Taking legume learnings from MSU to other countries

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Isaac Osei-Bonsu tends to young bean plants. (view larger image)

When he arrived at Michigan State University (MSU) from his home in Kumasi, Ghana, Isaac Osei-Bonsu already had two degrees in plant science and a decade of experience working in his country, where about 80 percent of the population depends on some form of subsistence agriculture for food. 

His training provided insight into the need for improved soil health and diversity of crops in a country where most agricultural production is not sufficient to meet local demand. Poor yields are brought on by low soil organic matter, low soil nitrogen and other nutrients, and limited access to chemical fertilizers and crop varieties resistant to drought, pests and disease.

“One of the main problems throughout Africa is poor soil health,” Osei-Bonsu said. “Before coming to MSU, I was introduced to legumes as a research scientist because they fix nitrogen, putting it into the soil instead of taking it out, and I saw potential for them to help fix my country’s soil nutrition problems.”

Last year Osei-Bonsu was selected – one of five from a pool of 200 candidates – to join the Legume Scholars program, a partnership between the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research’s Research Program on Grain Legumes, the Peanut Productivity and Mycotoxin Control Innovation Lab at the University of Georgia, and the Legume Innovation Lab (LIL) at MSU. The program provides graduate fellowships for students from developing countries to study legumes at leading universities in the United States.

“The program is a great opportunity to further my knowledge and expertise in the area of legumes,” Osei-Bonsu said. “I want to find effective solutions to the problems our farmers face, and this is how I can accomplish that.”

Osei-Bonsu joined the lab of David Kramer, Hannah distinguished professor in photosynthesis and bioenergetics in the MSU-Department of Energy Plant Research Laboratories, to study photosynthesis in legumes. Kramer’s lab is a leading voice in photosynthesis research through its pioneering PhotosynQ project, a worldwide network of researchers and citizen scientists collecting a wide range of plant health data. For Osei-Bonsu, this opportunity provides access to one of the world’s best databases on photosynthesis under various climatic and soil conditions.

Photosynthesis forms the basis of numerous essential plant processes, so ensuring its functioning at optimal levels is a critical component to producing a resilient, high-yielding legume crop. Osei-Bonsu is searching for the mechanisms that regulate the process within the plant and how environmental variables such as drought and/or high temperatures affect it. He said he hopes the results will help usher in a new era of legume agriculture.

“Understanding how photosynthesis works and how to improve it in legumes means better production, better food security, better nutrition and healthier soil for everyone,” he said.

Legume Scholars and Global Benefits

Each applicant to the Legume Scholars program brings his or her variant of Osei-Bonsu’s story. Connecting bright young scientists with the cutting-edge resources and training available from American universities to help developing nations solve these issues is at the heart of the program.

“By 2050, the world will need to feed an additional 2 billion people,” said Cynthia Donovan, deputy director of the LIL and professor in the MSU Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics (AFRE). “That sort of challenge requires the best and brightest ideas in agricultural science and getting them into the hands of the people who can use them best.”

Each student selected for the program receives full tuition for a master’s or Ph.D. program, as well as opportunities for lab and field experience and professional development workshops.

Rosemary Bulyaba was born in Kampala, the largest city in Uganda, but became familiar with the challenges that her country’s farmers face during an internship in the Kamuli district, an agriculture-heavy rural region in the eastern part of the country. At the time, she was studying agribusiness for her undergraduate degree at Makerere University. Her internship involved working with schools and farmers to provide healthy meals for students, and it was there she learned of the health and economic benefits of legumes for communities.

“We were working with primary schools to make sure they had lunches so that students had something to eat before they went home in the evening,” Bulyaba said. “Legumes, high in protein, offer great nutrition and a more diverse diet for children, who are often malnourished.”

Wanting to make this important crop group more widely available at home, Bulyaba joined the Legume Scholars program and is now pursuing a Ph.D. at Iowa State University and working to find better ways to grow cowpeas and common beans in Uganda.

“There’s so much research being done here in the United States — I want to bring that back home where we can apply this knowledge and expertise in the field, where it can help people who are struggling.”

Sending Spartans Around the World

Many students from the developing world come to MSU to study legumes; many others take the expertise they acquire at MSU abroad.

Matt Berry, a Ph.D. student and Indiana native working in the lab of Karen Cichy, adjunct assistant professor in the MSU Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, is spending the summer in Tanzania through a graduate research grant from the U.S. Borlaug Fellows in Global Food Security Program. He is applying his knowledge of plant genetics toward discovering what areas of the genome are responsible for the fast-cooking trait observed in beans. He presented a poster on his work during the Joint Pan-African Grain Legume and World Cowpea Research Conference in Zambia in March.

“I’ve wanted to work with beans since I was an undergrad student,” Berry said. “Beans are very nutritious, but even after soaking in water for up to 12 hours, they can still take another hour or more to cook. I’m trying to decrease the cooking time through plant breeding.”

In a region of the world where most in-home cooking is done atop wood-burning fires, which take time and energy to start, shorter cook time is a much-desired trait. By reducing cooking time, Berry hopes to make beans an easier, more time- and cost-effective dietary choice.

Though he grew up in Michigan, David DeYoung has been working in the developing world since 2007, when he was part of a non-governmental organization in Honduras during the world food price crisis. The turmoil saw food prices skyrocket and threaten food security in many countries. That experience motivated DeYoung to declare AFRE as his major. He participated in a project to bring improved bean cultivars to Haiti, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua through the LIL.

“The project provided the opportunity to work with established community seed banks in Nicaragua,” DeYoung said. “We studied what factors led to sustainability in seed banks and passed that information back to them.”

DeYoung graduated from MSU in December but has continued studying farmers’ access to  improved seed varieties in Haiti and parts of Asia as an MSU Extension specialist.

“On a personal level, my time in the field in Latin America reinforced to me the value of working directly with farmers,” DeYoung said. “Talking with local seed experts and farmers was the best way to learn about the specific challenges they face on both the production and marketing sides, as well as how we could best help meet them.”

The Future of Legume Science in Developed and Developing Countries

Through MSU’s many research endeavors, facilitated by labs and programs across the university, the next generation of legume scientists is training to tackle agricultural, environmental and economic challenges around the world. The knowledge that they generate will have many applications, from increased yield to better nutrition, healthier soil and greater food security, and the beneficiaries of their work will be growers and consumers throughout developed and developing countries alike.

“The implications of our work are numerous — improving air quality in homes, reducing fuel consumption, saving time and improving nutrition,” Berry said. “These are important advances in the developing world, but anyone who cooks beans will benefit, no matter where they are.”

The training and research opportunities available through MSU play an important role in helping young scientists acquire the knowledge and expertise they need to make these breakthroughs.

“As we make legume varieties better and more available to farmers, they’ll benefit from higher yields, more income, more food and healthier soils — all things we need back home,” Osei-Bonsu said. “The benefits to farmers could be great, and I want to help them find that.”

More from A Bounty of Beans: MSU’s Hearty Global Impact

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