Banana research in the new CGIAR

Anne Vézina Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research is undergoing a major reform that could lead to the integration of its work on bananas into a research programme that also includes roots and tubers.

The research agenda in the new CGIAR is being restructured as a portfolio of CGIAR Research Programmes (CRPs) that reach across the CGIAR centres. The CRPs are the cornerstone of the new CGIAR whose aim is to address, through high-quality international agricultural research, partnership and leadership, the challenges posed by climate change, rising food prices, an increasing world population and diminishing natural resources.

The new system clearly delineates the responsibilities and accountability of those who conduct research on the one hand and those who fund it on the other. The Consortium will be the new umbrella for the centres providing a single contact point for donors who will channel their contributions through the CGIAR Fund.

Cementing this two-pillar management structure are four bridging mechanisms:

- The Strategy and Results Framework, which will guide the development of a results-oriented research agenda in line with the CGIAR’s new vision and strategic objectives;
- An independent Science and Partnership Council, which will provide independent advice and expertise to CGIAR donors and help ensure the alignment of the research program with the Strategy and Results Framework;
- Legally binding funding and performance agreements negotiated between the Fund Council and the Consortium, and between the Consortium and its 15 member research centres, ensuring mutual accountability;
- A monitoring and evaluation framework.

Expected outcomes and impacts of the thematic areas addressed in the research programme on roots, tubers and bananas.
Expected outcomes and impacts of the thematic areas addressed in the research programme on roots, tubers and bananas.
The proposal for the CRP on roots, tubers and bananas (RTB) is organized around seven themes from which several research outcomes and development impacts are expected. It was developed by Bioversity International, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), the International Potato Center (CIP) and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), in close collaboration with their partners.

We asked Stephan Weise and Jim Lorenzen, the chair and vice-chair of the ISHS Banana and Plantain section, to share their views on the proposal Roots, Tubers and Bananas for Food Security and Income and its implications for banana research-for-development and ProMusa.

What is the rationale for lumping these crops together in a research programme?
Jim: First I would like to clear up any misconceptions that the programme on roots, tubers and bananas excludes plantains and cooking bananas. Bananas stands for all edible bananas. In terms of putting these crops in the same programme, they are all clonally propagated staple crops and fairly bulky and perishable products that share many management aspects. Their seed systems and post-harvest management also have similar issues. The problems they have in common can feed into common research approaches and possibly include sharing of research facilities. As a breeder, I should also note that most of these crops are polyploids that have similar breeding strategies.
Stephan: I would like to add that from a systems perspective these crops complement cereal crops, on which other CGIAR centres are also developing research programmes. Working on roots, tubers and bananas together helps in terms of looking at the broader system stability and diversity and with time linkages with these other groups working on cereals will evolve.

What are the most pressing problems to which banana farmers need solutions in order to improve their food security and income?
Jim: Production challenges like disease susceptibility would rank high. Poorly articulated value chains and marketing issues related to seasonal swings in production that lead to large price fluctuations and affect profitability, are also problematic in banana systems. In general, and this is unique to banana systems, most production areas are characterized by dependence on a very narrow genetic base that reduces their long-term stability. I can’t think of another crop that is similarly characterized by a dominant cultivar set, which consists of variants derived from the same base clone. Most banana production areas have a dominant cultivar set, like plantains in Africa, which are highly similar genetically. This lack of genetic diversity is a big problem across the banana world. One way to address this problem is through breeding, but another approach is by distributing more widely genetically diverse cultivars so that farmers grow truly different cultivars instead of variants of each other.

Bananas, along with roots and tubers, were bypassed by the Green Revolution. Have the lessons of the Green Revolution informed the development of this research programme?
Stephan: The Green Revolution is often equated with intensification of production systems through technology packages that include high-yield varieties, fertilizers and pesticides. It’s also often associated with large farms. But that is really not the case. Looking at the several decades of experience on the ground in Asia it is clear that other key elements have allowed the Asian Green Revolution to take place. These include the very important policy role played by States pursuing a food security and income generation agenda. Another often forgotten element is the role of markets in allowing the Green Revolution to take place, be they input markets – seed systems for example – or output markets, for marketing the food crops. We need to have a systems approach. One of the key issues is for farmers to have access to technology, credit, value addition opportunities and markets. All these elements need to be part of the overall effort. We have to continue doing research on the development of technologies, but at the same time we have to work at the system level. That is where partnerships become critical. As research-for-development institutions CGIAR centres need to link in very strongly with other partners to ensure that the products they develop translate into outcomes and development impacts.

CGIAR centres already do a lot of their research collaboratively. What’s different about the way partnerships are handled in this new framework?
Stephan: Different centres have different traditions for handling partnerships and, within a centre, it can also vary among groups based on their respective objectives. What we are saying here is that we need to build in partnerships in a very systematic way within the overall framework because we cannot achieve our goals without partnerships. It goes beyond identifying partners to help addressing specific constraints. Basically it’s a continuous partnership framework in which priorities are identified on a continuous basis together and knowledge is shared. As we go further down that impact pathway, the CGIAR centres don’t have a comparative advantage to be engaged at that level but, at the same time, we have to make sure that the research we do is relevant and is being used and reaches the impact phase through partnerships. This broader partnership approach has to be built in. That’s why in this research programme, one of the seven themes is dedicated to what we call enhancing impact through partnerships. That’s how important it is.

What role do you see for ProMusa in this new framework?
Jim: Promusa brings together a large breadth of stakeholders. I think their input and expertise should be tapped to properly focus and prioritize research. This change process is a great opportunity to integrate international research activities and have more collaborative activities in which ProMusa members are involved.
Stephan: The key is tapping into the expertise and integrating efforts with what we are proposing in the research programme on roots, tubers and bananas. Being able to tap into individual expertise is one thing but at the same time we have to see that ProMusa, and similar types of framework that exist in other crops, are clearly linked to the partnership framework of the CGIAR research programmes to enlarge ownership of the process.

For more information, contact Inge Van den Bergh.