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Feds give Kansas State $22 million to fight global hunger

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Tom Joyce

(The Center Square) - Kansas State University recently got a $22 million award from the U.S. Agency for International Development in hopes of improving the availability of cereal crops for populations at high risk for hunger and malnutrition.

The school will lead the Feed the Future Climate Resilient Cereals Innovational Lab, or CRCIL. The CRCIL will include U.S. and international partners hoping to advance the breeding of four crops: sorghum, millet, wheat, and rice.

Jagger Harvey, the lab's director and a research professor in KSU's plant pathology department, said the school will put the award to good use.

"CRCIL unleashes the strength of the U.S land-grant system and our global partner network to better climate-proof cereal germplasm, bolstering future food and nutritional security, and, in turn, increasing global security and prosperity," Harvey said in a press release from Kansas State University. "Thanks to USAID's generous support, we have assembled a top-tier, diverse consortium of scientists to collaborate with front-line cereal improvement experts leading efforts in partner countries."

The team is collaborating to improve the climate resilience of materials, including seeds, for farmers worldwide.

CRCIL wants to double world food production by 2050, even as the climate worsens for farming.

"Kansas farmers and researchers are no strangers to harsh climatic conditions impacting cereal production," Harvey said. "This makes K-State the perfect home for this new initiative."

Food insecurity has been a growing problem lately, the school said. It notes that East Africa is facing its worst drought in 40 years, while global conflicts, including the war in Ukraine, are also hurting the cause.

"More than 50 percent of the world's caloric intake comes from cereals, and with the exception of maize, CRCIL is dedicated to identifying and using genetic variation to improve farmers' production and consumer's acceptance of the top vital cereals," Jared Crain, a research assistant professor in K-State's plant pathology department who will serve as the associate director of the innovation lab, said.

The award will not be used to build a physical lab. Rather, it will support collaborative, interdisciplinary research and other activities related to improving the availability of the four aforementioned crops.

Crain said the team wants to apply already-existing plant-breeding technologies to programs globally. Some of those technologies include, "phenotyping with uncrewed aerial vehicles, next-generation DNA sequencing and genotyping, crop modeling and simulations assisted by artificial intelligence, speed breeding, and others," the release said.

"Ultimately, this research will help improve germplasm to be more resilient to abiotic stresses, such as drought and heat, biotic stresses, such as disease, and meet consumers' preferences for safe and nutritious food," Crain said.

CRCIL is the fifth innovation lab award Feed the Future has provided KSU.

In the past decade, the school's innovation labs have received $128 million from USAID.

"CRCIL builds on the dedicated leadership, commitment, and accomplishments of our faculty engaged in international research that K-State is doing and has been doing over the past decades," Nina Lilja, associate dean of the KSU College of Agriculture, said. "On the global stage, this lab elevates K-State to a premier position in leading an important international climate resilience plant breeding consortium, helping K-State researchers expand their existing international network for crop improvement."

KSU will be joined by several partners on this project. They include: Clemson University, Cornell University, Delaware State University, Louisiana State University, and the University of Florida; and international partners in South Asia, Eastern and Western Africa, and Latin America. RTI International, the African Women in Agricultural Research for Development program, and Seeds2B.

"The CRCIL consortium assembles a tailored set of crop-agnostic advanced science expertise so partner country breeders can super-charge their climate resilience cereal improvement efforts," Harvey said in the release.

KSU Distinguished Professor Eduard Akhunov and the Wheat Genetics Resource Center are offering guidance in genomics, bioinformatics, and genome editing on this project.

"Each consortium partner brings critical, complementary expertise and science leadership across a holistic range of relevant scientific spaces," Harvey said.

Ernie Minton, the Eldon Gideon dean of KSU's College of Agriculture, said CRCIL allows the school to use its knowledge and connections to create better cops for Kansas farmers.

"CRCIL is an ambitious project that launches K-State to be a next-gen university that transforms lives around the world and in Kansas," Minton said.

The Government Accountability Office has found that USAID has problem setting benchmarks for its programs and that the agency has ignored key GAO recommendations for better management.