A little over a month ago, we received 721 submissions in response to our first agricultural research grant announcement, and last week, we sent updates to all applicants, advancing 188 of them. Our screeners advanced an amazing diversity of interesting ideas, 98 that we classified as helping farmers adapt to a changing climate, 84 as improving nutrition and farm income, and 6 as potentially contributing significantly in both areas.
We plan to make at least one grant in climate adaptation and one in nutrition and farm income as soon as the evaluation process is complete, and possibly many more from the current applicant pool over the coming months and years.
Here’s a (slightly technical) overview of the types of projects the applicants are proposing.
Threats to food security
As shown in Figure 1, the proposals address some critical threats to food security, including
- Low nutrient content. In many crops, domestication and breeding with a focus on yields has had the side effect of reducing nutritional quality. Numerous proposals aim to improve the nutrient content of major crops, or to facilitate the cultivation of forgotten or emerging crops, from moringa to edible insects, that naturally provide better nutrition. Several focus specifically on adapting orange-fleshed sweet potato, which contains higher levels of vitamin A than the white sweet potatoes commonly grown in Africa, to local production systems.
- Low fertility. In tropical regions, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, soils are often geologically old, highly weathered, and low in fertility. Smallholder farmers often cannot afford chemical fertilizers, even before recent price increases, and in semi-arid areas like the Sahel or northern India the use of chemical fertilizers can lead to a buildup of salts over time. Organic fertilizers aren’t always a practical alternative. Smallholder farmers may need manure and crop residues as fuel sources, and may not have sufficient land or water available to grow cover crops. A number of proposals look at agroforestry systems, microbial inoculants, and other innovative solutions to low fertility.
- Drought, salinity, and heat stress. Drought, which is closely related to salinity and heat stress from a plant physiology point of view, is a growing problem in many parts of the world. Climate change, groundwater depletion, and saltwater intrusion from rising sea levels have increased what biologists call abiotic stress. With dams already built in most suitable sites and growing environmental concerns, few new irrigation systems have been built in recent decades. A number of proposals focus on improving drought-tolerant crops like sorghum and millet, or testing dryland farming techniques, to improve productivity under water or salt-stressed conditions.
- Plant and livestock diseases, pests, and weeds. As with drought, pests have been a cause of many famines. A number of proposals focus specifically on fall armyworm, a devastating pest of maize and other crops first detected in Africa in 2016 and India in 2018. Others focus on mammalian pests, such as rats, which tend to get less attention from researchers. We were hoping to get at least one proposal on protecting agriculture from large animals, such as elephants and lions, but there weren’t any in the current batch. We did get several proposals on parasitic weeds, which are difficult to remove even where labor costs are low.
We also received a few proposals addressing postharvest losses, which can be a problem with where refrigeration and packaging are limited, especially for fruits and vegetables that are crucial to nutrition. None of the proposals address poverty or conflict directly, but improving agriculture is a proven strategy for reducing poverty, both urban and rural, and a substantial body of evidence links the frequency of conflict to problems in agriculture.
The applications that have advanced propose a variety of methods to address these challenges (see Figure 2). Almost every application proposes field testing, often on-farm as well as in research stations. Many also propose
- Developing hardware, most commonly inoculants or organic fertilizers but sometimes other things like the carbon sink boxes featured in this issue
- Breeding crops or livestock, most often to be more nutritious or resist stress
- Domesticating new species (e.g., mushrooms), which involves a package of innovations
- Developing software, such as the plant disease identification app described in the last issue
Across the different methods, almost half of proposals that advanced were from universities. Almost all of the rest were from research institutes or private companies. About 80% of the researchers whose proposals advanced hold a PhD, representing practically all fields taught in colleges of agriculture, and almost all of the rest hold a masters degree.
As shown in Figure 3, most proposals relate to crops rather than livestock, even defining livestock loosely to include fish and edible insects.
The species for proposed study are very diverse, with the top 4 only accounting for a small fraction of the total, as shown in Figure 4.
Most proposals relate to a wide variety of minor or emerging crops that have gotten less research attention to date but are often superior to major crops in nutritional quality or drought tolerance. The advancing batch of proposals does not include work on many crops that are of economic significance, but less relevant to smallholder farmers or to food security, such as sugar, tea, biofuels, narcotics, and so forth.
The following species were the primary target of research for at least one proposal: avocado, Bambara groundnut, banana, button mushroom, bee, black sesame, cape gooseberry, cassava, cattle, chicken, chickpea, cocoa, coffee, cow-melon, cowpea, egusi melon, finger millet, fluted pumpkin, foxtail millet, goat, grape, greengram, jackfruit, jatropha, lablab, maize, mango, moringa, mung bean, Nile tilapia, olive, onion, oyster mushroom, palm weevil, papaya, peanut, pearl millet, pigeon pea, potato, quinoa, red mottled bean, rice, shallots, sorghum, sweet potato, tiger nut, tilapia, tomato, wheat, and yam.
We hope to fund research on as many of these species as possible, including, yes, palm weevil as a food source.
— Grow Further