Pigeonpea is grown by millions of resource-poor farmers on marginal land across the semi-arid regions of Asia and Africa. Producing small seeds similar in appearance to soybean, pigeonpea is valued by farmers and consumers as food and forage crop. It is also a major contributor to food security in areas facing the early effects of global climate change.
Pigeonpea seeds contain high levels of protein and amino acids. When combined with cereals such as sorghum or millet, the crop provides a balanced mix of nutrients that sustains millions of the planet’s poorest and most vulnerable people. It is consumed in a variety of dishes and cuisines in the form of dried peas, split dal, or as a green leafy vegetable.
Pigeonpea enriches soil through symbiotic nitrogen fixation and provides farmers with valuable organic matter and micronutrients. It has a special mechanism to release soil-bound phosphorus to meet its own needs as well as those of subsequent crops. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where fertilizer is expensive and often in short supply, the nitrogen supplied by pigeonpea is one of the few resources that farmers have for maintaining soil health and fertility.
Potential and resiliency
Long considered an under-researched ‘orphan crop’, its standing has grown considerably in recent years as researchers have improved the crop’s potential and resiliency. For example, early- and medium-duration varieties, including hybrids that mature in 4 to 6 months, have been developed and are proving highly successful in farmers’ fields. The new cultivars are attractive to farmers and commercial seed producers who recognize their potential for income generation and international trade.
Origins of the crop
The center of origin of pigeonpea is thought to be the eastern part of the Indian peninsula. Archaeological finds of pigeonpea in Southern India date back to 1,000 BC, the latter part of the Stone Age. In time, pigeonpea made its way to Africa where it obtained the name ‘Congo pea’ and from Africa, via the slave trade, to the Americas.
Where pigeonpea is grown today
Pigeonpea is now produced in all tropical and semi-tropical regions of the world and can be grown either as an annual or as a perennial crop. Production takes place on an estimated 4,600,000 hectares, an area roughly equivalent in size to Greece. About 82% of all pigeonpea production takes place in India. The Indian subcontinent, Eastern and Southern Africa and Central America, in that order, represent the world's principal producing regions.
Threats to production
Crop protection specialists estimate that the pests and diseases that attack pigeonpea are responsible for US$ 1.1 billion in annual losses across the semi-arid tropics. Principal plant diseases include Fusarium wilt and Sterility mosaic; major insect pests are pod borers, mainly Helicoverpa, Maruca and Pod fly.
A major progress was achieved with the development of the world’s first commercial pigeonpea hybrid. This hybrid technology was developed after intensive research efforts spanning more than three decades and has provided the opportunity to break a decades-old yield plateau in pigeonpea. This system, in combination with natural out-crossing of the crop, was successfully used to develop economically viable hybrid seed production technology. It has been refined to suit different agro-ecologies, and the hybrids ICPH 2671 and ICPH 2740 were released in India for general cultivation by farmers.
Varieties for Eastern and Southern Africa
Early-maturing pigeonpea varieties in Africa are helping farmers reduce costs and are rapidly gaining access to an expanding market. The new varieties, which are resistant to Fusarium wilt disease, a major production constraint, are being marketed through local agrodealers. Studies show that they are quickly supplanting small-seeded types that failed to meet basic market requirements. The new cultivars are now widely grown in Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda where they are filling a gap left by the collapse of local bean varieties.
Women farmers often refer to pigeonpea as ‘our beef’, a reference to the crop’s high protein content, and frequently sell the crop as a fresh vegetable. Pigeonpea’s capacity for generating cash has enabled thousands of farmers to purchase farm animals and diversify production, thus spreading risk and increasing profits. The availability of the new varieties should also help open up overseas markets.
Pigeonpea is the first non-industrialized commodity, and only the second food legume, with a published genome sequence. Genome analysis identified more than 48,000 genes, including several hundred that are unique to the crop and are closely associated with drought tolerance. The availability of the sequence opens up new avenues for crop improvement and could help plant breeders raise yields from an average of 700 kg/ha closer to the crop’s full potential, an estimated 3.5 tons/ha. In time it could also lead to the production of short-duration lines that are both temperature and photoperiod insensitive, thereby expanding the geographical range the crop.