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[MANILA] A major initiative to boost South Asian food security through crop development was launched last week (6 January).

The Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA) aims to speed up cereal production in a region where almost half of children under five are malnourished.

Announced by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the project will endeavour to develop and deploy new cereal varieties and promote sustainable management technologies and agricultural policies.

IRRI says the goal is to produce an additional five million tonnes of grain annually and increase the incomes of about six million farmers by at least US$350 per year.

"We have a lot of new technology and hope to develop more during this project, but it needs to be scaled up to reach millions of farmers," said Achim Dobermann, IRRI deputy director general for research.

"No organisation can do this alone and it requires coordinated action by public and private sectors, utilising the strengths of both," he told SciDev.Net.

Post-harvest technologies and practices will be improved. Scientists hope to develop better varieties of wheat and maize and there are plans to train a new generation of agricultural scientists.

"We are not starting from scratch and we have a quite good understanding of the gaps and constraints that need to be overcome," said Dobermann. "We do not look for miracle solutions or silver bullets," he said, adding that they are aiming for integrated solutions developed together with local partners.

William Dar, director general of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) based in India, said he was optimistic about the initiative, but added: "The social engineering aspect of the project should be strengthened, including capacity building of various stakeholders."

CSISA comes at a crucial time for key nations in the region where nearly half a billion people are subsisting on less than US$1 a day amidst strained natural resources, said IRRI.

The initiative will bring together a range of public and private sector organisations in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan. The project will be supported with US$20 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and US$10 million over three years from the United States Agency for International Development.

The lessons learned will be transferable to smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, said IRRI.