Tools, Traits, and Triple Wins: USAID Invests in a Pipeline of Pulse Innovations
Vern Long is a Senior International Agriculture Research Advisor, Legume Productivity Program Area for USAID/Bureau for Food Security.
This post was originally published on the International Year of Pulses 2016 site, where events, news and announcements regarding the year-round focus on pulses can be found.
Pulses offer a triple win for developing country farmers by contributing to greater incomes—particularly for women—as well as to improved nutrition and sustainability of production systems through their nitrogen fixation and contributions to soil health. To take advantage of these opportunities, Feed the Future, the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative, engages farmers in country-level programs to improve pulse production and facilitate market access.
Despite the benefits of pulse production, pulse producers face significant challenges. Many pulses are susceptible to pests, diseases and climate variability, necessitating more resilient varieties and production strategies.
For many in the developing world, paving a path out of poverty begins with overcoming challenges like these to produce more food with less land and water, to improve nutrition, and to help farmers adapt to climate change. Feed the Future works to harness scientific innovation and technology in agriculture to help farming families—including pulse farmers—get the tools, resources and connections they need to thrive.
Since the Green Revolution, cereal staples like wheat and rice—which are considered central to food security—have received significant public and private sector research investment. However, pulses’ potential remained largely untapped. Recognizing the unique benefits that pulses bring to production and food systems, Feed the Future has redoubled efforts to support pulse productivity-enhancing research and to get these innovations to farmers who can benefit most from them.
Feed the Future invests in research to deliver a steady pipeline of pulse innovations such as new and improved bean varieties. These innovations harness the incredible potential of pulses to contribute to more sustainable and highly productive agricultural systems that can feed a growing global population.
By partnering with U.S. universities, national agriculture research institutions in developing countries, the international agriculture research centers of the CGIAR, and private sector partners, Feed the Future pulse research programs are generating an array of new crop varieties and production approaches that accelerate progress with cutting-edge science and that are tailored to the needs of farmers.
Better Tools for Better Harvests
The tools available to researchers for improving pulse crops have historically been limited. And crop improvement, no matter the crop, is slowed down as plant breeders must grow many plants to evaluate relevant traits. Molecular tools, such as single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) chips, can speed up the process – allowing breeders to focus on plants with relevant traits. These types of tools are common in cereal breeding, but virtually absent in many pulse improvement programs, until recently. The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Climate-Resilient Cowpea developed a SNP chip that will accelerate progress in cowpea breeding globally.
Feed the Future is also investing in the development of other tools with the potential to accelerate breeding program progress in beans and chickpeas. These include:
- The drought-tolerant root trait research of the Feed the Future Climate-Resilient Bean Innovation Lab led by Pennsylvania State University,
- The exploration of traits in wild chickpea relatives to improve cultivated chickpeas undertaken by the Feed the Future Climate-Resilient Chickpea Innovation Lab led by the University of California, Davis, and
- The pest and disease resistance research in beans and cowpeas by the Feed the Future Legume Innovation Lab led by Michigan State University.
Ensuring Progress Lasts
In production systems marked by low crop diversity, particularly in East and Southern Africa where cereal staples dominate the landscape, farmers face productivity declines as soils are depleted. A Feed the Future program in Malawi, Africa Rising, has demonstrated the potential of a doubled-up legume system to address this problem and increase sustainability. By growing pigeon pea and groundnut with maize crops, farmers have not only increased their maize yields while using less fertilizer, but they now have three crops to consume and sell instead of just one. Soil health is also on the mend. This production strategy was so successful that the Government of Malawi is promoting the practice and has included it in extension programs as a way to help farmers improve the productivity and sustainability of their farms.
And in Guatemala, the Feed the Future-supported MasFrijol project is bringing bean varieties developed through collaborations between the Feed the Future Legume Innovation Lab and the Government of Guatemala’s national bean program to farmers in the Highlands. Lead farmers in the community who’ve been trained in bean seed production are multiplying seed and making it available for community members to plant.
Putting research innovations in the hands of farmers is a central goal of Feed the Future. As farmers in the developing world face increasing production challenges, pulses offer a significant opportunity to increase incomes and improve nutrition. Our investments in research help farmers capitalize on these opportunities by overcoming challenges in pulse production. The International Year of the Pulse has elevated the importance of pulses, and Feed the Future will continue to prioritize pulse research as part of the initiative’s efforts to end global hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition.
To learn more about what pulse crop scientists and practitioners are saying about research priorities, read the recently published synthesis from Feed the Future’s March 22-23 AgExchange on Grain Legumes.