In the Media
Lentils: History through a Lens
History through a lens
It’s a crop as old as civilization, but the real age of lentils is now.
Crops of the genus Lens have enriched diets and soils for millennia – but never before for so many. Global consumption has quadrupled since the 1960s.
History books often describe the first farmers of the Fertile Crescent sowing handfuls of primitive wheat and barley, but the lentil was just as important to the invention of agricultural life. Lentils provide everything that cereal crops don’t: huge concentrations of complementary protein, A and B vitamins and iron, as well as natural nitrogen fixation to maintain soil fertility.
Archaeologists have found lentils in prehistoric sites across West Asia, in the same regions where farmers continue to cultivate hundreds of thousands of hectares of the low, spindly plants. Since 7,000 BC, as lentils have circulated around the world, farmers have transformed their own landraces into a whole palette of colors and encyclopedia of uses, from the many-hued dals of South Asia to the peppery Le Puy lentils of France.
Other legumes have declined in per-capita consumption during the last 50 years, but not lentils: their global consumption has risen twice as fast as population growth. They are popular on the farm when soils are poor and drought is likely, and they are popular in the kitchen because they cook quickly – in the same time as a pot of white rice.
While lentils have seldom received top research priority, the collecting and ex situ conservation of their diversity began with the first genebank. Today a major international collection, along with national collections in lentil-growing countries, conserve the kaleidoscope of diversity found in landraces and wild relatives.
The first lentil collection was compiled by the famed botanist Nikolai Vavilov and his associates at the All-Union Institute of Agricultural Sciences in Leningrad, USSR in the 1920s and 1930s. Vavilov’s second wife, Elena Barulina, was the leading lentil researcher and made an extensive study of the collection, recognizing the great diversity of the crop and its wild relatives. The lentil was already becoming a neglected crop across industrialized Europe, and the collection saved many landraces before they vanished from the field.
Now part of the N.I. Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry, the first genebank retains an important global collection of lentils. The largest collection, meanwhile, is held in trust by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Tel Hadya, Syria. The Crop Trust supports this international collection of more than 10,000 lentil accessions through an in-perpetuity grant. The material has also been securely backed up, with the rest of ICARDA’s genebank, above the Arctic Circle in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which holds further backups of lentil collections for eight other countries – including the Vavilov Institute’s.
As demand rises, lentils are sprouting up in new areas like the Canadian prairie and southern Australia. Breeders in these countries need genetic diversity to keep the crop thriving in new soil.
For these countries, trade opportunities have appeared at the same time as domestic interest from vegetarian and health-conscious consumers. With such a short history of cultivation, however, the countries rely on material from the rest of the world to adapt the crops to new regions. Drawing on many genebanks, they have stimulated renewed activity in lentil conservation and use.
In Canada, breeders faced a hurdle in protecting crops from the disease anthracnose. After screening 1,771 types of lentils, they found none that were resistant to an aggressive race of the fungus found in the country. Instead, they looked to the wider gene pool of wild species – and found the answer in a single plant of a wild relative called Lens ervoides. The breeders were able to introduce this rare resistance from the plant’s offspring into new lentil varieties.
Elena Barulina recognized the importance of lentil wild relatives when studying the first collection in Leningrad. However, wild relatives make up less than 1% of our collected lentil diversity. Through the Crop Wild Relatives project, the Crop Trust has supported an international effort to map the gaps in these collections and promote the ex situ conservation of wild diversity before it is lost to habitat destruction and climate change.
Despite the rising global profile, lentils remain a smallholder staple. 70% of the crop is grown for domestic consumption in developing countries. National research programs work with ICARDA and its genebank to make the crop an even stronger food security asset.
For many years, ICARDA researchers and their partners have used the diversity in their collections to make lentils stand up to drought, cold and disease. Drought tolerant varieties have been adopted around the Middle East and North Africa, and cold-hardy lines have brought the crop to formerly inhospitable parts of Central Asia. New material with traits from the Middle East and Argentina has doubled yields in South Asia since 1980.
One partner, the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute, released a series of improved varieties that were quick-maturing, high yielding and resistant to multiple major diseases. Despite the popularity of lentil farming in Bangladesh, the country had been obtaining more than half of the all-important protein source from imports. According to a 2009 study, the new varieties were planted on 110,000 hectares, and provide a million farmers with yield gains worth $38 million every year.
These new heights for an ancient crop are the result of advances and investment in breeding, but they are just as much a realization of the qualities that exist scattered across the lentil genome, teased out by farmers around the world for 10,000 years. Genebanks conserve the richness of that history and make it directly available to meet the needs of yet another millennium.
For more information on ICARDA visit their website.
Seeds of Time
"A perfect storm is brewing as agriculture pioneer Cary Fowler races against time to protect the future of our food. Gene banks of the world are crumbling, crop failures are producing starvation inspired rioting, and the accelerating effects of climate change are already affecting farmers globally. But Fowler's journey, and our own, is just beginning: From Rome to Russia and, finally, a remote island under the Arctic Circle, Fowler's passionate and personal journey may hold the key to saving the one resource we cannot live without: our seeds."
Seeds of Time is a film about our esteemed former Executive Director, Prof. Cary Fowler. To learn more about the film, please visit www.seedsoftimemovie.com
For a crop providing 23% of the calories we live on and consumed in every country, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Every year farmers grow around $150 billion worth of wheat, grown on 1.4% of the world’s land surface. But some years it all goes wrong.
2010, for example, was a bad year for wheat: a heat wave in Russia, cold weather in Canada, drought in China and heavy rain in Australia all brought down harvests in major production regions. As a result, 2011 was a bad year for wheat importing countries. Over $50 billion of wheat was imported that year at great cost. Out of the top nine wheat importers per capita, seven experienced political protests resulting in civilian deaths.
The history-making revolutions of the Arab Spring weren’t caused by the price of bread alone. But recurrent food crises do inevitably fuel political turmoil – not to mention very personal turmoil for millions of poor people.
Projections show that demand for wheat in the developing world will increase as much as 60% by 2050. There’s no guarantee that farmers will keep up; on the contrary, climate change will continue to hit harvests hard. Temperature increases could reduce production in these developing countries, in the years leading to 2050, by 20-30%.
With wheat already in climate crisis, a disease from the past has returned in a devastating new form, code-named Ug99, spurring a global effort to protect harvests.
Stem rust is an ancient disease in wheat farming, but after the 1970s it was thought to be one problem that modern plant breeding had solved. Then in 1999 a new strain appeared in Uganda and began attacking formerly resistant varieties, wiping out entire fields. The so-called Ug99 was kept contained to the region for years, but eventually found its way through the Arabian Peninsula and as far as Iran, drifting on the wind towards the major wheat growing regions of South Asia and China.
As soon as Ug99 was discovered, the race began to find new sources of resistance and breed these into varieties suitable for the regions under attack. With international cooperation, the long process of developing new varieties has been accelerated to stay ahead of the threat. Breeders in Kenya, the first country to be badly hit by the disease, developed six Ug99-tolerant varieties in less than nine years. By 2013, Pakistani and American scientists were releasing locally adapted resistant varieties in Pakistan – even before the disease had crossed the border from Iran.
A study that year showed the importance of ongoing stem rust research, before and after Ug99’s arrival. Without investment in these efforts between 1961 and 2006, 1.3% of the world’s wheat harvest would have been sacrificed. The wheat saved every year is worth more than a billion dollars at current prices; in other terms, it’s enough food to satisfy almost the entire annual calorie deficit of sub-Saharan Africa’s undernourished poor.
Popular wheat varieties are planted uniformly over millions of hectares, courting genetic disaster. However, the group of grasses we call wheats actually contains more than twenty species, hundreds of subspecies, and a bottomless toolbox of adaptations.
Species of the genus Triticum were domesticated at the dawn of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent. Today some species are still growing wild, while others are only found in farmers’ fields. The diversity of types – winter and spring wheat; hard, high-gluten wheat and soft, starchy wheat; wheat for noodles, bread or pastry – follows the diversity of human cultures and environments, from the north of Norway to the south of Argentina. This means that different farmers need different types of wheat. But there’s strength in that diversity.
In the case of stem rust, advances in genetic knowledge have revealed that our temporary victory in the 1970s was based on a single gene shared by almost all of the resistant varieties. It was only a matter of time before the fungus evolved a way around it. When Ug99 eventually did, 80% of the world’s wheat was at its mercy.
Kenya has led the way towards a more diverse defense. The early incursion of Ug99 into the country was used as an opportunity to set up a massive search for different sources of resistance to the strain. Each year, the researchers of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute test as many as 50,000 lines of wheat in fields under high disease pressure. The candidates are sent by other research organizations and genebanks in more than 25 countries.
The threats to wheat from climate change and disease reveal just how interdependent all nations are when it comes to crop diversity. Genebanks conserve material from many countries, and make it available to breeders in many more. A strong variety is a cosmopolitan citizen of the world, with a rich family tree.
For instance, a typical modern wheat line called Veery remains popular for its tolerance to cold, heat and drought. Veery was born from a cross between a Russian winter wheat and a Mexican spring wheat in 1973, the progeny of which were further crossed with a variety from India. Each of these was also of mixed heritage. In fact, Veery was the final result of 3,170 crosses between 51 parents from 26 different countries. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), which developed Veery, has since released the line in 35 countries.
CIMMYT stewards more than 110,000 accessions of wheat in its genebank in Mexico, representing about 14% of all collected diversity. The Crop Trust has pledged to support the collection in perpetuity so that CIMMYT can conserve this genetic wealth forever and make it available to all. The Crop Trust has also supported smaller collections in 15 countries, from Angola to Mongolia, helping national institutions to rescue material at risk and evaluate the wheat they hold. After all, any of these collections may hold the makings of the harvest of 2050.
For more information about CIMMYT please visit www.cimmyt.org.
Informational Event 11 June 2014
The Role of Plant Genetic Resources
For Food Security And Sustainable Agriculture
The Crop Trust in cooperation with GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit)
11 June 2014
14:00-16:30 hrs GIZ-Haus, Reichpietschufer 20, 10785 Berlin
Agriculture is facing its biggest challenge ever in its 13000 years of history. We need to feed more people on less arable land, with less water and less energy, and under more unpredictable weather conditions. We must go back to the basic building blocs of agriculture and work systematically on adaptability and increased nutritional value.
The Information Event on 11 June will discuss the role of plant genetic resources in attaining global food security and in enabling a sustainable, climate-smart agriculture sector. The event follows a morning presentation on 11 June 2014 of IFPRI’s 2013 report on “Global Food and Development Policy”, calling for an end to hunger and malnutrition by 2025.
2014 marks the 10-year Anniversary of the establishment of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. The Crop Trust works to conserve and make available the world’s variety of crop seeds, so that farmers and breeders have the means to feed a growing world population despite climate change. In 2013, the Crop Trust relocated from Rome to Bonn, Germany.
To consider how plant genetic resources and crop breeding activities contribute to increasing agricultural productivity, providing more nutritious food, helping to ensure world food security, and furthering economic development.
To discuss how global agriculture can adapt to rising challenges resulting from climate change, thus increasing sustainability and resilience of the food and agriculture system world-wide, by drawing on available crop diversity. To inform about the work of the Global Crop Diversity Trust in supporting global crop collections, representing an essential element of the funding strategy of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.
The event will be attended by representatives from public institutions and diplomatic missions, international organizations, foundations and associations, private companies and the media, with participants from Germany and across Europe.
* Interpretation will be provided into English and German. ** Discussants will review the topics of food security, adaptation of agriculture to climate change, biodiversity and rural economic development as they relate to crop diversity.
Diet for a Small Pasture
Diet for a small pasture
Forage crop collections put more on the menu for livestock
More than a billion smallholders depend on their livestock, and their livestock depend on a year-round supply of food. That's why 33% of all cropland is used to grow forage for animals.
Livestock and the people who raise them are often counted among the usual suspects in deforestation and climate change. But not all forage plants are equal, and the right ones can make animal-based systems an efficient, carbon-sinking, soil-protecting use of marginal land.
Forages are not a single crop; they are thousands of species of grasses, legumes and trees, which are planted in fields and pastures, grown along farm boundaries and intercropped with food crops. When not grazed directly by animals, farmers harvest them to feed to penned livestock or sell at market.
However, nutritionally poor and inconsistent feed continues to be a major constraint for livestock. Three Crop Trust partners are working to make livestock systems more productive and sustainable by conserving and using the enormous diversity that exists in forage plants.
The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) maintains a global forage genebank for the highland tropics, with more than 19,000 accessions of a thousand species, and makes productive and disease-resistant forages available directly to smallholders.
The collection at the ILRI campus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia is different from most genebanks: it often offers seed directly to farmers. The genebank staff have identified 48 “best-bet” species of legumes, grasses and trees that they have multiplied in large quantities and sell at cost through a special Herbage Seed Unit. The customers are not just Ethiopian farmers, but also NGOs, government offices, educational institutes and seed producers.
In recent years, the genebank's collection of Napier grass (Pennisetum purpureum) played a role in saving the dairy industry in Kenya. An African grassland species, Napier grass grows well on marginal land and is favored by the smallholder dairy farmers who produce most of Kenya's milk. In the 1990s, however, the fungal disease head smut began to damage this grass and the industry it feeds.
ILRI's genebank supplied Napier grass germplasm to the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), which then identified, field-tested and released two smut-resistant varieties. Starting in 2005, thousands of cuttings were distributed, and by 2007 the varieties were already being grown by 13% of dairy farmers in high disease areas.
KARI is currently screening more accessions from ILRI for further sources of smut resistance to bring a broader base of diversity to this protection. ILRI has meanwhile sent the resistant lines to the Brazilian Enterprise for Agricultural Research (EMBRAPA), which runs a Napier grass breeding program, to cross these with its own higher yielding and more nutritious varieties.
The tropical lowland forage collection at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) is driving efforts to help livestock systems adapt to, and not contribute to, climate change. Researchers are finding that some well managed forages can actually sequester as much CO2 as native forest – or even more.
One of these is Brachiaria grass, cultivated in Latin America and Asia. As animals graze on Brachiaria, carbon is returned to the soil through deep roots and manure. CIAT has found that in areas of high rainfall, the best lines of Brachiaria can sequester even more carbon than an equal area of forest. Some species also produce a unique chemical that halts the microbial process of nitrification, suppressing the release of the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide and keeping nitrogen in the soil.
Another species with climate-friendly properties is the Greater bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus uliginosus). This perennial legume reduces the formation of methane, another greenhouse gas, in the digestive tract of cattle. The protein in its leaves is easily absorbed by cows, allowing them to produce greater quantities of more nutritious milk. Like ILRI, the CIAT genebank also offers this and other forages directly to farmers, who receive more than 9% of its distributions each year.
CIAT scientists have further combed their collection for forages resistant to drought and flooding, preparing farmers and their livestock for future weather extremes. They have found much interesting material among accessions collected in the 1970s and 1980s when the genebank in Cali, Colombia was first being filled. At that time, these were not seen as particularly important, but like any good conservation program, the genebank saved them for a rainy day. Today, their resilience in unpredictable conditions is exactly what many farmers need.
The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) conserves forage diversity for the drylands and brings specially adapted plants to more arid regions, from traditional legumes and grasses to spineless cactus.
Livestock, particularly small ruminants like goats and sheep, are central to dryland food production systems around the world. In the past, most were able to graze on open rangelands, but growing populations and overgrazing have changed this. Today rangelands provide less than one-fourth of the feed needed by small ruminants.
ICARDA has worked to introduce – or sometimes re-introduce – forage crops from its collection to make up this shortfall and take pressure off fragile dryland ecosystems. One unconventional solution is spineless variants of the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica). Researchers tested 43 spineless lines originating from Sardinia and Sicily in Tunisia, Morocco and Libya, where the best adapted are now being grown as feed by smallholder livestock owners.
In the Arabian peninsula, ICARDA is promoting native species such as buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris) to replace introduced species that require more water. Buffel grass is known as a destructive invader in the drylands of the Americas, but in its native desert it is a nutritious forage that grows with little water. ICARDA is setting up seed multiplication around the region to make the best lines widely available, and is seeing buffel grass reclaim forage production from water-intensive introduced grasses.
For more information about ILRI please visit www.ilri.org. For more information about ICARDA visit www.icarda.org. For more information about CIAT please visit ciat.cgiar.org. Thanks to Neil Palmer/CIAT for the photographs used in this story.