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“There is renewed commitment from India on making farming profitable”

Dr. David J. Be rgvinson,  a Canadian national, is Director General (DG) of the Hyderabad (TS)-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). Dr. Bergvinson has a PhD in plant biochemistry from Ottawa University. He has over 20 years of experience in maize biochemistry, pathology and entomology.

Prior to joining ICRISAT in January 2015, he was with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) as Senior Scientist (Entomologist) where he coordinated the entomology research for both maize and wheat at CIMMYT’s headquarters and provided technical support to regional offices.

Later at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as Senior Program Officer, Science and Technology, Agricultural Development he was involved in the development and management of crop improvement grants that involved public (national and international) research organizations, private sector and civil society organizations to develop stress-tolerant, farmer-preferred varieties. He also made significant contributions to the Agricultural Development strategy at the Foundation. 

Dr. Bergvinson was awarded the ‘Promising Young Scientist’ award by CGIAR (Consultative Group  for International Agricultural Research).He has won several service awards from CIMMYT. He has over 45 refereed journal articles and four book chapters on plant biochemistry, host plant resistance in maize, integrated pest management and forest entomology.

In an exclusive interview, Dr. Bergvinson spoke with Vizag Industrial Scan’s editor, A.K. Sabharwal.

Edited excerpts:

Let’s us begin with a brief background about ICRISAT, its funding and role and who it reports to?

ICRISAT is a not-for-profit organization. It was set up by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. The CGIAR is one ICRISAT’s funders. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also support the work of ICRISAT. We also get funding from the World Bank, the Indian government and various state governments in India. Our brief it is to develop strategies and solutions for agriculture in dry-land ecology. We help agricultural communities by developing robust strains of sorghum, millets, raagi, chickpeas and on groundnuts. We also work on watershed management.

 

What is involved in watershed management?

We work to help improve irrigation systems, including the introduction of drip irrigation in semi-arid areas in India and in Africa. Better irrigation means better yields from the fields. We also help farmers in deciding how much fertilizer to use, how to rotate the plantation of crops. Using fertilizers carefully ensures that the soil is not degraded. We do this in India and also in African countries like Niger, Nigeria and Senegal. We have 300 people working in Africa. This is in addition to the 1,000 people who work for ICRISAT in India.

 

Do you believe that ICRISAT has made a difference in India?

Yes, I do. We have been working with farming communities in India for many years now. We work with the state governments, particularly in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, to help reduce the distress in the agriculture sector in India. The Telangana government gives us its complete cooperation in our work in the state. Mr. Rajiv Sharma, IAS, the chief secretary to the Telangana State government, is a part of ICRISAT’s Governing Board. We also get the complete support of India’s federal government. I am happy to report that Prime Minister NarendraModi has expressed his happiness with our work. We are working with the Ministry of Agriculture to improve farm yields. We recently had a study which demonstrated that reuse of treated wastewater for irrigation purposes increased yields of up to 40% is vegetables such as okra, brinjal and chilly, compared to those irrigated by fresh water. This project, called Water4Crops, was funded jointly by the Government of India and the European Union (EU). The Government of India, through the Department of Biotechnology, provided half of the funding, 3 million euros, while the other half was provided by the EU.   This scheme has the potential of being included in the government’s Swach Bharat Mission.

 

ICRISAT is known to work with information technology companies like Microsoft Corp to develop cost-effective technology for the agriculture sector in India and elsewhere. What is this initiative about?

ICRISAT indeed believes that we can use IT to improve the farming sector. In June, we released a Sowing Application for farmers combined with a Personalized Village Advisory Dashboard for the Government of Andhra Pradesh. The Sowing App is to help farmers achieve optimal harvests by advising on the best time to sow crops depending on weather conditions, soil and other indicators. ICRISAT worked with Microsoft and the Government of Andhra Pradesh to develop this application. The Personalized Village Advisory Dashboard has been especially developed to enable officials of Andhra Pradesh Primary Sector Mission (APPSM) – RythuKosam, to better manage programs of scale.

 

How does the Sowing App work?

The Sowing Application utilizes powerful artificial intelligence to interface with weather forecasting models provided by USA based aWhere Inc. and extensive data including rainfall over the last 45 years as well as 10 years of groundnut sowing progress data for Kurnool district. This data is then downscaled to build predictability and guide farmers to pick the ideal sowing week. When combined with other data collected from the RythuKosam project, it can create rich datasets that can be processed to build predictive models for the farmers.

The Personalized Village Advisory Dashboard developed by Microsoft provides an instant overview across several environmental factors that determine a healthy crop yield. In the pilot that has been recently launched, information will be sent to farmers about the sowing date via SMS in Telugu. Data collected manually from farms in 13 districts of the state by ICRISAT field officers for RythuKosam has been uploaded to Microsoft’s Azure Cloud. Using powerful Business Intelligence (BI) tools, this dashboard provides important insights around soil health, fertilizer recommendations, and seven days’ weather forecast derived from the world’s best available weather observations systems and global forecast models. This data is then downscaled for the highest possible accuracy at the village level, to transform how small holder farmers tackle climate change to drive effective decision-making.

 

What else is ICRISAT doing for the Andhra Pradesh government?

ICRISAT is providing technical backstopping to RythuKosam, which is aimed at positioning the state among the best three performing states by 2022. This technical input involves the establishment of pilot sites of learning in 13 districts of 10,000 ha each; upgrading soil analysis laboratories; technical support for planning; as well as adopting an Inclusive Market-Oriented Development (IMOD) strategy to benefit smallholder farmers through public-private partnerships; and promoting private investments in the state.

 

 Is India the primary focus for ICRISAT’s work?

India is very important for us. We work with various state governments and the federal government to improve farm yields, help in curtailing soil degradation, help farmers in getting the best prices for their produce. We work with technology companies like Microsoft to develop useful tools for farmers like, for example, the Sowing App. We work with the EU and other partners to develop projects that can re-use resources like water to improve farm yields. I am happy to report that there is a renewed commitment by the federal and state governments in India to help farming become profitable.

ICRISAT will be working to make farming in the semi-arid areas of India profitable, while at the same time protecting the soil from fatal degradation.

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