ASIA-AFRICA: Joint research to improve food security

A £20 million research initiative, to exploit science to improve food security in the developing countries of Africa and Asia, has been launched by UK and US research funders working with the governments of the UK and India.

The Sustainable Crop Production Research for International Development, or SCPRID, initiative is being supported by the UK's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Department for International Development; India's Science and Technology Ministry and Council of Agricultural Research; and the US Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The programme comes at a time when over one billion people worldwide, or a sixth of the global population, are said to be undernourished, with the world's population estimated to reach nine billion by 2050.

The initiative will champion biological and biotechnological research to improve the production of major food crops in an effort to mitigate against food insecurity, which has been compounded by a number of factors such as environmental change, new trading patterns and urbanisation.

"The focus of the programme is on research to understand and counter the effects of abiotic (drought, temperature, salinity, nutrient deficiency etc) and biotic stresses (pathogens, pests, weeds) - including combinations of stresses - that constrain food crop production in developing countries of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia," read part of the summary of the joint call for collaborative projects.

Emphasis will be on the staple crops of cassava, maize, rice, sorghum and wheat.

The call for proposals added that research supported through the programme must be of excellent scientific quality and demonstrate clear development relevance as well as forge mutually beneficial scientific partnerships between the UK and developing countries.

It added that the call is divided into two parts: Standard Research Grants led by a principal investigator from any eligible institution, and Projects for Emerging Agricultural Research Leaders (PEARLs) awarded to early-to-mid career scientists from a developing country in Sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia.

An accompanying press statement said funding will be awarded to teams that can show that their research can improve food security and increase sustainable crop yields within the next five to 10 years.

The press statement continued: "The initiative also aims to maximise the impact of the research funded by supporting a more comprehensive approach to improving productivity and yield, for example by tackling crop resistance to drought or flood."

"By funding international researchers tackling problems across different countries and regions, promising research from one country can easily be shared and tested more widely in different regions and conditions to provide the widest possible benefit," the press statement said.

The statement also quoted Sam Dryden, director of agricultural development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, saying the joint programme is an opportunity for high-impact research partnerships to flourish among scientists in the developing and developed worlds, with the end result being the development of new pathways to lift millions out of poverty.

Researchers are being invited to submit proposals for the SCPRID initiative. The closing date for applications is 31 March 2011.