2010 President's Report

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Can we create a new agricultural revolution that increases production while benefitting society? WITH HELP FROM THE SPARTANS, GOOD NEWS KEEPS CROPPING UP IN AFRICA.

Nobody thought a shrub could change the course of an entire continent—except the Spartans, that is.

In partnership with colleagues at the University of Malawi, MSU crop and soil scientist Sieg Snapp led a massive study on the effects of rotating corn with pigeonpea mixtures, or shrubby legumes, grown in tropical regions. The simple crop rotation was found to increase nutrient-rich grain productivity—boosting yields by as much as 23 percent and sparking an agricultural revolution.

“Farmers in Malawi are major land users and can be major land protectors, but we have to give them the tools,” says Snapp, who conducts research at MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station as part of MSU AgBioResearch and who has spent nearly two decades working on projects in Malawi.

Nestled in southeastern Africa, Malawi has been called the cradle of Africa’s green revolution. The government there subsidizes the majority of the fertilizer and superior corn seed costs. But in a nation where corn is king, the landscape—and the health of its people—are at risk. Putting so much stock in a single crop has resulted in deteriorating soil quality and dietary overreliance on corn products, including starchy cereals.

To make sure their crop rotation method would be economically viable for the people of Malawi, Snapp and her colleagues spent years testing the performance of hundreds of crops under variable weather conditions—whittling a list of top contenders down to several all-star crop varieties.

Snapp notes the shrubby crops’ ability to keep yields stable, extend the growing season, and open new markets: “This will help the people of Malawi to be resilient and respond to this rapidly changing world.”

While modest looking, the shrubby legumes allow twice as much sunlight capture and nitrogen fixation, which results in keeping more carbon and nitrogen out of the air and water, reducing the need for added fertilizer and making any applied fertilizer more than twice as efficient. In a country where fertilizer must be shipped in, boosting fertilizer prices as much as tenfold, the government can now redirect that money to other essential areas, including health care and education services.

The long-term and wide-ranging study took more than a village. It took the commitment of the nation of Malawi, furthering its green reputation. Snapp and her colleagues gained the support of thousands of extension nutrition educators, scientists, government officials, and development and health care workers to bring new agricultural practices to Malawi and neighboring nations.

Today, more than 9,000 farm families in more than 60 villages have adopted new crops into their planting rotation, and Snapp says this crop diversification is projected to benefit some two million farmers in 2011.

Across the continent, as food and environmental security grow, so does Africa’s future.