Africa: U.S. Steps Up Funding for Agriculture Research

Washington DC — The United States has stepped up funding for research to develop new climate-resilient cereals, high-producing legumes and disease-resistant crops and livestock, according to a top official with the U.S. Agency for International Development.

"Research is at the heart of Feed the Future," said Julie Howard, USAID chief scientist and the agency's senior adviser for agricultural research, extension and education. Howard noted that USAID is spending $120 million for crop and animal research and training in 2012, triple the amount it spent in 2008.

She said Feed the Future -- the Obama administration's strategy for improving agriculture, food sustainability and nutrition -- focuses on four geographic areas with high rates of poverty and malnutrition as well as the potential to transform their agricultural systems. Those are the South Asia region of Bangladesh and India, the African Sahel region, mainly northern Ghana and southern Mali, the Ethiopian highlands and the maize-growing region of eastern and southern Africa.

U.S. agricultural research objectives coincide with those of international, regional and national agricultural research institutes, Howard said, and involve a growing number of partnerships with the private sector, U.S. universities, the World Bank and development groups. Collaborative research projects worth $30 million a year are devoted to finding improved varieties of sorghum and millet, new animal vaccines, better management of natural resources used in agriculture and increased fisheries production. The research also targets soil and water management, the interaction of farms with forests, and resistance of cattle, sheep and goats to East Coast fever (theileriosis).

Tanzania's director of research praised the U.S. collaborations during a visit Howard made to the country in 2011. "He saw great potential in it, drawing people together to put common systems in place," she said.

In one recent partnership, USAID awarded $4.5 million to Arcadia Biosciences Inc. to develop salt-tolerant rice for Bangladesh. An estimated $20 billion in global crop yields is lost every year as a result of saltwater intrusion on soil and water, according to the California company.

Arcadia will also gather data on greenhouse gas emissions from rice fields in Bangladesh and Indonesia. Nitrogen fertilizer is the key driver of agricultural emissions; Arcadia's nitrogen-efficient technology enables high yields using significantly less fertilizer, the company said.

Through another partnership with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico City, USAID is funding work to develop varieties of drought-resistant maize for Africa. With the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, USAID funds research on virus-resistant varieties of cassava and banana. And with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, USAID funds the work of plant pathologists at the University of Minnesota to develop wheat resistant to a devastating stem rust that has spread from east Africa to southern Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Researchers first identified the rust, called Ug99, in Uganda in 1999. If left unchecked, Ug99 could wipe out 80 percent of the world's wheat crop, according to the university.

USAID also partners with the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Energy Department, which conducts research on photosynthesis.

Since the 1990s, improved crop varieties have accounted for about half of the increase in farm production, USAID reports. "As a result, growth tied to gains in agricultural productivity is up to three times more effective in raising the incomes of the poor than from other sectors," USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah wrote in his 2012 annual letter  (PDF, 14MB).

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