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Forget wheat or rice. For plant breeder K. B. Saxena, the top crop has always been pigeon pea — the main source of protein for over a billion people in the developing world and a vital cash crop for multitudes of smallholders in Africa, the Caribbean and India.
Saxena helped create nearly a dozen improved varieties of this hardy plant over three decades, but his holy grail was a high-yield hybrid for the poor farmer.
Two years ago the Indian researcher and his team at ICRISAT (the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) finally achieved their goal.
The length of Saxena’s quest is mostly due to peculiarities of legumes that meant creating the sterile plants needed for breeding was frustratingly difficult. The researcher’s work was also hampered by ICRISAT’s budgetary problems in the late 1990s.
Yet Saxena has now achieved hybrids that yield up to 48 per cent more than popular varieties. Meanwhile, fellow plant breeder M. S. Swaminathan is ensuring the seed reaches subsistence farmers through a programme that teaches their wives to produce the hybrids from ICRISAT seeds.