Power in numbers. Science with human faces

In art, movies are numbers and faces. In science, generations are also numbers and faces. You can choose which to show. I choose both.

Shelter is a movie now shooting by Nala Films of Los Angeles in California, with a budget of $22 M, and yes, they want that ‘Inbred Look’ (David M Brown, 26 February 2008, pittsburghlive.com). Because it’s a supernatural horror thriller, and yes, it’s a story about real people in the mountains who have been inbreeding generations after generations, Nala Films is looking for people with a different kind of look, such as an albino girl and deformed people to depict those West Virginia mountain folk. (In case you’re interested, the movie stars Julianne Moore, winner of Emmy and Golden Globe awards, star of the film Body of Evidence.) With people, inbred is weird. I’ll call that the Shelter Effect. Given generations, among people the Shelter Effect produces not only decadence but a social monstrosity. In the movies, visuals with inhuman faces may produce a box office hit, like Dr Frankenstein's monster – but we’re not in the movies, are we?
With luck, terror in movies makes waves; with luck, error in science makes you waver, and then you go on with a new idea and a new resolve. The Inbred Look is the ultimate dream of Nala Films; they think the ones that look worst will look best to moviegoers. It’s been done before. Quite the opposite, the Hybrid Crop is the ultimate dream of breeders; they know heterosis or hybrid vigor will bring out excellent offspring, plant or animal. With continued inbreeding, with related parents, you get badder and badder offspring, as the Nala movie would show; with continued crossbreeding or hybridization, with unrelated parents, you get better and better progeny. In history, why do royal bloodlines run out? It’s due to inbreeding, or inter-family marriages; they want the family blood to remain pure, and that’s exactly why it runs into family trouble.
Inbreeding is the mating together of blood-related animals or gene-related plants. In people, that would be mother & son, father & daughter, sibling & sibling, half-sibling & half-sibling, cousin & cousin, aunt & nephew, niece & uncle and grandparent & grandchild (Sarah Hartwell, 2008, messybeast.com). Because of the limited gene pool from continuous inbreeding, the deleterious genes become widespread and the breed loses vigor. Denis J Murphy says that that is known as ‘inbreeding depression’ marked by poor performance such as lower growth rate or lower disease resistance (books.google.com.ph), or higher death rate. The Shelter Effect. Not unlike a car runs out of gas, a breed runs out of vigor; to make the same car run again, you buy gas; to make the breed thrive again, you cross it with another, and then you get a new and better breed. There’s power in driving a car; there’s more power in breeding. Nice work if you can get it!
You do have to be careful. And so a ‘Kissing Cousins’ marriage, or that between cousins, as well as any other marriage between close relatives, is against the law; it’s inbreeding, and as seen in cattle, all consequences of inbreeding are undesirable (ext.vt.edu). It’s obeying the laws of love that makes the world go ‘round, along with obeying the laws of genetics.
And, while in theory you can, in fact, no, you can’t get rid of inbreeding, or shouldn’t. You need lines resulting from inbreeding for crossbreeding – that is, in crops, whether plant or animal. You just have to watch out for the Shelter Effect.
Is cloning inbreeding? Like stem cutting in plants, cloning is asexual, that is, no sex is involved; cloning is multiplying the exact same genetic materials. It is not inbreeding, but the results are the same: a multiplication of the same substance, not unlike Jesus’ multiplication of the 5 loaves of bread to feed 5,000 hungry mouths in the New Testament (Mark 6: 41-44). I don’t know about cloning, but a miracle is nice if you can get it!
In inbreeding, there is the production of sameness; in crossbreeding, there is the production of unlikeness. In inbreeding, if you keep planting the seeds of your previous crop over the years, there is a danger that all the recessive traits will crop up (if you will pardon the pun). There is a loss of hardiness and vitality; it is not surprising that rare genetic diseases become more common among inbred crop populations (naturalstandard.com).
From cuttings of an old plant, you get new plants along with the old genes; from seeds of self-pollinated crops, you get the same. From crosses of parent plants from different lines, you get new plants plus new gene combinations that result in character traits that are usually desirable, like much higher yield along with much lower fertilizer cost. Inbreeding perpetuates its own kind; crossbreeding perpetuates hybrid vigor.
Hybrids give you hybrid vigor, the ultimate dream of breeders, plant or animal. If plants, they give you quantum leaps of yield so high that you will jump for joy; if animals, they give you quantum leaps of meat, milk or eggs so much you will jump through hoops.
Another way of saying that is this: Hybrid vigor gives you higher returns on your crop investment, all things being equal. With the same inputs, the higher the output, the higher the net.
That’s science, that’s knowledge. Now, today knowledge has a way of multiplying itself either by printed word or mouth or electronic file. And knowledge, known by publicly funded institutes of science, like ICRISAT, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, is similarly known by private seed companies. Is that good or bad? It can be better.
In India in the 1990s, even as scientists of ICRISAT were aware of hybrid vigor, scientists of private companies in India themselves were aware of it and, thinking business, started developing their own science around their own new and improved crops (CLL Gowda et al, 2004, cropscience.org.au). Since the private companies were closer to the seed pushers (merchants) and users (farmers), this led to the decline of funding in ICRISAT and other research centers of the CGIAR, Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, which forced significant budget cuts all over CGIAR (icrisat.org). Business was minding its own business, not thinking out of the box. Error. Science was making a similar mistake. 2 wrongs don’t make a right.
You can’t do much science without much funding and without much enthusiasm. In those years, ICRISAT urgently needed new ideas and a new resolve.
In 2000, with William Dar as the young and new Director General of ICRISAT, the Institute woke up from its stupor and, thinking out of the box, among other things saw that the private companies could be enticed to become allies in funding if first they became partners in research. Collaborators all, in a consortium. Thus were born the hybrid parents research consortia for sorghum and pearl millet that year at ICRISAT. At that time, the consortium model was a novel idea within the CGIAR system. This was the first broad-based public-private partnership in the history of that system. If you can’t fight them, join them. This is science with many human faces reflecting work in harmony with one another.
Other CGIAR centers have since been adopting the ICRISAT consortium model in their R&D operations. They know a good thing when they see one.
Here is a list of specific ICRISAT consortia. There is the Desert Margins Program, a 9-country consortium fighting desertification in Africa, funded by the Global Environment Facility (2003, icrisat.org). There is a Sweet Sorghum Ethanol Research Consortium, with Tata Chemicals and Praj Industries of India as 2 of the newest members (2007, icrisat.org). There is the Pearl Millet Hybrid Parents Research Consortium that has 35 members (icrisat.org). There is the Chickpea Genomics Consortium on Drought Tolerance (2007, icrisat.org). There is the Africa Biofortified Sorghum Project, a consortium of 7 African and 2 American institutions funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (2007, icrisat.org). One of the latest is the consortium for the project of the Government of India called ‘Sweet Sorghum Ethanol Value Chain Development’ with 7 partners (2008, icrisat.org).
Outside of the CGIAR system, MS Swaminathan, former Director General of IRRI and now Chair of India’s National Commission on Farmers, has recommended an ICRISAT-model consortium approach in watershed management for dryland districts throughout his country (2006, icrisat.org). A local innovation with a global application.
They all have seen the power in the consortium:
(1) There’s power in numbers. It’s called synergy.
(2) You have a knowledge base of resource persons working together.
(3) It’s a one-stop shop for clients, not to mention members.
(4) There are education & training opportunities.
(5) You enjoy economies of scale.
(6) There’s access to resources otherwise unavailable.
(7) You participate in a focused project with a clear-cut objective – by itself, a definite benefit.
It works of course if you have teamwork, and that requires a Team Captain.
I’m coming to that. Another novel idea was put into practice by Dar early in his first term as Director General; he launched Team ICRISAT as a movement within the Institute in early 2002. With Dar as Team Captain, this resulted in ‘staff morale greatly boosted’ (icrisat.org). That was the first thing that the Team spirit made happen; I’m sure it did much more than that. What subsequently happened at ICRISAT proves to me that if you have a great Team Captain, you will have a great Team.
One time, in a lull during a seminar in the Philippines, I asked Dar what gave him the idea of Team ICRISAT, and he said he had borrowed the concept from sports, from Team Philippines (basketball). Today, when I think of Team ICRISAT, I think basketball and I think consortium, that is, public institutions and private companies working towards producing new and improved crops collaborating as a team with a common goal (if you will pardon the pun). Team Chickpea, Team Groundnut, Team Pearl Millet, Team Pigeon Pea, Team Sorghum – each should make a great Team to produce scores of new and improved crops.
You can’t have new crops without hybrid parents, and you can’t have hybrid parents without HPR, hybrid parents research. In 2000, for pearl millet, the consortium for HPR emerged as ‘the most appropriate among partnership models’ (RP Mula et al, December 2007, SAT eJournal, icrisat.org). Team ICRISAT discovered the power in public-private collaboration in science.
The HPR consortium was to follow 2 guidelines: (1) It shall address the core research agenda of ICRISAT. (2) All products of HPR shall remain in the public domain as IPGs, international public goods.
As of 2001, the ICRISAT hybrid pigeon pea, the world’s first hybrid of any food legume crops, had been developed through partnership in HPR (icrisat.org). Out of this, a hybrid cultivar called Pushkal was launched in July 2008, that is, made available commercially (icrisat.org). (I myself have written about this; click if you want to read: ‘Serving ICRISAT Science’ and ‘The Beans Revolution, 1’ icrisatwatch.blogspot.com).
The consortium model broadened the concept of public-private sector partnership, and gave birth to the Agri-Science Park of ICRISAT, which is the hub of the wheel of public-private partnerships for the development and commercialization of technologies such as hybrid seeds of pearl millet and sweet sorghum. The consortium tactic has emerged as a successful method of generating funds as well as promoting development and marketing of technologies for the poor in the semi-arid tropics of Africa and Asia. This is the dream of those interested in technology transferred to the people.
Not resting on its laurels, ICRISAT’s search for partnerships is ‘proactive’ (Belum VS Reddy et al 2005, icrisat.org/journal). Seek and you shall find. The partnership involves joint identification of priorities and joint investments for research in key areas. As of the latest data made available by ICRISAT, there are now 50 private seed company partners with financial contributions under 5-year renewable agreements. Here is the list of those consortia members:
(1) Adriana Seed Company (Brazil)
(2) Advanta India
(3) Ajeet Seeds
(4) Ankur Seeds
(5) Avesthagen Technologies
(6) Basant Agro Tech
(7) Bayer BioSciences
(8) Bharati Seeds
(9) Biogene Agritech
(10) Bioseed Research India
(11) Biostadt MHSeeds
(12) DevGen Seeds and Crop Tech
(13) Energy Seed Intl
(14) Ganga Kaveri Seeds
(15) Green Life Seed & Bioculture
(16) Gujarat Hybrid Seeds
(17) JK Agri Genetics
(18) Kanchan Ganga Seed Co
(19) Kaveri Seed Co
(20) Krishidhan Seeds
(21) Krishna Seeds
(22) Maharashtra State Seeds Corporation
(23) Mahodaya Hybrid Seeds
(25) Metahelix Life Sciences
(26) NAFED
(27) Nandi Seeds
(28) Nath Biogene
(29) Navbharat Seeds
(30) Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute
(31) Nimbkar Seeds
(32) Nitya Seed Sciences
(33) Nodai Seeds
(34) Nuziveedu Seeds
(35) Pacific Seeds (Australia)
(36) Pioneer Overseas Corporation
(37) Pradham Biotech
(38) Pravardhan Seeds
(39) Rasi Seeds
(40) Shakti Vardhak Hybrid Seeds
(41) SM Sehgal Foundation
(42) Southern Petrochemical Industries
(43) Spriha BioSciences
(44) Swarna Seeds
(45) Syngenta India
(46) Tulasi Seeds
(47) Vibha Agrotech
(48) Vikky’s Agrisciences
(49) VNR Seeds
(50) Zuari Seeds
As a result, ICRISAT is now a center of excellence for research and development for hybrid parents in 3 crops – sorghum, pearl millet, pigeon pea; it is now a supplier of high-quality parents necessary for hybrid development, testing and release in Asia (icrisat.org). These are what I like to call parents-in-waiting.
So now you have a good idea why ICRISAT has been into HPR, hybrid parents research. It’s within the wide area of crop improvement. To have an idea how Team ICRISAT does it, let us look at its efforts in breeding & selection for sorghum seed parents for the last 31 years, in 3 phases:
1st phase 1978-1988 – emphasis on crop grain yield and food quality matching local crop seasons and sites
2nd phase 1989-1998 – emphasis on crop resistance to pests, diseases and drought
3rd phase 1999-today – emphasis on farmer-preferred grain characteristics such as white, large and lustrous grains from cultivars that are adapted to post-rainy season growing conditions.
The phasing indicates that in solo or partnership research, you start with the problems of local farmers and end up with the choices of local farmers. Which gives me an idea; to generate an entirely different marketing theory, we can look at it as a demand-supply chain, not simply a supply chain. In ICRISAT’s actual sorghum work, the first 2 phases are supply push; the 3rd and final phase is demand pull. In marketing as in science, the pull is greater than the push. (As in: Gravitation is greater than 1 billion physicists praising Isaac Newton.) That is to say, in the production and marketing of crop-related knowledge, or technology, the farmers are always right because they are always the customers.
As a direct product of the ICRISAT consortia, many partner local private seed companies in India have now grown into global businesses. In turn, the partnership has enabled ICRISAT to develop breeding lines and hybrid parents, as well as enabled country NARS, national agricultural research systems, in Africa and Asia to diversify the genetic base of their local hybrid programs. That means better genetic materials for better crops. The more diverse the parents-in-waiting, the greater the hybrid vigor of the offspring.
Meanwhile, the challenges remain and there are 2 of them: inside the consortium, that is, value-adding relationships with partners, and outside the consortium, challenges arising from changing farming systems, changing farmer preferences, as well as changing consumer preferences (icrisat.org).
Now, let me remind you, you can’t have hybrids without inbreds. Hybrids and inbreds co-exist. Thus, when a hurricane destroyed the maize seeds stored by farmers and the national seed bank in Honduras, CIMMYT, Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo, sent to Honduras half a ton of maize seeds of both hybrids and inbreds that had high yields, were highly adapted to the country, tolerant to stress such as that brought about by drought or pest (icrisat.org). CIMMYT and ICRISAT both belong to the CGIAR system.
Currently, with respect to Africa and ICRISAT-derived inbred-line cultivars, ICRISAT cultivar Macia is being grown in 30% of the area planted to sorghum in Eritrea, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe (icrisat.org). Cultivar Gadam el Hamam is being adopted by farmers in Kenya, and Pato is being adopted by farmers in Tanzania. Phofu, which adapts to late-season drought due to early maturity and stays green, has been adopted by 21% of farmers in Botswana. Cultivar S35, also called ICVS 111, enjoys 10 to 15% adoption in Nigeria and Ghana, and ICVS 400 is popular in Nigeria. The extra-early cultivar CSM 63 is accepted by farmers in West and Central Africa. 7 new lines in the Guinea race of sorghum have been released by ICRISAT in Mali. This race is grown by many, including farmers in other countries in West Africa. Today, half of India’s 8.5 M ha planted to sorghum is growing hybrids. Of the 50 commercial hybrids in the market, about 30 are from ICRISAT parents or lines. Nearly 50% of India’s 10 M ha planted to pearl millet is growing at least 84 hybrids, at least 60 of these based on ICRISAT parents or lines.
All those are products of the consortium model.
ICRISAT has been promoting the consortium model in places other than in India. In Asia, for one, ICRISAT has signed agreements with 5 private companies in the Philippines to form a sweet sorghum consortium for ethanol production. In Africa, ICRISAT has been exploring the formation of consortia in Uganda, Nigeria, Mozambique and South Africa.
The Institute recently launched a consortium for self-pollinated chickpea and groundnut to share new breeding lines and varieties with partners, eventually so that farmers can have access to the seeds of improved cultivars for higher yields and incomes. Yields they can appreciate, incomes they can enjoy.
‘Power is the capacity to bring about change,’ they say; ‘as measured by results,’ I say. Now then, if I may summarize the power in consortia, it’s simply this: It’s not ‘I alone can’ but rather, ‘Together, we can.’ (That's FVR, Fidel Valdez Ramos, remember? 'Kaya natin 'to!') Theory must translate into practice. Easy to say, hard to do, which makes the ICRISAT consortium breakthrough story all the more remarkable.
And so the story of the power in the ICRISAT consortia continues. I want to point out that while it did not invent the concept, ICRISAT has marvelously tapped the power in consortia to create science with human faces. 

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