Whether it’s food deserts in rural U.S. communities or smallholder farmers in developing nations, the recognition of World Food Day on Oct. 16 seeks to answer many of the questions that linger about how to conquer food insecurity at home and abroad. 

But the one thing that policymakers agree upon is the vital role that research plays in finding solutions to combat hunger in food insecure regions.

Faculty from Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are undertaking a variety of agricultural research initiatives to meet the challenge of feeding the nine billion people that will inhabit the planet by 2050 in some of the most critically food insecure regions around the globe.

One the many researchers in the college tackling questions of food security is Tom Thompson, department head of crop and soil environmental sciences and co-principal investigator on a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded food security initiative. He and his research team are developing conservation agriculture techniques in Haiti’s Central Plateau by helping farmers conserve soil using methodologies that utilize minimal tillage, crop rotation, and cover crops to maintain moisture and create healthy soil microbial communities.

 

In Haiti nearly 60 percent of the population is engaged in agricultural activities as a principal source of income, an arduous task in a region whose soil is ravaged by deforestation and massive erosion, and where infrastructure challenges of the January 2010 earthquake and ensuing cholera epidemic remain nearly four years later.

“One of the main challenges of conservation agriculture in Haiti is finding those practices that can be adapted into existing production systems and will be adopted by farmers,” said Thompson.  “Successful introduction of new practices will improve food security for farmers in the Central Plateau and the increased knowledge of our Haitian partners and smallholder farmers will, we hope, make these gains self-perpetuating.”

Co-principal investigator Wade Thomason, a Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist and associate professor in crop and soil environmental sciences, agrees.

“If we can improve yield of the staple crops, there will be more land and time to devote to other crops that help round out the nutritional picture. Improved yields can mean improved income,” he said.  “That income can be used for everything from school fees to educate the next generation to more immediate needs like purchasing food when it’s necessary.”

In sub-Saharan African countries like Uganda, where food preservation techniques such as refrigeration are often not an option, peanuts are the main source of protein. But the peanut crop is susceptible to contamination from harmful aflatoxins, a variety of fungi. 

Kumar Mallikarjunan, associate professor of biological systems engineering, has conducted research in reducing aflatoxins in the peanut crop in Uganda and Malawi. His role as a researcher in the University of Georgia-led Peanut Collaborative Research Support Program allowed women peanut farmers to begin screening for the pernicious mold, which can cause everything from stunted growth to liver cancer.

“The goal of the project was to provide opportunities for small- to medium-scale enterprises mainly operated by women farmers to provide a pathway to an economic livelihood,” said Mallikarjunan, who worked with women’s organizations and other nongovernmental organizations on the project.

Where food security is critically low and severe malnutrition is high even preparing local food is prohibitive. In situations of severe undernourishment Food Science and Technology Professor Sean O'Keefe has developed a therapeutic food for malnourished infants. It was recently approved by the World Health Organization for widespread use by the United Nations Children’s Fund. Ready-to-use therapeutic food is a critical, lifesaving stopgap measure that is administered much like medicine. The current formulation developed by O’Keefe is the only therapeutic food being used based on U.S. formulations.

In Senegal, Ozzie Abaye, professor of crop and soil environmental sciences and Virginia Cooperative Extension agent, is also helping smallholder farmers by developing techniques for improved use of livestock forage.

Because Senegal only has one rainy period, the ability to preserve forage was an important milestone. Abaye introduced three methodologies to improve forage preservation techniques for farmers keeping livestock. She introduced innovative techniques to preserve forage crops to be used or marketed during the dry season when livestock feed is in short supply, preserved the forage as hay, and utilized green chop by drying and storing in bags.

“We noticed that the villagers’ practice was to move livestock out of the village during the growing season so that they don’t disturb the row crops,” Abaye said. “But during the rainy season, we discovered there’s lots of forage that wasn’t being used.”

Abaye’s project is part of a larger initiative known as Education and Research in Agriculture and is also funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. An expert in crop production and grassland management, Abaye travels to Senegal several times a year to conduct workshops and provide training in grassland management principles and forage production techniques.

“The results have been promising,” she said. “Farmers are learning how to identify grassland species and how each responds to management schemes. They are learning how to use cover crops to improve soil health and crop production. And they are no longer watching their livestock die during Senegal’s dry season.”

Feeding nine billion inhabitants might be a daunting task, but if policymakers are correct, research initiatives like the ones being conducted at Virginia Tech may help to not only create awareness about and solutions for food insecurity on World Food Day, but every day.

Written by Amy Loeffler.
 

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