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Hunger Help from the Heartland

Global hunger has no easy answer.

But as part of a partnership with the federal government called Feed the Future, researchers at land-grant universities are trying new approaches to the decades-old dilemma.

“The world’s poorest people, and hungriest people, generally, the majority of them are small farmers living in rural areas,” said Tjada D’oyen McKenna, deputy coordinator for development for Feed the Future. “And agriculture is the most effective means of bringing them out of poverty and under-nutrition.”

That’s why Feed the Future is exporting agricultural know-how.

And to do that, it has sought out partnerships with agricultural researchers from the nation’s network of land grant colleges and universities. Many of the tools and techniques that have made Midwestern farmers global leaders have emerged from research done at these schools. One goal of Feed the Future is to help farmers increase yields and production efficiency—and those are lessons the ag schools can share.

Kurt Rosentrater, an assistant professor at Iowa State University, for example, is an expert on fish feed. He says that more nutritious feed, produced reliably, has the potential to improve aquaculture, which in turn means providing protein-rich food to more people. Feed the Future funded a project that took him to Bangladesh.  

“I did a lot of work coordinating a country-wide survey and assessment of what’s the state of each point in the value chain for fish feed and what can be done to improve it,” Rosentrater said.

Working in-country with counterparts from WorldFish, Rosentrater visited farmers and feed mills.

“Bangladesh is an agriculture-based country,” said Mamun Ur Rashid, a WorldFish staff member who traveled in Bangladesh with Rosentrater. “One of the main components of agriculture is aquaculture.” Rashid said that in Bangladesh, farmers and processors recognize that confronting some of the known challenges in aquaculture, and specifically in fish feed production, requires outside help.

“[Even for] a typical problem,” he said, “we have to depend on foreign expertise.”

Rashid said Rosentrater made some suggestions, but implementing them may require educating the people involved about why they should make changes.

Rosentrater also recognizes that some fixes — such as dust handling and quality control — that seemed obvious to him, because they are inherent parts of the process in the United States, are not so straightforward in Bangladesh.

“It takes time and money to do those things, even though they’re simple things,” Rosentrater said. “So low-hanging fruits aren’t always easy to pick, unfortunately.”

This realization, of course, is not new. Nor is the United States’ effort to help alleviate hunger and poverty. In its five-year report, released this spring, Feed the Future says the program has improved nutrition for 12.5 million children and brought new technologies or management practices to 7 million farmers.

And McKenna, of Feed the Future, says that’s why the ag schools, and folks like Rosentrater, are so important.

“Partnerships with institutions like Iowa State and Kansas State and Michigan State—institutions that are great land-grant institutions that have deep history and expertise in research in agricultural problems and innovation—are natural partners for our work,” McKenna said.

Brandeis University doctoral candidate Danielle Fuller-Wimbush is writing her dissertation on the Feed the Future program in Haiti. She says Feed the Future’s focus on supporting local, small holder farmers and increasing yields distinguishes it from past efforts that shipped food to hungry people. But she says Feed the Future’s execution hasn’t always lived up to its potential.

“There has been a lot of criticism,” Fuller-Wimbush said. “There's a lot about the program that could certainly be improved.”

Engaging local communities more from the start and throughout, ensuring women and men benefit equally and creating truly sustainable projects — all of these, she says, are supposed to be part of the initiatives. Often they are not. Those are familiar lessons the government could have taken from its history of international aid work, she says.

“To be honest,” Fuller-Wimbush said, “I was surprised at how much has not been learned.”

An Iowa State project in Africa, though, seems poised for some success.

In Sue Lamont’s lab in the animal science department, machines can warm or cool samples or run experiments on up to 96 tiny vials of genetic material at once. These are among the tools she will use to analyze samples from chickens in Ghana and Tanzania.

“We are going to address one of the biggest disease problems for producing poultry in the continent of Africa, and that’s Newcastle disease virus,” Lamont said. “If we can help to improve the natural resistance of birds to this, it will mean a tremendous amount, especially to the small holder farmers.”

At universities in Ghana and Tanzania, chicken housing and lab facilities are nearing completion so that ongoing genetic testing can be done in-country after the U.S. role is finished. Lamont says working on Feed the Future is different from doing research with a grant from, say, the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The USAID, because it has the development aspect of it, really looks for projects that come closer to immediate application of the results,” Lamont said.

But can researchers make this $3.5 billion federal effort the one that achieves lasting impacts on the recipient countries? The United States has a long history of hunger and poverty relief programs abroad, yet the need remains.

To be sure, the United States’ commitment to helping the hungry is not purely altruistic.

“Investments like Feed the Future are very efficient and inexpensive ways for us to increase the markets available for us as trade partners,” said McKenna, “to develop new talent and sources of partnership for the United States as well as to help fend off some of the negative effects of insecurity that develop in other parts of the world.”

Because, she said, “a hungry crowd is an angry crowd,” and that’s not good for anybody.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames