The Legume Innovation Lab was awarded US$ 24.5 Million by USAID; it is the largest grant issued this year under the Feed the Future Presidential Initiative’s Collaborative Research Innovation Labs.

By Dario Bard

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In April, Michigan State University received a US$24.5 million award for its Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Grain Legumes (Legume Innovation Lab) to address issues of world hunger and food security through research on grain legumes (such as common beans and cowpeas). Funded through USAID, this award is the largest grant issued this year under the Feed the Future Presidential Initiative’s Collaborative Research Innovation Labs.

“The primary reason why the U.S. and other countries around the world are making major investments in grain legume research is because of their nutritional value and their contribution to enhancing the diets of poor people around the world,” says Dr. Irvin Widders, the Lab’s director and a horticulture professor at Michigan State University. “Legumes are the primary and most affordable source of protein for the world’s poor, who don’t have the resources to purchase meat and have livestock.”

“Michigan State has greater technical capacity in grain legumes than most other U.S. universities,” says Dr. Widders, explaining why USAID chose his institution.

“Michigan is the second largest state in U.S. bean production and we have a number of international partnerships with institutions all over the world.” Additionally, the Legume Innovation Lab enjoys the support of several industry groups, including the U.S. Dry Bean Council and the American Pulse Association.

Dr. Widders notes that the Legume Innovation Lab (formerly known as the Dry Grain Pulses Collaborative Research Support Program) has a track record of committed scientific leadership in the field. Past Lab-supported projects include research into the role grain legumes play in helping people derive the maximum nutritional benefit from the food they eat.

“What researchers are finding is that there are complex carbohydrates in legumes that are slowly digested, leading to the development of bacterial flora in the stomach and intestines that result in the more effective absorption of nutrients not only from the legumes, but from all of the food a person ingests,” explains Dr. Widders. “This could be a way to reduce gut inflammation and counter the factors that cause it, such as poor quality potable water. It’s very exciting research that shows the benefits of regularly consuming grain legumes.”

Video: Dr. Jim Kelly and Dr. Gerardine Mukeshimana, a Michigan State alum, are developing drought- and disease-resistant bean varieties in Dr. Mukeshimana’s native Rwanda.

These findings are being put into practice in Tanzania, where, through a Lab-funded project, 500 to 600 children infected with HIV are receiving a bean or cowpea-based food product in the hopes of reducing the gut inflammation caused by their debilitated immune systems. Other research projects, such as one in Rwanda led by Drs. Jim Kelly and Gerardine Mukeshimana, are focused on developing grain legume seed varieties adapted to the conditions of a specific place.

“There is a lot of work being done on drought-resistant varieties,” notes Dr. Widders. He also cites research to develop legumes with improved deep root systems to absorb mineral nutrients for areas with degraded soil.

“This is technology that can be multiplied easily because legumes are self-pollinated. Farmers thus have access to an improved variety that is adapted with appropriate resistances and can begin producing that seed locally to meet their planting needs,” said Widders

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Photo: In Tanzania, Dr. Widders, left, with Dr. Paul Kasolwa, right, of the Sokoine University of Agriculture.

These efforts tie-in to the Presidential Initiative’s goal of helping smallholder farmers and the rural poor adapt to climate change. Empowering women is another Feed the Future goal.

“There is an interesting phenomenon around the world; commodities like beans, cowpeas, pigeon peas, chick peas, lentils and other grain legumes are largely considered women’s crops,” says Dr. Widders.

“In places in Africa, it’s women who have historically grown these grain legumes for their nutritional value and to contribute to household food security. We want to take advantage of that by developing technologies that are gender appropriate and take into consideration the needs and priorities of the women growing these legumes. We also look for ways to create income-generating opportunities for women, like niche markets,” Widders said.

In Mozambique and Angola, for instance, the Lab is supporting efforts to strengthen the agricultural value chains of these extremely impoverished nations. Historically, smallholder farmers, who typically farm no more than 2 hectares, have had a difficult time participating in domestic markets.

“There is substantial production of beans and cowpeas in both countries, but because of the small quantities they handle and the variability in quality, smallholder farmers have difficulties in these domestic markets,” Widder said.

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Photo: One of the goals of the Feed the Future Initiative is to empower women. The Legume Innovation Lab funds projects to help women farmers access local markets.

A Lab-funded project evaluated production, conducted a market study and determined the policies and research needed to improve the functionality of the value chain so as to allow smallholder farmers to enter the market.

“For instance, we brought farmers and buyers together, including institutions like schools and prisons, which are major buyers of certain market classes of beans. This created opportunities for farmers to produce for specific markets, and it also helped buyers identify farmers that can help them meet their needs,” Widder said.

Another element of this project is promoting the development of a system for providing farmers with access to market information via cellphones.

“The idea is that they receive a message from a national information system at the Ministry of Agriculture or elsewhere with the latest market information in the major cities. That way they’ll know the market price for their commodities and traders coming to their towns to buy grain won’t be able to exploit them,” Widder explained.

Integrated pest management is another area of research. In West Africa, for instance, where access to insecticides is limited, infestations by a certain insect group can destroy up to 90 percent of a cowpea crop.

“Even when farmers get the insecticides, they are frequently misapplied and appropriate human safety measures are not implemented,” says Dr. Widders. A Lab-funded project is developing a biological alternative that can be reproduced locally to address the threat posed by this insect group in a manner that is affordable, practical and efficient. This project has identified a virus in one of the insects belonging to the pest group that, when mixed in with oil from the nut of the Neem tree, has proven to be an effective insecticide.

A video explaining how to prepare this natural insecticide has been produced in several languages for dissemination in West Africa by yet another Lab-funded project—the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Scientific Animations Without Borders team.

Video: At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the Scientific Animations Without Borders team is producing a series of video tutorials to transmit scientific knowledge across the cultural and language divide, including this video on how to produce insecticide from oil extracted from the nut of the Neem tree.

Michigan State University’s Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Grain Legumes will use the US$ 24.5 million USAID grant to fund its next round of 5-year projects (2013-2017). A request for proposals will be issued in May and selected projects will likely be announced in September.

Credit: Videos and images courtesy of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.