Feeding the poorest of the poorResearch improves crops in Africa
Paging through a dog-eared composition notebook, Purdue professor Mitch Tuinstra, MS ’93, PhD ’96, reads through the longhand details of his two weeks in Africa this fall. Amid place names, modes of travel and daily activities, Tuinstra also noted:
• Contact information for his travel companions and their specific interests.
• Grain information and names of unfamiliar varieties.
• Economic and agricultural resources needed in certain locales.
• His impressions of a land and people that have become important to him professionally and personally.
The notebook is an invaluable reference tool back in Tuinstra’s office in West Lafayette, especially when the researchers and agricultural officials he’s met in Africa call for help.
“The most important thing we do is to educate people so they can solve their own problems,” he explains. His affection for the African people and their culture is reflected in the photos he shot there. On his computer screen, he points to a landscape of millet stalks awaiting hand threshing outside a handwoven granary with a thatched roof: “This, to me, says ‘agriculture’ in Africa.”
His uncle was a schoolteacher in Nigeria when Tuinstra was young, but Tuinstra also credits professors and graduate school friends for sparking his interest in the continent. That interest has grown with repeated travel to the region and dedication to his current research.
That research focuses on developing technologies to enhance food production and security. After 10 years on the faculty at Kansas State University, in fall 2007 Tuinstra returned to Purdue, where he earned master’s and doctoral degrees. His area of expertise is translational genomics for crop improvement, and he has been awarded the Wickersham Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Research in Purdue’s Department of Agronomy.
Coating on a seed controls witchweed
Tuinstra and a colleague, Kassim Al-Khatib, developed a technology at KSU that can protect crops from a weed called Striga. Also known as witchweed, Striga is native to Africa and is a growing problem in the region, Tuinstra explains
Striga is a parasite that not only steals water and nutrients from sorghum roots but also attacks the sorghum host with a toxic substance. The weed’s delicate purplish-pink flower belies its devastating impact — $7 billion in damage annually to cereal production in sub-Saharan Africa. Once it invades an area, Striga is nearly impossible to remove. And because it thrives in dry soil with low fertility, it affects the people who farm the poorest land.
Tuinstra and Al-Khatib developed sorghum seeds that are tolerant to chemical herbicides that kill Striga. Preliminary studies indicated that herbicide seed treatments could kill Striga while sorghum seeds germinated and continued to grow. Tuinstra directed greenhouse tests of the seeds in the Netherlands in 2005 and early field trials in Mali and Niger in 2005 and 2006. Those studies showed promising results.
E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. proprietary herbicides were found to be highly effective at controlling Striga infestations. In 2008, Kansas State University Research Foundation signed an agreement giving DuPont exclusive rights to develop and commercialize the herbicide-tolerant traits in sorghum. Tuinstra and Al-Khatib now collaborate with researchers from DuPont Crop Protection under a sponsored research agreement to develop and commercialize seed coatings that control Striga infestation.
Tuinstra’s trip from Sept. 20 to Oct. 4 grew from an earlier research workshop in West Africa in April. There, he joined an international group of researchers to identify the most important production constraints in the region. The program in West Africa was developed over the past 10 years through support from the International Sorghum and Millet (INTSORMIL) Collaborative Research Support Program.
Tuinstra returned home and worked on the protocols for experiments in different West African nations, taking into account the crop varieties grown in each location. He is especially grateful to the researchers willing to grow out his project, several of whom were graduate school colleagues.
Following up this fall, Tuinstra and DuPont researchers flew first to Nairobi, Kenya, to meet with officials of USAID, the independent federal agency responsible for most non-military foreign aid. Tuinstra points out that working effectively in Africa means developing relationships not just with U.S. organizations based there, but also with national and international research organizations.
In Kenya, the group focused on control of Striga in corn. An herbicide-resistant maize seed developed by CIMMYT, a nonprofit research and training center in Mexico, was working well for Kenyan farmers. To learn more about the corn’s use and impact, Tuinstra traveled with officials from CIMMYT and Western Seed Co. to Kisumu, in western Kenya.
There a woman showed off her hand-tended field and told them, “Because of witchweed, I couldn’t grow corn here before; I can grow corn now.” Her field plot is typical of sub-Saharan agriculture, Tuinstra notes — subsistence farms of 1 to 2 hectares (2.5 to 5 acres). After growing eight generations of corn using the treated seeds — two crops a year — the witchweed is finally under control. Intercropping is common here, but the farmer has learned to plant her beans in hills separate from the herbicide-treated corn seeds. This is not a cash crop; she’ll use the corn and beans to feed herself and two young sons, poignantly captured in Tuinstra’s photos.