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Title Biofertilization and "bioirrigation" for sustainable mixed cropping of pigeon pea and finger millet
Title Original Biofertilization and "bioirrigation" for sustainable mixed crop-ping of pigeon pea and finger millet
Official Acronym ISCB_BIOFI_BT
FiBL project number 1000704

In terms of biotechnology, we will combine the proven experience of partners of the previous ISCB biofertilizer network and that of new Indian and Swiss partners to use arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) and plant growth-promoting rhizobacteria (PGPR) as "biofertilizers". Central to our approach is a mixed cropping system of finger millet and pigeon pea, which will make optimal use of the biofertilizers by the allocation and re-distribution of water through hydraulic lift ("bioirrigation"). Our principal output will be a "package" consisting of seeds for mixed-culture and compatible strains of biofertilizers of Indian origin, to be used by small-holder farms, especially in rainfed and saline fields in South India, where most of the current finger millet production takes place. In more detail, our “package” will be composed of polybags containing seeds of a pigeon pea cultivar suitable for transplantation, specifically selected to suit our proposed "bioirrigation" scheme, with an appropriate inoculum of biofertilizers, i.e., selected strains of AMF and PGPR; and seeds of a finger millet cultivar optimally suited for biofertilizer- and bioirrigation-enhanced performance in mixed culture with pigeon pea. Our biotechnological “package” will be a ground-breaking tool for rainfed fields not only in India, but on a global scale.

The task of the Soil Science Department at FiBL is to develop concepts for testing the biofertilizers in the field and facilitate the implementation of the field experiments. Second FiBL will assess effects of the applied biofertilizers on soil quality. Mathimaran Natarajan is also involved in the overall coordination of the project.

In terms of socio-economics, a market analysis of bio-inputs will serve to identify promising channels to produce and distribute the components of our “package”. We wish to apply and distribute our "package" for the mixed-cropping system at minimal cost to local farmers. Therefore, we want to explore, in detail, the option of participatory "eco-enterprises" anchored in the local, rural communities to produce the "biofertilizers", instead of sophisticated centralized schemes of industrial production by in-vitro root-organ culture (AMF) or by large fermenter units (PGPR) . Plant cultivars to be used will be selected and pre-tested in national breeding centres in the biotechnological part of the project, and subsequently multiplied for seed production locally. A baseline survey at farm level will provide information on the farming systems, seed systems, intercropping patterns, input procurement and innovation behaviour of farmers. This will serve to adapt and fine-tune the innovations to the needs and possibilities of resource-poor farmers in the target areas. An end-line survey will allow us to derive first informations on adoption and impact. Both surveys will feed into a crop production model. To substantiate the crop-production model and the participatory approach, we will perform a "life cycle assessment" to compare the efficiency of our mixed-cropping scheme with conventional cropping systems, with respect to land occupation, energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, eutrophication, acidification and water use. Furthermore, we will assess the profitability of our innovations based on the data in the field trials carried out by the biotechnology partners and on participatory on-farm trials. This will allow us to target our "package" to areas and contexts that are most promising for its introduction and widespread adoption.

Project website


Detailed Description

The widespread adoption of sustainable intercropping technology promotes resilient food production and livelihood to resource-poor people

The development and implementation of an environmentally, economically and socially improved finger miller and pigeon pea intercropping system for arid/semi-arid zones, using bio-inoculants and bio-irrigation

The overall objective of our proposal is to put a package into the hands of smallholder farmers in marginal areas in India allowing them to cultivate pigeon pea and finger millet in mixed cultures, which will enhance crop yield by biofertilizers and bioirrigation, particularly in rainfed areas of South India. This will lead to more resilient, self-regulated sustainable cropping systems, which will ascertain food security of the rural population through more and healthier food. We envision that the starting plant material (seeds, seedlings) as well as the biofertilizers will be produced locally by participatory "eco-enterprises" in the farmer's communities, as pioneered by the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (http://www.mssrf.org). This will alleviate poverty in rural areas and generate additional income to farmers, in particular women.

Currently, pigeon pea and finger millet are grown on about 3.38 and 2.5 million hectare, respectively, in India, much of them as mixed cultures, particularly in rainfed marginal farms. We propose here to optimize such mixed-culture schemes by making use of bio-irrigation and bio-fertilization, allowing boosting yields, while improving the nutritional quality of the crops, e.g. with regard to trace element and protein contents. We focus on an optimised pigeon pea - finger millet intercropping system, where the pigeon pea is pre-cultured locally in the field borders. This system is perfectly suited to inoculate AMF and PGPR as bio-fertilisers already during the pre-cultivation phase. We envision that the total yield (in terms of marketable product) is at least 20% higher than under current cultivation schemes. The project will help to improve food security and generate income to smallholder farmers, in particular to women in remote areas of India. By the more efficient use of fertilisers and water, our project will substantially contribute to more resilient, eco-intensified productive dryland farming systems.

The intended short-term output will be a series of mutually compatible, promising innovations for improving the farmers’ existing intercropping systems, within the first three years of the project. These innovations will be tested under farmers’ conditions to examine their profitability and adaptability. Factors favouring or hindering adoption of these innovations will be identified and respective solutions for enhancing acceptability tested. The project will also explore the usefulness of participatory approaches in developing and testing new biotechnology products and thus will set new standards for trans-disciplinary and trans-national research cooperation.

We are fully aware that some of the innovations developed may require considerable labour in the field, an important factor currently contributing to the livelihood of rural communities. There are predictions that labour costs would increase in the next decade, and therefore, we also plan to develop mixed-cropping schemes compatible with the predicted enhanced mechanization of land use. This work will start after successful completion of the current project, exploring also a new generation of optimised pigeon pea and finger millet selections, as well as compatible AMF and PGPR strains.

Knowledge and limitations
It is well known that mixed-cropping schemes are a key element of sustainable agriculture and food security in India. Mixed-cropping of pigeon pea (or other legumes) and finger millet (or other millets) has been used for centuries by Indian farmers, primarily for home consumption. Both pigeon pea and finger millet are crops with very high nutritional value, particularly for child and women, and can be combined very well in the field. However, we believe that the classic mixed-cropping schemes of these two plants do not make full use of their advantages.

Rationale of the study supported by the cited literature
In our proposal, we want to optimize the mixed-cropping of pigeon pea and finger millet on a scientific basis. In particular, the potential of pigeon pea to lift water from deep underground (hydraulic lift) and to "bio-irrigate" the neighbouring finger millet has not been considered up to now. In addition, although microbial "biofertilizers", such as arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) and plant growth-promoting rhizobacteria (PGPR), have often successfully been evaluated to enhance productivity of mono-cultures, they never have been fully evaluated with regard to mixed cultures. In previous work of one of the teams (BIB-TB, Walder et al. 2011), it was clearly demonstrated that a cereal can promote the yield of a neighbouring crop if connected through a common network of biofertilizer microorganisms. We want to combine "bioirrigation" and "biofertilization" to provide a resilient, sustainably high yield of pigeon pea and finger millet in a scheme adapted to marginal farmers, particularly in drought-threatened, rainfed regions. A central socio-economic aspect of our scheme is the role of “eco-enterprises” in local communities to supply the biofertilizers and the plant cultivars used for mixed-cropping, and its impact on energy consumption and global change (life-cycle assessment).

Project status completed
Start of project 01.05.2014
End of project 30.05.2017
(Research) Programme
  • Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC)
Project partners
  1. Prof. Dr. Thomas Boller, Botany, University of Basel, Switzerland (BIB) – Project leader
  2. Dr. Paul Mäder, Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (, Frick, Switzerland (FiBL)
  3. Prof. Dr. Ansgar Kahmen, Botany, University of Basel, Switzerland (BIB)
  4. Dr. Thangavelu Muthukumar, Bharathiar University, Coimbatore, India (BU)
  5. Prof. Dr. N. Sakthivel, Pondicherry University, Puducherry, India (PU)
  6. Dr. Rajeev K. Varshney, ICRISAT, Hyderabad, India (ICRISAT)
  7. Dr. V.R. Prabavathy, MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, India (MSSRF)
  8. Mr. E.G. Ashok, Small Millets, GKVK, Bangalore, India (GKVK)
  9. Dr. Christian Schader, Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, Switzerland (FiBL)
  10. Dr. Raj Rengalakshmi, MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, India (MSSRF-RR)
  11. Dr. Dominic Blaettler, Bern University of Applied Sciences – HAFL (HAFL)
Project Advisory Board


FiBL project leader/ contact
FiBL project staff
Role of FiBL

Field experimental design and soil quality assessment (PLFA, en-zymes) in pigeon pea and finger millet intercropping system

Further Information


Research area
Date modified 16.03.2017
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