We found the beautiful people in Le Cafe d’Art in the city’s Banjara district. They were lounging in fauteuils and across settees, taking languid sucks at hookahs and eating Western snacks with practiced disinterest. The cafe is a quirky anomaly in an otherwise extraordinarily uninteresting city. The capital of Andhra Pradesh is a dirty, overgrown sprawl of polluted streets with few sights of remark and a population of rude, unhelpful people – or at least, that’s how it seems to me after a 3 day visit. The main tourist attraction, the fort, is a litter-strewn unkempt ruin covered in grafitti and teeming with touts. We were lied to and cheated at every turn, the internet facilities were almost nil in India’s IT capital, and the ugly sight of large numbers of burka-clad women blighted the joyous razzle-dazzle of saris, salwars and sequins.
But Hyderabad has a jewel more precious and splendid than its Kohinoor, one that utterly redeems it. Thirty kilometres outside the city is the headquarters of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). The centre, set in acres containing two of the four main semi-arid soil types, carries out awe-inspiring work that might just rescue the world’s poorest people (and me and you) from starvation over the next decades.
800 million people live in the semi arid tropics, in regions where the annual rainfall is uncertain, brief and amounts to less than 1000 cubic millimetres per square metre. By 2050, the most conservative climate model estimates predict that the semi arid tropics will increase by 11%. Hunger and malnutrition currently kill more people than malaria, Aids and TB combined – the majority of these people (mainly women and children) live in or neighbouring the semi arid tropics
The scientists at ICRISAT are led by the cool, focused and extraordinarily effective William Dar. Unlike at the sorry Indian Institute for Crop Research, which I had the misfortune to visit a few months back, ICRISAT is clearly buzzing with the kind of people that like to get things done.
Scientists here are focusing on 5 different food crops that are highly nutritional and require little water: pigeon pea, chickpea, pearl millet, sorghum and groundnut (peanut).
They are developing varieties that require as little water as possible and that grow in the warmest temperatures.
To that end, scientists here have used genetic markers to identify the section of DNA of a crop that is associated with, say drought resistance, and bred hybrid varieties.
And in crops, such as pigeon pea, that don’t naturally have drought resistant varieties, they have found this desirable DNA section from a different plant and inserted it into the DNA of the pigeon pea. (The video continues here.)
This kind of genetic modification is also helping them to produce a peanut that contains high levels of bio-available vitamin A.
The plant genomics work going on in this building – that has been cleverly designed to enhance the natural breezes and conserve every drop of rainwater – is reliant on the simplest and most precious commodity: the crop seeds. Over 120,000 seed varieties for these five semi-arid zone crops are stored in a fort on site. Like the fort at Hyderabad that for hundreds of years protected the people’s precious granaries, so too this sealed seed bank hopes to protect future generations from hunger. There are four different vaults, the coldest of which is kept at -20 degrees. From here, seeds have also been sent to Svalbard and two other repositories.
We cannot eat the Kohinoor, nor all the gold in Fort Knox, but hundreds of millions of people depend on these small, dull balls of bio-matter for their very survival.