CORNELL (US)—Two efforts led by researchers at Cornell University aim to improve soil health and advance plant breeding on small farms in Africa to lessen food insecurity, hunger, and poverty.

In one project, researchers are developing microorganisms to add to biochars aimed at improving soil health in Kenya.

Biochars are produced when organic waste is burned at low temperatures without oxygen.

“Biochars act like a sponge or microbial reef where microorganisms like to live, proliferate, and hide from predators,” says Johannes Lehmann, associate professor of soil biogeochemistry.

The inoculants would infect plant roots and support mycorrhizae fungi and other bacteria to provide plants with essential nutrients like nitrogen and promote growth.

Lehmann’s group also wants to develop stoves that would be made locally in Africa that would produce biochar while they are used for cooking and would eliminate indoor smoke, a serious health consequence of wood stoves in Africa.

Farmers would be able to use on-farm waste like shrubs, grasses, and crop residues—rather than harder-to-find wood—to fire up the stoves.

In a separate effort, researchers are using new molecular breeding technology to sequence trillions of base pairs from 12,000 breeding lines of maize and sorghum.

They hope to winnow the lines down by 90 percent, retaining only those that hold the most promise for drought tolerance and nitrogen efficiency.

This method will allow breeders to inexpensively select the most promising varieties based on their genotypes before doing crosses in the field, rather than undergoing the painstaking practice of crossing and breeding all the lines in drought and nitrogen deficient conditions.

“This is a really exciting opportunity to partner internationally,” says Ed Buckler, a U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service research geneticist with Cornell’s Institute for Genomic Diversity.

Breeding gains in Africa are well below those in the United States due to scarcity of fertilizers, small-scale breeding efforts, and variable annual weather conditions.

With the new technology, Buckler hopes to improve the rate of breeding in sub-Saharan Africa to equal the U.S. rates.

Researchers from the University of California at Irvine, the World Agroforestry Center of Kenya, and the University of New South Wales, Australia contributed to the projects, that are funded by Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development (BREAD), which is supported by the National Science Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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