In 6 days I will be traveling to Malawi for research. When this opportunity first presented itself in the fall, I knew very little of the country besides the fiasco involving Madonna trying to adopt children illegally. So, here is a little about Malawi: It is a small land-locked country in the southern eastern region of Africa. Like most African nations – it was ruled by a long time “President for Life” until the mid 1990’s named Dr. Hastings Banda. Banda was oppressive and authoritarian, however, unlike many similar African dictators – he had a very pro-western foreign policy and allowed in many missionaries, US Peace Corp and other aid agencies. On another interesting note, was also close with the South African apartheid government, causing tensions between Malawi and other African states. Since 1995, it has had a democratically elected government. Yet, Malawi remains one of the world’s poorest countries, is home to refugees from many other African nations and struggles to feed itself.
The other interesting thing I recently realized is that Malawi is a country that has inspired me for several years. In 2007, an article appeared in the New York Times describing how Malawi had decided to ignore demands by the World Bank and USAID allowing only market forces to control the fertilizer industry. By subsidizing small-holder farmer’s purchase of fertilizer they had reversed a growing food shortage and quadrupled yields. I was moved by the story – not because I am a champion of the fertilizer industry, but because it reminded me how complex and urgent the issue of fertility and food security are, and of how soil fertility can have a dramatic impact on human dignity. Sometimes the sustainable agriculture movement can be blinded by dogma, preaching that organic farming and fertilizers are good, while synthetics are bad. But focusing on dogma alone can miss the fact that people are starving. While this story was an inspiration for my graduate school essays, I didn’t remember exactly what country it was about. I have to thank Dr. Kamprath, an emeritus professor in the department for bringing me a copy of the article yesterday. I’ve included a link here for those of you who would like to read it.
But what, you ask, will I be doing in Malawi? Well, for the past 8 or 9 years, work has been happening in a northern region of the country to introduce farmers to legume crops. Legumes are special for a few reasons. They include soybeans, peas, all dried beans and pulses – lentils etc., as well as forages like alfalfa and clover. They are incredibly nutritious and most contain high amounts of protein. They also can improve soil fertility by moving Nitrogen – one of the MOST important plant nutrients – from the atmosphere to the soil. However, they don’t do this alone. In order to get the nitrogen from the atmosphere they have to have a specific type of bacteria – rhizobia – infect their roots. These bacteria naturally exist in most soils – but not all of them, and soybeans are picky about what kind of rhizobia they will allow to infect their roots. Our project is focused on 2 crops that have proven to be the most popular with the farmers – Soybean and Pigeon pea. By growing these crops farmers can diversify their diets, feed their children more protein, improve their soil and even sell the extras for a little money. So this is the problem I’m working on. What kinds of rhizobia exist in these soils? Are they compatible with the varieties of soy we are planting? Can we get inoculants to add the correct bacteria, and if we do, will they survive?