The Beans Revolution, 1

Jack & The New Hen That Lays Golden Eggs



Yes, this is the story of another hen that lays golden eggs. Call me Old Jack and this is full of new beans talk – from the unknown to the revolutionary Pushkal – Sanskrit word for full, abundant, many or much. I’ve never been a bean counter myself, but there’s always a first time.

It’s the legume called the pigeon pea, and this story is from problem to promise, from peas to pesos. Under the hands of science wizards, this pea has been transformed into a modern-day horn of plenty, if I may mix my metaphor. This is good news first for the farmers of India who grow pigeon pea in 3.5 million hectares (cgiar.org), which is almost the total size of 4 million hectares planted to rice in the Philippines (irri.org). Size matters; size is relative.

The pigeon pea (or pigeonpea) is a crop of a rainbow of colors. It is hardy and widely adaptable, growing well in cold or hot climates, acidic or alkaline sites, dry or irrigated fields, fertile or infertile soils (Frances Michaels, greenharvest.com.au); it is planted in many parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America (encyclopedia.farlex.com). After reading this essay, don’t tell me you don’t know beans about legumes.

I don’t know, but in the Philippines, an unknown lady bought P20 worth (about 45 cents), half a bowl of beans, and brought the beans to the house (also unknown), and found out nobody had ‘the foggiest clue what to do with the beans,’ says author unknown (marketmanila.com).

Beans unknown! I’m surprised. I am a Filipino and proud to say so; this is the Philippines, a great country that even a great many educated Filipinos themselves talk much about in impeccable English or fluent Spanish or articulate Filipino but don’t understand, don’t love – a tropical Garden of Eden where many an Adam and Eve go after many species of useful plants, where you can find many villagers going beans and many citizens going bananas. I love it!

On second thought, I hardly know those beans myself. I don’t remember growing them, harvesting them, handling them, even eating them; not surprising, as I’m a farmer’s son who didn’t have a bean to spend on them. I grew up in the eastern part of Pangasinan in Central Luzon where those unknown beans were, well, unknown.

If the crop be unknown, it means the beans don’t mean anything to the cultivating life of the farmer, to the life of his family, to his wallet or to his wife’s purse. In fact, this bean is relatively unknown in the Philippines, but I understand it is the second most important legume crop in India. And now, you ask, based in Manila, Philippines, why am I writing about India? It’s a great country, and it’s where the beans in my story come from, Sweet Pea.

Jump to Hawaii. From the CTAHR (College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources) of the University of Hawaii at Manoa (ctahr.hawaii.edu), I learn that the unknown bean is botanically and completely called Cajanus cajan (L.) Millsp. (van der Maesen), Cajanus cajan van der Maesen for short. If I remember my taxonomy right, Cajanus is the name of the genus, cajan is the name of the species; (L.) means Linnaeus, the first botanist to give the crop a botanical name and published his description of it – he called it Cytisus cajan; Millsp. is the abbreviation of the family name of the botanist Millspaugh who corrected Linnaeus’ original botanical name; and van der Maesen is the one who corrected both botanists after poring over the literature and examining inch by inch a sample of the plant itself to describe it, roots and all. From the database of the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), the botanical name is Cajanus cajan (L.) Millsp. (fao.org), and there is no mention of van der Maesen at all. Oh, anytime give me the study of the taxonomy of words, not beans.

Predictably, some people have the patience to find out more, more than just counting beans. I know – I watched Juan V Pancho, the internationally respected Filipino plant taxonomist, at work at the University of the Philippines Los Baños in the late 60s and early 70s. Doing so, he discovered some unknown species. He has moved on to the other side of life, but I can imagine him still poring over old books, old journals, old labels and new specimens, looking for the unknown. Unpredictably, I myself go on looking for the unknown in known or predictable stories. Such as this modern Jack & the beans talk.

The name ‘pigeon pea’ probably originated in the United States, where it was found that the pigeons loved it (icrisat.org). Among its other common names I like are red gram, Angola pea, Congo pea, dahl (India). In Tagalog it’s kadios, in Ilocano kardis. Philippine folklore has it that the pigeon pea is useful in medical therapy: an infusion of leaves is good for cough, diarrhea and abdominal pains. Tender leaves are chewed for stomatitis and spongy gums; pulped leaves are used for sores (stuartxchange.com). In Peru, the leaves make good medicine as infusion for anemia, hepatitis, diabetes, urinary infections and yellow fever (Leslie Taylor, rain-tree.com).

The Indians of India love it more than anyone else. The crop is grown in that country in 3.58 M ha, while in Myanmar it is grown only in 0.56 M ha, in China 0.15 M ha, and in Malawi .123 M ha. Green seeds are consumed fresh as green vegetable; the crushed dry seeds make good feed for poultry & livestock; the green leaves make good fodder for cattle (icrisat.org). The Filipinos are still studying the matter. (I had earlier written about it; see my ‘Serving ICRISAT Science,’ icrisatwatch.blogspot.com).

Among other things, the pigeon pea is drought-tolerant, meaning it can grow well even on dry grounds (cgiar.org). I saw that myself when Department of Agriculture consultant Santiago Obien took me to his Bugnay farm in Ilocos Norte in Northern Luzon in March last year. The water well was empty and gray; the pigeon peas were full and green.

Thinking of the plants under water stress, how could I explain the bean’s survival? Of the fittest it must be. In fact, it more than survives: it thrives. This hasn’t been mentioned in press releases or I haven’t read it in the emails but, you know, I have the curiosity of a cat. (It’s okay. ‘Curiosity killed the cat,’ they warn people like me – they forget that cats have 9 lives!) So, summoning the knowledge I gained from reading literature on my own and from my bright professors and their boring lectures during my overstaying student presence at the College of Agriculture of the University of the Philippines in Los Baños in the 1960s – where it took me 5-1/2 years to finish a 4-year course – I had only one explanation in mind, a hypothesis as it were: The pigeon pea has deep roots. I was sure, but I wasn’t an expert in these things. I didn’t know a bean about drought tolerance.

Googling, it took me about an hour to find support to my little hypothesis, and I found it in the website of the CTAHR (site cited). There, I am told the pigeon pea has ‘an extremely deep-rooting taproot’ and the rest of the roots are thin and reach down to 2 m. There, I imagine those roots soak up the capillary water rising from the underground water. Water goes up naturally. If you ask me about capillary action, I will tell you it is the opposite of the law that says, ‘Water seeks its own level.’ Water goes down naturally. That’s what I know. (Incidentally, the CTAHR acknowledges that ICRISAT has conducted ‘extensive research and breeding with pigeon pea.’ They must know something I didn’t.) From another source, about the roots of Pushkal and the other wonder peas from ICRISAT: These hybrids produce 30% higher root mass than other pigeon pea varieties (icrisat.org). This is important in water-starved soils, which we have plenty of in Asia, Africa, America, Australia – more of the pea roots bring up more of the nutrients from more of the deeper soils.

Historically, cultivation of the pigeon pea dates back to 3,000 years and originated either in Asia (absoluteastronomy.com) or Africa (Jacki Passmore, cited in food.oregonstate.edu). In Indian cuisine, it’s a favorite dhal (dry, dehulled, split seed for cooking) (icrisat.org). It also makes excellent pea soup.

So now, for the first time in history, here’s a revolution you can devour, children.

Mother to this one, ICRISAT names it the Pigeonpea Green Revolution, with the new seeds capable of producing 3-4 tons of peas per hectare, at least 2 times the yield of old varieties in farmers’ fields. ‘Pigeonpea Green Revolution’ also alludes to the first Green Revolution brought about by high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice that changed the economies of the world. The new Green Revolution is based on legumes that are a major source of protein in the developing countries. Because of this extraordinary pigeon pea, former IRRI Director General MS Swaminathan, a widely acclaimed and world-awarded Indian scientist and leader who is currently Chair of the Indian National Commission on Farmers, has predicted that the technological breakthrough ‘will create a Second Green Revolution’ in India, and then the rest of the world. On his part, ICRISAT Director General William Dar is ‘confident that the revolution we started in India with hybrid pigeonpea will soon spread to different parts of the world.’ I agree with that prediction; I share that confidence.

ICRISAT had announced the breakthrough boldly, knowing that ‘Extensive research by reputed organizations across the world in the past 50 years could not succeed in increasing productivity of pigeon pea,’ Dar is quoted by the Times of India as saying (July 2008, epaper.timesofindia.com). Remember, it took ICRISAT a total of 35 long years to achieve that scientific advance. I imagine that, like the Red Queen and Alice in Wonderland, those ICRISAT scientists had been running faster than scientists in other lands just to stay in place – first.

Dar attributed the pigeon pea hybrid success to public-private partnership, prominently with the ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research), Acharya NG Ranga Agricultural University, and Pravardhan Seeds. ‘I welcome more of such partnerships.’ I myself will attribute it also to the discovery by van der Maesen of the wild relative of pigeon pea in the forests of Central India, which had the desirable qualities the scientists were looking for in a pea. Conservation-minded, I welcome such forests.

Resistance to diseases and a massive root system were among 2 qualities transferred from the wild variety to the cultivated pigeon pea. Those transfers were achieved via a technological breakthrough that had something to do with the breeding technique. After a total of 35 long years of trying, ICRISAT breeders finally succeeded in creating a pigeon pea hybrid using what is called a cytoplasmic male sterile (CMS) method, an innovation in the breeding of legumes. It is a complex process, and all I can say is that the CMS technique prevents self-fertilization (inbreeding) and allows cross-fertilization (hybridization), in this case the cultivated pigeon pea crossed with a wild relative, Cajanus cajanifolius. In inbreeding, as happens in most crops, the years of cultivation bring a continuing deterioration of yield, among other things; in hybridization, the performance is always high because the seeds are always of new genetic materials and always superior, the hybrid vigor always max. The pea soup is always thick.

I am the one who calls it The Beans Revolution. Beans, because there are a number of these new varieties of the pigeon pea, 3 of them being Asha, Laxmi, and Pushkal, the last being the first commercial pigeon pea hybrid in the world. Revolution, because as the election of Barack Obama, the first African-American President, is a radical change in the history of the United States of America, so is the current and impending intrusion of the pigeon pea into the thinking and farming systems of Asia, Africa, America, and Australia. If Obama has shown outstanding performance as a presidential campaigner under challenging social circumstances, this new pigeon pea has shown outstanding performance as a productive crop under challenging site conditions. Obama is more than just a new US President – he represents change in many spheres of American life, including abroad, as we can imagine. This pigeon pea is more than just a new crop – it touches on many areas of agriculture, including conservation of natural resources, as we shall see.

In the dry tropics such as India, the pigeon pea was a desirable crop in poor soils. It had no problem with lack of water or lack of fertilizer; it was the scientists themselves who had problems with the pigeon pea. They could not advise the farmers to grow it because there were many problems with it. The crop was too weak for insect pests and diseases. It also was too leafy for the farmer’s good. It also grew too slowly for the farmer’s comfort. It also yielded too little for the farmer’s security.

The plant breeders said, ‘Needs improvement.’ That is why scientists of ICRISAT had been trying to develop a variety of pigeon pea that was quite different from the old. With extreme difficulty. Their kind of science they could handle, but the length of time they could hardly manage. In contrast to genetic engineering, conventional plant breeding is slow-motion photography – with Mother Nature handling all the camera work.

In 1974, 2 years after ICRISAT was set up in India, the Institute’s plant scientists started intense improvement work on pigeon pea with full support for R&D by ICAR, and it was only more than 3 decades later when they achieved the breakthrough (icrisat.org). The generation of the world’s first commercial pigeon pea hybrid through CMS was announced in 2005; such a feat was achieved with Pravardhan Seeds as private-sector partner.

In 1997, a new pigeon pea hybrid was tested in China; it didn’t take root. One of the new pigeon peas, ICPH 7035, is now taking roots in Southern China. Pigeon pea is currently grown in 150,000 ha in Gungxi and Yunnan provinces (icrisat.org). The Yuanmou Pigeonpea Farmers’ Association in Yunnan Province is now growing it for seeds for sale in the country and possibly nearby Myanmar. The Research Institute of Resource Insects, along with the directorates of forestry and science & technology, is leading the Chinese effort in introducing 2 hybrids, ICPH 2671 (Pushkal) and ICPH 3381, which I suppose are like peas in a pod. ICRISAT is promoting hybrid pigeon pea next in Brazil, Tanzania, Malawi and the Philippines.

In 2005, after 35 years of hard science, ICRISAT scientists, led by KB Saxena, ICRISAT’s Principal Breeder of Pigeon Pea, succeeded in developing the breeding process for the commercialization of the pea that is:

(1) a fast grower
(2) not bushy
(3) not susceptible to major pests & diseases
(4) not sensitive to length of days
(5) resistant to waterlogging and salinity
(6) a high yielder
(7) a natural mulcher of soils – it produces much biomass and drops off all its leaves at the time of harvest.

Pushkal is the name given to the first commercial pigeon pea variety by Pravardhan Seeds, who was the private sector partner in developing the hybrid (icrisat.org). Pushkal can be harvested in 170-180 days. It is highly resistant to Fusarium wilt and sterility mosaic, 2 major diseases of this pea. With sterility mosaic, a farmer’s loss can be devastating: 100%. With the hybrid, 10-12 kg of seeds to a hectare is all that is necessary for planting. It yields up to 4,000 kg, which is 5 times more than that of the best non-hybrids, considering an average of 800 kg – all in all, a quantum leap. With the ICRISAT breakthrough, pigeon pea becomes the world’s first crop that yields much, needs little. Jack climbs the beanstalk and finds the hen that eats so few grains and lays so many golden eggs.

The beans are highly nutritious, containing up to 28% protein, 10 times more fat, 5 times more Vitamin A, and 3 times more Vitamin C than ordinary peas (encyclopedia.farlex.com). Birgit Bradtke (tropicalpermaculture.com) has a personal list of the good things about pigeon pea:

(1) Beans ground into flour make good food.
(2) The peas make nutritious animal feed or fodder.
(3) Flowers attract bees that pollinate plants.
(4) Plants can be pruned often for mulch.
(5) Peas enrich the soil with nutrients.
(6) Pea hedges make good windbreaks.
(7) The plants make good green manure.
(8) The stems make good firewood.
(9) Peas make good living trellises for climbers.
(10) Pigeon peas grow just about anywhere.

Pigeon peas also make excellent nurse plants for corn (MCT, plantpath.cornell.edu). With their deep and massive roots, pigeon peas are now being mainly grown for soil buildup in 150,000 ha of hilly slopes of Southern China; with their relatively fast growth and strong root systems, the peas stop soil erosion and otherwise regenerate degraded sites with plant nutrients coming from deep below the soil surface (icrisat.org). Since it’s a perennial, it can be grown and remains there for several years from one planting, covering the soil and minimizing erosion, according to Zong Xuxiao of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing. The Chinese know something we don’t. Also in China, they are now producing foods and drinks from the seeds (cgiar.org).

Since hybrid seeds are expensive, in India, the MS Swaminathan Foundation is now empowering women to grow the hybrid pigeon peas and produce seeds in such a manner that small farmers can afford them. This is no small matter as India produces 85% of the world’s pigeon pea beans.

News from Australia is that a hybrid pigeon pea has the potential to produce 8 tons of beans to a hectare (aciar.gov.au), max. Even with the current 4 tons, already that’s a max of eggs. In the Philippines, that’s a max of pesos. So there you have it; Pushkal is the first modern hen that lays the golden eggs in this version of Old Jack & the new beans talk. 57 hybrid cultivars of pigeon pea have been released in Asia, Africa, Australia and the USA (icrisat.org). That means Jack’s hen today is commercial and now selling in a market near you.

(Next) The Beans Revolution. 2:
How To Wage A War Of Understanding

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