When Kansas State University President Kirk Schulz announced to the Kansas Board of Regents in early 2014 that the university was ready to take on the challenge of helping the world’s farmers feed nearly 10 billion people in the next 30 years, it wasn’t something he decided to do on the spur of the moment.
Indeed, the university had been working for more than two years to fortify its position as a leader in the global food system. And most would agree that the university’s more than 150-year land-grant heritage – and its passion for safely feeding the world – has strategically positioned Kansas State University to do so.
“Kansas State University is already a global leader among research universities in addressing the world challenge of feeding a growing population,” Schulz said. “With the imminent construction of the $1.2 billion National Bio and Agro-defense Facility (NBAF) on the Manhattan campus, the window is open to claim the leadership position in global food systems.”
The university’s Global Food Systems Initiative was invigorated by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which has awarded more than $100 million to Kansas State University since 2013 for projects to help with food challenges around the world. And in spring 2014, the Kansas Department of Commerce directed $5 million to help fortify the university’s mission.
Feed the Future Innovation Labs
In just over two years, Kansas State University has become a major player in USAID’s goal to reduce hunger and improve food security in the most impoverished nations of the world.
In that time, USAID has committed more than $100 million to Kansas State University under its Feed the Future initiative. The funding has helped create four innovation labs, the second most among U.S. universities.
In July 2013, USAID awarded $13.7 million for the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sorghum and Millet, which will improve the productivity, disease resistance, agronomy, and economic value of sorghum and millet in Ethiopia, Senegal, and Niger.
Later the same year, Kansas State University’s Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Applied Wheat Genomics was funded for $5 million. The project’s main goal is to develop heat-tolerant, high-yielding, and farmer-accepted wheat varieties for South Asia, where approximately 20 percent of the world’s wheat is grown.
Then, again in 2013, USAID awarded $8.5 million for the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss, a project that serves Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Guatemala. Major crops being studied include wheat, maize, sesame, and chickpea.
It is estimated that as much as one-third to one-half of the world’s harvest is lost every year for a variety of reasons, including production, storage, transportation, and consumer waste.
In 2014, the university received $50 million to establish the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Sustainable Intensification for work in Cambodia, Bangladesh, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, and Ethiopia. Sustainable intensification means producing more nutritious food on the same land base while protecting the natural resources on which the food system depends.
Continue Serving U.S., Kansas Farmers
John Floros, dean of the College of Agriculture and director of K-State Research and Extension, says the university has leading programs and research capabilities related to the world’s food systems. In that sense, not much changes with Schulz’ initiative.
“It is our job to address food system issues for Kansas producers,” Floros said. “But when we address items for Kansas, the solution also can be applied globally,” such as drought-tolerant wheat varieties for western Kansas and other dry areas of the world.
“Ultimately, this will help Kansans today and tomorrow. This is what we have done since we began as a land-grant university and this is what we will continue to do.”
Floros said the new part includes the university’s focus on a broad, global food network that will need to improve if it is to feed an estimated 2 billion more people by 2050.
University faculty and researchers will be involved in production agriculture, as well as projects that study how food is transported, stored, consumed, and protected. It will involve every department at the university, including those that study family issues, nutrition, health, business, biology, the environment, and more.
“This effort should lead toward Kansas State University becoming the place you go to if you want to improve your food system capabilities, or to learn more about the global food system,” Floros said. “We want to improve the expectation of industry and students in this regard.”
While the science is complex, the university’s focus is on discoveries that make sense to those who grow and eat the world’s food. As proof: In spring 2015, the university awarded global food systems innovation grants totaling $500,000 for faculty to pursue food-related studies.
One project will make processed foods healthier by producing resistant starch, or starch that can’t be digested by the stomach and small intestine. Starches that are more easily digested contribute to such diseases as obesity, diabetes, and colon cancer.
Postdoctoral researcher Michael Sweedman said the new starches have many applications in foods like white bread and cookies and “anything where you want functional fiber in products, but you don’t want the textural properties that come with more traditional forms of fiber.”
In another project, scientists from multiple disciplines are working together to determine how to use a technology called RNA interference, RNAi, to more efficiently produce food from plants and livestock. The study looks at identifying a protein in the organism that is causing a problem, and suppressing the protein so that the plant or animal grows more healthfully.
Additional work at the university includes looking at transportation systems, mobile drip irrigation, genetic mapping of major crops, urban food systems, providing experiential learning to undergraduate and graduate students, and more.
Research Gets a Boost
Kansas State University’s research muscle is highlighted by the upcoming construction of NBAF, which, combined with the university’s adjacent Biosecurity Research Institute at Pat Roberts Hall, gives Kansas State University one of the world’s greatest concentrations of facilities for research in animal health, crop protection, and food safety.
Recent multimillion-dollar awards to Kansas State University also speak to its leadership in the global food system. Some of those include research on childhood obesity; E. coli in beef; sorghum and millet as dryland crops; global food waste; and wheat genetics.
Manhattan is home to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Grain and Animal Health Research Center, the American Institute of Baking, the International Grain Science Complex, and the Kansas Department of Agriculture.
The capabilities of numerous campus facilities make Manhattan attractive to food companies. For example, in 2015, General Mills announced a partnership with Kansas State University to pump more than $400,000 into developing wheat varieties with improved nutritional, milling, and baking qualities.
Floros said that as the campus’ north corridor grows, the university will offer lab space to attract research that helps companies develop and improve consumer food products.
Or, as he says: “Together we will innovate the next breakthrough.”
“These goals aren’t just to benefit the university,” Floros said. “I want people to know that this is to help the public. We want to address industry problems of the global food system and make things better. This will provide an even bigger impact beyond our current goals.
“If we do this successfully, we can use the resources we already have on campus to meet our goals of educating others and helping industries improve their capabilities.”
Learn more at www.k-state.edu/globalfood
Caption for top photo: Leonardville, Kansas farmer Ron Roth gives a tour of his family farm to visitors from Vietnam who recently participated in the USDA Cochran Grain Purchasing course. The tour was sponsored by the IGP Institute at Kansas State University to provide innovative and relevant education and technical programs to enhance the market preference, consumption and utilization of U.S. cereal grains, oilseeds and their value-added products for the global grain industry. Courses at the IGP Institute often include trips to local farms for international visitors to gain a better understanding of Kansas production. Credit: Kansas State University
Pat Melgares is a communications specialist at Kansas State University.