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How AVRDC addresses donor priorities

More than most other international agricultural research centers, AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center puts considerable emphasis on development and health issues. Our work specifically addresses Millennium Development Goal #1, Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; MDG #4, Reduce child mortality; and MDG #5, Improve maternal health. The Center is active in climate change, food security, environment, gender, education and trade.

Vegetables are important sources of the micronutrients and vitamins essential to helping the body combat disease, but annual vegetable consumption is low in most of the developing world and lowest in sub-Saharan Africa. AVRDC researchers breed hardy, more nutritious vegetable lines of globally important vegetables such as tomato and peppers with improved yield and resistance to pests and diseases. Indigenous vegetables are under-recognized sources of nutrition, particularly for the rural poor in Africa and Asia, and the Center works to collect, characterize and improve these valuable plants. The Center also has a research and development theme devoted to nutrition.

  • In the Philippines our pilot project promoting the use of indigenous vegetables in school lunches has been so successful it is being scaled up to all schools nationwide.
  • Studies in rural Tanzania have shown that indigenous vegetables provided half the vitamin A and almost a third of the iron for the poorest members of rural communities and their additional health promoting properties can be important to those with HIV/AIDS. Around cities they comprise the majority of vegetables grown. The Center’s research on 150 tropical and subtropical species found that many indigenous vegetables are highly nutritious and promote health due to high levels of antioxidant activity and antimicrobial activity.

The Center’s Healthy Gardening Kits contain seed of improved varieties of exotic and indigenous vegetables that provide balanced family nutrition year-round. More than 35,000 kits have been distributed in Africa and Asia since 2000, and in training programs that include improved recipes.

Vegetables are valuable and perishable, and prices quickly rise during droughts or floods, putting them out of reach of the poor. For more than 30 years AVRDC has been doing breeding and agronomic research to make globally important vegetable crops better adapted to higher temperatures and weather extremes in the tropics. It also has a large and long-term program to develop and promote indigenous vegetables that are already well-adapted to the extremes of tropical climates. The Center led the global development of tropically-adapted tomatoes and brassicas, which made production of these crops in the tropical lowlands possible for the first time.

Strengthening the livelihoods of small-scale farmers as climates become more uncertain and extreme involves developing resilient vegetable production systems:

  • The Center’s heat tolerant tomato lines have been a mainstay of the tropical tomato industry since the 1980s, and current research is making the crop drought tolerant as well, along with improved pest and disease resistance.
  • Tomatoes are susceptible to flooding, and breeding cannot address this, so the Center has perfected and promoted grafting of tomatoes onto eggplant rootstocks that will tolerate flooding. Millions of grafted seedlings are now being produced in Vietnam, Bangladesh and other countries, and combined with our raised bed and covered cultivation techniques tomatoes can now be produced in the tropical hot wet season.

Food security is not a matter of producing more staples, but rather ensuring access to an adequate and balanced diet. Rural livelihoods depend on a diversified rural economy and include both landless laborers as well as smallholder farmers. The Center’s research has shown that increased staple production over the last few decades has often been at the expense of vegetable production, resulting in less diversified rural economies and less diversified diets. Vegetable production can be an engine for rural economic development as it can produce up to five times the income per hectare as staples and employ up to four times as much labor.

Improved vegetable production can have a surprising impact on family and community development. Because they are valuable commodities regularly sold for cash, even small areas of vegetables can have a large impact on family incomes. Exotic vegetables such as tomato provide a major source of income for smallholder farmers across Africa. A 2008 survey of more than 300 farmers in Mali indicated that vegetables provided the main source of cash income for almost three-quarters of households. A study by the Tanzanian government of the impact of just two new AVRDC high yielding and disease resistant varieties showed that they had increased national tomato production by 40%, with net income gains for an average producer of 21%. In some districts more than 90% of farmers had been able to build new homes; in others they had bought vehicles or opened shops, while many had been able to pay school fees and medical bills.

Because of their high value, vegetables receive a disproportionate share of pesticide applications, which can have severe environmental and health effects in developing countries. Excessive use of pesticides is a growing global problem affecting the health of farmers and consumers alike and causing major environmental damage. In India, surveys show that 50-70% of vegetables are contaminated with pesticide residues. As cheap pesticides are increasingly marketed in Africa, pesticide abuse and environmental damage will increase unless effective integrated pest management (IPM) programs are developed as alternatives.

The Center has a long history of developing IPM programs to reduce pesticide abuse. Eggplant is one of the most popular vegetables in South Asia, where half of the world’s entire crop is grown. It is practically the only vegetable available to the poor during the wet season, but farmers regularly used up to 80 pesticide applications each season to control the crop’s worst pest, eggplant fruit and shoot borer. Between 2000 and 2005 the Center developed and extended integrated pest management for the crop that reduced pesticide use by 65 – 75%, cut smallholder farmers’ production costs by 30%, and increased their incomes by 60%. Hundreds of thousands of farmers across the region adopted the technologies leading to reduced environmental damage and improving community health.

Women are responsible for growing and marketing vegetables in many parts of the world. Vegetables often provide the only cash resource for women to use for the welfare of their families. Women also provide most of the labor for vegetable production in Africa and Asia, while men are more likely to produce staple crops.

The Center’s postharvest work on vegetables has particular importance for women. AVRDC studies have shown that in Southeast Asia, two-thirds of vegetable collectors and wholesalers and more than 90% of retailers are women. In Africa, 87% of vegetable traders are women, and those with the lowest incomes who are the weakest actors in the chain are older women retailers. Controlling for factors such as age, education and household size, men earn 28% more than women in vegetable trading.

Improvements to vegetable production and marketing may disadvantage women without careful policy management. As vegetable production becomes more profitable women may face more competition from men, and small women retailers are most disadvantaged as vegetable supply chains become more formalized and increasingly dominated by supermarkets. Policies to promote better access to price and standards information, access to credit and legal counseling, and improved market infrastructure can protect and support women retailers and farmers.

Vegetables are more complex to produce than staples and training is essential to give smallholders the skills to successfully produce and market their crops. The Center’s ongoing commitment to build the capacity of national partners and farmers though training has continued for more than 20 years in Africa and more than 30 years in Southeast Asia. Since 2000 the Center has trained more than 10,000 people through its regional offices in Tanzania, Thailand, India, and Dubai, and at its headquarters in Taiwan. There are three types of training course provided: long-term intensive training for 3 to 5 months mainly focused on researchers; short-term specialized regional courses for 1 to 3 weeks focused on extension workers and lead farmers; and short in-country courses for 2 -7 days for farmers.

The Center’s long-term training courses have built up a network of alumni in most countries in Africa and Asia who have gone on to make significant contributions to the development of the vegetable industry in their home countries. These courses have provided one of the very few affordable professional development opportunities for in-service training of staff from the public and private sectors in developing countries. Research projects conducted by course participants have improved local vegetable production and enhanced the Center’s research. A review of the impact of two decades of such training in Southeast Asia showed it reduced poverty, increased farmer incomes and health, and contributed to a better environment by extending more sustainable production practices.

Vegetables are highly valuable commodities. The Center has had a long association with the vegetable seed industry in Asia, and about 75% of Asian vegetable seed companies use AVRDC lines. The Center’s working relationship with members of the Asia-Pacific Seed Association (APSA), which represents hundreds of seed companies in 44 countries, has been essential in getting improved vegetable seed into the hands of smallholder farmers at affordable prices. By strengthening their product portfolio, providing business training and strengthening national seed systems, the Center and the private sector aim to reduce the poverty of smallholder farmers.

The Center’s largest single project, Vegetable Breeding and Seed Systems (vBSS) for Poverty Reduction in Africa, developed more than 90 superior open-pollinated lines of vegetables for sub-Saharan Africa and strengthened local seed companies to produce seed of these crops for smallholder farmers. There has been virtually no public breeding of improved vegetables for sub-Saharan Africa for decades, so smallholder farmers cannot improve their yields and small seed companies have little improved product to sell. The project built on the Center’s long experience in working with small seed companies in Asia; such companies have a market niche in producing quality seed of superior open pollinated vegetable varieties for smallholder farmers, which is not a market of interest to multinationals.

Postharvest processing and production quality control as international trade in fresh vegetables increases are other important research and development areas for the Center.