Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Systems Thinking for Sustainable Intensification: Q&A With Innovation Lab Director Vara Prasad

As part of its September focus on research for agricultural productivity, Agrilinks is showcasing the work of the Feed the Future Innovation Labs this month. The Innovation Labs use collaborative research to develop and scale sustainable technologies to feed a growing population with nutritious, safe foods. These labs form a network of more than 70 U.S. colleges and universities working with developing country partners to pioneer solutions that boost productivity, combat emerging threats and benefit farmers and food producers both at home and abroad. 

This interview with Vara Prasad, Director of the Sustainable Intensification Innovation Lab, is the first of a series on how Innovation Labs are helping to drive productivity gains needed for a food-secure future.

Vara Prasad

How is your Lab’s research working to drive agricultural productivity gains?

The Sustainable Intensification Innovation Lab works to increase productivity while also taking care of the environment for the next generation. We are working in twelve zones, six countries and three regions: two zones each in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Cambodia. Environmental and other conditions differ in each location, so our work varies.

In Ethiopia, we are working on crop-livestock interactions — specifically dual-purpose millet — to increase grain for humans and biomass for cattle feed, in addition to drip irrigation systems. In Burkina Faso, we are looking at dual-purpose sorghum and cowpea. The goal is increased crop production in terms of grain as well as good quality forage provided by the rest of the plant, so that livestock can be productive as well.

In Cambodia we are also working with rice-based cropping systems as well as improving household nutritional and income status by teaching women to grow home gardens, with a focus on indigenous fruits and vegetables. In the southern coastal zone of Bangladesh, where water is plentiful but highly salinated, we are working on developing more saline-tolerant crops, including sunflower and sesame. We are also working with the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute in conjunction with IRRI to develop high-zinc rice using a traditional breeding method. Finally, in Tanzania, we are working on a system to double up legumes such as pigeon pea and peanuts in rotation with maize, which helps increase productivity in several ways, by improved soil management as well as getting more out of a crop season.                                                                            

You’ve got a lot going on! What are you most excited about at the moment? 

Two things: first, when you talk about productivity, you need to think about the system productivity — not just one crop or component. We look at multiple crops and food sources, including livestock and aquaculture, holistically.

I’m really proud that we are developing a farming system that supports the health of both people and livestock. In West Africa, one of the biggest constraints during the off season is good quality feed, as there is plenty of cattle and nothing for them to eat.

The second is the integration of fruits and vegetables into the farming system. Cereals and grains can meet people’s caloric needs, but to be healthy, they need the micronutrients fruits and vegetables can provide. With family home gardening systems, we are focusing on indigenous crops like bitter gourds, long beans and local species of leafy vegetables.

What do you think the research community needs to focus on next in this space? 

Our biggest challenge is scaling up adoption. For decades, the Innovation Labs have developed solutions that could be transformational, but farmers are not adopting them at scale. Why aren’t they? How can we create an enabling environment to scale up from a plot to a region to an entire country? This really requires systems thinking and a multidisciplinary approach. Biophysical scientists need to work with social science methods to understand what a farmer’s thinking about when he makes decisions: finances, culture, household structure and so on.

This needs to be considered in the design process — not after the technology is developed. An integral part of developing a solution is ensuring it addresses the needs of the farmer.

That said, we can’t always say something will solve problems. More importantly, we need to provide them options and empower them to pick the one that best suits their needs.

How can the Agrilinks community of researchers and implementers benefit from/connect with what you’re doing? 

Networking and communication is the key for success. It can be difficult for scientists to communicate to the layperson or a policymaker. We appreciate Agrilinks working to convert complex stories into easily understandable points. We need platforms like this to learn from one another, both successes and mistakes.