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Agricultural Research Responses in Times of Crisis

This Article in Brief:

  • Investments in agricultural research and development have economic and societal benefits and can buffer against the negative impacts of crises.
  • Feed the Future Innovation Labs and their associated networks of researchers have immediately pivoted their work to support responses to COVID-19.
  • For example, Feed the Future has quickly adapted innovations like Scientific Animations Without Borders, a platform that delivers educational animated videos, for the COVID-19 crisis.

Investing in agricultural research means investing in the future of innovation. Research has transformed seed varieties, cold storage, storage technology and smartphone apps – all critical components to meeting the global challenges of producing food more efficiently, improving nutrition, and strengthening the resilience of families who rely on agriculture for a living. Agricultural research has been shown to yield $10-20 in economic benefits for every $1 invested, which in turn translates into improved nutrition and health, better wages and employment opportunities, and reductions in poverty.

Limiting Disaster Impact Through Research

As we have seen during the current COVID-19 pandemic and desert locust outbreak in Africa, building programs based on sound research is critical.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic and its effects are reducing crop production and trade, causing a decrease in safe and nutritious food.
  • Current data shows that extreme poverty could go up 20 percent globally in 2020—that is equivalent to up to 148 million additional people.
  • Leveraging the global research community’s expertise and networks can address and mitigate some of these impacts.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first time a major crisis has brought to light the valuable benefits of sustained research investments. In 2016, the dreaded pest, Fall Armyworm, arrived in West Africa and has since spread to Eastern and Southern Africa and Asia. Native to the Americas, the pest destroys around 20 percent of maize yields and attacks other critical crops, including sorghum and fodder grasses.

Feed the Future’s longstanding research investment in pest-resistant maize enabled private partners and farmers to quickly respond to the Fall Armyworm crisis with a new maize variety. This forward-looking strategy for pest-resistant crop research has saved consumers, farmers and other stakeholders billions of dollars over the past decade and lessened the blow when pests arrived.

Our Response to COVID-19 

In the case of COVID-19, experts have leveraged research to better understand and communicate about how to limit the spread of the virus, and to learn more about how we can address the devastating effects it has on the food system, caused by travel and trade restrictions and a reduction of available workers. Developing countries have been hit especially hard.

One way we have adapted our programs and partnerships to mitigate impacts on food systems, resilience and nutrition is through our U.S. university-led Feed the Future Innovation Labs. Our research partners are utilizing their extensive networks to address the impacts of the pandemic. This includes managing stress in food and health systems, as well as reducing the risk of COVID-19’s rapid spread.

  • Feed the Future Small Scale Irrigation Innovation Lab (Texas A&M University): Household water security is critical for communities facing COVID-19 – the team is working to provide messaging on safe water collection and consumption practices, including from water sources intended for irrigation. This is vital to ensure proper agricultural water management so crops will still thrive, as well as avoid viral contamination of water resources.
  • Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Peanut (University of Georgia): To prepare for the potential nutritional impacts of COVID-19, this Innovation Lab is currently working to get peanuts into the hands of processors and families who depend on this vital source of nutrition. The pandemic could create an increased demand for emergency food like ready-to-use therapeutic food, ready-to-use-supplemental food, and various school lunch foods, most of which use peanuts as a key ingredient.
  • Feed the Future Horticulture Innovation Lab (University of California, Davis): In the wake of COVID-19, new technologies fostered by the Feed the Future Horticulture Innovation Lab, such as the CoolBot cold room, DryCard, and Chimney Solar Dryer, as well as the GrainMate moisture meter developed by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss, can be used to reduce losses that accrue after crops leave the field.
  • Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Processing and Post-Harvest Handling (Purdue University): Finally, this team has been developing technologies for instant, shelf-stable, fortified foods. These products can reduce post-harvest loss while providing safe, stable nutrition when access to fresh food is limited.

In addition to research, education is an important tool in times of crisis. Scientific Animations Without Borders (SAWBO), co-launched by Michigan State University, has been instrumental in effective global communication during uncertain times, including the Fall Armyworm outbreak and epidemics of human diseases such as Ebola, Zika, malaria and AIDS. SAWBO is a platform that has been delivering effective, easy to understand animated videos in local languages for the past 10 years.

In addition to content that communicates important health-related information, such as “How to Wash Your Hands” and “Preventing Sickness,” as well as the newly created “Protecting Yourself from Coronavirus,” SAWBO has been delivering critical agricultural knowledge through Feed the Future Innovation Labs.

As part of Feed the Future’s response to the pandemic, the initiative is working with SAWBO to create COVID-19-related content to address issues around personal health, planting and harvesting, caring for livestock, working virtually, water management advice, and engaging in commercial markets during this crisis. Read more about this partnership in this newsletter article.

Sustaining Support for Research Investments

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, its serious impact on food security and nutrition is becoming clearer. Ongoing research efforts aimed at mitigating these impacts are more important than ever. Feed the Future continues to invest in research to develop and advance a pipeline of innovations, tools and approaches designed to sustainably reduce global poverty, hunger and malnutrition in the face of complex, dynamic challenges that affect communities abroad and right here at home in the United States.

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