Reducing the negative effects of pests, diseases and weeds on crops in a climate-changed world is the goal of a multi-institution team led by Penn State and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as part of the organization’s initiative to end global hunger. The award was announced today (Nov. 6) by Administrator Samantha Power of the United States Agency for International Development at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference.
The grant — up to $39 million total over five years — will establish the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Current and Emerging Threats to Crops at Penn State. The lab will serve as a venue for a broad coalition of experts from around the world to collaborate on novel approaches to monitor, predict and combat current and emerging threats to crops. The team will focus its efforts in West Africa, East/Southern Africa, South/Southeast Asia and Central America.
“Ending global hunger is one the greatest challenges and opportunities of our time,” said Lora Weiss, Penn State senior vice president for research. “The Feed the Future program brings together partners from across various sectors and the U.S. government to assist countries that are ripe for transforming the way their food systems work. The new Innovation Lab, in combination with Penn State's wealth of experience in the development of technologies and practices to manage crop pests, will enable the University to help advance this goal.”
David Hughes, Dorothy Foehr Huck and J. Lloyd Huck Chair in Global Food Security and professor of entomology and biology in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Eberly College of Science at Penn State, will serve as the program director.
“Pests, diseases and weeds are chronic burdens that prevent smallholder farmers from achieving economic prosperity,” said Hughes. “Increased trade and climate change are increasing this burden, which necessitates innovative research for development that is rapidly deployed into farmer fields.”
Like the other Feed the Future Innovation Labs, the Innovation Lab for Current and Emerging Threats to Crops will focus on research to support development. In the first year, the team will conduct a large trial in maize to test the effectiveness of integrated pest management (IPM) strategies, such as parasitoid wasps to control the fall armyworm, bio-herbicides to control the Striga weed, clean seeds that are resistant to viral disease, and intercropping and climate-smart agriculture to improve crop health. IPM is an environmentally friendly strategy for managing pests that uses a variety of techniques such as biological control and habitat manipulation. The team will then evaluate the deployment of an IPM package across 1,000 farms in 10 counties. This evaluation will include an economic analysis and a gender/youth assessment to evaluate the diversity, equity and inclusion elements that are critical to USAID’s approach.
“Over the years, scientists in the college have contributed substantially to research on IPM practices,” said Rick Roush, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State. “It will be encouraging to see the Innovation Lab build upon and apply some of this knowledge to help smallholder farmers quickly address pest problems without the use of large quantities of expensive and potentially damaging pesticides.”
In addition, the team will conduct research aimed at developing tools for increased surveillance of viral and fungal diseases of tubers and wheat, which are important food crops. Cassava is a prime example; it is the largest source of calories in Africa and a vital crop for climate change adaptation due to its drought tolerance. Other important tubers are the Irish and sweet potatoes that are favored by farmers in Africa.
The researchers also will conduct research related to surveillance and forecasting of current and emerging biological threats to potato crops in Honduras, vegetable crops in Burkina Faso and different crops in Nepal. Specifically, this research will include enhanced use of machine learning for more accurate predictions of biotic and abiotic stressors, tools for diagnosing plant diseases that integrate genetic and phenotypic information about the plants and pathogens, and studies on the role of youth and gender inclusion in agriculture in the Feed the Future Countries.
“Food security in a rapidly changing world is critical, and the need for innovation has never been greater,” said Andrew Read, director of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences at Penn State. “Some of the technologies — including the smartphone applications created by David and his team as part of PlantVillage — are already serving millions of people worldwide. The USAID award will enable these technologies to be fine tuned and expanded to help even more people.”
A major focus of the Innovation Lab will be to increase the pace of research related to new and emerging threats to crops, which will require the participation of a broad community of researchers in the U.S., Feed the Future countries and the CGIAR system, a global research partnership.
“This Innovation Lab will have inclusion and diversity at its core,” said Rimnoma Serge Ouedraogo, associate director for the Innovation Lab, who is from Burkina Faso. “It is for this reason that we are making historically Black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions key partners and focusing strongly on capacity building in universities and research centers in Feed the Future countries.”
Annalyse Kehs, organizational director for the Innovation Lab, added, “Along with inclusion and diversity, youth and women are included as a core focus for this Innovation Lab. This is a powerful model that we have proven to be successful in relation to enabling smallholder farmers, mostly women, to adopt and use new technologies to improve their yields while combating youth unemployment.”
Penn State will partner with the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Michigan State University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, the International Potato Center, the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, Dream Team Agroconsultancy (Kenya), Shamba Shape Up (Kenya), iDE (Nepal), Zamorano (Honduras) and INERA (Burkina Faso).
The Innovation Lab for Current and Emerging Threats to Crops is a part of Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s initiative to combat global hunger and poverty. Feed the Future brings partners together to help some of the world’s poorest countries harness the power of agriculture and entrepreneurship to jump-start their economies and create new opportunities.