Blog post by Professor Kadambot Siddique, AM CitWA FTSE FAIA, Hackett Professor of Agriculture Chair and Director, The UWA Institute of Agriculture, The University of Western Australia
There is an increasing awareness of the importance of food legumes for human, animal and soil health. However the adoption of new cultivars and improved production technologies for food legume crops are not proceeding at the same pace as for cereal crops. This is particularly the case for smallholder farming communities in developing countries, where production trends have mostly been static or declined over the past decade. A boost in food legume production by resource-poor farmers is a dire necessity due to static or declining production trends for most of these commodities in developing countries, yet increasing global demand for legume grains.
In most cropping systems, priorities for cultivation and research in food legumes remain secondary to those for cereals. Contributing to this is the relatively greater sensitivity of food legumes to various abiotic and biotic stresses than those of cereals, increasing their risk by cultivation, and the lower grain yield potential of legumes leading to less profitability compared with competing cereal crops.
While genetic improvement is required to address these problems, agronomic improvements can significantly contribute to reduce the yield gap that are induced by various stresses. Practically, new genotypes often require a change in cultivation practice to achieve potential yields. This can be attained if genetic and agronomic improvements complement each other.
Food legumes are normally grown rainfed in drought-prone environments. On-going climate change/variability poses an increasing threat to production of target food legumes, requiring urgent implementation of agronomic and genetic means of addressing this threat. There are recent advances in understanding of how to improve water use efficiency in food legume crop, aided by ever-increasing ability to model soil-water-plant systems. This has enhanced our capability to cope with risks associated with drought-prone environments. This is necessary if food legume cultivation is to continue or increase given that climate change is happening, with increased likelihoods of more extreme weather events.
Initiatives towards more ecology-based approaches in managing nutrition, weeds, diseases and pests of food legumes also offer prospects for greater inclusion of food legumes in cropping systems. Conservation agriculture (CA) offers a means of comprehensively addressing the major abiotic and biotic constraints of food legumes. Adoption of CA should encourage greater incorporation of theses legumes in various cropping systems. Although adoption of CA is widespread in large-scale commercial agriculture, it is still only at initial stages of adoption by farmers with fewer resources. However, recent advances in introducing minimum tillage concepts in these situations offer concomitant advantages for food legumes. Technologies (new varieties and production agronomy) to increase and stabilize yields of food legumes substantially in most areas are available, but their rapid adoption appears restricted to industrialized agriculture. Here, there are closed feedback loops amongst researchers, growers and consumers facilitating rapid dissemination of improved technology to farmers. A top-down approach in delivering technology to resource-poor smallholder farmers persists, causing discontinuities between research, extension and farmers, and thus impeding movement of agricultural technologies to these rural communities.
The transfer of long established and recently developed technologies related to food legume production to resource-poor rural communities could be hastened with more participatory approaches. Comprehensive understanding of value chain addition for specific sub-sectors would be a prerequisite to better understand the bottlenecks involved.
To address problems of crop production, an on-farm approach is necessary. With the involvement of the local farming community from the discovery and research phase;, and merging into the evaluation, extension and adoption phases. The challenge is for resource-poor farmers to take ownership of innovations in food legume production technology.
The recent establishment of CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes a partnership between ICRISAT, ICARDA, IITA, CIAT and other relevant regional and national programs provide an excellent platform to address the above challenges.