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Sorghum research in Africa may bring solutions for farmers here at home

By Jennifer M. Latzke

American researchers from several universities are hoping that by collaborating and helping African sorghum farmers improve their crops and yields, they can discover ways to improve the crop here at home.

They’re working through the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sorghum and Millet, housed at Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas. The Feed the Future program is the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative, led by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).For 53 years, USAID has worked under the umbrella of the U.S. State Department as a means of diplomacy to bring humanitarian aid to countries in need. “At the core of our mission is a deep commitment to work as partners in fostering sustainable development,” according to the USAID website. “Rather than impose, we seek to empower and support through collaboration.”

According to USAID, it focuses on smaller farmers, particularly women. Feed the Future efforts begin by assessing what the country’s own agricultural priorities are, then partnering with government, private, public and non-profit sectors to find long-term solutions.

USAID has at its core mission helping countries to end their extreme poverty while promoting democracy and thus advancing America’s own security and prosperity. Ultimately, the goal is to use the research might of America and her allies to help countries improve their own domestic food security. And, in the case of agricultural research, there is a secondary goal of perhaps stumbling upon data or germplasm or a project that could wind up benefitting farmers back home.

Timothy Dalton is the director of the Feed the Future Sorghum Innovation Lab at K-State. He hopes solutions for sorghum breeders to challenges like drought hardiness and disease resistance here in the United States may just lie in the fields of West Africa.

In 2013, USAID put out a call for proposals for hosts to serve as the management entity for the Feed the Future Sorghum Innovation Lab. This was a rebranding of the International Sorghum and Millet Collaborative Research Support Program (INTSORMIL), which had been housed at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for several decades.

Dalton said the restructuring and rebranding of the program was to shift research focus to two or three specific countries rather than a host of countries around the globe. This would allow researchers to better target their efforts on improving sorghum and millet along the value chain, from genetics to crop management on to value-added product development.

Dalton and the team from Kansas State University created a proposal targeting Ethiopia, Senegal and Niger as the target countries for the new Feed the Future Lab, if it was to be located at Kansas State.

“We argued that Ethiopia had to be our first choice because it is the second largest sorghum-producing nation in Africa after Sudan,” Dalton said. Also, he added, because the center of the genetic origin of sorghum in Africa lies in that country. Senegal and Niger also had lots of potential for value-added production and target farming populations that grow sorghum and pearl millet.

Once K-State was awarded the five-year $13.7 million USAID grant to start up the innovation lab, the next year was spent sorting through research proposals from public, private, non-profit and other parts of the agricultural sector. Dalton explained an ad hoc external advisory board narrowed the field of research proposals from 58 to 10 based on three areas of inquiry: genetic enhancement, production systems management, and market development.

“Six projects will be in western Africa, Senegal and Niger, and four will be in Ethiopia,” Dalton said. More than half of the $8.7 million in funding allocated for the 8-year projects went toward genetic enhancement of sorghum and pearl millet.

The most novel of these will be a joint germplasm evaluation study conducted in Ethiopia, where sorghum originated.

“We brought together Dr. Gebisa Ejeta and Dr. Tesfaye Mengiste of Purdue University, and Dr. Tesfaye Tesso of Kansas State,” Dalton said. The three will lead the effort to phenotype and screen more than 2,000 sorghums in four locations in the country—ranging from wild relatives to local landraces, to elite varieties as well as some materials from Sudan. After two years of growing test plots and screening of these varieties to see how they perform, the team will then genotype and try to identify from this large pool of material any areas in the genome which might have some beneficial traits breeders could exploit.

Ethiopia is of particular interest because the western part of the country harbors an incredible amount of disease pressure, Dalton said. “Every time an improved variety is introduced there, it falls apart,” he said. “But, traditional varieties survive because they’ve developed resistance to diseases like anthracnose and head molds.” Mengiste will lead up the research into this pathogen resistance research, Dalton said.

“We hope that by understanding the plant better in this environment, we can better understand how it developed resistance and then identify parts of its genome that could harbor disease resistance traits.”

The same is hoped for Ejeta’s research into striga and drought resistance. There are many parts of Africa similar to western Kansas in climate. By looking at cropping systems that work in Africa, researchers might improve how they advise growers up and down the High Plains to maximize their water resources.

As the management entity of the Feed the Future Sorghum Innovation Lab, Dalton said part of their duties will be to help nations develop a process for collecting royalties on any beneficial germplasm that come from this research.

“Many nations are becoming very cognizant of the value of their plant materials,” Dalton said. “Nations are becoming protective of their genetic materials just as private sector projects are of their identity preserved materials.” The lab will work with countries to develop a system to handle broad issues like this. After all, this is one more way to help these nations become self-sustaining.

Another benefit of the Feed the Future initiative is the project is more than just three researchers conducting field tests in Ethiopia, Dalton said. The project will integrate 26 scientists overseas, and build the infrastructure in country so that Ethiopians can improve their own capabilities to develop new varieties and improve their own food security.

“It is challenging to work in many of these nations,” Dalton said. “Quite frankly, Niger and Ethiopia are some of the poorest nations of the world. A lot of times the infrastructure we need just isn’t there. For example, at a research station where we want to screen varieties, we sometimes need supplemental irrigation so that they can survive the season and we can evaluate the plants. But, the station doesn’t have it. Often the best designed projects can fail because there isn’t the infrastructure.”

However, by allocating its USAID resources there, it’s a signal to the government there is a need for infrastructure and stimulates further investment by the local governments and communities.

Of course, this Feed the Future lab continues to build on the history of the INTSORMIL Program and the reputation of Kansas State as a global leader in sorghum research, Dalton said.

“The INTSORMIL Program has been known all over Africa because it was a source of scientific information and close to over 1,000 African students were trained under it over its years,” Dalton said. It’s this reputation which has allowed the lab to bringing global leaders in research to work on these projects, he added.

K-State was also named as host to two other USAID Feed the Future labs, Dalton said. There is the $8.5 million Feed the Future Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss and the $5 million Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Applied Wheat Genomics. “No other institution in the U.S. received three labs,” Dalton said. “There are others that received two. So that’s a strong statement for K-State.”

Dalton and others and K-State are reminded every day just how important their work is to helping foreign countries become more sustainable in feeding their own citizens. And they hope they can bring the lessons they learn and discoveries they make back home to benefit farmers. It’s this collaboration that’s at the heart of the USAID mission and the Feed the Future initiative.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached by phone at 620-227-1807 or by email at

Date: 8/4/2014


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