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New Agriculturist: Focus on... Transforming cereal production in South Asia
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Transforming cereal production in South Asia

CSISA is working to provide farmers with access to a range of technologies and training (CSISA)
CSISA is working to provide farmers with access to a range of technologies and training

In the bread and rice baskets of South Asia, cereal production has stalled. For over a decade, annual growth rates in rice and wheat production have failed to reach even one per cent, trailing far behind population growth. The results have been devastating: high food prices, increased poverty and rates of child malnutrition ranging from 40-50 per cent.

In response, four of the CG centres* have launched the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA), a ten year programme that aims to transform cereal production in the region. It is no mean task, as CSISA's CEO, M. Srinivas Rao admits. "With their small and fragmented land holding, farmers have for decades been caught in a vicious cycle of poor farming practices, poor yields, poor market orientation and poor returns," he says. "To increase production on a meaningful scale demands that millions of farmers have access to a range of technologies, in particular high yielding seeds and conservation agriculture practices."

Funded by USAID, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Bank, CSISA is focussing on four major production areas - the western Indo-Gangetic plains of Pakistan and north-west India, the Central and East Gangetic Plains of north India and Bangladesh, and the plains of subtropical south India. However, CSISA does not only target increased production. Recognising that poverty can persist even when harvests are good, the initiative spans the cereal value chain, with the aim of increasing household income as well as grain yield.

Hubs of activity

To implement the initiative, CSISA has set up nine field offices or knowledge centres, known as hubs, each of which is run by a hub manager, an extension agronomist and several field staff. Forming its 'spokes', each hub has a technical working group of invited partners, who have a vested and complementary interest in the agriculture development of the area. They also have the necessary size and range of expertise to work on a large scale. In its first year the initiative has signed up over 200 partners across the nine hubs, including government research and extension organisations, private seed and inputs companies, farmers' organisations, and many others, from banks to the media.

Laser land levelling is used to achieve greater uniformity in crop growth through even distribution of water to plants (CSISA)
Laser land levelling is used to achieve greater uniformity in crop growth through even distribution of water to plants

One hub is located in Samastipur district in Bihar state, a drought-prone area where poor quality seed and inefficient use of water are major causes of low grain yield. Through the technical working group, national and regional agricultural institutes contributed foundation seed of improved, high yielding maize, wheat, mungbean and chickpea varieties. Further west, in Punjab and Haryana, laser land levelling is used to achieve greater uniformity in crop growth through even distribution of water to plants. In an exchange with the Punjab-based hub, CSISA took representatives from a Samastipur farmers' cooperative to see how laser land levelling equipment enables farmers to remove mounds or depressions in their fields, and to meet manufacturers of the tractor-mounted laser levelling machine.

Seeing is believing - the power of demonstration

With contributions from CSISA and the farmers' cooperative, 100 acres of land in Samastipur have been laser levelled and planted with the foundation seed, allowing the Bihar farmers to see the technologies in action. In the 2009 winter cropping season, the seed produced was sufficient for 1,500 smallscale farmers, with the improved wheat seed expected to yield around 4.5 tons per hectare, double that achieved by most farmers. The farmers' cooperative - one of CSISA's major partners in the area - has invested in a seed grader and is continuing to multiply the seed, with the aim of making the participating farmers self-reliant in seed production, with surplus to sell.

Other partners in the Samastipur working group include the local government extension officer, who was invited to view the land levelling trial. Building cooperation with him is vital for scaling up the technology, says Srinivas Rao. Building trust in farming communities to encourage adoption of new crops and technologies is equally important, with farmer-to-farmer interaction a vital part of the process. As in the case of the laser land levelling, taking farmer leaders from one area to see technologies being implemented in another - so-called 'travelling seminars' - has worked well, as have demonstrations and participatory crop trials.

Bundles of technology

Another key feature of the CSISA approach is the focus on providing a bundle of inputs, rather than a single technology in isolation. Participatory selection and promotion of seed varieties are central, but are complemented with conservation agriculture practices, mechanisation and agri-inputs, storage, market linkages, and policy development. The initiative also incorporates mixed crop-livestock farming systems. ILRI, for example, has ongoing research under CSISA to improve fodder quality and availability from the rice, wheat and maize stovers.

To achieve CSISA's ambitious targets, civil society and farmers' cooperatives must be involved (CSISA)
To achieve CSISA's ambitious targets, civil society and farmers' cooperatives must be involved

CSISA's targets are ambitious: by year ten, at least 6 million farmers should have an increased cereal yield of 0.5 - 1 ton per hectare, raising their annual income by at least US$350, and producing 5 million additional tons of grain each year. However, for this to be achieved in a region where 85 per cent of farmers only have access to small and fragmented bits of land, requires the involvement of public institutions, civil society, farmers' cooperatives and private sector companies that can work together in a coordinated manner.

Such partners already include the well-staffed extension wing (KVKs) of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research, NARC (Nepal) and BARI (Bangladesh), private seed companies Bayer and Syngenta, and integrated corporates like DSCL. Through their combined efforts, Rao believes that hundreds of millions of rural and urban poor will be benefitting from more affordable staple foods within a decade. "Complementary partnerships can convert the farmer's traditional vicious cycle into a virtuous one of better farming practices, better yields, better markets, and better returns," he says.

*International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), International Wheat and Maize Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)

Date published: May 2010


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