Frontlines Online Edition

Science to Feed the Future

USAID helps small-scale farmers and business people in Kenya acquire the skills, technology, loans, and market connections they
In 2009, after world food prices spiked and millions of people faced crises, the United States pledged to renew its focus on agriculture. And the presidential initiative Feed the Future became the U.S. Government's main vehicle to improve people's access to safe and nutritious foods, chiefly by supporting the smallholder farmers who grow them. New investments in science -- everything from vitamin-packed crops, to drought-resistant cereals, are central to this effort.

NARRATOR: Sweet potato packed with extra vitamin A; corn that tolerates drought; rice that grows better in African climates; smartphones that provide extension services.

Agricultural technology is a major part of the Obama Administration’s efforts to improve people’s access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food, something known as food security.

And the U.S. Government’s main vehicle to strengthen food security is called Feed the Future, an umbrella of programs that began in 2010, not long after global food prices spiked, sparking riots and causing real crises for hundreds of millions of people.

Feed the Future, and the $3.5 billion dollars President Obama pledged towards it, represent the common belief that any serious attempt to fight hunger and end poverty requires a renewed focus on agriculture.

JULIE HOWARD: Since three-quarters of the world’s poor live in rural areas, we’re really not going to get them out of poverty unless you transform agriculture in their systems…

NARRATOR: That’s Julie Howard, USAID’s chief agricultural scientist.

JULIE HOWARD: So, that’s fundamentally what Feed the Future is.  It’s looking at how to empower local farmers, local communities, to improve their production to advance economic transformation in these countries.  

NARRATOR: This renewed focus comes with new resources to fuel the science behind world food systems.

JULIE HOWARD: We’ve effectively doubled our funding since 2008 for agricultural research.

NARRATOR: So what are the research dollars being invested in? One important subcategory of biotechnology is biofortification or making crops more nutritious. This is especially important where most people are not eating balanced diets or getting the vitamins they need to develop properly. Another category involves making plants or crops more resilient, either to pests or climate change.

This is an increasingly important focus because climate change puts tremendous pressure on developing countries and the global poor, especially in Asia and Africa. In many developing countries, where crop insurance is far from common, a failed harvest can mean a family’s total ruin.

SAHARAH MOON CHAPOTIN: Right now we’re focused on climate resilience in cereals, so making cereal crops, like rice, wheat, maize, sorghum millet, more resilient, more drought-tolerant, more heat-tolerant.

NARRATOR: That’s Saharah Moon Chapotin, research division chief in USAID’s Bureau for Food Security.

Depending on what you are trying to do to a crop – pack it with vitamins, or protect it against pests --  there are two ways to get there. One way is by breeding it with a similar crop to transfer one trait to the other. The other is through bioengineering, or actually inserting a desired gene where it is not usually found.

One current USAID effort is trying to bioengineer a cowpea, or black-eyed pea, that will fend off the Maruca pod borer – a type of moth -- that is ravishing the crop throughout Africa. And scientists actually have found a version of this insect-killing gene, called Bt for short.

SAHARAH MOON CHAPOTIN: Here in the United States we have Bt corn and Bt cotton and both of those crops have been engineered to be resistant to insects.  

NARRATOR: In fact, around three quarters of all U.S. cotton, and 90 percent of Indian cotton are now Bt.

In the case of the Maruca pod borer, scientists have not been able to find effective resistance in any natural variety of cowpea, which is why a consortium of partners, including USAID, is stepping in to create a Bt variety.

In labs, and in universities, and in partnership with agricultural research networks, USAID is exploring a host of new technologies. But over the years, scientists have learned that identifying the technologies is not enough. You also have to make sure they are actually adopted by the people they are designed to help.

Julie Howard again.

JULIE HOWARD: ..We have already many climate-resilient varieties of cereals. But when we do studies in the field, we find that farmers are not yet using them.

NARRATOR: In some cases, it’s because the seeds simply aren’t easily available or farmers don’t know about them. In others, a culture of use around a new crop hasn’t developed yet. Sometimes there are regulatory hurdles that stifle adoption.

In all cases, it is clear that agricultural technologies don’t succeed in a vacuum. They need political, social and economic support.

But there is another reason why USAID is taking a long view when it comes to agriculture. The urgency to provide a growing global population with its next meal takes a serious toll on the planet.

JERRY GLOVER: We’ve done more damage with agriculture in the past 40 years than I think were done in the previous thousands of years.  

NARRATOR: That’s Jerry Glover, an international research advisor for USAID. Glover is an acclaimed soil scientist, who came to work for the U.S. Government in 2010.

Here he is working on a theory that he calls “sustainable intensification”—essentially, trying to improve food production in ecofriendly ways.

So the big picture is that we are now facing the need to feed 7 to 9 billion people, not just one day and call it good, but every day, two to three times a day, and at a time when we actually have the thinnest soils, the most nutrient depleted soils that humans have ever worked with to grow their food and, of course, at a time when we face challenges arising from global climate change. So the Feed the Future initiative is really aimed at sustainably increasing food production without the negative environmental impacts, without many of the negative social impacts of, say, the Green Revolution.

NARRATOR: The Green Revolution. We often think about the Green Revolution as a major human accomplishment, when, starting in the 1940s, advancements in food production technologies saved over a billion people from starvation in the subsequent decades. 

And by food technologies, we’re talking about the development of high-yielding versions of staple crops, the expansion of irrigation, and the use of fertilizers and pesticides.

And that’s all true. But Glover says the Green Revolution and its singular focus on amping up production on a few major crops actually left a biological scar that we can still see today.

JERRY GLOVER: Coming out of the green revolution though, scientists again realized that a simple focus on productivity resulted in a lot of environmental problems. And so today’s efforts are to increase productivity, but consider the environmental and social impacts.

NARRATOR: USAID has to consider environmental sustainability when designing its programs, says Howard. But there is another kind of sustainability: the likelihood of programs to carry on in a partner country after the donor dollars dry up.

JULIE HOWARD: I think some of the great lessons that came out of the Green Revolution were how important it is to invest in science and in training of local scientists and farmers.  

NARRATOR: For USAID this means that building farmer extension services, supporting local researchers and working with local regulators and lawmakers to ensure the Agency’s efforts lead to sustainable change.

It is an unsung part of the fight against hunger. Without sharing knowledge, there will never be true security when it comes to food.

NARRATOR: In Africa, there have only been a few biotech crops that have been commercialized to date including insect-resistant cotton in Burkina Faso.  

Saharah Moon Chapotin says that it will take at least another four or five years before Nigerian farmers can actually grow the Bt cowpea. The entire biotechnological cycle, from the lab, to field trials to adoption can take at least a decade.

But the rewards, when they finally come, are undeniable. Jerry Glover remembers a widow he met in Malawi.

JERRY GLOVER: Rhoda’s husband died and she was suddenly faced with the need to not just feed her family, but also to bring income in.  Her soil was very poor and a USAID-funded project was introduced to her in which she would be helped to plant some of these fertilizer trees…

NARRATOR: Fertilizer when planted alongside crops increase nitrogen levels in the soil.

JERRY GLOVER: She planted those, along with some other beans and peas…

NARRATOR: Before long, and with just a few simple adjustments, Rhoda had a thriving farm, which allowed her to buy livestock, and finally send her children to school—the first step out of a cycle of poverty for many rural families.

JERRY GLOVER: So that’s the kind of transformation that we can envision for many of these smallholder farmers around the world.

NARRATOR: Biotechnology will be at the heart of this transformation for the millions of smallholder farmers that are the main focus of Feed the Future. As will sustainable intensification- growing more in ways that do less harm.

GLOVER: Farming is what we ultimately rely on to survive.  You know we can’t go back to low-yielding traditional practices. We can’t go forward with, you know, just pouring the chemicals onto the landscapes and hoping for the best.

NARRATOR: Julie Howard says that because the entire world focused on agriculture after the 2007-2008 food crisis, now is the moment to make sure it’s done right and that countries themselves begin to treat agriculture as a top priority.

Saharah Moon Chapotin says the true test of Feed the Future’s success is whether the new technologies and good techniques continue to reach the millions of smallholder farmers who are literally sowing the planet’s future.

SAHARAH MOON CHAPOTIN: That’s the vision that we’re shooting for. I want to see all these things actually get to farmers. That’s, I mean, that’s ultimately where we want to go.”

NARRATOR: Reporting from USAID, this is Kelly Ramundo.

Related Article