Carlos Pérez del Castillo: Business unusual for CGIAR

Carlos Perez del Castillo
Carlos Perez del Castillo

Carlos Pérez del Castillo is from Uruguay. He is the Chair of the Consortium Board, which governs the CGIAR, the global partnership of research and development centers that work together for poverty alleviation, of which IITA is only one of 15 centers.

He is also an independent international consultant involved in various assignments with governments, private sector, and international organizations.

In July, he visited IITA accompanied by CGIAR Consortium Chief Executive Officer, Frank Rijsberman; the new IITA Board Chair, Dr Bruce Coulman; and the Directors General of Africa Rice, Dr Papa Seck, and the International Livestock Research Institute, Dr Jimmy Smith.

In this interview, he talks about the new partnerships that is the CGIAR, its one-strategy approach, and IITA’s role in the scheme of things.

How far has this visit to IITA met your expectations?
I am leaving with a feeling of enrichment, with a much better knowledge of the work you are doing here. I am also leaving with a sense of reassurance with regard to the support that IITA is willing to give to the reform. It has very much to do with identifying priorities that need to be met in the short run. I think it was a very useful visit.
We were able to talk to the scientists to see the good quality science they are doing in various fields, the degree of engagement, commitment, and passion they have for their work. We were quite happy with the visit.

How prepared is the new CGIAR to tackle food insecurity as we approach 2050?
Let me put it the other way round: if we were stuck with the former way of doing research with 15 centers acting independently with different mandates, we would have never been able to tackle the challenges effectively. At the moment, we have several new challenges, which required a new approach and which also required institutional and governance changes and those are exactly what we are doing.

The new approach is one strategy for all the centers, collective action among them so that people who are working on crop improvement will do research that is integrated with those who are working on natural resource management, public policies, and institutions. And we are also giving a higher degree than in the past to partnerships because we are convinced that research will produce international public goods but unless they are picked up by the national research institutions, universities, and farmer organizations, etc., we will not have impact on the ground.

Therefore, I think that research will certainly be part of the solution to the challenges on poverty, world food insecurity, resource management… probably not the whole solution but I am sure that agricultural research is very much needed to meet these challenges whether it is climate change, food price volatility, energy—food crops being diverted to biofuels— and feeding the growing population. We are going to have 9 billion people by 2050 and we have less water and degraded lands, fish stock depletion, so we need to find ways and means of doing business differently, and we are doing that in the CRPs.

What role do you see for IITA in achieving these goals?
IITA has embarked on and will be leading one program on production systems that should be given much greater attention than in the past. In the past, most of the research was centered around commodities or natural resource managemen, but I think that this production systems approach—bringing together all the resources from different centers—is likely to make an impact on the livelihood of the poor in different ecosystems and obviously, this is a new thing.

I think that IITA, by having this program approved and leading it, will certainly bring the number of solutions that couldn’t be achieved on an individual mandate. So, IITA has a very important role to play. IITA is also playing a role in other CRPs, not only on production systems. I believe that this is the most important one.

Infrastructure is important to research. Is there any plan to upgrade the current infrastructure that will tackle tomorrow’s challenges?
The question of infrastructure is very much in our agenda. Part of these demands can be met through the overheads in the CRPs; part will require additional attention. This is why at the moment we have a working group looking at the needs, the situation, and the cost of the infrastructure in the different centers. Once we have these and we know exactly what the needs and the costs are, then we also need to think of the cost of these needs in the future.

In the past, we were replicating the same type of things in different centers. There may be economies of scale in doing these in one ore two centers rather than having them in all… so we are looking into this; we are presenting a proposal to donors. We have to do it in an intelligent manner and think of the needs of the future to be successful.

What message do you have for IITA staff?
The message to staff is one of reassurance that we in the Consortium are working for their interest. I think in the last few years, there has been a lot of misconception as to our role, our contribution, and our complementarities. Having spoken to the scientists and staff at IITA and seeing the way they work, I can reassure you that what we are striving for—on the one hand, obtaining more finance for the work they do, and on the other hand, cutting down on reporting requirements, which absorb a high percentage of their time instead of emphasizing and putting all their efforts in quality research—would be met.

I think the reform will be much in the interest of all the centers. I don’t think that finance at the end of the day will be a major constraint if we produce value for money. And this is exactly what I would recommend them to work for—very clear outcomes that can be measured, and I reassure them that we will be supporting them in this task.

Climate change & plant health

Irmgard Hoeschle-Zeledon*, i.zeledon@cgiar.org or sp-ipm@cgiar.org
*Coordinator of the CGIAR Systemwide Program on Integrated Pest Management (SP-IPM) convened by IITA

Diverse crop production system. Photo by IITA.
Diverse crop production system. Photo by IITA.

The discussion on the impact of climate change (CC) on agriculture has often focused on how changes in temperature, rainfall, and CO2 concentrations will affect the suitability of temperate regions for crop production and how crops will react in terms of yields. The effects of climate change on biotic factors in the tropics, such as weeds, pests, and pathogens (hereafter referred to as pests), have not received much attention.

Empirical data exist, however, to show that these biotic factors have major effects in determining productivity in the tropics. For instance, during the 1997 El Niño phenomenon, the mean temperature on the Peruvian coast increased by about 5 °C above the annual average, causing a decrease in potato infestation by the leafminer fly Liriomyza hydobrensis, which otherwise was a major pest. However, the abundance and infestation severity of all other pests increased in all crops, including potato (Kroschel et al. 2010). The complex consequences of CC particularly on pests and pathogens are still only imperfectly understood (Gregory et al. 2009).

CGIAR’s work on climate change
What are IITA and the other centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) doing to mitigate the impacts and adapt to the effects of CC on pests? Historically, CGIAR centers have a broad R4D focus; centers have been developing knowledge (e.g., pest profiles), products (e.g., new crop varieties, biocontrol agents against invasive pests), and technologies (e.g., predictive models, diagnostic tools) that are suitable for diverse agroecologies including the tropics, wet, humid, semiarid, and dry, and to some extent the temperate zones as well. The broad knowledge and experience of centers provide an unprecedented advantage to assess the products and technologies in different agroecologies and weather settings and to determine their resilience and ability to cope in altered climatic situations.

Several programs directly focus on managing pests. For instance, the breeding of crop varieties for resistance to pests and pathogens has always been a focus of the CGIAR. With the uncertainties of CC, this work has become more relevant. Breeding for resistance to drought and waterlogging, although not the primary objectives, also aim at making varieties better able to tolerate biotic threats, since drought and excess water in the soil both increase the plants’ vulnerability to these factors.

A good example is the effort to develop drought-resistant maize cultivars by CIMMYT and IITA. These will not only allow the expansion of maize production into areas with less reliable rainfalls but also ensure the continued production in regions that are prone to future water scarcity. Drought- tolerant cultivars also reduce the risk of aflatoxin contamination in the field. Additional characters are incorporated into the drought-tolerant maize, such as resistance to maize streak disease which is endemic in Africa. Similar programs are ongoing to develop drought-resilient cassava and cowpea, and yam with tolerance for major pests.

The CGIAR centers are also working towards the development of cropping systems with greater intra- and interspecific diversity to increase resilience to CC-induced threats from biotic factors. For example, IITA is promoting maize–cowpea intercropping to reduce the pest pressure on cowpea.

Bioversity International is exploring how intra-specific crop genetic diversity on-farm not only reduces current crop losses to pests and pathogens, but also decreases the risk of genetic vulnerability and the potential of future crop damage, thus enhancing the impact of other IPM strategies and providing farmers with increased adaptive capacity to buffer against climatic changes.

CIP developed a temperature-driven phenology model for the potato tuber moth, Phthorimaea operculella that provides good predictions for the population in areas where the pest exists at present (Kroschel et al. 2010). Linked with geographic information systems (GIS) and atmospheric temperature, the model allows the simulation of risk indices on a worldwide scale to predict future changes in the distribution of the species due to increasing temperatures. The approach can also be used for other insect species. Hence, CIP created the Insect Life Cycle Modeling software (ILCYM) to facilitate the development of other insect phenology models. With its support, the phenology model can be implemented and allows for spatial simulation of insect activities.

Many centers support the collection and conservation of plant genetic diversity that can be built into new cultivars to enhance their resistance to biotic stresses. Diagnostics capacity is continuously augmented for the accurate and timely recognition of endemic pests, new variants, and invasive pests. Crop biodiversity—landraces and wild relatives that are the reservoirs of genes for abiotic and biotic factors—is conserved ex situ to protect the species from erosion by CC-induced changes.

In a collaborative effort, CIP, IITA, icipe, and partners in Germany and Africa are implementing a project to understand the effects of rising temperatures on the distribution and severity of major insect pests on main food crops. ILCYM will be further improved and adapted to cover a wide range of insect species. The results will contribute to filling the knowledge gap about CC effects on economically important insect herbivores and their natural enemies.

IITA is planning to research the effect of changes in temperature on the invasion potential of major biotic threats in the Great Lakes region of East Africa and elsewhere: Banana bunchy top virus (BBTV), Banana Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW), and Panama Disease–Tropical Race 4, cassava brown streak virus disease, cassava mosaic disease, maize streak, soybean rust, and pod borer pests, among others.

As whiteflies and aphids are considered to become more problematic with increased temperatures, IITA is also preparing research on the biocontrol of different whitefly and aphid species in vegetables and staple crops.

A project has been proposed on the bio-enhancement of seeds and seedlings of cereals and vegetables for East Africa to stimulate the plants’ defense mechanisms against pests and pathogens expected to increase in number, frequency, and severity. This project also addresses the registration of biopesticides and the availability of endophytes to the tissue culture industry.

CGIAR research programs
Under the new CGIAR Research Programs (CRPs), centers are addressing CC-induced crop health issues in various ways. Breeding for resistance to predicted biotic stresses continues to be a major focus in CRP3 (roots, tubers, banana) and its subcomponents. This component, coordinated by CIP, specifically recognizes CC and agricultural intensification as drivers for higher pressure from pests. Hence, this program aims at developing management strategies for priority biotic threats to these crops. These include the development of improved detection and monitoring tools, and surveillance methods for detecting and mapping existing, emerging, and resurgent molecular pests and pathogens. It will look into increasing general plant and root health through the enhancement of the natural disease suppressing potential of soils, and the antagonistic pest and disease potential of the aboveground agroecosystems.

The CRP on Integrated Systems for the Humid Tropics, led by IITA, will have a substantial focus on CC, its impact on pests, and plans for mitigation. For example, research will establish the relationship between CC and key cassava pests to develop integrated pest management (IPM) strategies including those for whitefly, African root and tuber scale, termite, green mite, aphid, and mealybug.

Phenology models for insect and mite pests and their antagonists on several crops will be developed and validated and their potential for changes in warming will be determined.

In collaboration with CABI, community surveillance for pests and diseases will take place through the expansion of the mobile plant clinic network.

Larva of the noctuid moth feeding on the pistil of cowpea. Photo by S. Muranaka, IITA.
Larva of the noctuid moth feeding on the pistil of cowpea. Photo by S. Muranaka, IITA.

Knowledge and decision support tools for the management of potato and sweetpotato pests (diseases and insects) will be developed and assessed in relation to the expected intensification of the agroecosystems in the humid and subhumid tropics.

Sustainable management of cassava virus disease in the cassava-based system will also be studied, and the vulnerabilities of these systems to CC- induced pest and disease problems will be determined.

The CIAT-coordinated CRP on CC, Agriculture, and Food Security began operations this year. It will continue the activities initiated by the CGIAR Challenge Program on CC. This CRP aims at mainstreaming strategies that address the management of CC- induced pest and disease threats among international and national agencies. It will identify and test innovations that enable communities to better manage and adapt to climate-related risks from biotic factors.

Recommendations
A lot of surprise shifts in ecosystems could come. It is therefore important that research capacity and knowledge bases are maintained to understand and rapidly react to mitigate any debilitating impacts (Shaw and Osborne 2011).

To accomplish this, it is necessary to establish good baseline data on current pest status in agroecosystems. This knowledge base will serve as a reference point to measure the fluctuations and the effectiveness of interventions.

It is important to determine the key weather variables that could change as a consequence of CC and their influence on agroecosystems and pests, and establish preemptive coping strategies. Available CC models could be handy for predicting CC factors.

A diverse scientific base including specialists in pathology, entomology, ecology, taxonomy, and epidemiology is required. They should work together to ensure that the outcomes of their research are linked to existing knowledge, economic forces, and common understanding (Shaw and Osborne 2011).

As it generally takes more than 10 years to breed a new resistant cultivar of a crop, breeding programs must start well in advance of the serious risk of a biotic threat Breeders need to be informed on the problems which might become important in the future (Chakraborty et al. 1998 in Juroszek and Tiedemann 2011).

Crops being bred for abiotic threats such as drought, waterlogging, and salinity should be prepared for the pests that could flourish under these conditions and select varieties that can tolerate pests as well.

Changes in occurrence, prevalence, and severity of infections and infestations will also affect crop health management (CHM) practices. There is a need to effectively disseminate and use those techniques that are currently underused (Juroszek and Tiedemann 2011).

Significant contributions could be made in improved field monitoring of pests and diseases, and better delivery systems for pest control products (Strand 2000 in Juroszek and Tiedemann 2011). Preventive crop protection measures may become more relevant under CC to reduce the risks (Juroszek and Tiedemann 2011).

CC is a global problem that affects all countries. Hence, global cooperation is required. However, given the nature of plant pests and pathogens, more local or regional strategies need to be put in place that define potential risks and measures to tackle expected threats. Investments in early detection systems, including border controls to monitor the migration of pests through plants, plant products, and other goods, will be the key to avoid the spread of invasive pests and reduce high management and eradication costs (FAO).

New farming practices, different crops, and IPM technologies must be developed to control the established pests and prevent the spread of new ones (FAO).
Governments should consider developing country-specific strategies to cope with CC-induced changes and put in place favorable policies for the introduction and promotion of new technologies for CHM.

It is also crucial to create and augment awareness about the effects of CC among policymakers and other officials involved in developing agricultural strategies.

References
Chakraborty S and Newton AC. 2011. Plant Pathology 60: 2-14.

FAO. unknown. ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/010/i0142e/i0142e06.pdf

Govindasamy B et al. 2003. Climate Dynamics 21: 391-404.

Gregory PJ et al. 2009. Journal of Experimental Botany 60: 2827-2838.

Juroszek P and von Tiedemann A. 2011. Plant Pathology 60: 100-112.

Kroschel J et al. 2010. http://www.spipm.cgiar.org/ipm-research-briefs

Shaw MW and Osborne TM. 2011. Plant Pathology 60: 31-43.

A tough puzzle: Biodiversity and NRM

Peter Neuenschwander, p.neuenschwander@cgiar.org

seeds

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.

Thomas Dubois: Young scientist on the rise

Thomas Dubois, IITA
Thomas Dubois, IITA

Thomas Dubois joined IITA in 2003 to manage the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)-funded regional biocontrol project for banana, based in Uganda. This project has now made significant progress: banana infected with certain strains of endophytic fungi grow more vigorously and are better protected against pests and diseases. The development of this novel “bioprotection” is an exciting research theme that has the potential to revolutionize current thinking on biocontrol. Current focus of this project is to optimize inoculation techniques and scale up activities with commercial producers of tissue-cultured (TC) plants as part of a recently funded Eastern African Programme and Research Network for Biotechnology, Biosafety and Biotechnology Policy Development (BIO-EARN) project in Kenya and Uganda.

In 2006, Thomas received the prestigious CGIAR Young Scientist Award. At present he is heading a BMZ project on improving market pathways for TC banana centered on commercial TC producers and nursery distribution centers. He is also spearheading the 2008 International Banana Conference in Mombasa, Kenya, as Chair of the Organizing Committee.

How did you come to IITA?
I studied bio-engineering first and then some foreign exchanges spurred my international ambitions. After my studies, in 1998, I was placed with IITA in Onne, southeast Nigeria. I absolutely fell in love with the then cowboy attitudes: nothing beats eating goat head, listening to Afropop in between oilrigs and blown up tankers! I liked the applied work, screening banana plants for nematode resistance, working under the supervision of Abdou Tenkouano and the late Paul Speijer. While I was at Onne, I was accepted at Cornell University to do my PhD studies in Insect Pathology. As I told Lukas Brader, the DG at that time, “I will be back.” After my PhD studies I was quickly involved in a fairly high-profile project with the United States Department of Agriculture, combating a devastating invasive insect species in the northern US; I traveled to China every year for prolonged periods of time. I toyed with the idea of entering Business School and tried to get into private industry. I settled with management consulting firms, using the Ivy League degree as leverage. I tried to get back into the CGIAR system and landed an 8-month stint with IITA in Uganda in 2003. This was a short project related to the use of endophytes, with no job security but ideal to get my foot in the door. I have been at IITA ever since.

What are some of your memorable experiences in research in the field or in the lab?
I like the applied and hands-on work. You can get much more done with a large dedicated team of staff, sometimes with less access to good infrastructure and facilities. I had to play farm manager for more than a year, doing activities from supplying water, fuel, and satellite dishes to keep the station running, to chasing away cows from encroaching the research fields in my spare time.

What are your realizations on the job?
I have come to appreciate several important realizations. First of all comes focus. It is easy to be carried away and drift into the development aspect of things. We are first and foremost scientists, on the applied side of science, publishing our work through peer-reviewed journals. It should be up to partner organizations to feed high-tech science upstream or to implement the work downstream. So choosing the right partners is essential. Secondly, teamwork is important. I started to fully appreciate this fairly late. Competition is natural in low quantities but, by definition, has no place in an institution that aims to do Research to nourish Africa. By working synergistically as a team and sometimes reaching out to other “competitor” organizations you would be surprised at what can be achieved in a short time and how the relationship can be swiftly turned into fruitful collaboration. Thirdly, at IITA, the sky seems to be the limit but sometimes you have to let go. One person simply cannot run two large international projects, write some more, fly to DR Congo to help with restructuring the agricultural sector, correct PhD theses, be a webmaster, and run a massive conference at the same time. My workload is insane but it is partly my fault.

What are your future plans?
In the immediate future, I would focus on my project on improving market pathways for TC banana centered on commercial TC producers and nursery distribution centers. Also, commercialization of the technology with private enterprises—this is what the BIO-EARN project is trying to do. At some point later, I hope to leave science and secure a managerial position with more job security as well. Deep down I know I am not a scientist “pure sang”. Moving on to the bigger scheme of things can be anything, ranging from research management, policy, advocacy, consultancy to donor relations.

Dubois examining a banana plant. Photo by IITA
Dubois examining a banana plant. Photo by IITA

Any advice for colleagues?
I am among the youngest at IITA so I should be receiving advice from others! A strong focus has been on mentoring students and I would hope that some colleagues would train more students. I have been supervising over 25 students in the last 5 years, both those from within Africa and European-based MSc students who do their research at IITA-Uganda. Benefits are manifold for them and IITA. Secondly, I think IITA folk could benefit if they “sell” themselves a bit more, through radio, TV, websites, and the popular press. Benefits include changing donor conceptions and misconceptions, putting science in the forefront, and ultimately benefiting farmers. Thirdly, it has helped me to think a lot out of the box and be a generalist. I came as an entomologist with a title of “biocontrol specialist”. Now I am running a socioeconomic project entirely focused on market pathways for banana seed systems. One could look out of the box for good private sector players or partners. This is essential, in my opinion, for long-term sustainability.

What is your dream for Africa?
I hope Africa will, at some point, be weaned off the many donor agencies, volunteering organizations, and NGOs that seem to be becoming a sustainable big-bucket business rather than a means to an end. A conducive climate for private sector development, together with good governance, is what I wish for sub-Saharan Africa.

Leena Tripathi: Looking after the welfare of smallholder banana growers

Leena Tripathi was born and grew up in India. She gained a PhD in Plant Molecular Biology from the National Botanical Institute, Lucknow, after completing an MSc in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, Pantnagar, India.

She joined IITA in 2000 and worked first in Nigeria and currently in Uganda where her primary research focuses on the development of transgenic Musa spp. with disease and pest resistance. She has established strong links with national and regional partners, and advanced labs. She is also Guest Faculty at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) for biosafety courses.

Please describe your research work.
Since 2000, I have been developing transgenic banana and plantain resistant to pests and diseases. Currently, I am leading projects on producing bananas resistant to Xanthomonas wilt using the transgenic approach. I am also involved in capacity building in biotechnology and biosafety. I have trained several African scientists in genetic transformation and tissue culture. I have assisted in building capacity on genetically modified organism (GMO) detection and biosafety in East Africa by training students and national scientists on banana transformation and molecular biology. And I would like to acknowledge the strong financial support from donors such as Gatsby Charitable Foundation, African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), US Agency for International Development, and the UK Department for International Development (DFID); and IITA of course.

Why did you choose to work in Africa?
Africa has missed the Green Revolution but should not miss the Gene Revolution. For this it needs human capacity in biotechnology that will help to accomplish things that conventional plant breeding could never do. The public needs to be better informed about the importance of biotechnology in food production.

What is the importance of transgenic technologies in banana improvement?
Many pests and diseases significantly affect banana cultivation and cause crop losses worldwide. Development of disease-resistant banana by conventional breeding remains difficult for various technical reasons. Transgenic technologies are the most cost-effective approach. There are enormous potentials for genetic manipulation using appropriate transgenes from other plants to achieve objectives in a far shorter time. It may also be possible to incorporate other characteristics such as drought tolerance, thus extending the geographical spread of production.

How do you demystify or explain a concept like biotechnology to lay audiences?
People think that biotechnology is just genetic modification (GM) technology. Contrary to its name, biotechnology is not a single technology; it is a group of technologies that uses biological systems, living organisms, or their derivatives, to make or modify products or processes for specific use. This includes recombinant DNA technology, genetic engineering, GM foods, biopharmaceuticals, bioremediation, and more.

Biotechnology is not new; it has flourished since prehistoric times. When the first human beings realized that they could plant their own crops and breed their own animals, they learned to use biotechnology. The discovery that fruit juices fermented into wine, or that milk could be converted into cheese or yogurt, or that beer could be made by fermenting solutions of malt and hops, started the study of biotechnology. When the first bakers found that they could make soft, spongy bread rather than a firm, thin cracker, they were acting as fledgling biotechnologists.

“Modern” biotechnology derives from techniques discovered only in the last 20 years. These include the ability to cut and stitch DNA, to move DNA and genes from one organism to another, and to persuade the new gene in this new organism, that is to make new proteins. Genetic engineering technology is a branch of modern biotechnology and involves the transfer of gene(s) from one organism to another to create a new species of crops, animals, or microorganism. Modern biotechnology has offered opportunities to produce more nutritious and better tasting foods, higher crop yields, and plants that are naturally protected from disease and insects.

What have you learned on the job?
I joined IITA as a biotechnologist with plenty of experience in research but not in the field. Working at IITA has been overwhelmingly positive. I have gained experience in both research and administration. I have learned to appreciate the benefits of working in multidisciplinary and multicultural teams and of linking research to farmers in the field. I can now write successful project proposals, get funding, lead projects, and disseminate results to national partners and finally to farmers. Good communication skills are essential for successful research. One needs to be a good team worker and establish strong and successful partnerships as we are doing at IITA-Uganda. When I was relocated here, I realized the situation was very different. IITA in Ibadan has facilities but in Uganda, IITA facilities are based within a national partner, the National Agricultural Research Organization. I wanted to learn quickly from the experiences of others so I talked to colleagues about their work and successes and to national scientists about their expectations. I learned quickly.

Any advice for IITA colleagues?
IITA scientists should be committed to provide strong leadership in the key research areas to ensure scientific excellence and the quality of products. They should work applying “new science” to enhance food security and income generation for resource-poor farmers.

What are your future research plans?
I want to evaluate the disease resistance of banana varieties in the field, evaluate transgenic plants in the confined field for efficacy against Xanthomonas wilt disease, with the University of Leeds develop nematode-resistant plantains, and develop varieties with multiple disease resistance by integrating several genes with different targets or modes of action into the plant genome. I also want to train more national staff/students to build capacity in the region.

What is your formula for success?
The addition and sometimes multiplication of five key elements: vision, strategy, confidence, hard work, and learning. I am focused and have a clear vision for my research, based on project outputs. I frame strategy with clear goals. I follow the strategy with my group members and work hard to achieve the goals. At each step I identify problems and learn to solve or avoid them so that the group moves smoothly and fast to achieve the goals. I set the goals for my group at the start of each year. Everyone works extra hours to achieve group goals. I do not hesitate to seek advice and suggestions from experts, superiors, and collaborators to move things efficiently. Support is very important. I have benefited from support and encouragement from my superiors, higher IITA management, donors, collaborators, and from family. IITA nominated me for the CGIAR Young Scientist award in 2005 and gave me their Top Scientist award, based on my research achievements.