Amazing maize

maize_100Research on maize improvement by IITA and partners, including CIMMYT, shows increased harvests and enhanced livelihoods of farmer-beneficiaries in sub-Saharan Africa. Total net benefit from maize research in West Central Africa from 1981 to 2005 alone using varieties from IITA, CIMMYT, and national programs is estimated at US$6.8 billion.

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“The soil nutrient losses in sub-Saharan Africa are an environmental, social, and political time bomb. Unless we wake up soon and reverse these disastrous trends, the future viability of African food systems will indeed be imperiled.”
– Dr Norman Borlaug, 14 March 2003, Muscle Shoals, Alabama, USA

IITA was the first major African link in the integrated network of international agricultural research centers. It was also one of the first centers that engaged in  farming systems research. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Institute had a very strong program on natural resource management (NRM), covering aspects of soil fertility management, cropping system diversification, and improved agronomy. This, along with the emphasis on the genetic improvement of the major food crops in the humid tropics, provided an integrated program of research on sustainable agricultural development.

Over the past fifteen years, the focus of research-for-development activities at IITA shifted away from NRM, party driven by changes in the investment portfolios of important donors. With the area of soils and natural resources back on top of the development agenda and recognizing that the potential of improved germplasm can only be realized in the presence of appropriate crop and nutrient management practices, IITA has recently decided to increase its investments on NRM research for development with a particular focus on soils.

The March 2012 issue of R4D Review commemorated IITA’s 45 years. It focused on the successes, challenges, and prospects of the genetic improvement programs; these are key to the Institute’s success in improving food crop production in sub-Saharan Africa. Innovations in genetic improvement have shown how enhanced crop productivity, along with other ingredients, such as capacity building and policies, has helped to lift millions out of poverty.

This second issue for the year highlights our important work undertaken in partnership with national and international institutions in the area of sustainable NRM in sub-Saharan Africa. It also signals IITA’s renewed focus on this area of research. The articles cover the three main pillars of the NRM research-for-development agenda: (1) Integrated Soil Fertility Management, aiming at enhancing crop productivity following agroecological principles, with a livelihood focus, (2) Sustainable Land Management, aiming at rehabilitating soils for the provision of other essential ecosystem services, with a landscape focus, and (3) Climate Change, aiming at enhancing the resilience of farming systems to climate variability.

Mind the gap…

Excising banana explants. Photo by IITA.
Excising banana explants. Photo by IITA.

IITA was established in 1967 to increase and improve food crop production, and soil and crop management for sustainable agricultural development. The Institute has become integral to the quest by sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) to attain food and income security. Multi-pronged approaches, in partnership with national and international organizations, on natural resource management and the genetic improvement of staple crops in the humid tropics and tropical savannas have led to the development of high-yielding varieties. These have resilience to counter multiple biotic and abiotic threats, and new technologies have been established for crop protection and sustainable natural resource management. Since its establishment, the institute has become a pacesetter in agricultural development in SSA.

This issue commemorates the 45th anniversary of IITA. It focuses on the successes, challenges, and prospects of the genetic improvement programs which have been the cornerstone of IITA’s success in improving food crop production in SSA. These innovations in genetic improvement, together with supportive policies and training, have dramatically improved crop productivity and lifted millions out of poverty.

However, achieving self-sufficiency in food production and reducing poverty still remain as intractable problems in many countries here. There are many reasons for this situation. Inadequate economic and political systems, conflict, adverse weather, lack of crop production support mechanisms, inadequate funds for research and development, inefficient marketing structures, and a limited pool of trained scientists are key factors for the poor performance of the agriculture sector in SSA1.

Many governments are embarking on initiatives to establish agriculture as a commercially viable entity to produce enough food and create opportunities for employment. However, institutional reforms are also required to establish sound technical capacity, infrastructure, and enabling policies for the benefit of technological innovations to be fully realized and to facilitate farmers’ access to inputs and markets.

Governments are urged to show greater commitment to invest in reforms that can foster the establishment of a strong and sustainable agricultural system. This is essential to cater to the demands from economic growth and the rapid rise in population (set to double by 2050 2) and to develop the adaptive capacity needed to cope with risks from climate change. Without these, the current situation can only worsen and increase the levels of hunger and poverty.

1 Joubert, G.D. 2007. Trends in Africa’s crop production and the way forward on research and development. African Crop Science Proceedings 8: 5–7.
2 Eastwood, R. and M. Lipton. 2011. Demographic transition in sub-Saharan Africa: how big will the economic dividend be? Population Studies 65: 9–35.

Countries need strong leadership to introduce changes in implementing agricultural development programs.
— Dr Nteranya Sanginga, Director General, IITA

Cassava improvement in the era of “agrigenomics”

Ismail Yusuf Rabbi (, Melaku Gedil, Morag Ferguson, and Peter Kulakow
I. Rabbi, Postdoctoral Fellow (Molecular Genetics); M. Gedil, Head, Bioscience Center, IITA, Ibadan, Nigeria; M. Ferguson, Molecular Geneticist, IITA, Nairobi, Kenya; and P. Kulakow, Cassava Breeder, IITA, Ibadan, Nigeria

Pro-vitamin A 'yellow root' cassava developed by the IITA cassava breeding program. Photo by IITA.
Pro-vitamin A 'yellow root' cassava developed by the IITA cassava breeding program. Photo by IITA.

In the last 45 years, IITA has played a pivotal role in the genetic improvement of cassava for resource-poor farmers in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). More than 400 cassava varieties have been developed that are not only high yielding but also resistant to diseases and pests. Many of these improved varieties have been extensively deployed in SSA and have helped to avert humanitarian crises caused by the viral disease pandemics that devastated local landraces in East and Central Africa. The cassava breeding program in Ibadan has a collection of more than 750 elite cassava clones representing current and historical materials accumulated over the last 45 years. These materials, referred to as the genetic gain collection (GGC), are accompanied by extensive field evaluation (phenotypic) data. In addition, the active breeding collection contains over 1000 African landraces and more than 400 new advanced breeding clones that are also accompanied by phenotypic data, including observations of disease and pest resistance, plant architecture, flowering ability, and performance in storage root yield. The most recent success of the conventional cassava breeding program culminated in the release of three vitamin A cassava varieties by the Government of Nigeria. These varieties (IITA TMS I011368, IITA TMS I011371, and IITA TMS I011412) were first cloned from seedlings in Ibadan in 2001 and have been subjected to extensive field testing throughout Nigeria. While almost all cassava in Nigeria are currently white fleshed, vitamin A cassava produces yellow-fleshed roots with nutritionally significant concentrations of carotenoids that produce vitamin A in the human body when consumed as yellow gari or fufu. In cooperation with HarvestPlus, IITA and partners will distribute vitamin A cassava planting materials to more than 25,000 farmers in 2013. New yellow-fleshed genotypes in the pipeline promise continued improvement in pro-vitamin A content, yield, and dry matter in the coming years.

Preparation of cassava DNA for genotyping by sequencing. Photo by IITA.
Preparation of cassava DNA for genotyping by sequencing. Photo by IITA.

As the vitamin A cassava illustrates, the genetic improvement of cassava has mostly been achieved through conventional breeding methods based on phenotypic selection. The only known direct application of molecular markers in cassava breeding is selection for resistance to cassava mosaic disease and cassava green mite. Recent advances and a reduction in the cost of the next-generation sequencing technologies now promise to usher in a new era for cassava breeding that will combine the success of conventional hybridization, selection, and multilocational yield trials with the latest advances in genomic resources.

Setting the stage for “next-generation cassava breeding”
Cognizant of the potential of marker technologies to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of cassava breeding, IITA, in collaboration with partners, embarked on the development and deployment of molecular markers1. With the recent accumulation of genomic resources in cassava research, including the first full cassava genome sequence2, our emphasis at IITA has shifted towards the application of these resources in molecular breeding3. One recent achievement is the identification and validation of nearly 1500 single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) markers through an international collaboration led by IITA’s geneticist, Morag Ferguson4. These SNPs have been converted to a highly parallel hybridization-based genotyping system that has been shared with the international cassava research community through partnership with the Generation Challenge Program (GCP).

An example of an SNP genotyping data plotted with KBioscience’s SNPviewer software. Inset: raw SNP genotyping data from Illumina’s GoldenGate®assay.
An example of an SNP genotyping data plotted with KBioscience’s SNPviewer software. Inset: raw SNP genotyping data from Illumina’s GoldenGate®assay.

In addition, the first SNP-based genetic linkage map of cassava has been developed by IITA in collaboration with Heneriko Kulembeka of the Agricultural Research Institute (ARI), Ukiriguru, Tanzania. A linkage map is analogous to landmarks (SNP markers in this case) placed along chromosomes that guide researchers to genes or genomic regions controlling traits of interest. Such a linkage map is an indispensable tool for marker-assisted selection (MAS). SNP and SSR markers have also been applied to uncover quantitative trait loci (QTL) associated with resistance to cassava brown streak disease (CBSD)―which is ravaging cassava production in Eastern and Southern Africa―in a collaboration between IITA, CIAT, and ARI-Tanzania. Another dramatic development in cassava genomics is the recently completed sequencing of the cassava genome through the partnership of the US Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute and 454 Life Sciences2.

The progress in next- generation technologies has drastically reduced the costs of DNA sequencing so that genotyping-by-sequencing (GBS) is now feasible for species such as cassava, ushering in a new era of agricultural genomics5. This will revolutionize the application of genomic tools for cassava improvement. GBS involves the cutting of genomic DNA into short pieces at specific locations using a restriction enzyme. The ends of these pieces are sequenced using techniques that allow sequencing of many samples at the same time. The beauty of this method is the use of adaptors containing barcodes (unique tags) that are enzymatically joined to the digested DNA fragments, enabling simultaneous sequencing or multiplexing of up to 384 samples in one sequencing reaction. This economy of scale greatly reduces the cost of processing each individual DNA to less than $10/sample. Approximately 200,000 markers can be identified and mapped in a very short time. With this powerful tool, breeders may conduct genomics-based research that was inconceivable a couple of years ago. Some of the exciting new research applications include polymorphism discovery, high-density genotyping for QTL detection and fine mapping, genome-wide association studies, genomic selection, improving reference genome assembly, and kinship estimation.

High-density QTL mapping and fine mapping
In the past, a limitation for QTL mapping was the number of markers on a genetic linkage map. With new SNP-based technologies this is no longer a limitation. This allows for fine mapping of QTLs so long as a sufficient number of individuals in the mapping population can be developed. IITA, in collaboration with national partners [ARI-Tanzania and National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI), Uganda], is using SNPs to discover QTLs associated with sources of tolerance for CBSD.

Preparation of gari, the most popular food product from cassava. Photo by IITA.
Preparation of gari, the most popular food product from cassava. Photo by IITA.

The next frontier for cassava genomics
Using the genotyping by sequencing approach, scientists from IITA and Cornell University, USA, are currently genotyping more than 2000 accessions of cassava, including released varieties, advanced breeding lines, and landraces from Africa. This is a pilot study of genomic selection funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to explore the potential for using the IITA breeding collection, including genetic gain, local germplasm, and current advanced breeding lines, as the base population to begin genomic selection for West Africa. The IITA breeding collection has been extensively characterized in many locations and over many years. The convergence of high-density SNP data and extensive phenotypic data in IITA’s cassava collection sets the stage for the implementation of genome-wide association studies (GWAS) and genomic selection (GS) in breeding. The aim of GWAS is to pinpoint the genetic polymorphisms underlying agriculturally important traits. In GWAS, the whole genome is scanned for significant marker-trait associations, using a sample of individuals from the germplasm collections, such as a breeder’s collection. This approach of “allele mining” overcomes the limitations of traditional gene mapping by (a) providing higher resolution, (b) uncovering more genetic variants from broad germplasm, and most importantly, (c) creating the possibility of exploiting historical phenotypic data for future advances in breeding cassava.

A schema of genomic selection (GS) processes, starting from phenotyping and genotyping of the training population and selection of parental candidates via genomic estimated breeding value (GEBV)–based selection. Note that selection model improvement can be performed iteratively as new penotype and marker data accumulate.
A schema of genomic selection (GS) processes, starting from phenotyping and genotyping of the training population and selection of parental candidates via genomic estimated breeding value (GEBV)–based selection. Note that selection model improvement can be performed iteratively as new penotype and marker data accumulate.

GS is a breeding strategy that seeks to predict phenotypes from high-density genotypic data alone, using a statistical model based on both phenotypic and genotypic information from a “training population”. For cassava, phenotyping is the slowest and most expensive phase of the crop’s breeding cycle because of the crop’s low multiplication ratio of between 5 and 10 cuttings/plant. Thus, it takes several cycles of propagation (up to 6 years) to carry out a proper multilocational field trial evaluation. The implementation of GS at the seedling stage should: (a) dramatically reduce the length of the breeding cycle, (b) increase the number/unit time of crosses and selections, and (c) increase the number of seedlings that could be accurately evaluated. The reduced breeding cycle means that the ”engine of evolution,” i.e., recombination and selection, can proceed at a rate that is three times as fast as phenotypic-based selection, while saving resources. In conclusion, cassava breeding in IITA is being redefined, thanks to the increasing availability and deployment of genomic resources. Combining these resources with IITA’s long-standing conventional breeding pipeline means that the best days of cassava improvement lie ahead. These efforts will ultimately satisfy the increasing need for more healthy and nutritious food produced in environmentally sustainable ways.

1 Lokko et al. 2007. Cassava. In: Kole et al (ed). Genome mapping and molecular breeding in plants, Vol. 3. Pulses, Sugar and Tuber Crops. Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg.
2 Prochnik S., P.R. Marri,B. Desany, P.D. Rabinowicz, et al. 2011. Tropical Plant Biol. doi:10.1007/s12042-011-9088-z. 3 Ferguson M., I.Y. Rabbi, D-J.Kim, M. Gedil, L.A.B. Lopez-Lavalle, and E. Okogbenin. 2011a. Tropical Plant Biol. DOI 10.1007/s12042-011-9087-0.
4 Ferguson M.E., S.J. Hearne, T.J. Close, S. Wanamaker, W.A. Moskal, C.D. Town, J. de Young, P.R. Marri, I.Y. Rabbi, and E.P. de Villiers. 2011b. Theor Appl Genet. DOI: 10.1007/s00122-011-1739-9.
5 Elshire R., J. Glaubitz, Q. Sun, J. Poland, and K. Kawamoto. 2011. PLoS ONE 6:e19379.

The benefits of social science

Woman peeling cassava. Photo by IITA.
Woman peeling cassava. Photo by IITA.

Agricultural research is the key to achieving IITA’s mission of enhancing food security and reducing poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. Hence, IITA undertakes research with and for the people and engages a whole range of partners along the research-to-development continuum. The effectiveness of this approach depends, however, on the richness of the social science context that is required to ensure the relevance of agricultural research in the discovery, adaptation, adoption, and diffusion of new technologies and institutional innovations.

The focus and methods of socioeconomics research, particularly of impact assessment, have evolved over time in response to donors’ interests and research mandates.

Traditionally social sciences was narrowly defined and focused on working in collaboration with biophysical scientists on issues related to technology generation and delivery. The research agenda centered on several sets of key questions: the extent of and constraints to adoption; the impacts of technology adoption on yields and household incomes; and ex-ante (or expected) benefits from new technologies. From a rather narrow emphasis on the adoption of new varieties in the 1970s, the focus has now expanded to estimating rates of return to research investments in the 1980s and to examining a wider range of impacts and the distribution of benefits across different socioeconomic groups after the 1990s.

Currently, IITA’s socioeconomists undertake a wide range of socioeconomic and impact assessment activities supporting broader technology development and delivery efforts.

This issue presents highlights of some recent research in socioeconomics and impact assessment and IITA’s social science research agenda for the next decade. A set of studies addresses strategic, macro-level impact and policy issues and offers strategic information and analyses. For instance, one study showed significant productivity gains realized after the mid-1980s, driven principally by agricultural research and development (R&D), improved weather, and policy reforms.

Another study found that, with the successful implementation of emerging national strategies for the agricultural sector, agricultural growth is expected to increase from 4.6% under a business-as-usual scenario to 6.4% with the implementation of national strategies.

One study exploring technological and policy options for forest and biodiversity conservation in West Africa showed that strategies to reduce deforestation and conserve biodiversity must focus on transforming agricultural practices from traditional to modern science-based methods.

Several other recent studies also address the extent, determinants, and impacts of adoption of a range of production and processing technologies and institutional innovations developed and promoted by IITA and partners.

Social science is a vital dimension to our biological science.
— DG Hartmann

Plant health matters

To ensure food security in Africa, plant health matters need to be given immediate attention. Photo by J. Oliver, IITA.
To ensure food security in Africa, plant health matters need to be given immediate attention. Photo by J. Oliver, IITA.

Efforts by national and international research systems during the last two decades have contributed to nearly doubling the production of major staple foods including cassava, maize, yam, and banana in Africa. Most of these gains, however, have come about as a result of an expansion of the planted area, but crop production per unit area of the land is lower than anywhere else in the world.

Yet the continent is expected to improve food production dramatically, doubling or tripling the existing capacity, to feed over 200 million undernourished people1. Although new varieties have contributed to improve crop production, productivity, and quality, their performance has been constrained by suboptimal conditions, such as declining soil fertility, drought, attacks by pests and diseases, and lack of good quality planting material.

The current approach—expanding the area under agriculture to increase food production—is unsustainable and results in significant ecological damage. This realization worldwide is driving the search for newer options to intensify agriculture within the existing area.

We believe that ensuring plant health is pivotal to increase productivity and the strategy of intensifying sustainable agriculture2. The compelling reason for this is that biological threats, such as diseases, pests, and weeds are directly responsible for reducing crop yields by at least one-third3, and at least half of these losses could easily be averted using simple and affordable technologies and practices that prevent diseases and pests from affecting plants and produce. Ensuring plant health, therefore, is one of IITA’s most important R4D strategies to improve agricultural productivity and food security and reduce poverty.

This issue highlights some of the technologies and strategies developed and promoted by IITA and its partners for plant health protection.

The value of plant health management cannot be underestimated given the precarious nature of agricultural systems in Africa with the evolution, establishment, and quick spread of pests and diseases, such as fruit flies, cassava brown streak and banana bacterial wilt.

Although plant health protection measures are relatively easy to adopt, considerable training, awareness creation, and financial support are required to improve skills and infrastructure in national systems to foster the technology transfer to farms where plant health matters.

True national defense is a huge offensive force against biological threats to food systems.

1 FAO. 2010. The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2010. FAO, Rome.
3 Oerke EC. 2006. J. Ag. Sci. 144: 31–43.

The time to act is now

Cowpea seedling. Photo by IITA.
Cowpea seedling. Photo by IITA.

For too long, a versatile crop, capable of providing huge benefits for health and wealth stayed on the sidelines, largely below its economic potential and comparatively neglected by research. More recently, however, interest in this grain legume has greatly increased and its benefits have been more widely appreciated and publicized.

Cowpea, or black-eyed pea, is one of the few crops that could positively influence the nutritional status in sub-Saharan Africa. Grown by farmers mostly in West Africa, it is increasingly gaining prominence in the fight against hunger and poverty.

This is reflected in its dual roles as a source of protein for humans that is cheaper than animal products and a way to raise the quality of livestock through improving their feed. Cowpea also provides higher returns on investment than other crops grown in the region where it thrives best.

Harvesting cowpea. Photo by IITA
Harvesting cowpea. Photo by IITA

Unfortunately, support for cowpea research has been relatively low, unlike that for other crops such as wheat and potatoes. Consequently, this has limited the improvement of cowpea.

The situation is not being helped by the negative impact of climate change and unfavorable abiotic factors in the regions where the crop is mostly grown.

Over the years, IITA and its international and local partners have developed solutions to tackle the constraints faced by this “wonder” crop.

These include the development and deployment of improved, Striga-resistant, drought-tolerant, and early maturing varieties. More recently, work is ongoing to produce varieties resistant to the damaging legume pod-borer (Maruca).

Close-up of a cowpea flower. Photo by Christine Peacock
Close-up of a cowpea flower. Photo by Christine Peacock

The impact of these varieties on rural livelihoods and poverty is slowly but surely being felt.

Advances in science could help to further raise cowpea yield. With more resources now going into cowpea research and farmers’ participation in variety selection, even better performing varieties should be available soon.

These efforts have already produced positive results in the target regions but only on a relatively small scale when set in the context of all sub-Saharan Africa.

The task before stakeholders is to join hands with IITA now to advance this crop and to save Africa. The time to act is now.

A tough puzzle: Biodiversity and NRM

Peter Neuenschwander,


In the past, natural resources management covered approximately half of all activities and funds of IITA and similar institutes in the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Most often, it did not include the conservation of wild biodiversity. The other half of funds and personnel were allotted to crop plant biodiversity, mainly the varieties available worldwide in genebanks. Increasingly, however, farmers’ varieties and wild relatives of crop plants became important and the biodiversity of pathogens and witchweed were investigated in view of their use for resistance breeding.

Thanks to new technologies, breeding barriers between species could be overcome and foreign genetic material was incorporated into so-called “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs). These are being tested at a relatively small scale in some African countries. They are the source of real worries and polemical distortions, while countries such as the USA, China, Argentina, Brazil, and India have chosen to grow some GMOs on vast areas. Today, GMOs are at the center of a heated debate in an unnecessarily antagonistic manner, pitting the ideals of biodiversity conservation against the need to feed the world.

Since the end of the 1980s, the importance of biodiversity in general for a sustainable future of Planet Earth has been increasingly publicized. At the Rio Conference in 1990, global warming and the loss of biodiversity were singled out as the two most important issues facing mankind. The climate conference in Copenhagen last year was supposed to reach goals on halting and mitigating climate change. The conference is generally considered to have been a failure; nevertheless, great efforts to avoid a climatic disaster are being taken by many governments, even without the wished-for strict regulations.

And here we are in 2010, the “International Year of Biodiversity”. International nongovernmental organizations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), BirdLife International, and many others are highly active in conservation and their efforts are showing successes. Most countries have subscribed to their ethics, signed the international treaties, and established focal points for the Convention of Biodiversity. For the CGIAR, though, biodiversity conservation mostly remains germplasm conservation. It is the world leader in the conservation of genetic material of crop plants and their wild relatives (for instance, yam and cowpea, of particular interest in West Africa). It is instrumental in the development of rules and regulations about the ownership of germplasm under the umbrella of the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Meristem excision under aseptic conditions (laminar flow workstation) using stereomicroscope, IITA genebank. Photo by IITA.
Meristem excision under aseptic conditions (laminar flow workstation) using stereomicroscope, IITA genebank. Photo by IITA.

IITA is also co-developing best practices and tool kits for collecting germplasm and houses important pathogen collections. Generally though, conservation of other forms of biodiversity is treated rather timidly. The general antagonism between agriculture and nature conservation thus persists. Yet, it probably need not be so: In 2001, IUCN and Future Harvest came together to publish a policy paper outlining ‘The common ground and common future, how eco-agriculture can help feed the world and save wild biodiversity’. While some of the claims might be overwrought, enough is known to allow progress towards the twin goals of saving the bulk of biodiversity while feeding the human population.

Insects are the majority of all described species. On a worldwide level, BioNET INTERNATIONAL organizes and stimulates the coordination of taxonomic research (of all taxa, but with special emphasis on insects). The IITA biodiversity collection of insects, housed in IITA-Bénin, serves as the network center for West and Central Africa. This collection, the largest in the CGIAR, is instrumental in providing basic information about the biodiversity of natural enemies used in all types of biological control.

In addition, the insectary at IITA-Bénin houses numerous live beneficial insects and mites. IITA-Bénin can respond to the changing situations of ever more invading insects and mites. Thus, in the last few years and in West Africa alone, we have seen the invasion and sometimes the control of spiraling whitefly, a new invading fruit fly (Sri Lanka fruit fly), and very recently the papaya mealybug. Last year, when the cassava mealybug invaded Thailand, IITA was able to provide effective parasitoids without delay.

Many more natural enemies are out there in the wild, suppressing their hosts or their prey. Most concern agricultural pests, but increasingly, conservation biological control is becoming important to save natural habitats from invaders. IITA is participating in these international efforts through its biological control of floating water weeds across Africa.

To assess the elusive so-called “ecosystem services”, sophisticated biodiversity studies are required. IITA’s historic classical biological control projects were against cassava and mango mealybug and cassava green mite, three formidable agricultural pests. The first two were not even known to science before they appeared in new habitats. These examples from South America and India illustrate how the ‘ecosystem services’ provided by pests’ natural enemies in the home environments remain hidden until harmful insects and mites get dissociated from their predators. Important services are also provided by microbials and pollinators, but these become visible to farmers and policymakers only when their function is impaired. Examples are lack of conservation because of wanton destruction or by bad agricultural practices, such as those that lead to the depletion of nutrients in soils or the destruction of suppressive soils.

Researcher monitoring cowpea seeds kept in cold storage room in the IITA genebank. Photo by J. Oliver, IITA.
Researcher monitoring cowpea seeds kept in cold storage room in the IITA genebank. Photo by J. Oliver, IITA.

The contribution to sustainable agriculture and conservation that IITA can make is by improving the tools (GIS, sociological, etc.) and by significant advances in research and its application to real world needs. We can thus establish an intellectual agenda for discussion and change within IITA, collaborating organizations, and society at large. Comparing this claim for action with the actual situation at IITA, we find that traditional biodiversity conservation in the form of crop plant germplasm is rather well implemented; but the conservation of nonplant biodiversity is weakly institutionalized and would need better support. Natural resources management offers the intellectual platform to integrate the different disciplines in a sustainable manner. Unfortunately, the inclusion of all biodiversity activities in a holistic natural resources management remains a dream.

Within the period of 20 years, biodiversity conservation has moved from being a specialized field to becoming an urgent task to be carried out before it is too late and extinction takes away the organisms we might one day have to rely on for survival. Even where we do not completely understand the benefits of biodiversity in providing stability to ecosystems, conservation should be implemented for the good of future generations. Apart from research, this also takes the form of providing refuges for biodiversity for future studies, as is the case with the IITA-Ibadan forest or the rehabilitated forest at Drabo Gbo in Bénin. Our national partners have many more examples; they might cherish our leadership in this matter.

The power of biocontrol

Farmers and scientists have, time and time again, turned back to nature to find solutions to pest problems in crop fields.

Variegated grasshopper (<em srcset=Zonocerus variegatus). Photo from Wikimedia commons ” width=”250″ height=”188″ />
Variegated grasshopper (Zonocerus variegatus). Photo from Wikimedia commons

When several exotic pests were accidentally introduced into Africa from South America through infected planting materials in the early 1970s, ravaging economically important crops, such as cassava, scientists turned to the origins of the pests to solve the problem.

A lot has been said about the benefits of biological control or biocontrol. It is natural and safe to the environment and humans, and rigorous tests ensure that it is effective only on the target pests.

And almost three decades of research and development at IITA have shown the continuing effectiveness and sustainability of biological control in combination with other approaches for managing insect pests.

These biocontrol practices and technologies provide the subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa with solutions that are sometimes their only safety net.

This issue on biocontrol celebrates the success of solutions to problems in tropical agriculture that IITA and its partners have developed for millions of African farmers.

Is biotechnology a panacea?

cover_photo1Biotechnology is often understood to mean a single technology. In reality it is a collection of technologies that can be applied to address many challenges in agriculture (crop and animal health, food production) pharmaceuticals, and medicine. Biotechnology is often seen as a panacea which is not the case; it is one more tool, albeit an important one, in the arsenal of tools used against the challenges humanity faces. In agriculture, the technology can help accelerate the development of crops resistant to insects and disease, the development of new uses for agricultural products, livestock vaccines, and improved food qualities. African institutions from Cairo to Cape Town, from Dakar to Dar-es-Salaam are using biotechnology in diverse ways.

IITA’s position on biotechnologies is similar to that on all other sciences. We think Africa, its ministries, universities, teaching hospitals, and other research institutions, should not be excluded from any science. Just the need to know, so as to advice governments on the usefulness of a technology to a country’s needs, requires their involvement and knowledge in that science. Whether a particular product of that technology, e.g., genetically modified crops, is adopted or not, is a decision made by governments and not by scientists.

A vibrant local market in Ibadan, Nigeria. Photo by IITA
A vibrant local market in Ibadan, Nigeria. Photo by IITA

Although many African governments are on the brink of embracing the promised benefits of biotechnology, they have not totally committed in terms of providing government funding for more research in agricultural and social/economic development, or policy support for science. What is needed is for R4D institutions, such as IITA and its partners to continue to provide knowledge about these important technologies and their possible impact on sub-Saharan Africa.

This issue highlights some of the cutting-edge work that IITA and its partners (AATF, NARS, donors, NGOs) are doing to help find solutions to problems in tropical agriculture, and thus provide more food and improved livelihoods for the millions of people depending on agriculture. The R4D Review welcomes feedback and comment about any of the information and work featured in this issue. We encourage you to visit the online R4D Review at

“IITA does not and has not approved or disapproved the use of GM crops in any country. IITA uses all available scientific tools and approaches in its attempt to address hunger and poverty, but the decision to reject or approve and adopt any GM products is the domain and responsibility of the respective national governments. IITA, and rightly so, has no say in such a decison. Any comments to the contrary misrepresent the facts.” —Hartmann, IITA Director General [updated from print version on 25/03/09 ED]