Institute for International Crop Improvement: Early Promise, Long Journey Ahead

Delivering agricultural research for a food-secure and climate-resilient world

The challenges facing global food security and the livelihoods of smallholder farmers over the last year may at first appear insurmountable, yet IICI’s vital work continues to advance impactful agricultural innovations where they are needed most. 

From extreme heat across the Horn of Africa, to historic flooding across South Asia, climate change is fundamentally altering the rhythm of food production in many parts of the world, while also bringing with it new pests and diseases

These changes are set against the backdrop of Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has caused repeated disruptions to global food and fertilizer supply chains, often impacting the most vulnerable, small-scale farmers. 

As a result,  figures published by the UN in July 2023 show that as many as 783 million people faced hunger in 2022,  driven by the convergence of climate extremes, repeated shocks to global supply chains, rising economic insecurity, and conflict. Not only does hunger remain high around the world – it continues to rise, with 122 million more people experiencing hunger last year than in 2019.  In particular, the African continent remains the worst-affected region, with one in five people affected – more than twice the global average.

However, all these challenges serve to reaffirm the importance of innovative agricultural research and technologies, particularly as just 10 percent of smallholders in developing countries have access to the latest seeds developed through biotechnology tools. With the time needed to address these challenges in increasingly short supply – given the accelerating impact of climate change – agricultural innovation must be at the forefront of our response to ensure a hunger-free and climate-resilient world for future generations. 

Yet, both in IICI’s own work and in the broader ecosystem for cutting-edge agricultural solutions, there remains much to be hopeful for. African countries continue to adopt innovative agricultural technologies, including those which have been developed in collaboration between IICI alongside many world-class partners, as the continent continues to undergo its food systems transformations. 

Elsewhere, some countries and regional blocs are reversing their historic opposition to the role of agricultural biotechnology solutions in modern food systems. In March 2023, the United Kingdom passed a landmark Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act, which approved the commercial development of gene-edited crops. At the same time, the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, has proposed a revision to its rules governing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), paving the way for more resilient crops designed with newer gene-editing technologies, such as CRISPR. 

Furthermore, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which came into effect in January 2021, is soon to celebrate its third anniversary. Equipping farmers across the continent with the best-in-class agricultural technologies, including improved varieties of staple crops, will be vital in unlocking the full potential of the trade agreement to contribute to economic growth, resilient livelihoods, and improved food security. 

As we prepare for another year of ground-breaking science and development impact, I look forward to continuing our vital work in translating plant science discoveries and innovative technologies into food and nutrition security solutions for the people who need them most. Across our team’s work, there are numerous achievements in the last year to highlight. 

Scaling up pest-resistant cowpea for improved food security

Pod-borer resistant (PBR) cowpea recently celebrated its two-year anniversary of commercialization in Nigeria, where, as I wrote in an opinion piece in July, it has laid further foundations for more impactful agricultural innovations for Africa at large. 

Throughout Africa, cowpea is a vital, low-cost crop for supporting food security and livelihoods for vulnerable communities. Yet cowpea production across Africa is threatened by a range of pests, most prominently the Maruca pod borer, which can cause losses of up to 80 percent for small-scale farmers.   

IICI has worked closely with partners in recent years to deliver biosafety regulatory approvals for PBR cowpea in Nigeria and Ghana. Nigerian farmers have access to an improved variety that is helping to protect yields, reduce costs, and contribute to food security goals, safeguarding the livelihoods of small-scale farmers and their communities. 

In particular, this innovation has helped farmers reduce pesticide sprays from eight per season to just two, vastly reducing the pesticide costs while offering a similar level of protection for their harvests. 

So great was the demand for this new variety that seed sellers’ stocks were depleted within a few days. Now, the focus must shift towards scaling the impact of PBR cowpea, as well as building greater quality assurance. 

IICI has also been extensively involved in building up the capacity of seed systems in the country. For instance, this has involved a number of trips to Nigeria over the last year, where IICI has supported the National Agricultural Seeds Council (NASC) in the training of licensed seed inspectors that are needed to enable increased production of certified PBR cowpea seed.  IICI has also supported the training of NASC staff in International Seed Testing Association methods for sampling and molecular diagnostics, the detection and diagnosis of cassava virus diseases at the National Crops Resources Research Institute in Uganda, and in seed testing laboratory techniques in cooperation with the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service. In doing so, IICI has played a key role not just in helping to deliver improved crop varieties but has also helped ensure that farmers are able to enjoy the full benefits of improved cowpea and cassava varieties with greater confidence in their quality.

Advancing semi-dwarf teff for the Horn of Africa

Elsewhere, the work of IICI is making advances in improving key staple crops for the Horn of Africa, where food production systems are facing climate-related burdens, including extreme heat and drought. 

In April 2023, IICI worked tirelessly to secure pre-market regulatory approval by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for a semi-dwarf variety of teff, an Ethiopian staple crop whose importance cannot be overstated, given its daily use in a variety of dishes – from injera flatbreads to baby food mixtures. Ethiopia also grows roughly more than 90 percent of the world’s teff.

Developed by IICI researchers in collaboration with the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research, this semi-dwarf variety has now cleared the USDA’s path for production in the US.  The new teff variety, developed using new plant breeding techniques, has a reduced height to provide resistance against lodging, or falling over, that can result in yield losses of up to 25 percent, and can also make the plant more susceptible to diseases and pests. 

A first season of field testing at the Danforth Plant Science Center Field Research Site has confirmed earlier greenhouse observations, with the semi-dwarf teff showing outstanding resistance to lodging even in the face of several storms during the growing season. These early results show great promise for the development and delivery of this critical trait to Ethiopian breeders and farmers.

These advances serve to further bolster teff as a key staple crop for African food security, helping to address the rising hunger challenge and impacts of climate change, pests, and diseases.

Virus-resistant cassava

The IICI team has also supported the ongoing work to develop and scale a virus resistant cassava for Africa (VIRCA), which could help secure resilient diets for one-third of the continent’s population who rely on the crop for a majority of their caloric intake. The first national performance trials of varieties with combined resistance to cassava brown streak disease and cassava mosaic disease were planted in Kenya in April of this year, with a second season of trials to begin shortly.  These trials are used to produce the data needed for variety registration and release to farmers.

Moving forward

As we approach the end of 2023, and the first ever ‘global stocktake’ of climate action at this year’s COP28 since the 2015 Paris Agreement, we are likely to be again reminded of just how far the world is lagging in its support for climate adaptation. Likewise, the 2023 AGRF Africa Food Systems Summit held recently in Tanzania highlighted the need for “Redoubling our efforts to boost agricultural yields through sustainable agricultural practices to enhance food securing while minimizing negative environmental impacts”. 

In both cases, though, we know that agricultural innovations which contribute to climate adaptation and resilience, particularly for the most vulnerable communities in our food systems, including women and youth, undoubtedly exist. Now, the mission remains in ensuring that funding and support helps these tools reach communities at large.

And as we have seen, across the complex landscape for agricultural innovations there is cautious optimism in some places, with the need for further engagement and progress in others. 

The world now has an opportunity to seize on the positive developments of the past year to continue working towards a food secure and climate-resilient world for future generations. We are excited for IICI to keep playing its part through continued innovation for the world’s small-scale farmers.

Don MacKenzie signature

Don MacKenzie, PhD
Executive Director
Institute for International Crop Improvement