Field sample training at Chitedze Research Station Malawi

April 16, 2018, by Rob Ounsworth

Tackling ‘hidden hunger’: GeoNutrition team’s unprecedented Malawi survey

Teams of technical staff, agricultural scientists, PhD and Masters students from Malawi taking part in an international research project with the University of Nottingham were told by their government: “Your work will help improve the health of our nation.”

The researchers and technicians were today (16 April) travelling from bases across Malawi to begin sampling of soil and cereal crops as part of the GeoNutrition project, which is working to tackle micronutrient deficiencies (MNDs) in Malawi and Ethiopia and ultimately across sub-Saharan Africa.

A £4.4m grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will help the GeoNutrition team gather and analysis data on MNDs. In Malawi, these findings will inform policy as the ministries of health and agriculture address the challenge of ‘hidden hunger’, caused by deficiencies in the diet of essential vitamins and minerals.

Findings to inform policy on micronutrient deficiencies

The sampling team came together earlier this month at Chitedze Research Station, Lilongwe, Malawi, to begin training. Their work will build up a national picture of the quantities of nutrients in soil and crops, which in turn critically affects human health.

The GeoNutrition team,with (front left) Dr Wilkson Makumba

Dr Wilkson Makumba, Director of Agricultural Research Services within the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Water Development in the Government of Malawi, welcomed the GeoNutrition team to Chitedze and said: “We are very happy to support this development in the relationship between the University of Nottingham, Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the Department of Agricultural Research Services.

“In Malawi, we are fighting for our food security. We are also fighting to improve the health of our nation. Your colleague and our brother Dr Allan Chilimba’s pioneering research at LUANAR and with the University of Nottingham helped to first identify the challenge of micronutrient deficiencies in Malawi and your work will help identify a solution.”

Samples from 1900 sites across Malawi

Dr Diriba Kumssa, an expert in soil science and human nutrition with the University of Nottingham’s School of Biosciences, and Ivy Ligowe, a PhD student at LUANAR are leading the field-based training of the eight sampling teams. Between them the 30-strong cohort from LUANAR and the Department of Agricultural Research Services will take crop and soil samples from more than 1900 predetermined sites across Malawi. The work will take 35-45 days during the country’s April-May-June harvest time, with around five samples taken by each team per day.

The samples will be analysed at LUANAR laboratories and by scientists at the University of Nottingham, with the resulting data on the composition of soils and cereals creating an unprecedented picture of the prevalence of micronutrients in Malawi.

Dr Wilkson Makumba

Dr Wilkson Makumba: “Your work will help improve the health of our nation.”

Dr Patson Nalivata, Associate Professor in Soil Chemistry and Fertility and Head of Crop and Soil Science at LUANAR, is leading the Malawi arm of the GeoNutrition project. He said: “We are linking soils, crops and human nutrition. This is exciting science and this project is also a noble activity. As part of the project we will create four Phds in Malawi and four in Ethiopia, which will further strengthen our ties with the University of Nottingham and secure ongoing international partnerships.”

Dr Makumba added that GeoNutrition shares the vision of the Malawi government and its determination to improve health through biofortification. He said policymakers are looking at introducing nutrients such as zinc and selenium to fertilisers, and the research will also inform agricultural practices and interventions at local level.

Building on longstanding Malawi and UK research partnership

Martin Broadley, Professor of Plant Nutrition at the University of Nottingham, who is leading the GeoNutrition Project, told the sampling teams: “This really exciting project builds on 10 years of research partnerships between our Malawi and UK research groups, in the fields of agriculture and nutrition. By building a large baseline data set of soil and crop properties, and linking with nutritional and health data, we can work together to deliver evidence to the Government of Malawi so that they can develop policies to help address hidden hunger.”

Other partners in the GeoNutrition project include the lead partner in Ethiopia, Addis Ababa University; The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Ethiopia, CIMMYT and the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya, and the UK’s Rothamsted Research, British Geological Survey (BGS) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).

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