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Lentil Improvement for the Benefit of Highland Farmers

A. Sarker1, A. Aydogan2, S.H. Sabaghpour3, I. Kusmenoglu4, B. Sakr5, W. Erskine1 and F.J. Muehlbauer6

1International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), Aleppo, Syria Email
Central Research Institute for Field Crops (CRIFC), Ankara, Turkey
Dryland Agricultural Research Institute (DARI), Kermanshah, Iran
Mediterranean Seed Export Company, Ankara, Ankara, Turkey
Institute National for Agronomic Research (INRA), Settat, Morocco
Washington State University, USDA-ARS, Pullman, USA


One of the major agro-ecologies of lentil production is the highlands of Central and West Asia and North Africa (CWANA). Lentils in these areas are mainly grown in spring because of severe winter cold, and the crop productivity is very low. Lentil production can be increased significantly by shifting from traditional spring planting to fall or winter planting, and by adopting improved production packages. Therefore, development of appropriate winter technologies including winter-hardy lentil varieties is a major focus of lentil improvement programs. The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), Syria is closely collaborating with national programs to develop such technologies for the benefit of highland farmers. There are now improved varieties released and production technologies developed in Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakastan and in Georgia. Molecular markers (QTLs) for winter-hardiness have been identified to assist breeding programs. Dissemination of improved technologies is the key to adoption - this needs strengthening.

Media summary

Development of winter-hardy varieties will boost lentil production in the highlands of Central and West Asia and North Africa.

Key Words

Lentil, Winter-hardiness, Highlands, Central and West Asia, North Africa


Lentil (Lens culinaris Medikus ssp. culinaris) has been an important crop in the highland cropping systems of West Asia and North Africa (WANA) because of its contribution to human food, animal feed and soil health. It is also gaining popularity in the Central Asia and the Caucasus (CAC), and has been included as a component of crop diversification. The national programs of Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Morocco, and the countries of CAC have close collaboration with the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), Syria for lentil improvement in their highland regions (>850 meters above sea level). One of the key means of increased lentil production in these areas is to shift lentil planting from spring to winter to exploit the benefits of winter rainfall and longer growth period. Efforts are underway to develop agro-ecologically suitable and high yielding winter-hardy lentil varieties, which is a major focus of lentil improvement programs at ICARDA. Lentil varieties adapted to winter cultivation can boost production, and increase profits for the farmers, and in west Asia alone about 500,000 ha can be taken under winter cultivation.

Major constraints to production

In the cold-prone highlands, lentil is traditionally grown in spring to avoid the harsh cold climates in winter months. The local cultivars are of spring types that don’t have sufficient amount of winter-hardiness, that eventually get killed and so are unsuitable for winter cultivation. ICARDA and the national program researchers have identified three major elements of constraints of lentil production in the highlands:

  • Lack of winter-hardy cultivars to replace the low-yielding landraces.
  • Insufficient weed control and little use of proper agronomic practices. Weeds are also vigorous in winter planting
  • Susceptibility to Ascochyta blight disease. With luxuriant canopy growth, the microclimate became congenial to disease development (Sarker et al., 2002).

Table 1. Improved lentil varieties released for highland cultivation in CWANA region



Key traits

Planting season


ILL 5582
ILL 7180

High yield, wide adaptation
High yield, erect, moderate winter-hardy

Early spring


Arzoo *

Bold seed, high biomass, erect, winter-hardy




High seed yield, moderate winter-hardy, erect, resistant to wilt

Early spring


Oltindon *

High seed yield, erect, early, winter-hardy




High biomass, erect, wide adaptation, winter-hardy




Winter-hardy, bold seed, high yield



ILL 6434 *

High biomass, bold seed, erect




High seed yield, moderate winter-hardy, resistant to rust, Ascochyta blight and wilt diseases




Ali Dayi

Winter-hardy, high seed yield, erect, wide adaptation
Winter-hardy, high seed yield, erect
Winter-hardy, high seed yield, large seed
Large seed, wilt resistant, erect
Erect, high yield, wilt resistant



* In pre-release stage

Means of higher and stable yield

First, wherever severe cold prevails for long (>-20OC), lentil production can be increased substantially by replacing low-yielding landraces with improved spring varieties (Sakar et al. 1988). In this situation, the crop is grown on residual soil moisture at the end of winter rains. So, the cultivars with early growth vigor, rapid biomass development, early flowering and maturity are best suited.

Second, production can be increased significantly by shifting from spring to winter planting (Sakar et al., 1988). This gives the crop the benefit of winter rainfall, and low evaporation. This environment allows optimum vegetative growth and to attain higher yield potential through better water use efficiency. The taller canopy allows for mechanical harvest. The increased biomass from winter crop is highly demanded for feeding small ruminants. The photothermal model developed by Summerfield et al. (1985) can applied to target adapted genotypes in various cold-prone areas. The model proposes that photothermally-sensative genotypes are potentially well adapted to harsh highland environments (Keatinge et al., 1996).

Third, the farmers in these areas are not acquainted with winter planting lentil technology. Proper agronomic management right from land preparation up to maturity, weed control, disease management are the key factors for higher and stable yield. Farmers need to be trained to implement these production technologies.

Search for suitable genetic resources

The first step for the development of winter-hardy cultivars was to find plants that can survive the harsh winter cold. ICARDA has a rich collection of >10,500 cultivated and >550 accessions of wild species of lentil germplasm. Previous evaluation for winter-hardiness revealed that enormous variability and sufficient level of cold tolerance is present among cultivated species (Erskine et al., 1981). These accessions are the base materials that ICARDA is using for the development of winter-hardy genotypes. Among wild species, the most winter-hardy accessions were observed in Lens orientalis (Hamdi et al., 1996).

Selection environment

Breeding for winter-hardiness is done following a decentralized approach with the Central Research Institute for Field Crops (CRIFC), Ankara, Turkey. Materials are evaluated at Haymana and Sivas under severe cold conditions (below –22OC). Information generated are used to develop the International Cold Tolerant Nursery to distribute to other partners for similar agro-ecological conditions. Also, segregating populations are evaluated in these sites to select single plants with high level of winter-hardiness.

Some success stories

a). Out of 500,000 ha planted to lentil in Turkey, about 150,000 ha are in highlands of central Anatolia. Some areas are up to 1400 meters above sea level, and temperature goes below –25OC in peak winter. Working with ICARDA, Turkey has recently released three high yielding winter-hardy and two high-yielding spring varieties (Table 1). Of the winter varieties, Kafkas and Ozbek are the bests, out-yielding the local cultivars by 42 and 44%, respectively. Additionally, the scientists have selected several winter-hardy lines with desirable agronomic traits: ILL 7155, ILL 759, ILL 1878, ILL 8146, ILL 9832 and ILL 4400.

b). Iran grows lentil on about 260,000 ha, but with a very low productivity of 385 kg/ha (FAO, 2002). This scenario can be attributed to the cultivation of low-yielding spring type landraces, high weed infestation, poor agronomy, and lack of quality seed. To date only one variety has been released in Iran for early-spring planting. The variety has moderate level of winter-hardiness, and is suitable for less cold-prone areas (-10OC). However, the national scientists have identified a few winter-hardy lines from ICARDA nurseries, which survived in harsh cold of –22OC in Ardabil region. The winter-hardy lines, ILL 590, ILL 662, ILL 857, ILL 975 and ILL 1878 are under on-farm testing for potential release.

c). In the highlands of Balochistan province of Pakistan, the Arid Zone Research Institute have released Shiraz-96, a lentil variety for winter cultivation. Afghanistan has released ILL 5582 and ILL 7180 for early-spring cultivation in Herat, Balkh and Takhar provinces for higher yield with tall canopy and good standing ability (Table 1). ILL 5582 and ILL 7180 produced 53% and 37% higher yield than the local check, respectively.

d).Farmers of high elevation areas of Atlas Mountain in Morocco also traditionally grow spring lentil with low productivity. One of the key research objectives of Moroccan national program is to replace spring crop with winter-hardy lentil cultivars. The recently released varieties, Hamria and Bichette (Sakr et al., 2004a, 2004b), adapted well in these moderate cold-prone (below –13OC) areas. The varieties are spreading fast through farmer-to-farmer seed dissemination.

e). Among eight Central Asian and the Caucasus countries, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Georgia and Kazakastan are in forefront in food legume research. Lentil became a forgotten crop in the region due to exclusion in collective farming systems during the Soviet era. Lentil is being re-established in the region for both winter and spring cultivation. In this context, recently Georgia has released “Pablo” lentil variety with a yield potential of 3 t/ha and erect plant type for winter planting. Azerbaijan is about to release “Arzoo” winter lentil variety for higher yields of seed and biomass with large seed size. The first lentil variety in Uzbekistan, “Oltindon” characterized by higher yield and tall plant type would be released soon for winter cultivation. Kazakhstan has identified promising lentil lines, ILL 6434 and ILL 6037 for future release for spring sowing. All these varieties and lines emanated from ICARDA-supplied germplasm.

Technology dissemination

Lack of good quality seed is a major constraint to dissemination of improved varieties. In Turkey, the Mediterranean Seed Export Company has taken responsibility to multiply and distribute seeds of improved varieties to the farmers. In Morocco, seed production is being done by “SONACOS’, a semi-government organization. In other countries, the government institutions are responsible for variety release and seed multiplication, which is inadequate in most cases. Seed sector must be strengthened for rapid adoption and impact at the farm level. Moreover, inadequate knowledge of production technologies of winter crop is an impediment of production. Farmer’s training and technology demonstrations through on-farm trials and organizing field days are the ways to empower farmers to be better acquainted with recommended technologies.

Progress in molecular research

Development of improved lentil cultivars for highlands can benefit from molecular research. Progress in developing winter-hardy lentil cultivars has been slow due to difficulty in identifying and transfer of winter-hardy genes using traditional field screening methods. ICARDA is working with the Washington State University, USA and CRIFC, Turkey, to identify genes that confer winter-hardiness and tag them with molecular markers. A total of five QTLs were identified from a population, of which one was common across environments (Kharaman et al., 2004). Molecular markers for the QTLs are available for use in marker-assisted selection for winter hardiness.

Future direction

  • Dissemination of winter planting technology to improve the income of farmers.
  • Large quantity of foundation seed production and distribution to the farmers.
  • Search for new genes for winter- hardiness and their pyramiding
  • Use of molecular markers in breeding for winter-hardiness
  • Disease component, particularly Ascochyta blight needs to be studied.


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