USAID taps K-State to lead global hunger research on cereal grains  

Ripe milo or grain sorghum field. (Journal photo by Lacey Vilhauer.)

The U.S. Agency for International Development recently announced it would provide a $22 million grant to Kansas State University to lead the Feed the Future Climate Resilient Cereals Innovation Lab. Also known as CRCIL, the research program will focus on wheat, sorghum, millet, and rice and study improving and protecting these crops to eradicate world hunger.  

“Since 60% of world cereal production is rain-fed rather than irrigated, and climatic conditions are getting harsher everywhere, this is a program that can benefit farmers from Kansas to Africa and beyond,” said Jagger Harvey, K-State research professor and director of CRCIL. 

According to Jared Crain, K-State research assistant professor and associate director of CRCIL, there are more than 20 innovation labs across the nation. The programs focus on different areas of agriculture—anywhere from crops to fish to horticulture to poultry to ag policy—and are usually set up to conduct research for about 10 years. K-State has had four previous innovation labs funded by USAID, but Crain said CRCIL is unique from the other research programs because it will study four different cereal crops. 

“It’s one of the first initiatives I know of that’s looking at breeding multiple crops together,” Crain explained. “Looking back 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, with wheat breeding you only looked at wheat. There were sorghum breeders and rice breeders, but there wasn’t a lot of cross-talk between them. With technology advancements, we’re going to try to find synergy between all these specific domain expertises and identify where certain areas could be useful for more than just one specific crop.” 

Crain noted that the $22 million grant will not be used to fund a physical laboratory for the research, but rather the research itself. The studies will be conducted at existing K-State research facilities, such as the Wheat Genetics Resource Center. To assist in the research, K-State will be joined by several partners, including Clemson University, Cornell University, Delaware State University, Louisiana State University and the University of Florida and international partners in South Asia, Eastern and Western Africa and Latin America, among others. For example, LSU will be helping out with the research on rice as it is not grown in Kansas. 

“Bringing that all into one central location and having cross-talk between all those individuals, I think that’s really going to speed things up and result in some really good advancements in global agriculture and agriculture in the U.S,” Crain said. 

Improving cereal grains and fighting hunger

CRCIL is designed to look into ways to make cereal crops more resilient for the future. Researchers will be studying strategies to help double food production and crop durability in the face of changes in climate and less available farmland. Research methods will include DNA sequencing and genotyping, crop modeling, simulations assisted by artificial intelligence and speed breeding. Through research at CRCIL, scientists will be studying different types of wheat and isolating useful germplasm and desired alleles to breed improved varieties that will be more successful in all parts of the world. 

Crain said that germplasm enhancement is a long-term process that will result in varieties that will be more productive in the future and benefit countries that struggle to grow their own food, but it will also benefit American farmers. Since the research is done in Kansas, scientists will continue to learn about our environmental conditions and which varieties will thrive in the High Plains. 

“We can go test germplasm that’s been developed in Kansas under very hot conditions and take it to Western Africa and see how that germplasm is performing there,” Crain said. “It can both help us select better genetics for Kansas and also prepare the U.S. for when foreign diseases make their way here. We will have already screened that germplasm and identify those with disease resistance and make sure that everything’s protected rather than have a disease come in that everything is susceptible to.” 

This research comes at a crucial time as developing countries are challenged even more with food insecurity due to Russia’s war in Ukraine and drought conditions. Harvey also stressed the type of people in developing countries that can benefit from these improved varieties. 

“Many farmers in Africa are a mother with a one-acre farm of poor soils, unimproved seeds and little to no fertilizer,” Harvey said. “With the worst drought in 40 years, East Africa has seen over a million people immigrate and more facing hunger. By helping to develop more drought, heat and other climate stress tolerant seeds, CRCIL aims to help that farmer feed her family and lift themselves out of poverty.”  

According to Crain, more than 50% of the world’s caloric intake comes from cereals. Concentrating on cereal grains is an efficient way to chip away at world hunger concerns. Crain said K-State was an ideal location for this initiative because the university has already been home to several innovation labs and the individuals working within the research know what is expected and how to manage the grants. From a logistics perspective Kansas is a no-brainer, because there are many millions of acres of sorghum and wheat raised in the state. The climate of Kansas is also extremely diverse. One side of the state often suffers from drought conditions, while the other experiences much more rainfall and can easily produce excellent dryland corn and soybean crops. 

“Kansas is like a climate analog,” Crain explained. “If you’re going to study drought disease, or abiotic stress, Kansas can pretty much mimic those natural systems. And you can take material from Kansas and go to West Africa or East Africa, and see how it performs there.” 

Both Crain and Harvey look forward to finding cereal solutions to benefit developed and developing countries in the face of a multitude of complex challenges. 

 “With decades of development assistance, it has been shown that this type of agriculture-led growth is very effective,” Harvey said. “Beyond the moral imperative of helping these smallholder farmers, it is a win-win for the U.S. as well. From 2010 to 2020, about two-thirds of the growth in exports of U.S. goods was to USAID partner countries; as people are lifted out of poverty and economies grow, they import more U.S. goods.” 

Lacey Vilhauer can be reached at 620-227-1871 or [email protected].