When geographer Joe Messina first analyzed satellite images of Malawi farm fields, he figured he had made a mistake.
Almost everywhere he looked he found maize harvest declines in the East African nation over the previous decade. But this was the site of the Malawi Miracle, a fertilizer subsidy program so successful that it was lauded by researchers in scientific journals and by writers in the New York Times and The Economist.
It became a model program used to justify similar enormous investments by the international community in other African nations.
“I assumed I was wrong,” said Messina, a researcher at Michigan State University’s Global Center for Food Systems Innovation.
And so began a detective story recently published in the journal Nature Plants. It is a story that doesn’t prove Messina wrong. Rather, it reveals a series of missteps, assumptions, faulty data and a desire to confirm success that led other researchers astray.
In Uganda, farmers in rain-fed agricultural communities depend on irrigation. Without irrigation, they battle with fluctuating and unpredictable weather conditions, droughts and flooding. Crops don't do well and yields are low.
Researcher Abraham Salomon, of the University of California-Davis, is working in eastern Uganda, collaborating with local farmers, social advocates, and engineers on flexible and community-managed irrigation interventions. They’ve been installing and maintaining adaptable irrigation systems that allows tomatoes, cabbage, beans and other vegetables to thrive in the dry seasons and the unpredictable rainy seasons.
Decomposing human and animal waste has the power to change lives. While it might sound – and smell – funny, the power of poop lies in biogas, a renewable energy source produced during the breakdown of waste. The process yields a gas of about 60 percent methane that can be used for cooking, refrigeration, and other basic needs. The waste itself can also be processed and applied to fields to enrich the soil and improve crop production.
That's what waste engineer, Rebecca Larson, assistant professor professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been doing. She's partnered with Vianney Tumwesige, CEO of Green Heat, a Ugandan energy company, teamed up on a host of projects in Kampala, Uganda that demonstrate new ways to transform waste to resource.
This episode is our interview with Prof. Larson
Coconut is the largest stone fruit in the world. Sold in the food and beverage industry, harvested for construction purposes, used in cosmetics, and transformed into decorative objects, the coconut has many applications. While a quarter of the world’s coconut production stems from the Philippines, the country’s coconut farmers are the poorest around the world. Farmers earn about $2 a day. Climate hazards, pests and unfavorable market market conditions impede the overall production.
To improve the viability of coconut farming in the Philippines, researcher Ana Herrera won a grant from the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation to implement FarmerLink, a Grameen Foundation project that connects farmers with agents who teach them how to operate a successful coconut farm. It’s called FarmerLink. And it’s key component is an Early Warning System which alerts farmers to potential hazards from natural shifts in the environment.
The onion has been a part of the human diet for more than 7,000 years. But it’s not just for eating. Onions have been used as currency and even exchanged as a gift!
Bacterial diseases are the most significant threat to their production. Despite considerable effort to control these diseases with chemicals, farmers still lose a lot of onions.
Kim Eang Tho, a doctoral student in the department of plant, soil and microbial science at Michigan State University, is studying the source of bacterial pathogens in onions to find strategies to better manage diseases. He spoke with Ali Hussain, a reporter for The Food Fix.
As Southern Africa struggles to recover from its worst drought in decades, farmers are seeing their crops destroyed due to El Nino weather changes. Famine afflicts millions of people. Without crops, farmers can’t eat. Without money, they can’t buy farming supplies.
To help them find low-cost pesticides and fertilizers, Mphatso Simbao, a 19-year-old from Lusaka, Zambia, has found a way to produce fertilizer and pesticide from unwanted plant material, ash, mud, water and heat.
Mphatso says his technique cuts fertilizer costs in half and saves farmers up to 80 percent of the cost of pesticides. The project won a national award at the 2016 Google Science Fair engineering competition.
We spoke with Mphatso on phone from Lusaka, Zambia.
Every year a trillion dollars of milk is sold worldwide.
Small farmers in many developing countries face problems with low milk production.
But an electrical engineer and innovator from Pakistan hopes to help them with a fitbit for cows. It’s called the Cowlar, a collar for cows that is equipped with sensors to monitor their health, production and even if someone is stealing them.
Umer Adnan, a graduate of electrical engineering from Arizona State University now living in Memphis, Tennessee, says his invention texts such critical information directly to farmers. The result is reduced costs, more milk and more profits.
The world’s population grows by more than two hundred thousand daily. That’s tens of millions of people annually. To feed them, food productivity must nearly double by 2050.
That’s a task.
Doing that in the face of climate change and the scarcity of land and water presents one of the world’s greatest challenges. Plants are stressed by drought, disease and non-native competitors. But people need to eat, no matter where they are.
In this episode Michigan State University researcher Brad Day describes the tools he is creating to unlocking the secrets of plants to better feed the world. They could produce more resilient, stress-tolerant crops that use water and nutrients more efficiently.
French fries, hash browns and crispy chips come to mind when we think about potatoes. Potatoes are the most widely consumed crops in the United States, and the world's fourth-largest food crop, after maize, wheat, and rice.
Potatoes grow on almost every continent. They adapt well to climate and are a good source of potassium, vitamin C and carbohydrates.
Their greatest enemy is soil borne diseases. Currently, those diseases are controlled by fumigating the soil with chemicals. That’s expensive both economically and environmentally. And it kills beneficial organisms!
Luke Steere, a doctoral student in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences at Michigan State University, says potatoes have chosen him. Why? He talks to Ali Hussain about his research of molecular techniques and how it could reduce fumigation and improve production of potatoes.
Sorghum is a cereal grain that grows tall like corn. It originated in Africa, where it has grown for 10,000 years. Bread and porridge are the most common foods prepared from sorghum. It is the main source of energy, protein, vitamins and minerals for millions of people.
Sorghum’s biggest advantage is that it resists heat and drought. It survives extreme conditions with little water. Still, it’s not as popular as wheat or corn because of its complex protein structure that makes it hard to digest. That’s a hard crop to crack right?
Well, Nana Baah Pepra-Ameyaw, a doctoral student in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Michigan State University, studies how to process Sorghum to make it easier to digest. His research could improve food security by making sorghum easier to process and eat in food-scarce regions of the world. He spoke to Ali Hussain, a reporter for The Food Fix
Photo: Nana Baah