MU faculty, students fight world hunger

Friday, April 25, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:46 p.m. CDT, Friday, April 25, 2014

This map shows the percentage of undernourished people in each country as of 2012. According to U.N. World Food Programme, around one in eight people in the world does not get enough food to manage an active life. Click on a country to find out more.

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COLUMBIA — There is an animal that dwells in Mozambique called a pangolin. It's a kind of scaly anteater, and it's considered good luck to find one.

When MU researcher Jill Findeis was in the east African nation, the people in the village where she was working found a pangolin. They thanked her, saying, "You bring good luck."

That's what Findeis wants — to bring good luck to people in the form, ultimately, of food. If she can make seeds grow in impoverished soils, then plants have a better chance of surviving and, in time, becoming a life-sustaining meal.

Findeis and researchers like her believe a public, land-grant university in the middle of the United States can be a force for ending world hunger. It is happening through people who are dedicating their life's work to tackling a small piece of it. It is happening — and has been happening for decades — across disciplines and across campus.

Their work matters: Earth's population is more than seven billion now and forecast to grow to nine billion by 2050, MU rural sociology professor Sandy Rikoon said.

More roots, more seeds, more food

Plant science is fundamental to agriculture and global food production. That's why MU plant science professor Robert Sharp takes a scientific approach in attacking world hunger.

Sharp is director of the Interdisciplinary Plant Group, a community of 59 faculty across three academic divisions that provides, promotes and facilitates plant science at MU. A main focus of the group is how root architecture — how individual roots grow — can be used to grow more food in depleted soils.

"What we are working on is the fundamental mechanisms of how roots grow and adapt to dry soil conditions," Sharp said.

Root systems tend to be complex, but the group is working on how these roots can work within soils where plants refuse to grow.

Root systems have plasticity, meaning they can change in response to environmental conditions. As a result, plants can grow in soils where they likely couldn't before.

"My own focus is on understanding the physiological mechanisms that regulate how the growth of individual roots responds to those conditions," Sharp said.

'Beans for bad soils'

Root architectures are key in phosphorous acquisition, a process that allows plants to grow in soil.

However, in areas such as Mozambique where the soils are impoverished, it is harder to get food to grow.

Findeis, the MU director for applied social sciences in the Agricultural Economics Department, has worked with a multidisciplinary team of researchers from Pennsylvania State University, MU and other institutions to develop low-phosphorous legumes — "beans for bad soils," as she calls them.

"Phosphorous is limited in African soils," Findeis said. "Our MU-Penn State multidisciplinary team is developing technologies and approaches to seed dissemination to reduce hunger while building up soil through nitrogen fixation."

Low-phosphorous legumes have the ability to curb world hunger because they adapt to poor soil and grow seeds and food in areas such as Africa where old, degraded soils are prevalent.

"The seeds are traditionally bred and are not genetically modified," Findeis said.

Findeis added that she would like to disperse these ideas and technologies to grow food as rapidly as possible.

"Essentially we are in a race against rapid population growth," she said.

Establishing research in South Africa

The University of Missouri System has maintained a 28-year partnership with the University of Western Cape in South Africa to promote research and teaching.

The South African government created a Centre for Excellence in Food
Security at UWC in February. The center, in its planning stages, will give the university opportunities to address and research issues with food accessibility and growth in South Africa.

Brian O’Connell, the rector of UWC, said South Africa has a problem with water, which affects how plants and food are grown.

"Our grapes down in the south are budding at the wrong time," O’Connell said. "The grapes are confused."

O’Connell and Rod Uphoff, director of the UM System’s South Africa Education Program, said that technologies, such as genetic engineering, can give an idea of what types of crops to grow to improve food quality.

"They’re not just growing food, but they’re trying to help South African farmers figure out what are the best types of crops to grow that will provide the most nutritious value," Uphoff said. "It can provide information to consumers on food choice and which types of food will improve public health."

These issues are easy for the center to research because these issues are affecting places such as South Africa, Mozambique and the United States, Uphoff said.

MU's historical presence

MU’s fight for food security can be traced back to the end of the Korean War. Places such as South Korea and India were the early areas of interest, said Ken Schneeberger, international training coordinator at MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

From 1954 to 1962, MU agriculture faculty helped create India’s first agriculture institution from scratch in the state of Orissa with the support of the United States Agency for International Development. The institution, named the Orissa University of Agriculture and Technology, provided the province with a place for agriculture education.

"This was a multimillion dollar venture involving more than 70 MU faculty," Schneeberger said. "OUAT is a leading Indian university today."

MU also has helping hands in Africa, where rising urban populations and depleted soils are contributing to the problem.

But the only way to aid other countries in fighting food insecurity is for those places to accept help from the outside, Rikoon said.

"Part of it is that we can only work in international areas where we can get support to work,” Rikoon said. "Most of the international community’s focus is on Africa, more than, let’s say Bangladesh where there are also some of the same problems."

Former MU Chancellor Brady Deaton has approached this problem during his retirement with his work at the Brady and Anne Deaton Institute for University Leadership in International Development. He said solving world hunger is realistic.

"Addressing the issue requires scholarship, research, quality curricula and also energy from students and student organizations," Deaton said.

Student involvement down the road

The fight against world hunger requires support and research from students at MU, faculty members say.

"There is more student interest today on campus on issues relating to hunger and food security," Rikoon said. "Students are becoming more aware of the issue and more willing to engage in social action."

Schneeberger says studying abroad has become an essential tool in giving students hands-on experience in places where people are hungry.

"You just have to get outside your comfort zone and see how some people are coping with really difficult situations," Schneeberger said.

But for undergraduate students who do not have the same opportunities as graduate students to study abroad or travel internationally, there are chances to fight for food security at the local level.

"We work in rural areas (in Missouri) where they have to drive 30 minutes to get to any kind of full-service grocery store," Rikoon said.

Rikoon said Missouri has one of the highest levels of food insecurity in the nation, meaning fighting hunger at home has become the first step for MU students addressing the problem.

"The blessing and the curse of hunger is that it’s all around us," Rikoon said. "For students who want to do something, it’s hard for them to go to Ethiopia. But right down the street, they could be working on these issues."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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Ellis Smith April 25, 2014 | 10:16 a.m.

And engineering students, through "Engineers Without Borders" program, are making on site contributions concerning health basics: clean water, and waste sanitation.

Both MU and MS&T students are active in a Central American country, and MS&T students have been active for some years in Bolivia as well. Conditions are being remedied by small but important projects that are very "basic." For example, if you want a clean water well with an electric pump in it, the pump's electrical power MUST be solar: ain't no power line availavle to tap into!

Should you wonder where the money comes from, it isn't from taxpayers (these projects are privately funded - at least ours are, and I assume MU projects would also be). Typically, such equipment as is needed is donated by our domestic manufacturers.

Students gather information, design solutions back at campus, money and equipment are solicited and donated, and installation is completed. The students have faculty advisors.

Hopefully, we'll see an article in the Missourian soon.

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