A team of scientists led by an Indian-American at a prestigious American university has introduced a technique of using coconut dust for germinating seeds that improves soil quality for plants to take stronger roots.
Scientists at the Virginia Tech have developed the technique for farmers in Kerala, which can be used as a great potting soil for seedlings, the university said.
Coconut dust provides an ideal medium in which to grow young seedlings until they are ready to be transplanted. Their lightweight cellulosic structure allows the roots of a seed to establish themselves and at the same time absorb just the right amount of water, it said in a statement.
Furthermore, when "coco-peat" is added to soil, it improves the soil's texture and structure. Sandy soil becomes more compact, and clayey soil becomes more arable. Plus the medium is more likely to be free from bacteria and fungi, it said.
The university's Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab, funded by the US Agency for International Development, began working with universities in India on this project seven years ago.
At that time, scientists introduced the technique of using coconut dust in seedling trays to germinate seeds.
Farmers were resistant at first, but once they saw the benefits, they were eager to adopt the practice.
The Blacksburg-based university said the Indian government has helped fund the cost of materials, making them accessible to smallholder farmers and expanding the impact of its programme.
"Seedlings are normally not very healthy, and almost 50 per cent of them are lost to diseases," Muni Muniappan, director of the Innovation Lab at Virginia Tech.
"They start to germinate, then get attacked by a fungus and die off. On its own raised in soil, a seedling will only grow to 50 per cent of its potential," Muniappan says.
"But if it's healthy, you can as much as double the yield," he said.
S Mohankumar, professor of plant molecular biology at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University and a partner in the project, said, "Where farmers used to grow their own seedlings, now they buy them from nurseries, a healthier option".
The technique has proven highly successful and has led to growth of nurseries.
"In this way we have helped spur private sector development at the same time that we are helping farmers produce better crops," Muniappan said.