$33.8 Million in New Grants Will Strengthen International Food Security

By Linda McCandless

International Programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (IP-CALS) has announced $33.8 million in grants for projects supporting global wheat production, gender parity in agricultural research and genetically engineered eggplant.

Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW), funded by a $24 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will develop and deploy new strains of wheat that are heat tolerant as well as resistant to wheat rusts and other diseases.

DGGW team in a wheat field
It takes a global village to improve wheat. The new Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (DGGW) is a partnership that includes (among others) (l-r) Dave Hodson and Ravi Singh of CIMMYT, Bedada Girma of the Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research, Bekele Abeyo of CIMMYT, Ronnie Coffman of Cornell who directs the project, Fentahun Mengistu of EIAR, Maricelis Acevedo, newly hired director for science of the DGGW at Cornell, and Hans Braun, of CIMMYT.  CREDIT: C.Knight/Cornell  

“Over the last eight years, we have built a global consortium of wheat scientists and farmers whose efforts have so far prevented the global epidemics of Ug99 stem rust predicted back in 2005,” said Ronnie Coffman, international plant breeder and director of IP-CALS, who leads the consortium.

The new four-year grant will use comparative genomics and big data to develop wheat varieties for smallholder farmers. The project builds on the successes of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI), led by the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project, funded by the Department for International Development in the UK and the Gates Foundation from 2008 to 2016.

“For many of the poorest people in Africa and southern Asia, wheat provides most of their food and is an important source of income,” said Coffman. “With this grant, we will continue to involve farmers in the variety selection and seed multiplication process and train the next generation of wheat warriors to keep up the fight.”

A second grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, awarded to Cornell in partnership with Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, will equip researchers to create more inclusive and effective agricultural systems by addressing the priorities of both women and men in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

GREAT team meeting
GREAT course participants and local farmers discuss gendered aspects of cassava farming during a field visit to Wakiso District, Kampala, Uganda.  Photo: Dan Torrington/Cornell

Gender-responsive Researchers Equipped for Agricultural Transformation, or GREAT, will deliver training to agricultural researchers from SSA in the theory and practice of gender-responsive research in the key areas of root, tuber, and banana breeding; grain and legume breeding; small ruminant breeding; dairy and legume value chains; nutrition and food systems; knowledge exchange (extension); and agricultural mechanization. By 2020, GREAT expects to have trained eight cohorts of up to 10 teams each, or more than 200 researchers, representing at least 30 national and international research institutions in SSA.

“Women play critical roles in food production and processing, but their input is frequently overlooked by agricultural researchers,” said Hale Ann Tufan, gender specialist and adjunct professor with IP-CALS, who will lead the five-year, $5 million project for Cornell. “By building and engaging communities of researchers equipped with the skills, knowledge, and support systems to develop and implement gender-responsive projects, GREAT will advance gender-responsiveness as the norm and standard for agricultural research.”

A third grant, from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), funds a $4.8 million, three-year cooperative agreement to strengthen capacity for the development and dissemination of genetically engineered eggplant in Bangladesh and the Philippines. In the Feed the Future South Asia Eggplant Improvement Partnership, Cornell will partner with the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) and the University of the Philippines at Los Baños to protect eggplant farmers from yield losses and improve their livelihoods.

Eggplant farmers
Bangladesh eggplant farmer Md. Milon Mia (l) and his father (r), from the Bogra district, show Cornell entomologist Tony Shelton (center) the difference between Bt brinjal and fruit and shoot borer infested non-Bt brinjal. Mia says he throws away 30-40% of his harvested non-Bt brinjal even after spraying pesticides twice a week. This season, he has already sold 800 kg of bt brinjal, which is free of fruit and shoot borer damage and required no pesticides. Photo: Arif Hossain/Cornell

“Because of infestation by the fruit and shoot borer, or FSB, as much as 70 percent of the eggplant crop in South Asia never makes it to market,” said Anthony Shelton, international professor of entomology, who is the director of the project. “Farmers in Asia spray hazardous insecticides as often as every other day to control FSB. Genetically engineered eggplant, or Bt brinjal, which has been developed over the last 11 years, uses a gene from a naturally occurring soil bacterium to produce a protein that causes the borers to stop feeding. Bt, or bacillus thuringiensis, is a biological pesticide that organic growers have used for decades. Bt brinjal increases food security and reduces the use of insecticides that negatively affects human health and the environment.”