Written by Shiv Kumar Agrawal, Food Legumes Coordinator, ICARDA, and Rajita Majumdar, Communications Manager, ICARDA
In Ethiopia, lentil is an important food crop as a source of income for small-scale farmers and for export, being a major lentil producer in the sub-Saharan Africa region.
However, lentil cultivation area and production was declining in the country for several reasons: use of low-yielding landraces, diseases, insect pests, frost, water-logging and poor cultural practices like late planting which leaves the plant young and vulneraXQble to fight off disease. For example, in the 1997-98 season,about 23,000 ha of late-planted lentil in the highlands were completely wiped out by a rust epidemic.
The Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research’s (EIAR)legume research program has been focusing on increasing the country’s lentil productivity and production by developing improved lentil varieties in partnership with CGIAR’s International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). The research outputs combined with smart dissemination strategies such as gender focus have been gradually turning the tide for Ethiopia over the past decade as yields have shot up and lentil production is steadily growing, as is thecultivated area.
Under the research partnership focused on food legumes (pulses), ICARDA has been providing improved germplasm and varieties of lentil, chickpea and faba bean to EIAR for testing on farmers’ fields for adaptability to the local environment.
After crossbreeding with local varieties,those demonstrating the highest yield potential were released.
So far about a dozen high-yielding, disease-resistant lentil varieties have been released with wide and specific adaptations, ten of which were selected from ICARDA’s elite germplasm by Debre Zeit Agricultural Research Center (DZARC), located in the Oromia region.
In conjunction with improved varieties,research has also focused on developing improved agronomic practices, such as optimal seed rate and weeding practices;and early planting (August) using ridge and furrow, and broad-bed and furrow systems to tackle excess water problem with vertisols (soil with a high content of clay). The technology ‘package’ developed demonstrated 270% yield increase:up to 2.6 tons/hectare (t/ha) compared to 700 kg/ha from traditional varieties and practices.
The technology package has been aggressively promoted in the central highlands, where rust epidemics, water-logging and frost are key production constraints. To accelerate dissemination of improved varieties, farmers participating in the popularization program produced seed under DZARC’s supervision which were then distributed from farmer to farmer and promoted through field days. Some farmers even went on to become the nucleus of Farmer Research Groups in different districts, scaling up the benefits.
Past impact studies showed that the individual components of the technology package (variety, early planting and weeding) increased yield by 70%, 135% and 62% respectively. The popular variety ‘Alemaya’ has been central to the success of the package. A cost-benefit study estimated the returns from research investment in developing ‘Alemaya’ at a net benefit of about $17 million and an internal rate of return of 44%.
Technology adoption and diffusion were slower than expected due to shortage of seeds of improved varieties. To overcome this, DZARC’s lentil team has trained several district extension experts and farmers on seed production and processing. Many farmers have now joined contract-based village seed production schemes with the Ethiopian Seed Enterprise,farmers unions and NGOs. During 2014,farmer-based seed production was initiated in various districts in Ethiopia involving some 1100 farmers, resulting in 715 tons of seed production of the two most popular high-yielding lentil varieties– ‘Alemaya’ and ‘Derash’.
The lentil production has doubled from 54,227 million tons (MT) in 2000-02 to 110,913 MT in 2012-14. During the same period, cultivation area has increased by about 27.3%, suggesting the increase in lentil production in Ethiopia to stemmainly from increase in average yield– from 707 kg/ha in 2000-02 to 1286 kg/ha in 2012-14. The improved lentil varieties are not only higher yielding but also richer in iron and zinc content than local varieties, contributing to alleviating micronutrient deficiency – a severe and common malady in developing countries.
The key factors in the success of research impact on lentil production in Ethiopia have been the release and effective diffusion of improved lentil technologies (high yielding, rust and wilt resistant varieties with wide adaptation, integrated pest management practices and early planting) and improved knowledge and skills of farmers.
The enhanced lentil production in Ethiopia is the fruit of a longstanding research partnership – the EIAR-ICARDA research partnership traces back to as early as 1980s, when ICARDA started out with shipping of large numbers of its germplasm and breeding lines to EIAR stations for evaluation. Soon after, the program had expanded to include breeding, agronomy and disease management research.
The outcomes also point to the critical role of genetic conservation of crops and its utilization in strengthening national food security and improving farmer incomes. ICARDA’s Genebank has globally the largest holding of lentil seeds, along with chickpea, faba bean, and grasspea—most of which are landraces and their wild relatives.
The collection is an international public good and an invaluable genetic resource for crop breeders seeking to develop improved legume crop varieties – a high-return investment in climate-smart agriculture. As legume crops have the unique nitrogen fixation ability for replenishing soils while being highly water-efficient crop option, they have the potential to work magic for food production in degraded and drylands of the developing world.