Indian farmers to fight fungus with hybrid millet

Downy mildew disease replaces grain (left) with useless tendrils (right) Copyright: ICRISAT

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The governments of the Indian state of Haryana has approved a new variety of the cereal pearl millet, developed using biotechnology to resist a major fungal disease called downy mildew. The new grain will be grown in Haryana and its neighbour state, Rajasthan.

The researchers who developed the new variety say its improved yield — ten per cent more grain than the current strain — would be worth US$3 million to farmers in the two states every year.

They add that farmers could avoid grain losses approximating US$8 million over the course of a year if there is a major outbreak of downy mildew.

The disease-resistant variety is a hybrid of existing strains, which was developed in a collaboration between researchers at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), the Haryana Agricultural University and the University of Bangor, United Kingdom.

The researchers identified strains of pearl millet that were able to resist the fungus and studied the plants’ genetic material to identify genes associated with disease resistance.

By interbreeding the resistant plants with the strain grown in Haryana and Rajasthan, the researchers were able to create a hybrid with several genes for resistance that is also suited to agricultural conditions in the two states.

John Witcombe, of the University of Bangor, explains that the hybrid pearl millet, known as HHB 67-2, was developed in one-third of the time usually required.

This is because having identified the genes associated with disease resistance, the researchers could test all of the young hybrid plants to see if the same genes were present, instead of having to wait until they were fully grown and exposing them to the fungus.

Witcombe is now working with partners in Eritrea and Nigeria to develop varieties of pearl millet that are resistant to downy mildew and can be grown there. He expects to have resistant hybrids ready within three to five years.

Pearl millet is known as the poor man’s crop because it takes only a small amount of seed – five kilograms – to grow the cereal on one hectare of land.

ICRISAT will provide HHB 67-2 seed to farmers in Haryana and Rajasthan for the same price as the non-resistant strain.

Pearl millet is grown on more than half a million hectares in Haryana and Rajasthan.