Dr Jean-Marcel Ribaut, Director of the IBP
Formed in 2014, the IBP is a not-for-profit entity whose mission is to help accelerate the delivery of new crop varieties in the context of an increasing global demand for food and unprecedented environmental challenges such as climate change. The IBP provides tools, technologies and support to plant breeders, particularly in developing countries, in the bid to achieve food security.
Director, Jean-Marcel Ribaut, reflects on what has made the IBP a ‘go-to’ organisation for plant breeders in their quest for innovative tools and knowledge. “With the right people encouraged by the right will and intent and in a collaborative spirit it is possible to achieve much with very little; conversely, excess funding in the wrong environment will not deliver expected results”, says Ribaut.
How are modern breeding methods key to boosting crop improvement in Africa?
Modernising breeding in Africa is a ‘must have’ to deliver improved cultivars more effectively and there is a clear need to better understand the local demand and a need to breed with a commercial perspective in mind. Therefore, demand-led validated product profiles and well-defined breeding objectives contribute significantly to breeding effectiveness, helping to define the desired commercial values critical for local markets. Such product profiles should ensure that the selection strategies deployed for each trait will deliver varieties with significantly improved performance—meeting or exceeding demand—and, as such, with a high probability of being adopted by growers and downstream stakeholders.
At a more technical level, several modern approaches are also impacting breeding efficiency; molecular breeding and the digitisation of breeding programs are two that immediately come to my mind. Technology, such as molecular markers, reduces the time taken to develop new crop cultivars; for certain target traits it enables plant breeding to progress faster and at less cost. Marker composition of elite germplasm is also very useful in predictive approaches and can be used for quality control during selection, to be sure that the seed in the bag corresponds to what is on the label. Attempting to modernise breeding without a reliable data management system in place is a very risky endeavor. The digitisation of breeding increases the effectiveness of seed management, data capture, quality control, documentation and analysis. It enables cumulative learning and more accurate selection decisions at all stages of the breeding process. Digital tools such as the BMS are a ‘must-have’ for proper documentation and to create institutional memory, addressing the major issue, especially in Africa, of staff turnover. Collectively, modern breeding methods contribute efficiency and improved monitoring and evaluation and better returns on investment.
How do we make research and development more effective?
It comes to working with the right people to empower partnerships, building on existing initiatives; working with the right people and sharing the same philosophy is key for effective research and development. This includes engaging with the end-users of research and jointly defining priorities and activities with the aim to empower ‘local’ ownership of research outputs and outcomes. Last, but not least, developing capacity on-the-ground is important, as is working with young people who will be amenable to new technologies, who will recognise the opportunities afforded by the use of these new technologies and who will have carriage of modernised systems moving forward.
How is the IBP harnessing Public-Private-Partnerships (PPP) to deliver science?
Investing in research for development must include the private sector. Ultimately the sustainability of major initiatives depends on private sector engagement. The three Ps are a trendy mantra across sectors however for plant breeding there are very few effective PPPs. This represents both a challenge and an opportunity. We see opportunities for private sector engagement across a range of activities along the plant breeding/ crop improvement value chain. The emphasis must be on creating openings for business, whether in the seed sector or other crop inputs including advisory services. The digitisation of agriculture and uptake of smart phones, for example, has appealed to entrepreneurs, especially youth, and we need to encourage and facilitate this evolution of science delivery. Over the past 10 years the IBP has developed a powerful and effective partnership with VSNi, a world leader company in analysis solutions for plant breeding activities. Together we have developed Breeding View, a statistical analysis module, based on the Genstat (General Statistics) analytical engine, of to work exclusively with BMS Pro. VSNi is also our commercial partner, managing sales and services.
How can the application of biotechnology tools enhance crop breeding and agricultural productivity in Africa?
I will be provocative here, we should not be technology driven! Too often we believe that technology will be the ‘silver bullet’. I have been in so many meetings that advocate genomic selection will save Africa and then an African plant breeder stands up and says sorry, but right now I need a cold room to store seed. We need to take on-the-ground reality into account and walk before we run. Often, plant breeding programs will benefit most from an investment in basic necessities such as cold rooms or irrigation facilities to produce reliable phenotyping data. That said, there is scope for more advanced interventions. For example, we have generated >250,000 genotyping data points to implement molecular breeding in an IFAD-supported project, coordinated and implemented by the IBP in close collaboration with national agricultural research system (NARS) partners who define and lead the research agenda. Therefore, one size does not fit all and the technologies that are deployed must be ‘fit-for-purpose’ i.e. they should be proven technologies for the environment into which they will be deployed. Trying to deploy or validate sophisticated technologies, however trendy and attractive for funding they might be, into an unreceptive setting, is a recipe for disaster.
How does the IBP impact on farmer livelihoods?
Although it is our ultimate goal, I do not believe our activities will deliver food security in the short term; this is naïve. We need to be clear in understanding our role and the niche that we occupy. The IBP encourages a new way of working, it brings people together and gives them the space to operate and it actively provides access to resources to enable partners to guide their own research. Creating synergies and partnerships is one of our strengths and a key element to impact on food security, when implemented along the crop value chain.
We are very mindful of the impact of parallel projects and the duplication of activities and competing demands upon the time of national program staff. The BMS has become a very useful tool for regional projects and it has enabled various plant breeding projects to ‘talk’ to each other. For example, in a number of countries in Africa we have implemented some activities in concert with the CGIAR Excellence in Breeding Platform and USAID Feed the Future Innovation Labs.
Our experience and way of working has its genesis in the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme that was a time-bound initiative during the period 2004-15. Based on 15+ years of experience and expertise in this area I think it is absolutely fundamental that we consider the whole crop improvement value chain. The digitisation of plant breeding will ultimately result in improved food security however, the more immediate aim is to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and their families through the development and dissemination of improved cultivars that meet farmer and consumer needs. We are moving along the value chain from the plant breeders, through the seed sector and extension agencies to farmer cooperatives and other producer organisations. The aim is to empower and create opportunities, digitizing information generated by different partners to create knowledge that has wide-ranging and far-reaching benefits.