Penn State awarded nearly $39M for global research on threats to crops



UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Reducing the negative effects of pests, diseases and weeds on crops in a climate-changed world is the goal of a multi-institution team led by Penn State and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as part of the organization’s initiative to end global hunger. The award was announced today (Nov. 6) by Administrator Samantha Power of the United States Agency for International Development at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference.


The grant — up to $39 million total over five years — will establish the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Current and Emerging Threats to Crops at Penn State. The lab will serve as a venue for a broad coalition of experts from around the world to collaborate on novel approaches to monitor, predict and combat current and emerging threats to crops. The team will focus its efforts in West Africa, East/Southern Africa, South/Southeast Asia and Central America.


“Ending global hunger is one the greatest challenges and opportunities of our time,” said Lora Weiss, Penn State senior vice president for research. “The Feed the Future program brings together partners from across various sectors and the U.S. government to assist countries that are ripe for transforming the way their food systems work. The new Innovation Lab, in combination with Penn State's wealth of experience in the development of technologies and practices to manage crop pests, will enable the University to help advance this goal.”


David Hughes, Dorothy Foehr Huck and J. Lloyd Huck Chair in Global Food Security and professor of entomology and biology in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Eberly College of Science at Penn State, will serve as the program director.


“Pests, diseases and weeds are chronic burdens that prevent smallholder farmers from achieving economic prosperity,” said Hughes. “Increased trade and climate change are increasing this burden, which necessitates innovative research for development that is rapidly deployed into farmer fields.”


Like the other Feed the Future Innovation Labs, the Innovation Lab for Current and Emerging Threats to Crops will focus on research to support development. In the first year, the team will conduct a large trial in maize to test the effectiveness of integrated pest management (IPM) strategies, such as parasitoid wasps to control the fall armyworm, bio-herbicides to control the Striga weed, clean seeds that are resistant to viral disease, and intercropping and climate-smart agriculture to improve crop health. IPM is an environmentally friendly strategy for managing pests that uses a variety of techniques such as biological control and habitat manipulation. The team will then evaluate the deployment of an IPM package across 1,000 farms in 10 counties. This evaluation will include an economic analysis and a gender/youth assessment to evaluate the diversity, equity and inclusion elements that are critical to USAID’s approach.


“Over the years, scientists in the college have contributed substantially to research on IPM practices,” said Rick Roush, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State. “It will be encouraging to see the Innovation Lab build upon and apply some of this knowledge to help smallholder farmers quickly address pest problems without the use of large quantities of expensive and potentially damaging pesticides.”


In addition, the team will conduct research aimed at developing tools for increased surveillance of viral and fungal diseases of tubers and wheat, which are important food crops. Cassava is a prime example; it is the largest source of calories in Africa and a vital crop for climate change adaptation due to its drought tolerance. Other important tubers are the Irish and sweet potatoes that are favored by farmers in Africa.


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