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Greater food security through disease-resistant pearl millet

Copyright: ICRISAT on Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Up to 350,000 farming families (equivalent to 2-3 million people) in India have improved food security and financial stability thanks to a new variety of disease-resistant pearl millet, developed by a team of researchers which included scientists from two of BBSRC’s strategically-funded institutes.

Pearl millet is a staple crop across much of Africa and South Asia and can grow in hot, dry conditions unsuitable for other cereal crops. In India, where 40% of the world’s pearl millet is grown, epidemics of the plant disease downy mildew can cause up to one third of crops (PDF) to be lost. The resulting hunger and loss of income is devastating for farmers.

Data breakout

£7M Value of pearl millet crops lost to downy mildew each year in India
1,100,000 Number of packets of disease-resistant pearl millet seed distributed in Rajasthan alone in 2010-2011
10% Increased yield of disease-resistant pearl millet

Researchers at Bangor University, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and two of BBSRC’s strategically-funded institutes: The Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth University and The John Innes Centre (JIC) used DNA marker-assisted breeding to develop a variety of pearl millet resistant to downy mildew.

After more than a decade of collaborative work, the new variety was released in 2005. This variety produces up to 10% higher yields (PDF) and also matures early, allowing another crop such as wheat or chickpea to be grown on the same land in the same year.

The new, disease-resistant pearl millet has now completely replaced the previous variety of pearl millet grown in north western India. It is estimated that this generated $6.4M of additional revenue in 2011 alone, and provided increased financial stability and food security for people in the Haryana and Rajasthan regions.

Researchers at IBERS are now developing new varieties of pearl millet with low glycemic index (GI), which could benefit type 2 diabetes sufferers, funded by Innovate UK and Unilever through the Agri-Tech Catalyst.

Header image copyright: ICRISAT on Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0