American academics seek to boost crop productivity to help poor farmers stave off famine

American academics focus on crop productivity to stave off famine

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 November, 2014, 6:05am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 November, 2014, 6:05am


Can a wasp feed the world? It can help.

If its larvae are nurtured near millet fields where a devastating moth steals harvests from the field, they can grow to become predators that destroy the pests and save the crop. And that might put more food in more mouths and earn money for struggling farmers in the world's poorest countries.

"The science, how to increase crop productivity, is the easier part," said Gary Pierzynski, a Kansas State University researcher. "The challenge is how to get the people from these developing countries to do it."

His work to that end, and that of others on the Kansas State campus, has brought US$100 million in federal grants to the university to explore the varied and complicated questions of how to feed the world's fast-growing population amid quickening climate change.

It is an initiative to attack world hunger with better crops, smarter tactics to fight off pests and disease and more efficient distribution of harvests -all in ways that can turn profits for small-scale farmers in the poorest parts of the world. This time of year, Kansas State's wheat fields are "just mounds of dirt", said Jesse Poland, 33, director of the school's Feed the Future Lab for Applied Wheat Genomics.

In greenhouses and in his lab - amid test tubes, beakers and thousands of dollars worth of the latest equipment - Poland and his graduate students try to create bigger and more resilient offspring.

The super progeny they hope to create are new strains of wheat bred to yield hefty harvests in the hottest, driest and hungriest parts of the world.

Poland saw children starving in India when he first travelled there years ago as a graduate student. That motivated him to point his research towards producing a better, more nutrient-rich, more sustainable food supply. He targeted wheat, which is particularly vulnerable to climate change.

"Growing wheat is critical to addressing world hunger," he said.

About 1.2 billion poor people depend on wheat. In South Asia, where much of Poland's work is focused, wheat yields are projected to decline 20 per cent to 30 per cent by 2050, according to the US government's Feed the Future initiative.

Tiny wheat plants fill a greenhouse in the state-of-the-art Wheat Innovation Centre at the university.

On one floor, the seeds of 13,533 varieties of wheat from around the world are in cold storage. Some are shipped to farmers around the world. Others are crossed with the lab wheat to create a hardier plant.

Inside glass greenhouses, some plants are capped for protection against pollination from the wrong source.

Those are the ones that student researchers have already tediously - it's all done by hand - crossed with some other wheat stock. Under normal conditions, it might take nearly a decade to bring a wheat crop, from the lab to the farm, that's more resistant to climate change and drought.

"But we are trying to speed up the process, maybe five years," Poland said.

In 2009, President Barack Obama put at least US$3.5 billion in federal funds towards global food security. By last year, private donors had pledged US$18.5 million more.

The annual budget for the full Feed the Future labs, including all 15 sites, is US$32 million a year.

The World Food Programme last month reported that about 805 million people, or about one in nine, do not have enough food to lead healthy, active lives. It said that number had dropped by more than 100 million over the past decade. Food is getting to more of the world's hungry, but it's a slow process.

The US government's global hunger and food security initiative reported that Feed the Future reached more than seven million farmers last year and more than 12.5 million children with nutrition problems.

World hunger may seem to be a distant problem in America's breadbasket. But Dalton said accelerating global climate change could mean that solutions for small-scale Indian or Malaysian farmers could one day save the harvests of industrial-scale wheat and sorghum growers in Kansas.

In one of the Kansas State labs, researchers from American and foreign universities search for ways to help poor farmers in Ghana, Ethiopia, Guatemala and Bangladesh bring more crops from the field to the market.

Farmers in those countries sometimes lost half their grain in thrashing, storage and transportation, said Venkat Reddy, who directs Kansas State's PostHarvest Loss Reduction Innovation Lab.

"If you see the conditions that some of these poor farmers have, it breaks your heart," Reddy said.

That is where Pierzynski and his lab come in.

Pierzynski's lab, which last month won a US$50 million federal grant, identifies ways to help poor farmers in Africa and South Asia improve land, water, soil, crop and livestock management while also improving the size of crop yields.

Sometimes it comes down to using animals to do work which chemicals or machines might have done, like the wasps they found that are natural predators of the millet head miner moth.

In the larva stage, the wasps - which are endemic to the developing countries where these infested fields are located - are fed and their nests hung from trees near the millet fields. When the insects mature, they feast on the larvae of the miner bug, then they breed more wasp larvae, more wasps break out and eat the miner moths. And so on.