Penn State initiative, BREAD grants focus on African agriculture

University Park, Pa. -- Africa is home to about 1 billion people, and a recent report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) indicates as many as 30 percent of them suffer from chronic hunger or malnutrition. A new initiative announced by Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences is aimed at working with African institutions to ease this human suffering while enhancing food and economic security through agricultural research and education.

Launch of the college's Ag2Africa initiative coincided with a May 12 announcement that three Africa-related projects involving the college would receive grants from the BREAD program (Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development), a collaboration between the National Science Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The grants were three of just 15 awarded nationwide.

Agriculture is the motor for rural development and reducing poverty and hunger in Africa, according to the FAO report.

"With some of the world's poorest countries, Africa is a key region in terms of feeding the world in the next 50 years," said Thomas Gill, Ag2Africa coordinator in the college's Office of International Programs. "To ignore Africa is to ignore millions who are undernourished and food insecure. This initiative is consistent with the vision we share with Penn State, U.S. and international partners to think globally and to embrace Africa as a neighbor when addressing concerns related to agriculture, trade, the environment, gender equality and other issues."

The Ag2Africa initiative will provide a focal point for new and ongoing collaborations in Africa, Gill said. He cited several overall objectives, among them:

  • promote sustainable livelihoods by studying and implementing new technologies that will address such challenges as drought, poor soil fertility, pest damage and low crop yields;
  • enhance human-resource capacity in Africa by helping to train and develop leaders, scientists and educators who can solve local problems;
  • build extension and outreach programs so that the latest and best scientific information can be translated to practices in the field;
  • provide service-learning opportunities for students -- both in the United States and Africa -- to apply what they've learned and become global citizens.

The new BREAD grants will provide a total of more than $2.5 million for Penn State researchers working on three projects. One, led by James Tumlinson, Penn State professor of entomology, will survey native honey bees in Kenya and characterize the distribution of parasitic Varroa mites, viruses and other pathogens that have an important effect on honey bee health. The long-term goal is to develop protocols for sustainable, nonchemical beekeeping practices and to minimize threats to this ecologically and agriculturally critical species.

The research team also includes James Frazier, Maryann Frazier, Christina M. Grozinger and Harland M. Patch, all from Penn State's entomology department, and Daniel Masiga and Elliud Muli from the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Kenya.

The second BREAD grant will support a collaboration to develop maize varieties with root traits that will enhance a plant's ability to acquire water and other soil resources while reducing the metabolic cost to the plant of soil exploration. Jonathan Lynch, Penn State professor of plant nutrition, will lead the project, which is designed to develop products and approaches that will help feed hungry people in Africa.

Co-principal investigators include Kathleen Brown, Penn State professor of postharvest physiology, Shawn Kaeppler of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and George Kanyama-Phiri of Bunda College of Agriculture in Malawi.

Mark Guiltinan, professor of plant molecular biology, is a co-principal investigator on a third BREAD project aimed at developing and testing two novel methods for achieving plant resistance to fungal diseases. Promising techniques will be applied to cacao, an important cash crop in west Africa. Ultimately, these new technologies also could be applicable to a broad array of fungal diseases of rice, wheat and other crops important to the developing world.

Brett Tyler, Virginia Tech professor of plant pathology, physiology and weed science is the principal investigator. Researchers on the project also include Shunyuan Xiao at the University of Maryland and Brian Bailey of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Md.

Gill pointed out that the College of Agricultural Sciences has other collaborations underway in several African countries, focusing on such areas as food security, plant physiology and molecular biology, integrated pest management, agribusiness, sustainable agriculture and forestry, livestock management and agroecology.

"Projects under the Ag2Africa umbrella work through in-country partnerships with universities and other research institutions, government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and other public and private-sector groups," he said. "There's excellence around the world, and these types of global collaborations enhance all the partners' abilities to make a difference in people's lives."

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Last Updated November 18, 2010