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MANHATTAN, Kan. — Continuing to deliver on its promise to meet the grand challenge of helping feed the world, Kansas State University and its partners brought together nearly 100 researchers and funding recipients in west Africa last month to share their work.

K-State’s Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sustainable Intensification (SIIL) conducted its annual meeting April 8-10 in Saly, Senegal. Participants presented their research on sustainable agriculture projects in seven developing nations: Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Malawi, Senegal and Tanzania.

The theme of this year’s SIIL meeting was “Suitability, Scalability and Sustainability.” It highlighted the use of the systems approach to creating innovations that can be embraced by and successfully practiced in their intended environments and eventually expand to larger and more diverse farm operations.

“Our activities aren’t just about crop production, although that’s certainly part of the equation,” said Vara Prasad, University Distinguished Professor and director of the SIIL. “Our research takes a holistic, long-term view at the variety of factors that will allow farmers and others along the agricultural value chain to adopt innovative technologies.

Prasad said the end goal is to develop innovations that increase production, nutrition and resilience of the farming systems – all the while looking for ways to ensure sustainability and scalability from the smallest to the largest farms.

A systems approach can solve critical problems for farmers and lead to stronger commodity prices, better nutrition for children, and higher standards of living.

Prasad said a systems-based perspective helps researchers solve complex problems by considering all the factors that lead to the success — or failure — of agricultural innovations. The goal is to assess outcomes across multiple domains — productivity, economics, environment, human and social.

Truly international cooperation

The SIIL is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) as part of Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative.

Each project has a unique research focus and set of collaborating organizations, such as other innovation labs, international research institutes, and universities in the U.S. as well as the target countries.

Members of USAID, affiliated international research institutes and the SIIL External Advisory Board members attended the gathering in Senegal. Discussion and presentations centered on innovations developed by the projects and their outcomes over the last four years of the SIIL partnership.

Nora Lapitan, division chief of research at the USAID Bureau for Food Security, was particularly excited to see the synergies and collaborations made evident throughout the three-day event and was encouraged as to what that would mean for future collaborations across the SIIL focus countries.

Additionally, Jerry Glover, senior sustainable agricultural systems advisor at USAID, emphasized the need for systems thinking, participatory approaches and strong collaboration between biophysical and social scientists to address the needs of farming communities.

Up close with progress

Meeting attendees got a firsthand look at some of the projects currently being implemented in several communities in Senegal.

They were able to see how dual-purpose millet is being used as nutrition for people, especially young children and nursing mothers, as well as fodder for sheep and goats.

They were also given a tour of an agricultural high school where a dynamic principal is encouraging collaborations between the students and the local agricultural scientists, as youth engagement was one of the key components highlighted at the meeting and field visits.

The school is focusing on improved composting techniques, improved varieties, conservation agriculture practices and sustainable agricultural intensification innovations.

“Most of the time we work at different levels,” Prasad said. “We have some research which is at the plot level, some at the household level, some at the community level, some even at the larger scales of landscapes, across regions and countries.”

Another way to encourage farmers to adopt new practices is to work alongside them to develop innovations and showcase them in the communities in which they live.

Making these projects available for the community to see and participate in helps ensure that the technologies and practices being implemented will be suitable, sustainable and scalable.

“The biggest strength of the innovation labs at K-State is that each of them brings a unique perspective on the issues the agriculture sector around the world is facing, along with the knowledge and research to back up the innovative solutions that they provide,” said Nina Lilja, associate dean for international agriculture programs in Kansas State University’s College of Agriculture.

Building partnerships

Collaboration between research entities and other national and international organizations, such as those between the SIIL, the Institut Sénégalais de Recherches Agricole (ISRA) and the Peace Corps, were also highlighted and celebrated.

“We are excited that after only a year of collaboration with ISRA and the Peace Corps, we are already seeing the fruits of their labors, as the researchers and the volunteers build relationships with farmers in their communities, and are working to provide them with technologies that are suitable for them,” said Jan Middendorf, associate director of the SIIL.

Involving university students, especially those from ISRA, helps the SIIL-funded researchers accomplish their goal of building capacity and increasing the ability of educational institutions in the target countries to carry out their own research projects. Many of the projects require collaboration between U.S. university researchers and faculty and students in the target countries.

Making a difference for all

In a complex and globally connected agriculture ecosystem, K-State leads the way in improving food production and local economies in Kansas, the United States and developing countries around the world by helping to solve the myriad of problems that beset farming communities.

The SIIL brings together more than 120 scholars from more than 60 organizations, including 12 universities in the U.S., to address the challenge of increasing food production to meet the demand of growing populations, all while protecting our environment.

“Conducting innovative research and building human and institutional capacity is the strength of U.S. universities,” Prasad said. “We have the ability to identify the problems, solutions and options through research, and translate them into appropriate innovations for our target populations. Then we create networks and relationships with in-country organizations around the world to scale up those innovations for maximum positive impact.”

MANHATTAN, Kan. — A team of Kansas State University wheat scientists are tapping into 10,000 years of evolution in the plant’s genetic code as part of their continued efforts to understand how historic processes that shaped modern wheat can help to improve the varieties grown by today’s farmers.

The exhaustive study, which is published in Nature Genetics, involved sequencing the genomes of nearly 1,000 wheat lines collected from different parts of the world with different environments. The work was led by researchers from K-State and Agriculture Victoria of Australia, in collaboration with the University of Saskatchewan (Canada) and the University of Minnesota.

“We compared the genomes (in the 1,000 wheat lines) against each other, and looked for nucleotide base changes, or mutations, that distinguish one wheat accession from another,” said Eduard Akhunov, a K-State wheat geneticist.

He noted that the researchers found more than 7 million differences in the genetic code of the 1,000 lines.

“These differences can affect the function of genes that control various traits in wheat that helped it adapt to new growth conditions, such as withstanding drought and heat stresses; fighting off diseases; and yielding nutritious grain,” Akhunov said.

The changes that occurred in the genetic code can tell researchers a history of each wheat accession.

“When humans started spreading wheat from the site of its origin to other places, they brought it into contact with wild wheat, and wild ancestors accidentally began to inter-breed with bread wheat,” Akhunov said. “What happened then was that bread wheat  inherited the genetic diversity that was present in the wild emmer wheat.”

That process of one species sharing genes with another species is called gene flow, and it is key for explaining the genetic diversity of today’s wheat varieties, according to K-State wheat breeder Allan Fritz.

“Understanding gene flow between wild emmer and common wheat is more than just academically interesting,” Fritz said. “The importance of historical introgression suggests that a more strategic use of wild emmer should have value for future wheat improvement.”

Fritz noted that K-State scientists have been using wild emmer in developing germplasm for new wheat varieties in projects funded by the Kansas Wheat Association and the university’s Wheat Genetics Resource Center.

The work by Akhunov and his research team allows breeders to “evaluate the diversity in wild emmer and be intentional and strategic” in how they employ desired traits in new wheat varieties, according to Fritz.

“As we move forward, we can apply what has been learned here to also focus future efforts on traits related to health and nutrition that wouldn’t have been direct targets of historical selection,” he said.

Akhunov adds: “For the first time, we have described how wild emmer’s genetic diversity contributed to the development of bread wheat. And what it’s done since humans domesticated wheat is it’s helped to develop a better crop.”

K-State’s study was funded by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s competitive grants program, administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and part of the International Wheat Yield Partnership, which Akhunov said aims at increasing the genetic yield potential of wheat using innovative approaches.

Akhunov also said that Corteva Agriscience and the agriculture division of Dow/DuPont provided financial support through its collaboration with Agriculture Victoria Service. Their support, he said, allowed the researchers access to needed technologies and to develop the set of data indicating the genetic differences in wheat varieties, also called an SNP dataset.

K-State received additional funding from the Kansas Wheat Commission and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.