Sorghum breeding program planned for Haiti

by Eric Schroeder
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USAID project to be led by Kansas State University.
 
MANHATTAN, KANSAS, U.S. — The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in mid-November awarded Kansas State University $1.08 million to establish a genomics-assisted sorghum breeding program in Haiti.

The funding, led by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sorghum and Millet, will be used to develop three subprojects aimed at building the foundation of a breeding program that will tackle some of Haiti’s greatest constraints in sorghum production.

“This project is novel and exciting as it begins to assess our abilities to more surgically adapt and develop new sorghum varieties for Haiti,” said Tim Dalton, lab director.

The USAID grant was awarded through the agency’s Feed the Future initiative. The grant will support the existing program at the CHIBAS Foundation, a bio-energy and sustainable agriculture research center in Haiti, while complementary research will be conducted at Kansas State University and Cornell University.

Sorghum is a popular crop in Haiti, with approximately 200,000 farmers dependent on the crop as a food and income source. But Haiti has faced numerous constraints in establishing a strong breeding program, including a lack of resources, stressful growing environments and limited ability to improve crops in the field or lab.

Dalton said those challenges underscore the importance of genomics-assisted breeding, a process by which scientists choose which plants to crossbreed based on their DNA sequence. He said the process may be able to save significant time and resources in developing new varieties that are better adapted to the local stresses and preferences.

“Today, plant breeders are taking existing genetic differences that might have arisen in a farmer’s field in Africa or Asia or in Kansas hundreds or thousands of years ago, identifying which ones might be useful for breeders in the future, and using standard breeding methods of crossing varieties to each other,” said Geoffrey Morris, Kansas State University assistant professor of agronomy. Morris was awarded $201,600 to lead one of the three projects.

Genomics-assisted breeding links a plant’s genes to its desired traits so that breeders can select for those genes from the beginning and develop a superior variety in much less time, Morris said.

“We’re using the genetics to follow the favorable genes during the breeding process,” he said.

USAID said the work is part of a broader effort to improve sorghum production in numerous countries around the world through the Feed the Future program.

“Working in Haiti will provide opportunities to work year-round on important pests like the sugarcane aphid or in droughty and hot climates,” Dalton explained. “While the goals focus on strengthening Haiti’s breeding system, the experience and insight will spill over into the U.S. for the benefit of local producers. The tools developed for this project will be useful as we tailor sorghum varieties for our own micro-ecologies ranging from the Carolinas to the Great Plains.”

Feed the Future is the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative. With a focus on smallholder farmers, particularly women, Feed the Future supports partner countries in developing their agriculture sectors to spur economic growth and trade that increase incomes and reduce hunger, poverty and undernutrition.
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