K-State leads international project to address food security


Every day millions of farmers grapple with challenging climate conditions on low incomes. A project led by Kansas State seeks to support farmers in Kansas and across the world, Climate Resilient Cereals Innovational Lab director Jagger Harvey said.

The United States Agency for International Development is funding K-State and five other universities to breed crops to withstand climate stressors like drought, heat, and flooding, Harvey said.

“By ensuring that these farmers can grow their staple cereals and they’re not going to be wiped out by a drought, it gives them a foundation, a footing, to climb out of poverty,” Harvey said.

Research into making these cereals — sorghum, wheat, millet and rice — climate-resilient will be aided by cutting-edge technology like drones and DNA sequencing, Climate Resilient Cereals Innovational lab assistant director Jared Crain said. 

“An unmanned aerial vehicle or drone … can go over thousands of plots in 10 or 15 minutes, take photos of hundreds of plants in that timeframe and go back and analyze it,” Crain said. 

“Ten-plus years ago, a plant breeder would have to go through and visually evaluate every one of those thousands of plots.”

To make the crops adaptable to different environments, researchers look for certain traits — a process sped up by drones, Crain said.

“Phenotyping is taking a measurement and often an image of a field or plant and extracting a trait, whether that’s the plant height, how green that plant is, which a lot of times is related to plant vigor,” Crain said. “If a plant is growing well, they’re usually going to have a nice lush green look and often end up producing more.”

Genetic sequencing pinpoints these favorable traits within DNA and is more efficient than ever before, Crain said.

“We can sequence thousands of samples in a matter of days,” Crain said. “Prior to 15 years ago, it would take months to do something like that. Now it’s just routine, and we can do it cheaply.”

To research and implement these crops, the project partners with U.S. and international agencies, Harvey said.

“By having the U.S. land grant system involved, that allows us to reach farmers,” Harvey said. “Then what we’re doing is we’re looking for national agricultural research institutes in developing countries that we can partner with.”

While the project’s focus is international, it will also benefit local agriculture, Harvey said.

“There’s a moral imperative to help them [international farmers],” Harvey said. “But in addition to that … this particular innovation lab has an opportunity to have an even more direct impact on U.S. agriculture because we’re facing climate-related losses in these different cereals.” 

Sophomore Hannah Whetstone, whose family owns a cattle ranch in southeast Kansas, said drought impacts local cattle ranchers and crop producers.

“No rain equals your ponds aren’t staying full and your crops aren’t getting water to grow, which makes yields much less as well,” Whetstone said. 

Harvey said Kansas farmers are vulnerable as the climate shifts.

“A lot of the cereals that are grown in Kansas are not irrigated, and they’re at the mercy of the rain-fed system,” Harvey said. 

Droughts pose a financial risk to ranchers and farmers too, Whetstone said.

“I know there are cattle ranchers in Kansas who had to sell their cattle because they didn’t have a way to run water to them,” Whetstone said. 

This new program will hopefully prepare farmers to deal with the changing climate, Whetstone said.

“If there’s ways that we can make strides towards growing our grass better and growing it in severe drought, that allows a lot more farmers and ranchers to stay in business, to continue long time family traditions and essentially continue to feed the public,” Whetstone said.

The countries of international partners for this project have yet to be announced.