per unit area which requires better agronomy and better seeds," Dr Tesfaye said.

"Mechanisation can also play a role where it is most appropriate, for instance without putting many landless people who depend on farm employment out of work."

African nations are acutely aware of the need for improvement in their food systems, with Dr Tesfaye saying the African Development Bank ranked self-sufficiency in agriculture as a principal goal of its action plan.

Dr Tesfaye said progress was being made, with cereal yields in Ethiopia and Zambia growing quicker than population and demand, but added in the majority, population growth was outstripping productivity gains.

He was optimistic about dragging more African nations into positive productivity.

"With improved cultivars, hybrid seeds, coupled with increased use of irrigation, fertilisers, modern pest management practices and good agronomy, it's possible to achieve accelerated rates of yield gain," he said.

Dr Noble said after the successful work in Sudan, trials were now underway growing wheat in dry parts of Niger and northern Nigeria.

"We got yields above 10 tonnes to the hectare on irrigation in Sudan, while in dry land environments such as those found in Zambia and Zimbabwe there were yields of about 6t/ha."

The southern African nations have annual rainfall of 600-700 millimetres, making them wetter than the majority of the Australian cropping belt.

Dr Tesfaye said he believed irrigated cropping was only just taking off in Africa due to a lack of infrastructure.

"Africa has huge potential for irrigation farming but it is not yet exploited," he said.

Arid and summer active climate zones meant the traditional crops of sorghum and millet were the major crops.

"We recognise the poor nutritional quality of these crops and are looking to supplement them through crop diversification,'' Dr Tesfaye said.

"For example, cowpea, common bean and pigeon pea are complementary crops that thrive well where sorghum and millet are the dominant crops and can provide protein in the diet."

He said incorporating legumes into the cropping system required agronomic know-how.

"Agronomy has to play a role here in terms of how these crops can be grown on the same field through intercropping and crop rotation systems."

He said in other areas maize was increasingly in acreage, with solid improvements in yield due to the release of drought tolerant hybrid cultivars.

"This work has been a joint project between CIMMYT, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the national research systems in 13 African countries.

"It has been made possible through generous and committed financial support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for over 10 years and is seeing small farmers get access to hybrid seed."

Dr Tesfaye said work beyond the farm-gate was also required to improve food security.

"Storage is an important aspect of the agrifood system in Africa," he said.

"Most African countries suffer from post-harvest losses and targeted interventions in transport, storage and food processing losses will indeed contribute to feeding millions."

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FarmWeekly
Gregor Heard

Gregor Heard

is the national grains writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media

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