Great ideas, science and dedication:
With 50 years of research-for-development work in potato and sweetpotato based agri-food systems, the International Potato Center (CIP) has contributed to greater food and nutrition security, and economic growth for millions of small-scale farmers and resource-poor consumers worldwide.
Here we examine how a selection of CIP’s research-for-development innovations are helping the sustainable transformation agri-food systems with root and tuber crops and science.
HOW WE MAKE A DIFFERENCE
CIP breeders and plant scientists work with farmers and other partners to develop and disseminate potato and sweetpotato varieties with higher yields, improved nutritional and culinary qualities, and greater resilience to pests, disease and climate change. Our plant and agronomic specialists develop tools, best practices and innovations tailored for different agro-ecologies that help farmers optimize those varieties. Our social, nutrition and food scientists help farmers and communities understand, adopt, and profit from value chain approaches and market innovations and identify suitable mechanisms to increase technology adoption at scale. In partnership with governments, businesses and international organizations, we scale these innovations and approaches, putting the tools for better harvests, incomes and health into the hands of millions.
In the late 1990s, three CIP scientists—Jan Low, Maria Andrade and Robert Mwanga—started a process which would revolutionize the development and delivery of pro-vitamin-A biofortified sweetpotato for the benefit of millions of poor farmers and consumers. This interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral programmatic approach comprised four pillars: a blood analysis study that proved eating orange sweetpotatoes increased vitamin A levels; breeding and dissemination of more nutritious and resilient varieties; nutrition education; and market approaches and field studies to estimate farmer adoption levels. Together, these produced a strong evidence base that convinced national and international partners of the value of taking orange-fleshed sweetpotato to scale.
Some 20 years later, as the efficacy and impact of this approach became clear, paving the way for biofortification of other staple crops, CIP’s pioneering work was officially recognized in the international arena. First with the World Food Prize, often referred to as the Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture, which recognized the three CIP scientists and Harvest Plus’s Howarth Bouis for having “uplifted the health and wellbeing of more than 10 million” people through biofortification.
Later that year, CIP received the Al-Sumait Prize for African Development. Together with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, CIP was recognized not only for improving nutritional security for millions, but also increasing the technical capacity of national research staff and accelerating the breeding of more productive, disease-resistant varieties. To date, these efforts have improved the food security and significantly reduced the risk of vitamin A deficiency for 6.8 million households in 16 African countries and Bangladesh.
NUTRITION, HEALTH AND FOOD SECURITY
Deficiencies of vitamin A, iron and zinc—essential for healthy growth and development—are among the most debilitating forms of undernutrition, and disproportionately affect vulnerable populations, including women of childbearing age. Potatoes and sweetpotatoes can be important sources of these essential nutrients, and CIP and partners have dedicated the past 15 years to increasing the nutritional value of potato and sweetpotato through biofortification, while educating vulnerable populations about nutrition and the importance of diet diversification.
- Evidence of the efficacy and effectiveness of biofortification in reducing micronutrient deficiencies and associate health problems galvanized a broad coalition of delivery partners, including government services, NGOs and UN agencies, to disseminate pro-vitamin-A biofortified sweetpotato through agricultural and nutrition programs, reaching more than 6.8 million households in over 20 countries. In Africa, these partners received technical training and knowledge support through the multi-institutional Sweetpotato for Profit and Health Initiative from 2009-2019.
- The impact of biofortified sweetpotato consumption on child and maternal nutrition status in at-risk populations convinced governments and regional communities to include the crop, and biofortification more generally, into their nutrition strategies and investment plans. Biofortified sweetpotato has been prioritized in national nutrition strategies in Bangladesh, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda, and by the African Union Commission.
- Since 2014, biofortified sweetpotato puree has been increasingly used as an ingredient in the commercial bakery sectors of Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda and South Africa. Nutritional and functional attributes of puree make it a valuable and cost-effective technology, resulting in an expanding supply of ‘sweetpotato bread’ and other healthy food choices in mainstream markets. Kenya’s two largest supermarket chains now use that puree to make sweetpotato buns and bread, with annual sales exceeding USD 1 million. Studies estimate that potential demand in Kenya and South Africa for puree as an ingredient in bread products amounts to USD 5 million annually.
POVERTY REDUCTION, LIVELIHOODS AND JOBS
More than one billion people eat potatoes and sweetpotatoes regularly. Taking advantage of this enormous potential market, since 2013 CIP and partners have helped more than two million small-scale farmers in Africa and Asia increase yields and incomes with quality potato seed, improved crop management, and gender-inclusive value chain approaches. Breeding to improve resilient, fast-maturing varieties of potato and sweetpotato make these crops reliable sources of income for small-scale farmers, particularly where increasing climate extremes cause other crops to fail.
- More than 2.5 million farmers (direct beneficiaries, representing 20% of total beneficiaries) in the seven most important potato-producing Asian countries have adopted CIP-related potato varieties with disease resistance and other climate-smart traits and characteristics demanded by local markets. Approximately 25% of potato farmland in China, the world’s largest potato producer, is planted with CIP-related varieties. Just one variety, C88 variety, was cultivated on an estimated 125,000 hectares in Yunnan province alone, generating an estimated USD 2.8 billion of benefits to farmers and consumers between 1996 and 2015.
- Since viruses are a principal cause of low yields in sweetpotato, CIP and its Chinese partners set out to increase availability of virus-free sweetpotato planting material in the 1990s. We multiplied healthy plants in tissue culture, which were checked for virus infection using CIP-developed Elisa kits, and further multiplied under greenhouse conditions. The most advanced of these seed programs was implemented in Shandong province, in partnership with the Shandong. Academy of Agricultural Sciences, which started clean sweetpotato seed dissemination in 1994. An impact assessment estimated benefits for the 1988-2020 period at USD 145 million annually and a return on investment of 202%.
- Working with Peru’s National Agricultural Innovation Institute, CIP has developed and released 34 potatoes varieties adapted to diverse agro-ecologies, ranging from the Andes to coastal lowlands. High yielding and tailored to local culinary tastes, these disease-resistant and drought-tolerant varieties are grown on approximately 31% of farmland dedicated to potato in Peru. Impact studies on variety adoption demonstrate they have contributed to a 10% yield increase in Peru. The Canchán variety alone generates approximately USD 3 million a year for the Peruvian economy. Another popular variety, Unica, has also been released in Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Kenya, Tajikistan and Tanzania, and is under evaluation for possible release in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
- Having developed the Participatory Market Chain Approach, CIP works with farmers, traders and retailers to add value to their crops from farm to fingers. First developed in the Andes to identify and create business opportunities, the approach began in Peru by targeting urban markets, and later export markets, for native potatoes. The program reached 100,000 smallholder farmers and market agents and resulted in dozens of food products that drove 70% growth and a 150% price increase in sales of native potatoes. This approach has since been implemented in Africa and Asia.
GENDER EQUALITY, YOUTH AND SOCIAL INCLUSION
In today’s resource-scarce and globally-interconnected world, the challenges of food and nutrition security, poverty reduction, gender equality, climate and environment cannot be addressed separately. For CIP, a more resilient future means focusing on inclusion in all our work: from the crop varieties we breed to the market innovations we develop. Adopting a gender-responsive approach produces better outcomes. Two key partnerships, the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) and the CGIAR GENDER Platform, are hugely significant for CIP in sharpening the gender lens of its work.
- Working closely with communities for a period of 8-10 months, CIP farmer business schools (FBS) undertake market assessments and product development, engaging other value chain actors such as traders, culminating in the launch or strengthening of a small enterprise. After introducing FBS in Java in the early 2010s, CIP and partners took FBS to scale within large IFAD investment projects in other Indonesian provinces, India, the Philippines, and Vietnam. By 2018, in the Philippines alone, 130 community groups had completed FBS courses, with 3,488 graduates (76% women) and an array of new community businesses. Subsequently applied to the breeding of other crops, FBS has been adopted in the CGIAR RTB program as one of their golden eggs (see below).
CLIMATE ADAPTATION AND GREENHOUSE GAS REDUCTION
Agriculture contributes greatly to livelihoods and food security, yet it is both vulnerable to climate change and a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Every 1°C of warming is projected to cause a 5% reduction in crop productivity and lead to hundreds of billions of dollars in lost agricultural production. To combat these challenges, CIP and its partners developed dozens of climate-smart, high-yielding, disease-resistant varieties that combine the qualities desired by consumers and traits required for climates. Through sustainable intensification, early-maturing potato varieties can be harvested within three months and incorporated between cereal harvests, giving farmers an additional round of crops with minimal inputs. And using pest and disease models, CIP scientists support risk assessment and decision making with national partners, helping guide their breeding efforts.
- A growing selection of heat-tolerant, early-maturing varieties allow rice and wheat farmers to add another crop into their farm systems, usually during a fallow period, which results in additional income and greater food availability. Several heat- and salt-tolerant varieties released in Bangladesh are being grown in coastal areas where a cyclone left farmland too saline for most crops. CIP expects to release iron- and zinc-rich biofortified potatoes in several Asian countries soon, helping further reduce malnutrition. Prospective economic welfare gains from sustainably intensifying rice-based food systems with early-maturing, climate-smart potatoes in Bangladesh are estimated at USD 800 million.
ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH AND BIODIVERSITY
The unpredictable impacts of natural disasters, environmental threats and a changing climate further threaten global food security. Conservation and use of crop genetic diversity offers options to face these challenges. The CIP genebank drives efforts to conserve the world’s genetic diversity of potato and sweetpotato for future use. It plays a critical role in facilitating the impact-oriented release of innovations and products. In-situ and ex-situ conservation of genetic diversity is critical for preserving and monitoring changes in the world’s plant genetic resources. Lost genetic diversity would restrict our ability to enhance farmer resilience and produce enough nutritious food for the world.
- CIP has created one of the world’s largest in-vitro genebanks, with more than 12,000 accessions of potato, sweetpotato and other Andean root and tuber crops, which comprise a treasure trove of traits that could be harnessed to address climate change challenges. RNA virus detection technology has facilitated the detection and cleaning of materials for distribution of virus-free planting material across the globe since 2010 and CIP-developed training materials have helped build capacity in other agricultural institutions globally. Every year, more than 5,000 samples of virus-free germplasm are sent to scientists around the world and another 2,700 virus-free native potato accessions are shared with indigenous Andean communities for cultivation and in-situ conversation.
- Since 2010, CIP has made substantial strides in long-term agrobiodiversity conservation at its genebank through cryopreservation—preserving crop tissues in liquid nitrogen at -196 °C—which reduces the need for laborious and costly practices for the renovation of in-vitro accessions. In just seven years, CIP built up the largest and world’s most diverse potato cryobank collection, which to date conserves more than 3,300 Andean potato landraces. The cryopreservation protocol has been improved continuously, producing significant gains in the rewarming and recovery process of cryopreserved genetic material, with full plant recovery rates increasing from 58.2% to 71.6%.
- While it is generally understood that genetic material from the CIP genebank has played an important role in the release of many improved varieties in developing countries, the economic contribution has rarely been quantified. A 2020 study put the value of the Victoria potato variety to the Ugandan economy for the period 1991–2016 at USD 1 billion. Scientists found that 72% of the economic benefits corresponding to germplasm of Victoria were due to the CIP genebank contribution, confirming the magnitude of economic benefits generated using CIP germplasm in crop improvement. These results show that the availability of diverse germplasm is perhaps one of the most important elements in varietal development.
PROMISING INNOVATIONS AND INITIATIVES
The Andean Initiative is a regional innovation platform designed to preserve the Andes’ unique agrobiodiversity, promote healthy diets, and build a climate-resilient future. To do so, the Andean Initiative seeks to foster the sustainable use of agrobiodiversity to promote development based on unique local resources from the 87 biological hotspots contained in the Andes. The initiative is pursuing transformative change through ten critical transitions – each one matched to a Sustainable Development Goal– that seeks to, ultimately, equip two million farms with climate adaptive tools, restore one million hectares of peatland, engage one million young people with nutrition education, and strengthen supply chains for six major Andean crops.
Through a strategic partnership with the World Food Programme (WFP), CIP is improving food and nutrition security in regions affected by severe climate impacts, conflict and displacement. Communities in fragile environments in northern Kenya and Uganda have started to grow resilient, nutritious sweetpotato and potato varieties, improving household nutrition and incomes. By linking producers of nutritious crops to market opportunities from WFP’s expanding cash transfer programs in displaced communities, a virtuous cycle of production and consumption will generate pathways to self-reliance. Complementing this approach, CIP will link commercial producers of nutritious shelf-stable sweetpotato puree to WFP school feeding and other food distribution programs. Expansion of this partnership in Ethiopia and Mozambique is expected shortly.
Lima 2035 is a ‘public-private-people partnership’ to reverse trends of extraction and desertification toward climate-resilience and agrobiodiversity. Taking a scalable and transferrable systems-based approach to social and environmental change through food citizenship, Lima 2035 will establish 350+ food hubs, based on a set of interventions focused on water access, wastewater reclamation and urban farming with cascading effects for nutrition and inclusive growth. Very much in the spirit of the One CGIAR, the initiative is an innovative vision for the sustainable transformation of food, land and water systems. Selected as a Rockefeller Foundation Finalist for the Food System Vision Prize 2020, it is rooted in evidence-based research within a broader vision to inspire innovative thinking about future global challenges.
Locally-produced sweetpotato puree has proven to be a versatile, nutritious and profitable ingredient in the commercial bakery sector in Kenya, Rwanda and Malawi over the last five years. To harness its full potential, CIP has partnered with McCain Foods to introduce puree as a major food industry ingredient in South Africa. Combining CIP’s food science, nutrition and impact assessment expertise with the production and marketing capacity of McCain Foods, this partnership is developing models for zero-waste smallholder-based supply chains for purée products, ranging from bakery goods to baby foods and school meals. The partnership has the potential to catalyze much broader investments across Africa in the processing of locally-grown nutritious sweetpotato that can help transform Africa’s food systems in an inclusive and environmentally-sustainable manner.
Anemia is one of the most serious conditions of malnutrition, affecting 2 billion people globally, reducing productivity and impairing children’s development. CGIAR has invested in the development of biofortified crops, but have had less success in terms of iron absorption into the body. CIP and national partners in Peru have developed 50 disease-resistant potato clones with high levels of iron and zinc and early tests indicate that humans absorb more iron from potato than from biofortified other crops (28% compared to 3-8% for beans). CIP plans to release two iron-biofortified potato varieties in Peru in 2022, and subsequently, in Ethiopia and Rwanda. Breeders in Mozambique have also developed a variety of iron-rich, pro-vitamin A sweetpotato. Studies in Malawi indicate that 400g of this variety provide 18% of the iron requirement of a woman of reproductive age.
Late blight disease is the number one constraint for potato farmers, costing them an estimated USD 3 billion a year globally in crop losses and agrochemical use–tens of millions of dollars in East Africa alone. Using new molecular techniques, CIP and partner scientists in Uganda transferred late-blight resistance genes from wild potato species into the popular Victoria potato. Identical to the variety farmers already grow, 3R Victoria is completely resistant to the pathogen. This geneticallyenhanced crop has significant potential to enhance food security across Africa, while reducing harm to the environment caused by excessive fungicide use. Ugandan potato experts estimate an adoption rate of 40-50% within 15 years of release.
Potato is an increasingly important food crop in Africa, where production has risen 15-fold since 1960. In Kenya alone, the potato value generates livelihoods for 2.5 million people, worth an estimated USD 480 million a year. However, yields would rise if disease-free seed were accessible. CIP has developed a technology—rooted apical cuttings—where one tissue culture plant can generate up to 2,000 tubers to serve as seed for future multiplication. This approach massively increases supply of disease-free potato, while generating employment in plant tissue culture labs and for seed producers. In Kenya in 2019, nursery sales increased by 44%, generating up to USD 800,000. So successful, this approach is now being promoted through CIP projects in India.
Recent advances with molecular marker technology and breeding have enabled the division of sweetpotato breeding populations into two very diverse genetic groups. The exploitation of heterosis through hybrid varieties in root, tuber and banana crops has lagged behind progress in maize, millet and sorghum. But this is expected to change, as the first hybrid sweetpotato clones will go into registration trials within a year in Uganda, and subsequently, in Mozambique in 2023. In line with targets set by the CGIAR Excellence in Breeding Platforms, such genetic gains bring about increases in yields, and climate- and disease-resistance.
As the CGIAR Research Programs wind down, RTB scientists and partners have begun the process of characterizing a set of golden eggs—frameworks, approaches and tools—that illustrate the value-added benefits of this collaboration. Like real eggs, these collective assets are alive and being nurtured for wider use.
The G+ protocol, which includes a gender-responsive customer profiling tool and gender-responsive product profile query tool, supports more accurate and systematic attention to social inclusion in product and client profile development. The G+ customer profile characterizes client groups targeted for new varieties by considering gender differences in assets, knowledge and decision-making. The G+ product profile query tool helps analyze evidence to prioritize traits in a product profile by examining the potential positive gender-related impacts of those traits and any potential negative impacts. The approach is being implemented in different breeding programs within the CGIAR and in partnership with national breeding programs, including sweetpotato in Uganda.
The coordination of digital tools will improve responses to endemic and transboundary pests and diseases and provide better advice to farmers. This information will reduce losses and benefit millions of root, tuber and banana farmers in lowand middle-income countries, where, for instance, sweetpotato farmers can lose up to 60% of their yields to pests. The alliance brings together CGIAR centers and partners to combine strengths to develop application programming interfaces to enable communication and/or interoperability of different tools and databases. One of the apps, PlantVillage Nuru, is being trained to detect diseases in sweetpotato, a massively important crop in sub-Saharan Africa.
Underdeveloped root, tuber and banana seed systems hinder farmer access to quality planting material. Better understanding of seed systems will improve the impact of the large investments made in crop breeding and boost farmer productivity with better quality seed, and benefit hundreds of millions of farmers and billions of consumers who depend on these crops. The toolbox (which includes a seed tracker and impact network analysis tool) facilitates adoption of proven strategies to diagnose, plan and develop new vegetative seed systems. The toolbox has been validated in Asia, Latin America, and East and West Africa. In Georgia, the tools were used to design a national plan for improving seed potato systems.
This portal provides researchers with easy access to critical questions and methods for gender-responsive agricultural research for development and resources to advance social inclusion in all five One CGIAR impact areas. This online portal seeks to support the curation and development of research methods planned in the CGIAR GENDER Platform, improving design and implementation across a range of food system issues (e.g., scaling, market chains, pest and disease control, and youth inclusion) for a more gender-responsive AR4D agenda. Some of these resources are being piloted in CIP’s sweetpotato interventions in collaboration with the CGIAR Excellence in Breeding Platform.