Biotechnology at SIRDC Supporting National Food Security

Introduction

The Biotechnology Research Institute (BRI) at SIRDC has a specific mandate to unpack, transfer and promote the adoption of biotechnology in agriculture and industry. BRI conducts research into plant and animal genetics with a view to producing crop varieties and animal species that are adaptable to the Zimbabwean environment.

BRI is also a key partner in shaping and formulation of national policy on Biotechnology and Biotechnology research priorities together with other relevant government bodies in line with national needs and International Biosafety frameworks. The ravaging effects of global warming and climate change have led to increased frequency of drought cycles being experienced in the country and most of the Southern Africa region.

To mitigate the effects of climate change, the BRI has focused on agriculture research to promote household food security. To this end, the following programmes form part of efforts being undertaken by BRI to contribute towards national food security through use of conventional and modern biotechnology breeding technologies.

Maize Improvement Programme - Sirdamaize 113

In order to reduce vulnerability of farmers to climate change effects, BRI developed a drought-tolerant maize cultivar, namely Sirdamaize 113 using conventional breeding and marker-assisted selection. Research on maize was motivated by the fact that maize is the staple food crop for Zimbabwe.

The breeding programme started in 1997 and in 2009 the variety was registered in Zimbabwe. Commercialisation of the variety was achieved in 2012. Sirdamaize 113 thrives in low rainfall conditions of the semi-arid regions of Zimbabwe, for example, Buhera, Gutu, Chiredzi, Gwanda and Muzarabani. The variety also performs exceptionally well in high rainfall areas where its yield can be as high as 13 t/ha. The key characteristics of Sirdamaize 113 are as follows:

ՠ Drought tolerance
ՠ High water use efficiency
ՠ Short season variety
ՠ Tolerance to Maize Streak Virus, Grey Leaf Spot, Maize Leaf Rust and Phaeospharia Leaf Spot
ՠ Effective yields across high and low potential areas (NR II to IV)
ՠ Yield advantage of 25 % over other hybrids.

The seed is getting rave reviews country wide from the farmers that planted this new seed variety. Currently this variety is being tested in Southern African countries under CIMMYT Maize Regional Trials and there is export potential of the seed to neighbouring countries that experience similar drought spells like Zimbabwe.

Virus-free Sweet Potato Propagation Programme

Sweet potato is one of the most important root and tuber crops in sub-Saharan Africa with both domestic and industrial uses. Its nutritional value far exceeds that of other tuber crops. Although sweet potatoes are looked down upon, they form a significant part of the diet for Zimbabweans, especially those in the rural areas.

Sweet potato cultivation is negatively affected by viral diseases that accumulate over years of vegetative propagation. To eliminate these diseases the Biotechnology Research Institute has an ongoing sweet potato vine propagation programme in which farmers are provided with disease-free planting material produced through tissue culture.

The advantage of these sweet potato vines besides being disease-free is that the farmer can obtain the planting material at the onset of the rainy season rather than waiting for the previous yearӳ tubers to sprout. Because the vines are disease free, the farmer is assured of an improved yield hence becoming food and nutrition secure.

The Legumes Programme

The institute is currently running a legume seed multiplication programme for cowpeas, bambaranuts, groundnuts and sugar beans. These legumes are widely cultivated amongst smallholder and communal farmers as they thrive under heat stress conditions and under low nitrogen fertilizer regimes as they have a capability of fixing atmospheric nitrogen hence improving soil fertility.

Legumes are a good protein source and complement the cereals which are solely a source of carbohydrates. Legumes are also a source of other micronutrients like iron and vitamins. The institute is currently researching on bio-fortification of beans which are a rich source of iron and other micronutrients. Soya beans, a rich protein source, are also essential in vegetable oil production.

With most legumes, farmers usually plant retained seed from the previous season for several successive seasons and still realize good yields. The institute aims to provide good quality seed every season and promote the cultivation of legumes to ensure an improved diet and nutrition security in the nation.

The Small Grains Cereal Programme

Some regions, for example, Natural Regions IV and V are not suitable for the cultivation of maize. Small grain cereals, namely sorghum, pearl and finger millets, however, grow in these arid and semi-arid areas of Zimbabwe. Sorghum and pearl millet are adapted to hash environment (low and erratic rainfall, high temperatures and poor soil fertility) and are responsive to intensive crop production inputs.

In order to adapt the Zimbabwean agricultural sector to climate change, BRI has a small grains cereals research programme aimed at breeding new varieties that are high yielding, tolerant to pest and diseases, early maturing, drought tolerant and nutrition secure. The programme also produces seed of released varieties of sorghum, pearl millet and finger millet.

Irish Potato Improvement Programme

Potato is an important staple food crop which is ranked fourth after rice, maize and wheat. Potato production is increasing annually and it is anticipated that per capita consumption of potatoes will increase to unprecedented levels in Zimbabwe as the standard of living rises and people shift to make potatoes their staple food. Of the more important world food crops, potatoes have the highest yield per unit area and unit time.

Despite its importance as a food security crop, potato still succumbs to a number of biotic and abiotic challenges which include heat stress, drought, pests and diseases. In order to combat the effect of these biotic and abiotic challenges affecting productivity of Irish potato in Zimbabwe, the Biotechnology Research Institute has embarked on a project to develop improved Irish potato varieties that have heat stress tolerance, increased water use efficiency, and pest and disease resistance using new technologies for producing potato mini-tubers.

Healthy Harvest Project

Due to high costs and unreliable supplies of essential agricultural inputs set against a backdrop of global climatic change, with increasingly erratic and unpredictable rainfall, food-based strategies are the key to addressing global hunger and malnutrition as well as enabling vulnerable populations to adapt to these environmental and socioeconomic changes.

There is a link between variables such as overpopulation, urbanization, climate change, loss of biodiversity and higher inorganic fertilizer and pesticide usage with malnutrition. Growing a diversity of crops, including fruit trees and keeping of small livestock was found to be the solution to a strong foundation of a balanced and nutritious diet.

Through the Healthy Harvest Project, crop diversity, growing fruit trees and keeping of small livestock has reduced the vulnerability of people at risk to food shortages and poor nutrition. This has contributed to improved food and nutrition security situation in Zimbabwean communities.

Maintenance of genetic diversity within household gardens and local agro-ecosystems has helped to improve the food and nutrition status of many people. Indigenous communities often satisfy their nutritional needs through unique human-environment relationships so traditional knowledge from local communities has helped to inform efforts to improve nutrition research and nutrition resource management.

The Healthy Harvest Project has enhanced sustainable use of biodiversity for nutrition. The growing of diverse crop species and fruit trees and keeping of various small livestock has contributed to ecosystems conservation and counteracted the simplification of agricultural systems, the simplification of diets and erosion of food systems and cultures.

Planting different crops for harvesting at different times of the year means that produce is available all year round and that ensures food security and good nutrition. Through mixed cropping and intercropping, there is maximum benefit of space and nutrients, water and labour resources. Soil erosion is also reduced in intercropped fields and there is also a reduction of weeds in those plots. Legumes, composts and manure from small livestock in addition to benefiting the crops, also offer a long term soil improvement solution under the Healthy Harvest Project.

The Healthy Harvest Project concentrates on gardens mainly because different vegetables can be grown all year round, fruit trees because they are not huge resource consumers after establishment, and small livestock because they require a small space to be kept and they grow relatively fast. Gardens are usually situated closer to homes therefore vegetables are harvested and consumed when still fresh.

By having a nutrition garden, an orchard, and small livestock, a household or a community saves money for outsourcing these products and income can be generated from selling surplus produce. The vegetables produced from own gardens are also safer because one controls what they put in their garden. Through the Healthy Harvest Project, there is notable reduction in malnutrition and stunting levels which are indications of food insecurity.

The Healthy Harvest Project also teaches the community that not only food availability contributes to food and nutrition security but also food access and education on utilization of the food. Practical ways to harvest, store, prepare, preserve and process healthy food for a healthy diet all year round are imparted to the community and, the precautions needed when handling food are explained in the project.

Mushroom Spawn Production and Indigenous Mushroom Research Programme

The Biotechnology Research Institute produces and supplies high quality mushroom spawn to meet the ever-increasing demand of mushroom cultivation in Zimbabwe. BRI also provides supporting services for mushroom growing, e.g. training and consultancy. At the moment, oyster mushroom spawn (Pleurotus sajor-caju and P. ostreatus) is being produced.

Other mushroom types such as white button (Agaricus bisporus) are at the bulking stage to meet the high demand of the mushroom seed (spawn). White button mushrooms may promote immune function by increasing production of antiviral and other proteins that are released by cells while seeking to protect and repair tissue ,therefore it plays a medicinal role by boosting the body immune system.

Research on development of spawn from indigenous mushroom like tsvuke- tsvuke, nhedzi, chihombiro among others is on-going. This will help to increase accessibility and availability of wide range of different mushroom varieties with much needed essential nutrients and other medicinal properties on the market thus reducing problems of malnutrition. On the other hand, this will result in increased mushroom cultivation since local varieties will be available to mushroom growers leading to food security.

The Herbal Garden Programme

The project on herbs entails the organic growing and propagation of herbs which are available in either raw form or are processed further and packaged into formulated medicinal and culinary products. The herbs are commercially marketed as herbal teas or other culinary supplements such as spices. Due to the high content in vitamins and other antioxidants, herbs are used to detoxify the body hence constitute a major component of dietary supplements which help to keep the body healthy and strong.

Training workshops on cultivation, primary processing, and use of herbs in food and medicinal applications are held once every month. The workshops empower communities with knowledge that positively contributes to their use of herbs for medicinal and nutritional purposes such as during preparations of herbal teas and nutritional supplements in order to live a healthy lifestyle. Herb seedlings of proven and documented scientific usage are also available for purchase by the community. Consultancy services are also available to assist individuals or farmer groups to establish and maintain their own herbal gardens for both individual and communal benefit.

Farmer Support Services to Improve Productivity

This programme is aimed at improving food and livelihood security through strengthening soil and crop productivity and diversity of incomes. The programme fosters research and development relative to advances in good agricultural practices (GAP) and support services that reduce potential vulnerability, level of dependency syndrome, sustain ecosystem functioning and services, and strengthen attainment of long term food security through scaling up and building local capacities. Its thrust is group strategy focusing on Knowledge, Impact, Influence, Focus on Skills, Efforts and Resources around the following fundamental support services aspects critical to farming:

Soil sampling and testing

ՠ Strategic campaigns in soil testing as a fundamental soil fertility management tool and effective basis for lime and nutrient recommendations
ՠ Facilitation in collection of representative soil samples which is often the weakest link in soil testing programmes

Lime and fertilizer recommendations

ՠ Provision of innovative approaches to fertilizer management practices to maximise nutrient cycling and nutrient use efficiency for achieving cropping system goals (enhanced quantitative, qualitative, market oriented and profitable productivity, environmental protection and sustainability).
ՠ Use of precision farming tools to manage and target nutrients under eco-specific niches.

Agronomic support and training for specific crops

ՠ Demonstrate practical answers to food security and poverty through more responsive agricultural research, trials and demonstrations in-order to understand processes that help identify practical options that fit different farming systems. We scale up success and raise awareness and influence through training and media communication platforms.
ՠ Identifying and promoting cropping systems which integrate GAP, optimize the management of scarce resource inputs for optimizing economic and sustainable productivity within landscape and across scale under climate change scenarios.
ՠ Responding to advanced technologies to enable households to respond to challenges and fundamental attributes to food insecurity and in particular recurrent droughts under climate change scenarios and inherent soil fertility and declines/degradation and to refine applications that improve food security and livelihoods.

Consultancy programmes

ՠ Providing research and development expertise to industry in collaborative and commercial projects, e.g. assessing efficacy of new fertilizers and agro-chemicals under various cropping systems.
ՠ Identifying and seeking solutions to problems (e.g. acidic soils, degraded soils, irrigation water quality, resource integration, etc.) that impact negatively on productivity and livelihoods across farming systems.
ՠ Enabling farming systems to use technologies effectively in systems of production, harvesting, processing, and marketing to build and secure livelihoods thus strengthening households/farming systems to use Ңest bet practicesҠ to counter threats to their livelihoods from environmental degradation and climate change.

In addition to the above projects that have already been rolled out or are at various stages of implementation, BRI also offers consultancy and monthly training programmes in:

  • Potato production
  • Broiler production
  • Mushroom production
  • Herbs cultivation and uses.

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