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At MU meeting, agricultural experts examine global hunger

Friday, March 15, 2013 | 9:03 p.m. CDT; updated 6:27 p.m. CDT, Saturday, March 16, 2013

COLUMBIA—MU Chancellor Brady Deaton noted several takeaways from a meeting Friday on the role of university research in addressing global hunger:

  • Information exchange across disciplines would increase research effectiveness.
  • Agricultural policy should be better informed by research.
  • Women should become more involved in the agricultural process.
  • Extension work should be expanded to educate farmers on new advances.
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Deaton chaired a meeting of the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. The board heard from expert panelists including Saharah Moon Chapotin, division chief for agriculture research at U.S. Agency for International Development, and Purdue University agronomy professor Sylvie Brouder.

The board’s primary purpose is to advise the U.S. Agency for International Development on how to best use its resources to fund agricultural development and research in the hopes of ensuring a stable food supply and ending hunger around the world.

The meeting was livecast online, drawing 95 viewers from around the country.

Sustainability

The most pressing issue at the meeting was how to produce enough food to feed the burgeoning world population, which is expected to top 9 billion by 2050, while using environmentally sustainable farming.

“We need to [increase production] in a way that uses fewer resources, less water, less energy and doesn’t degrade the land,” Chapotin said.

For example, integrated pest management programs use natural methods instead of pesticides to reduce the amount of crops lost to insects.

One such USAID program in Cambodia involves cultivating a naturally-occurring fungus called Trichoderma in order to prevent plant diseases caused by other fungi.

These programs should increase production for the long term, even after the intervention ended, Chapotin said.

Women and youth in agriculture

Another major theme of the meeting was the need to involve women in the agricultural process at every step, from planting and harvesting to research and development.

In Africa, the majority of the farmers are women, board member Catherine Bertini said.

“When women have control of the food or income, families are fed more nutritiously and their health improves,” Deaton said. “We’ve had solid research on that for some time.”

The relative lack of women in the sciences also poses a major issue for the agricultural community. In 2011, only 37.7 percent of doctoral degrees in plant sciences were awarded to women, according to a 2012 report from the National Science Foundation.

The board also discussed how to get more young people into the farming and agriculture fields. Low interest among youth could result in not having enough farmers to adequately meet the world’s food needs.

“We have to figure out a way to get more young people to be farmers,” Bertini said.

Interdisciplinary integration and information sharing

Another topic of discussion was the need for cooperation between disciplines. Interdisciplinary research allows scholars to combine the perspectives of different fields to build upon one another and come to new conclusions.

The Interdisciplinary Plant Group at MU is one example of such integration. The group is made up of researchers from areas such as plant science, genetics, biochemistry and computer science and is recognized as one of the top plant research programs in the country, according to its website.

Making more information publicly accessible would allow researchers to connect the dots and help avoid publication bias, said Brouder.

Extension work

The need to expand education for working farmers around the globe was also discussed at the meeting. Research is usually communicated to farmers through university extensions.

Former board member William Delauder spoke about his experiences among farmers in rural Cambodia. The farmers welcomed the assistance provided by agency researchers, but the country needs an effective agricultural extension system to continue educating the farmers, Delauder said.

In Vietnam, there are 2500 farmers for every one extension worker, said Dale Bottrell, a retired MU professor of entomology.

“We need to reach millions of farmers with these ideas,” Bottrell said.

Integrating university research with end-user expertise is an important step toward sustainable agriculture, said Robert Sharp, a professor of plant sciences and head of the Interdisciplinary Plant Group.

Board members also thought it important that governmental policy support agriculture.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.


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