Towards an integrated approach to legume production
How do we build on successes in legume research and transform production systems so that new varieties can have impact – raising farmer incomes and enhancing global food and nutritional security? The question, posed at the conclusion of the International Food Legume Research Conference (IFLRC), gives an indication of the critical challenge now facing the research community dedicated to the improvement of these climate-smart crops.
The Conference demonstrated the huge strides advanced crop science had made in recent years – developing varieties that were high-yielding, disease-resistant and heat- and drought-tolerant. Final sessions on Day 3 dedicated to genomics, genetics and genetic resources covered recent progress, including: gene identification in faba bean; new opportunities for chickpea improvement; and the diversity, characterization, inter-gene pool hybridization and breeding of bean varieties.
However, these success can only provide part of the effort to transform legume production. Summarizing the discussions over the previous three days, Jacques Wery, Deputy Director General for Research at ICARDA, called for a more integrated and holistic approach that went beyond a single focus on yield and performance.
Future efforts, he suggested, should take into consideration adoption constraints and the many factors that inform farmer decisions. Strengthening seed systems is critical and participatory models which involve farmers in seed selection – like those pioneered by ICARDA in Ethiopia – offer potentially useful frameworks.
New research directions
Researchers also need to focus more on the nutritional quality of legumes and how highly nutritious varieties can be integrated into value chains and markets to improve human health and combat malnutrition.
Additional considerations include: the ecosystem services that legumes provide and the role these plants can play in climate change adaptation; breeding resistance to new pests and disease that emerge with shifting weather patterns; and adopting south-south and south-north collaborations that generate new innovations and approaches.
A role for ‘Big Data’
Although adopting integrated approaches is difficult - given the lack of aggregated data and a tendency for research to be conducted in silos - technology is supporting a shift towards more multidisciplinary research.
The CGIAR’s new ‘Big Data’ platform – an ambitious effort to open up and share decades of agricultural data – offers significant potential. Its comprehensive data – including socio-economics, crop performance, soil characteristics, and meteorological information – provides a more holistic insight into the conditions, constraints and opportunities that production systems face.
The focus of several discussions at the Conference this week, this powerful new tool now offers legume research a transformative pathway - away from a narrow focus on performance alone towards a systems approach that also considers the additional factors determining impact.