The cultivation of knowledge and expertise to address complex challenges and improve lives is central to the land-grant mission of Kansas State University. And, through collaboration and shared vision, the university has worked to harness its innovative capacity, build on its strengths, and increase its impact on the world around it. The K-State 2025 visionary plan seeks to leverage the university’s expertise in a number of key strategic areas and “create a culture of excellence that results in flourishing, sustainable, and widely recognized research, scholarly and creative activities, and discovery in a variety of disciplines and endeavors that benefit society as a whole.” One such area, where Kansas State University is poised to make a large impact, is the future of the global food system.
According to a United Nations projection, the world’s population is expected to reach 9.6 billion by the year 2050. Based on these figures, the US Government anticipates that agricultural production will need to increase by at least 60 percent in order to feed this growing population. Considering the regions where much of the population growth is occurring and factoring in the effects of climate change, this global challenge becomes even more daunting. Developing regions such as China, India, and Africa—where food production is low, crop losses are high, natural resources are dwindling, and agricultural innovation is financially limited—will need to make large strides in the coming decades in order to meet the population’s needs. Through the Feed the Future Initiative, the United States Government is working to build domestic and international partnerships that help increase agricultural productivity and economic opportunity in developing countries by boosting the harvests and incomes of rural smallholder farmers.
A cornerstone of the Feed the Future Initiative involves harnessing the expertise of the US’s top universities to tackle some of these challenges through the Feed the Future Innovation Labs. To date, there are 25 such labs across the country, and four of them are located at Kansas State University. "These federal centers are highly competitive amongst universities with strong agriculture programs," said John Floros, dean of the College of Agriculture and director of K-State Research and Extension. "The labs require not only a great deal of expertise, but also leadership in coordinating research. Kansas State University is proud to lead these efforts to improve our global food system and help find solutions to feed the world's growing population."
With each of these grants, the US Agency for International Development, or USAID, has invested over $100 million to establish K-State’s four Feed the Future Innovation Labs. "The university is internationally recognized in the sorghum, millet, and wheat—from the plants' genetics and genomics, to how it's grown, to applications such as baking with the produced raw material," Floros said in a recent edition of K-State's Seek research magazine. "We're also leaders in how to minimize losses when taking food from the field to the consumer's table and in intensifying agriculture sustainability so that our grandkids and their grandkids can continue to feed themselves in a sustainable way. Because of this expertise, USAID has decided to invest in us."
Kansas State University's innovation labs are concentrating on sorghum and millet, wheat, reducing post-harvest losses, and sustainable intensification—increasing food production with limited resources and reduced stress on the environment. Each lab’s work focuses on a different area of K-State’s expertise, leverages unique public and private partnerships, and addresses a multitude of challenges based on their focus countries and the populations they hope to empower. “The Innovation Labs provide an opportunity to work on truly global issues that affect not only populations located in low income countries, but farmers and consumers in Kansas and the United States, on issues such as disease and insect management and improved nutritional quality of grain,” said Timothy Dalton, professor of agricultural economics and director of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sorghum and Millet.
The Sorghum and Millet Innovation Lab focuses on the African nations of Ethiopia, Senegal, and Niger, and recently, the lab received a grant to expand activities in Haiti. Experts are using science and technology to produce innovations such as climate-resilient varieties of sorghum and millet as well as more profitable market approaches for the farmers in the target nations. It links US and international universities and research organizations in a collaborative effort to build human and institutional capacity. The advancements made in production through genomics-enabled breeding and innovative pest management have huge implications on profitability for local producers. In addition, the work of the lab includes a business incubator which works to understand consumer demand for value-added products and focuses on training entrepreneurs on market and product placement ideas to help them develop better products and promote trust in these local products. This ensures that the lab's work not only helps feed the people and livestock in these developing countries but also helps develop sources of income for the residents—especially women—which can help alleviate many of the other negative effects of poverty. The lab's work in Haiti can also help construct a model for work in small countries, which can be translated to other countries that lack capacity for large research infrastructure.
In an effort to address challenges faced by sorghum farmers in Haiti, USAID recently awarded Kansas State University $1.08 million to establish a genomics-assisted sorghum breeding program in the small Caribbean country, where nearly 200,000 farmers rely on the crop as a source of food and income. "Working in Haiti will provide opportunities to work year-round on important pests like the sugarcane aphid or in droughty and hot climates," said Dalton. "While the goals focus on strengthening Haiti's breeding system, the experience and insight will spill over into the US for the benefit of local producers. The tools developed for this project will be useful as we tailor sorghum varieties for our own micro-ecologies ranging from the Carolinas to the Great Plains."
Sustainable Intensification focuses on increasing production from existing farmland without damaging the environment. The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sustainable Intensification (SIIL) addresses this challenge through farming systems approaches that consider aspects of both biophysical and social sciences. “Some of the ways we are doing this include integration of short season legume crops into cereal based cropping systems, integration of livestock species into farming systems, including home-gardens with indigenous vegetables, and increasing efficiency of all farm inputs (water, nutrients, and labor),” said Vara Prasad, university distinguished professor of crop ecophysiology and director of the SI Innovation Lab. “Equal focus is also given to understand social systems to remove barriers of adoption and create an enabling environment so that farming is successful in improving livelihoods of people,” he said. The lab’s work is focused on Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Tanzania, and Cambodia. “Our research and capacity building activities directly feeds into improving global food systems to enhance food and nutritional security,” said Prasad.
Rice farmers in South Asia tend to their crops. K-State's Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Sustainable Intensification focuses on identifying technologies that will help smallholder farmers in key African and South Asian countries improve their management of land, water, soil, crops, trees, and livestock while simultaneously improving yields and sustaining natural resources. “The research is mutually beneficial to both international and U.S. agriculture,” said Vara Prasad, director of the lab. “We will be working on leading research and capacity-building of all our partners, including training graduate students, scientists and farmers.”
The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Applied Wheat Genomics aims to develop heat-tolerant, high-yielding, and farmer-accepted wheat varieties for South Asia. Globally, wheat production is increasing at a rate of 1 percent annually, but there is evidence of yield stagnation in several regions, including South Asia. Climate models also predict that in tropical and sub-tropical regions, yields will decrease by 10 percent for every one degree rise in temperature, which—if the current practices continued as the are—would likely reduce production levels by 30 percent in these regions. Given that South Asia's climate is already hotter than is optimal for wheat growth, the wheat crops there are already sensitive to higher temperatures. So, without intervention, South Asia will experience lower production levels and will be unable to meet the growing demand for wheat in the region. The project employs an innovative approach in applying cutting edge genomics, physiology, and international phenotyping networks to maximize the value of the region's wheat varieties. Development and delivery of these varieties will have the potential to increase on-farm income and food security throughout South Asia. In addition, this work will increase research for development capacity of the global wheat improvement system.
Members of the Post-Harvest Loss Innovation Lab team from Kansas State University, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and SHARE—an NGO operating in Guatemala—visit with a farm family in Todos Santos, in the western highlands of Guatemala. Farmers like these have agreed to participate in on-farm testing of the storage technologies being tested and developed by the Post-Harvest Loss Innovation Lab.
Post-Harvest Loss (PHL) and food waste of durable staple crops is another challenge being confronted across the agriculture industry and addressed by research from K-State’s Feed the Future Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss (PHLIL). These losses consist of food already in the production system that could have been used to reduce food insecurity and increase food quality, safety, and nutrition. This has implications for all consumers, but especially for lower income individuals and families who spend a high percentage of their income on staple foods and value-added products derived from crops such as: grains, oilseeds, legumes, root crops, and seeds. On the production side, these issues also have large gender implications, given the fact that staple food production and dietary decisions are led by women in many developing countries. The program is working to identify and develop improved technologies for drying and storage of these long-term storage crops and get them in the hands of smallholder farmers (both male and female), producer cooperatives, and agribusiness enterprises through integration into market-based value chains. One significant cause of PHL is fungal contamination of grains, which affects both nutrition and health. Reducing this contamination could help improve nutrition in the focus countries, including Guatemala which has the highest national level of chronic malnutrition (49.8 percent) in the Western Hemisphere and is one of the top four malnourished countries in the world. Currently, the lab is focused on studying and reducing Post-Harvest Loss in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Guatemala. The investment of resources and PHL improvements in each country could significantly improve nutrition and food security in these and many other Feed the Future countries of focus.
Members of the K-State Post-Harvest Loss Innovation Lab team examine maize being tested with a researcher at the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala earlier this month. PHLIL works with UVG to build their capacity for in-country testing of mycotoxin levels in maize through improved equipment and training of staff. Pictured from left to right are: Dr. Carlos Campabadal–Guatemala Project PI, based at Kansas State University (also with the IGP Institute); Dr. Ana Silvia de Ruiz–director of Food Science Engineering Department at the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala; Jagger Harvey–director of the Post-Harvest Loss Innovation Lab at K-State; Gordon Smith–Head of the Grain Science Department at Kansas State University and co-PI for Bangladesh.
"It's a great honor to the College of Agriculture to have these labs from USAID, but it's important to understand that we didn't get these labs alone," Floros said. "We got them because the whole university is behind us. We recently started a university-wide initiative on Global Food Systems and it shows the commitment and expertise that the whole university has in agriculture and food production, not just the College of Agriculture. That's imperative to improving the global food system."
Continued collaboration and asset-based strategic planning can help sustain the university’s research momentum and increase its capacity to address some of the world’s most complex and pressing challenges. Through a shared commitment to advancing the volume, visibility, and impact of K-State’s research activities, K-State 2025 has helped Kansas State University expand its efforts and improve its national standing—including a rise in its national rank for total research expenditures, from 75th to 68th, over the first five years of the plan (pdf) (ASU Center for Measuring University Performance: Top American Research Universities Annual Report 2015). This progress, and its impacts, will persist as Kansas State University continues on its path towards becoming a top 50 public research university by 2025.