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Inside Pakistan’s innovative mango genome gardens

April 14, 2024
topic:Sustainable Agriculture
tags:#Pakistan, #Sustainable Agriculture, #climate change, #climate action
by:Ishrat Ansari
Pakistan is combating the severe impacts of heatwaves on its mango crops by turning to sustainable and nature-based solutions.

Pakistan is globally celebrated for its mangoes. But in recent years, several varieties have failed to produce the expected yield due to erratic weather conditions, including heatwaves, frost spells, hailstorms, windstorms, rains and floods.

In an attempt to preserve the nation's prized mangoes, the government, growers and exporters are collaborating on research and investing in the concept of a genome garden. This approach involves planting various species of mango to evaluate their genetic diversity and adaptability to local environmental conditions.

According to a 2021 report published by the Mango Research Institute in Multan, heatwaves invariably reduce the fruit size in all varieties. Additionally, prolonged foggy conditions diminish flowering intensity and frost was found to damage young plants. The report also emphasszed that Pakistan is among the nations most severely affected by climate change, which poses significant challenges to mango crop growth.

Dr Abid Sulehri, a food security specialist and head of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in Islamabad, explained that genome gardens provide a crucial advantage in gene preservation for current and future use. 

"We can establish a bio laboratory that will benefit future generations. By planting various varieties, we can determine which ones are well-suited to Pakistan's soil and climate," explained Dr Suleri. "Additionally, if a particular variety proves favourable, we can use it as a basis to develop new varieties. This is the underlying motive behind introducing the concept of a genome garden."

He added, "There exists a greater diversity of fruits and vegetables compared to staple foods. When it comes to staple foods, individuals tend to develop their taste preferences over time and continue using them. However, both researchers and growers gravitate towards horticulture for research purposes due to its shorter crop cycle, which facilitates easy comparison between different varieties,"  

In this context, seeds from other countries are acquired and planted to assess their performance and adaptability to Pakistan's soil and climate, he added. "The idea of a genome garden is good in the sense that it will help upcoming generations to take advantage of the research available."

Multan Abdul Ghaffar Grewal, Director of the Mango Research Institute (MRI), told FairPlanet that genome gardens, earlier known as a progeny or germplasms unit, is now garnering attention among growers and farmers in the country.

"Since setting up a genome garden is very expensive, not all the growers can afford it and the government also has limited resources. However, they can be expanded in the country if resources are available," said Grewal. 

He mentioned that the government, along with growers and exporters, are investing in research to secure the future of mango cultivation. Their collective goal is to familiarise future generations with the concept of a genome garden, where various species are planted to study their genetic diversity and adaptation to local conditions.

Mango production and export

Mango ranks as the second-largest fruit crop in Pakistan, following kinow, a type of citrus fruit.

Grewal noted that in districts such as Multan, Bahawalpur, Khanewal, Vehari, Dera Ghazi Khan, Rajanpur, Rahim Yar Khan and certain areas of Sindh where mangoes are cultivated, the fruit constitutes a staple diet for 50 per cent of the population, mostly among underprivileged village communities.

"During the mango season, from May to August, they eat mangoes every day with bread and rice as a lunch," he said, adding that the fruit is also used to make a shake during peak summer.

According to him, the highest quality, or 'A' category, mangoes are exported, 'B' category mangoes are sold locally in markets, and the remaining fruit is sold at very low prices in the aforementioned districts.

Grewal, who grew up in a village, said that about 50 per cent of families there, struggling with poverty, often have lunch with just pickles, dates or mangoes. During mango season, they prepare pickles from raw mangoes, which are then consumed two to three times a week throughout the year as a supplement for lunch, because affording curry or meat on a daily basis is beyond their means.

Pakistan ranks as the sixth largest mango producer in the world, following countries like India, China, Thailand and Indonesia. In 2021-22, Pakistan exported 145,906,540 kilogrammes of mangoes valued at Rs 24,265,019,000 (USD 290.5 million). These exports primarily went to the Middle East, Central Asia, the UK, the US and several EU countries.

Various research institutes in Pakistan are consistently working to enhance mango production, continuing their efforts with support from government funding.

In Punjab, mangoes are grown on an area of 99,000 hectares with an annual yield of 1.32 million tonnes. The average yield in Punjab is 13.33 tonnes per hectare, while in Sindh is 5.57 tonnes per hectare.

In South Punjab, the primary mango-producing districts include Multan, Muzaffargarh, Rahim Yar Khan, Khanewal and Bahawalpur, while Vehari, Dera Ghazi Khan, Rajanpur and Bahawalnagar also cultivate mangoes over substantial areas. In Sindh, the district of Mirpurkhas is well-known for its orchards that grow the Sindhri variety, which is celebrated as the 'Queen of Mangoes' in Pakistan.

Punjab accounts for 70 per cent of mango production, while Sindh accounts for 29 per cent and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for merely 1 per cent.

The Impact of environmental Instability

Dr. Mir Amanullah Talpur noted that recent unpredictable and extreme weather conditions have adversely affected mango production, adding that explained that prolonged winters and delayed summers have resulted in reduced yields. The mild weather that lingers until early May, he said, negatively impacts mango growth, with the extended cold making the orchards more vulnerable to fungal attacks.

Pakistan has also experienced several heatwaves in recent years, which pose a challenge to certain mango varieties. Dad Muhammad Baloch, director of the Sindh Horticulture Research Institute in Mirpurkhas, told Fair Planet that some of the local varieties cannot withstand such high temperatures, highlighting the need for heat-resistant varieties. 

"Given the climate problems, we have focused on preserving those with unique qualities among the numerous mango varieties available. For example, certain varieties exhibit better resistance to viruses and insects, while others have higher fruit yields and are less prone to falling from trees," said Grewal. He further explained that some mango varieties ripen later in the season, others have a higher fruit-holding capacity and some require less water for management.

Meanwhile, The Express Tribune, Pakistan’s leading English newspaper, reported that the All Pakistan Fruit and Vegetable Exporters Association (PFVA) predicts a significant drop in mango production this year. The forecast suggests that output will decrease to 1.44 million metric tonnes, a 20 per cent reduction from the usual annual capacity of 1.8 million metric tonnes.

As mentioned in the article, Miran Mohammed Shah, president of the Sindh Chamber of Agriculture, attributed mildew disease affecting mango orchards in certain sections of the Tando Allahyar and Matiari districts to the effects of climate change.

Ongoing Research

During the British colonial era, recognising the potential of the mango orchards in Mirpurkhas, the Sindh government established the Sindh Horticulture Research Station in 1932. This institution later evolved into the Sindh Horticulture Research Institute (SHRI). Today, the institute operates a genome garden with about 80 local and foreign mango varieties, conducting research into mango diversity and related agricultural issues.

In Punjab, two genome gardens were set up by the local government. One is located in the Mango Research Station in Shujabad, while the other, the Mango GermPlasm Unit, is in Khanewal District. The Mango Research Institute (MRI) in Multan oversees these genome gardens. 

The station, founded in 1974, has so far collected 250 local species and 40 foreign varieties, according to its director.

The First private genome garden

Developing a genome garden is a monumental undertaking. But Dr Mir Amanullah Talpur, a grower from Umerkot, Sindh, has established a genome garden spanning seven acres on his family's 650 acre property. Talpur's farm is located on the fringes of the Thar Desert, creating a unique sub-climate pocket with distinct environmental and weather conditions, including frequent heatwaves.

Speaking with FairPlanet, Talpur shared that he launched his genome garden in 2019. Back in 1984, when his father introduced him to agriculture, there was already a conventional mango orchard spread over 100 acres on their lands. 

"I have a profound passion for research," he said. "Despite being a medical doctor, I have always been involved in agriculture due to my ancestors. In 2019, I completed all the necessary groundwork to set up a genome garden."

A seventy-year-old grower, Talpur expressed his desire to leave behind a lasting legacy that future generations will remember him for.

Talpur said that the European Union conducted research on mangoes from this region and recognised the Sindhri variety as a mango of superior quality.

Talpur's garden grows an impressive collection of exotic mango varieties, including Thailand's Mahachanok, Japan's Miyazaki, India's Noor Jehan and Anmol, the Philippines' Rainbow and Carabao, and Australia's Sensation. Talpur noted that Japan's Miyazaki mango is regarded as one of the most expensive mangoes in the world.

Furthermore, given the challenges of climate change, local water irrigation practices and saline groundwater issues, Talpur has embraced sustainable farming.

"We aspire to produce organic food," he added. "In our orchards, we guarantee zero fertiliser usage and minimise the application of pesticides. Our objective is to avoid any mechanical practices and instead adopt a nature-based solution, which we refer to as regenerative agriculture."

He is now preparing to establish a genome garden research institute in Umerkot to take his commitment to the next level. 

Expanding Genome Gardens

Genome gardens hold significant value for both growers and the government in Pakistan, especially in today’s context of unpredictable weather patterns and increasingly frequent extreme weather conditions.

"Genome gardens hold great importance due to the limited availability of commercial varieties for growers," Grewal from MRI Multan, said. "However, it is important to know that numerous non-commercial varieties possess significant qualities. For instance, certain varieties exhibit strong tolerance to heat, although their overall productivity and fruit desirability may be subpar.

"Additionally, some varieties are capable of bearing fruits during winter. While these traits are not commercially exploited, their importance lies in the unique characteristics they possess."

Growers, according to Grewal, cannot directly utilise these genetic qualities; therefore, research institutes analyse them. These institutes then crossbreed these qualities with other varieties to develop new ones. As a result, genome gardens are extremely valuable in the public sector, underscoring the need for their preservation, as Grewal emphasises.

It should be noted, however, that growers with substantial resources can establish their own genome gardens. The government, meanwhile, appears to possess sufficient resources and invests heavily in research to harness the full potential of these gardens. It utilises scientific findings to develop new varieties, which are then distributed to growers for cultivation.

Grewal told FairPlanet that the Mango Research Station in Shujabad houses a significant collection of germplasm. According to the Annual Abridged Report 2022-2023, which was reviewed by FairPlanet, out of the station's total budget of Rs 27,663 million (USD 331,184), approximately Rs 5,097 million (USD 16,980) is allocated to germplasm research, breeding programmes and the maintenance of germplasm.

This article is part of FairPlanet's Future of Food series, curated by our Asia Desk Editor, Chermaine Lee, with the backing of the Solution Journalism Network's LEDE fellowship.

Image by Zulfikar Kunbhar.

Article written by:
Ishrat Ansari
Ripe mangoes at the Mango Research Station (MRI), Shujabad.
© MRI, Multan
Ripe mangoes at the Mango Research Station (MRI), Shujabad.
“Genome gardens hold great importance due to the limited availability of commercial varieties for growers. However, it is important to know that numerous non-commercial varieties possess significant qualities,\' Abdul Ghaffar Grewal, Director at MRI, Multan.
© Abdul Ghaffar Grewal
“Genome gardens hold great importance due to the limited availability of commercial varieties for growers. However, it is important to know that numerous non-commercial varieties possess significant qualities," Abdul Ghaffar Grewal, Director at MRI, Multan.
Mangoes at the Mango Research Station (MRI), Shujabad.
© MRI, Multan
Mangoes at the Mango Research Station (MRI), Shujabad.
A worker holds up a box of mangoes produced at the genome garden of Mir Dr Amanullah Talpur in Umerkot, Sindh.
© Zulfikar Kunbhar
A worker holds up a box of mangoes produced at the genome garden of Mir Dr Amanullah Talpur in Umerkot, Sindh.
Dr Mir Amanullah Talpur. He noted that mango production has been impacted in recent years by unpredictable and extreme weather conditions.
© Dr Mir Amanullah Talpur
Dr Mir Amanullah Talpur. He noted that mango production has been impacted in recent years by unpredictable and extreme weather conditions.
Farmers busy working at Dr Mir Amanullah Talpur\'s genome garden.
© Zulfikar Kunbhar
Farmers busy working at Dr Mir Amanullah Talpur's genome garden.
Dr Abid Suleri.
© Dr Abid Suleri
Dr Abid Suleri.