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close this bookQuiet Revolutionaries - A Look at the Campaign by Agricultural Scientists to Fight Hunger (World Bank)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe people behind this essay
View the documentForeword
View the documentA costly mistake
View the documentA tiny but effective wasp
View the documentMoving to Benin
View the documentMite against Mite
View the documentGood works and deals
View the documentOrganizing the CGIAR
View the documentThe second-generation centers
View the documentThe question of quarantine
View the documentManaging a gene bank
View the documentRights to intellectual property
View the documentA new kind of bread
View the documentA taste of honey
View the documentStarch and alcohol

The second-generation centers

ASTRRI in the Philippines and CIMMIT in Mexico were the original international centers for agricultural CIAT in Colombia and IITA in Nigeria, setup in 1967, were the "second-generation centers." But why was Colombia chosen? Why Nigeria?

Colombia is a country of wide variety: it has great mountains and deep valleys and coastlines on the Pacific and the Caribbean—ideal for experimenting with various crops, with new technologies. It has plenty of well-educated, well-qualified people And it had a long history of working closely with the staff from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. The Colomb an Government bought and leased to CIAT a farm near the National University's College of Agriculture at Palmira, and CIAT'S brief was to focus on improving agriculture in the lowland tropics of Latin America with research into not only cassava, but also rice in Latin America, beans, and tropical forages. Then the architects were told, as the original legal documents put it, to "carry through the Spanish theme frequently found in the area."

On many afternoons a wind blows through the fertile valley of the Rio Cauca where Cali lies a welcome coolness but also a bit of a distraction. The architects were told that their buildings had to keep out these winds, as well as the dust, so as "to reduce the interference to wore" And also keep out the windblown rain, the mosquitoes, the Dies, and other insects, and to have as few air-conditioned buildings as possible. They did their task brilliantly.

The main block seems more like a cloister than a center for research pleasing contrast to the bustle in the laboratories and sceenhouses behind it Its entrance has five giant, white arches. The grassy courtyard is partly shaded by clumps of trees. Red and white bougainvillea spill from a balcony, and here and there on the ground are immense pots filled with mauve, white, and pink flowers. In display cases along inside walls is an exquisite collection of pre-Columbian artifacts jars, vases, statues-the work of some of the many aboriginal groups who lived in the valley before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors. By late afternoon, the staff depart for their homes outside the campus, leaving the stillness to a few gardeners with their hoses and a few privileged visitors, reading and at rest under ceiling fans in the guesthouse.

Not that CIAT doesn't, like all institutions, sometimes have its calm disturbed. In 1992 the CGlAR cut its budget by 10 percent (there was also a 12 percent revaluation of the Colombian peso). This meant reorganization and a leaner CIAT" ."After twenty years of existence, excitement about the impact of the centers is wearing off," reported Gustavo Nores, the Argentinean director-general. The donors often had "higher political priorities." CGIAR core funding to CIAT is about $26.5 million yearly, according to Nores, but it will "eventually need a 20 percent increase in real funding to carry out its mission."

Nores may worry more about funding than local politics' but politics is a major preoccupation at another of the CGIAR's Latin American research center -the one in La Molina, just outside the Peruvian capital of Lima El Centro Intemacional de la Papa (CIP) is well known for its woks on the potato, making it a staple in countries where it was hardly known before. Its latest dramatic announcement was about what someone, with great inspiration and with an eye on the headlines, decided to call the "hairy potato." With Cornell University, CIP has developed a potato with hairy leaves and stems. The hairs simply trap and kill marauding insects.

But Peru staggers under the assault of the Sendero Luminoso ("Shining Path',) guerrillas, and international agencies are not immune. One of CIP's outstations is high m the-Andes in Huancayo—it has been threatened repeatedly and some of its workers were attacked. Its international staff had pulled out, a scientist said, leaving it in the hands of local staff, who maintain the germplasm collection there. They stayed, he added with a shrug, because they needed their salaries.

The research center in Nigeria had an equally rocky history. Stephen Lawani, director of IITA's information services who has recently researched its history, quoted one of the founding fathers who said that Nigeria was picked in the mid-1960s simply because when "you look at the countries in Africa, where else would you put it?" It had resources even before it struck oil, and it had one of the two good universities south of the Sahara-at Ibadan. (It had teem decided as a matter of principle to build all these international centers near a national university campus.)

The site was chosen, and about 3,000 villages resettled and compensated ,when Nigeria plunged into a series of catastropines: a military coup in 1966 was followed by a countercoup, to be followed by the bitter Biafran War which lasted until 1970. The founding fathers persevered but they often wondered whether they had made the right choice.

When I arrived at IITA, I fumed off the crowded highway, leaving the sprawl of Ibadan behind, and entered a different, enclosed, secure world. A place of manicured lawns, avenues of tall palms, neat residential bungalows, orderly offices, polite security guards, and reliable water and electricity. One of its African scientists; called it a "mini-America" and that, he added, was very necessary if it was to attract international staff.

It boasts a golf course around a lake, with what looked like tricky greens made of sand. Judging from- the clubhouse notice board, most members seemed to have high handicaps, suggesting that their minds are strictly on their work. Here, with a core funding of $22 million a year, they work on crop improvement and land management m humid and subhumid tropics, with research into maize, cowpeas, plantains, soybeans,- rice, and yams, as well as cassava And now they have come up with a "supercassava."

The Fantastic "Supercassava" After twenty years of work on cassava, this is a gift of God," said Dr. Sang-Ki Hahn, a lively and forceful Korean who led the tropical root improvement program in IITA for many years and is now "director emeritus." "Fantastic things are coming." he added.

The gift of God is a "supercassava." Lukas grader, the Dutchman who runs IITA, explained that when breeders "crossed a cultivated cassava with a wild species of cassava, specifically one that was introduced into Africa for rubber production," they found what they call "spontaneous polyploids." The normal plant or animal species has a fixed number of chromosom cassava has thirty-six. Polyploids have multiples of this normal number -those with fifty-four are called triploids, and those with seventy-two are tetraploids. These varieties are tougher and more vigorous and offer higher yields, and will possibly prove to be better nutritionally.

Up to now farmers in Africa have produced about six tons of cassava per hectare. With IITA's new improved varieties, bred over the last two decades—the first stage of what's being called the cassava revolution-that yield was pushed up to twelve tons per hectare and above. The suppercassava-the second stage should push this even further. "The maximum yields we received were as 0th as seventy tons per hectare," Brader said. "Polyploids were a stroke of luck."

"My target is to double the yield," Hahn said more cautiously, to between twenty to fifty tons. "Polyploid breeding hasn't been successful except in a few crops. Sugarbeet is one of these it has similar mechanisms to the cassava. This breakthrough is appropriate to the African situation—win its smallscale farmers. This is something which, I believe, is something great"
"How long have you been working on this?" I asked.
"About five years. Many are being tested in the fields. I have generated two to three thousand clones of polyploids."
"When could it make a difference to Africa? In the next five to ten years?"
"In two more years," he said, without hesitation.

He drove me down narrow grassy tracks through fields of different crops, revving the car in low gear, talking and pointing out his charges as if they were students—that one was showing promise, that one could do better. Agricultural scientists may be quiet revolutionaries, whose hard experience has shown them the wisdom of caution, but that doesn't mean they're without passion. Prod them a little and they often become intense and visionary. There's a kind of energy, almost charisma, that comes with embarking on a quest, that comes with hope.

“That's tetraploid," he said, jamming on the brakes and leaping out of the car. It didn't seem to my unschooled eyes any different from the other cassavas we had passed.
"It's leaves are broader and thicker. This is diploid, the normal one. See, its leaves are narrower."
"Your eyes are very good," I said.
"There's a Chinese philosopher who talked about a butcher who is killing cattle. When he started, all the cattle looked alike. But after he had worked for three years, he found that every animal was different I have teem here for twenty-one years-seven times longer than the butcher. My eyes are sharper. So I can detect."

When he travels in Nigeria to find out how many hectares in the country are covered with the regular improved varieties (the estimate is as much as 60 percent), people ask him how he can tell whether it's a variety he produced or not "I argue back—how is it you can tell the difference between your child or someone else's from 100 meters' distance? Because I have seen for fifteen years all the stages.

A former professor from Seoul University Hahn left there in 1971 to devote part of his professional life to improving the cassava in Africa. He likes to mention that he was made an honorary chief of the Yoruba town of Ikire and has started an association of Nigerian cassava farmers. He is generous in his praise for others in the field. He mentions the work of two British scientists who went before him: H. H. Storey (“to me the greatest biological scientist who worked in Africa") in the first half of this century, and Brian Beck

He also praised the work of Dr. K Vijaya Bai, a diminutive Indian woman from Kerala whom he brought to Nigeria to work with him. She is a cytogeneticist-cytogene being being a branch of biology that deals with the study of heredity and variation using both cytology (the study of cells) and genetics. I disturbed her one morning in her lab as she was peering down a microscope. I needed to dear up one point: did more and more chromosomes in a plant mean better yields indefinitely, If so, why not produce plants with 144 chromosomes, and on and on?

“No," she said, sitting back on her stool. "As we go on increasing the ploidy, it doesn't mean we're going to increase the yields Because there's an optimum level of ploidy. We don't know yet which is the best level for cassava. This thing is just in the stage of evaluation."
"But do you have a feeling what might be the best level?"
"We think we get the better results with triploids. They give good yields."

So it was the triploids with fifty -four chromosomes that probably would give better yields, rather than the tetraploids with seventy-two chromosomes.

"What happens when you go beyond seventy-two?"
"We have to test one," she said with care. "The plant is a little weak and the leaves aren't in good shape. It's double of this seventy-two chromosomes—its 144. But we can't go on increasing indefinitely like that."
"Is it possible to go on to 288?"
"I doubt it. This plant with 144 is not so good so we don't know whether it would stand the treatment. It's the triploids that are very vigorous."

Kerala, the most progressive state in India, is said to be the only state that has never experienced feminine. And it's the one that produces cassava. Could there be a connection? "Where there is cassava, there is no hunger," goes an old African saying.

"It's possible," she said. "Whenever we have a shortage of rice-rice is the staple food there cassava is very popular. Kerala is a coastal state so they are getting a lot of fish. The people like to eat cassava with fish."
"Why don't other states in India grow cassava?"
"It's grown m the neighboring state of mil Nadu. There, they are using it mostly for industry."
"What is the historical reason for Kerala growing cassava?"

"It was introduced by the Portuguese when some Kerala ruler was there. He encouraged the cultivation of cassava. Also the climate in Kerala is something like here-a tropical climate. It's not grown throughout Kerala; in certain areas its more common than other."

Here was a good opportunity to learn some real basics: how a scientist goes about finding out how many chromosomes a plant has. "Exactly what do you do?" I asked her.

Like all experts completely immersed in their subject, she made what to a layman seemed complex sound as easy as preparing a light breakfast.

A tiny root tip is dipped in various chemicals one of which kills, and therefore preserves, the tissues. Hydrochloric acid and a flame are used to soften the tissues.

"Then we put it in water to remove the acid particles. Then we stain it."
"Why stain it?"
"To get a clear picture of the chromosomes."
"Now what?"
"After staining, we put the root tip on a slide and slightly warm it again and squash it with a needle."
"This is to break it up?"
"Yes. Then we put a cover glass on it and then observe it," she explained patiently.
"And you should be able to see the chromosomes clearly?"
"Yes. There are also other ways of doing it"

But the Improved Are Also Important

The super-cassava is a hope for the future, but what about these "normal" unproved varieties that have emerged from CIAT and IITA in the last decade—the varieties that are already increasing the yields, that are resistant to diseases such as mosaic disease and bacterial blight, and that seem to be acceptable 'able to those who eat them? This was the first stage of the quiet cassava revolution and has largely gone unnoticed in a world where the glamorous crops such as wheat, rice, and potato take center stage.

It was Robert McNamara, former World Bank president, who singled out these varieties as an example of hope for Africa. In June 1990 he was in Ota, Nigeria, to speak to the African Leadership Forum, and his prediction for Africa's future was bleak He quoted a 1983 report by the Economic Commission for Africa which said that by the year 2008, because of the population explosion, poverty would reach "unimaginable dimensions." By 1990, MbNamara said, the "situation has worsened" and by 1995 it would most likely be even worse. The only way this catastrophe would be reversed would be to improve agriculture, reduce the population growth, and manage the environment better.

The world could not expect a green revolution in Africa, McNamara argued. in Asia this had occurred largely on irrigated land—land under irrigation in Africa was limited and unlikely to expand. (There are other reasons, of course, listed by experts from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations: a harsh climate, infertile soils, difficult topography, a lack of roads, a low level of education, poor economic incentives, and a lack of government resolve to solve the food production problems.)

McNamara called for a new emphasis on agricultural research and technologies that were environmentally benign. This meant expanding the CGlAR'S international research centers, rehabilitating the national research institutions (which are sometimes neglected, sometimes politicized), and setting networks that pool research efforts. The key was to adapt new technologies that offered a reliable return. Farmers on the margin of survival would only invest money and labor in a sure-fire. A good example, he concluded, were new cassava breeds developed by IITA m Ibadan, "which doubled yields at [little additional cost" and which "had been spreading spontaneously among Nigerian farmers."

You can grow cassava from seed, but the normal commercial way to multiply it—to propagate it—is by cuttings. You simply break off a few inches of the woody stem and stick it in the ground. Buds appear and then branches, and the roots swell to produce the edible cassava. This has one great economic advantage you don't have to use any of the root for planting the next crop. With those dazzling grain crops, as well as with potatoes, part of the harvest has to be kept back for replanting.

Then again, those cuffings produce genetically identical offspring, or clones. Breeders can experiment with seeds to produce unproved genetic varieties, and then these will be reproduced by cuttings to make these new characteristics permanent.

So, to get these improved varieties accepted, bundles of stem cuttings have to be loaded into trucks, and farmers have to be persuaded that they should give them a try. Producing the improved varieties is the easy part, Hahn argued. The difficult part was to get them to the African farmers who don't like to take risks. He sometimes loads up the trunk of his cm with cuttings, drives into areas where with that eagle eye of his, he can see that there are no new improved varieties in the fields, stops at markets and farms, and hands than out.

Newspaper stories also help. "More Gari for You," blazed a front-page story in the Nigerian Daily Times, going on to exclaim that "your favorite food—Gari will soon flood the market, thanks to the work of IlTA." Gari is the name in Nigeria for cassava meal (in Brazil it's called farinha). Farmers read this and came to the research center to ask for the new cuttings. The word soon spread. When farmers meet in the evening, they talk about these things, Hahn said, and they trust the word of their friends.

Companies such as Shell, Agip, and Texaco have helped out in Nigeria in spreading the new cuttings, Hahn continued. So have church missions. And so has the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). When James Grant, the head of UNICEF, heard that cassava was a "woman's crop" as well as a "poor man's crop." he also agreed to help. This demand for large quantities of cuttings meant that farmers started selling them, so creating a useful commercial enterprise. It's a common sight in Nigeria to see women selling bundles of cuttings by the roadside.

Sometimes a little sleight-of-hand may be necessary. Alfred Dixon, a crop bleeder at IITA told me that when they visited the villages, the farmers were usually not at home, but hard at work in the fields. ´'We may see in his backyard that he's planted a very ugly-looking cassava devastated by pests and disease. So we go down just by the side of the ugly-looking cassava and put in a cutting of our own improved cassava variety."

"In Africa, the former won't remove a crop as being a weed. As long as it's a useful plant, he won't consider it a weed. Some day it might tee useful. That's his security. That's the logic. Also the African farmer thinks that everything he didn't do himself is being done by the spirits. They think that God has sent somebody to come and plant for them, and God knows what's best for them. So, when they see that cutting growing and looking healthy, looking clean compared to his own materials, he'll say: 'God has helped me.' And when at harvest he sees the unproved variety is high-yielding, he'll always plant it and tell his neighbors he's got a wonderful cassava."
"So," I said, "You can't really come back later and say: 'Look, it was us who stuck that new cutting in the ground while you were out, and here's some more.'"
"No, you can't do that. You'll destroy his confidence. But anyway, from just that one cutting, that fanner will do his own rapid multiplication and in one year you'll be surprised at the amount of material he can get out of it."