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See Inside Scientific American Volume 307, Issue 3

Chickpeas Undergo a Revolution

A better bean is boosting Ethiopia's economy



UFUK ZIVANA iStockphoto

Ethiopia is an island of relative calm in a volatile region. Last year the U.S. Agency for International Development called for expanding Ethiopia's economy and increasing its crop yields as a way of bringing more stability to East Africa.

The agency focused on a key crop: the chickpea (Cicer arietinum), which is in high demand as an ingredient in hummus and in nutritional supplements for famine-stricken regions. It is also relatively sustainable to grow: it acts as a natural fertilizer by fixing nitrogen in the soil and demands less water than some other popular crops such as the cereal grass teff.

Ethiopia was already Africa's largest producer of chickpeas, but researchers wanted to develop seeds that could grow more efficiently. In August 2006 in the Journal of Semi-Arid Tropical Agricultural Research, scientists at the International Crop Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) identified favorable traits among more than 20,000 variations in the chickpea genetic code, allowing them to breed plants that mature more quickly and resist drought and disease. Rather than using biotechnological tools, scientists instead applied traditional crossbreeding techniques, which are effective yet more affordable. ICRISAT researchers are using the same techniques on other crops across the developing world. Tanzania, Sudan, Kenya, Myanmar (Burma) and India are all benefiting from better chickpeas, pigeon peas, groundnuts, pearl millet and sorghum.

The improved chickpea seeds have already made a difference: Ethiopia's chickpea harvest increased 15 percent between March 2010 and March 2012. Farmers sell whole, dried chickpeas to local markets, which sell them as snacks or grind them into flour, and an expanding export market buys the crop to supply a growing global demand for hummus. Last year PepsiCo, which co-owns hummus maker Sabra, partnered with USAID and the United Nations World Food Program to expand Ethiopian farmers' access to more productive seeds and to such sustainable agricultural practices as drip irrigation. Says Timothy Durgan of the development nonprofit ACDI/VOCA, which has been implementing USAID's agricultural efforts in Ethiopia: “Improved [farming] practices should enable Ethiopia to increase exports while adequately supplying local demand.”

This article was originally published with the title "Chickpea Revolution."

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