AgBioResearch scientist leads study to help fuel Africa’s green revolution

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Sieg Snapp kneeling in a field (view larger image)

Crop diversification with shrubby legumes mixed with soybeans and peanuts could be the key to sustaining the green revolution in Africa, according to a study led by MAES soils and cropping system ecologist Sieg Snapp.

The study, which appeared in the Nov. 22 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, states that diversifying crops would boost production of nutrient-enriched grain by 12 percent to 23 percent.

Malawi has been called the cradle of Africa’s green revolution. With its government subsidizing 90 percent of fertilizer and superior corn seed costs, Malawi has reaped substantial gains in productivity of calorie-rich food. The successful program has had some unintended consequences, though, such as reliance on starchy cereals and expensive fertilizer, and depleted soils.

Rotating corn with mixtures of pigeonpea (a shrubby legume grown in tropical regions) keeps the soil from being stripped of nutrients while increasing nutrient-rich grain productivity. This sustained boost would enhance food and environmental security in Africa, Snapp said.

“This diversified rotation provides multiple benefits over simply planting a continuous corn crop,” said Snapp, who works at the MSU W.K. Kellogg Biological Station. “One big plus is that it will allow twice as much sunlight capture and nitrogen fixation, which supplements fertilizer and improves the efficiency of any fertilizer that is applied. This translates to more stable grain production and grain with enhanced nutrition.”

The nation furthered its green reputation by committing at every level to make this unprecedented long-term and wide-ranging study possible. It was carried out over multiple years and involved thousands of Extension educators, farmers, government officials, hospital staff members, university educators and farmer research groups, according to Snapp.

“This participatory research approach has led to an agricultural revolution, one that will provide multiple benefits other than increased productivity,” she said. “For example, as dependency on fertilizer and subsidies decrease, the government can use the money to invest in education, health and civil society.”

Researchers from the Farmhouse (Norwich, U.K.), the University of Florida, the University of Western Ontario (Canada) and the University of Malawi (Lilongwe, Malawi) contributed to the study.

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