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Nov. 1, 2013

Can food production increase without disease risk?

It’s an age-old dilemma. In order to produce more food in poorer, less-developed countries, you need water. But, for many regions, the water brings a danger – diseases such as malaria.

In an effort to combat this, a team of Michigan State University researchers is partnering with colleagues in the African nation of Malawi and the University of Michigan to develop some strategies to overcome this serious problem.

Using a five-year, $1.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty International Center, the researchers will train a team of postdoctoral fellows in wide-ranging areas of expertise, from infectious disease to agricultural practices to irrigation systems.

The team will focus its work on Malawi’s Green Belt Initiative, or GBI, a government program that looks to divert water from Lake Malawi and its adjoining rivers to dry lands that can use it to grow crops to improve food security while also using irrigation to adapt to predicted droughts due to climate change.

“Whenever you start to manipulate water on such a massive scale, and flowing water turns into still water, you create the production of mosquitoes,” said Ned Walker, an MSU professor of microbiology and molecular genetics and co-director of the project.

The goal: To look closely at the GBI program and solve health-related issues before they begin.

“We’re looking at how these risks can be diminished through interventions that stanch malaria transmission,” said MSU geography professor and project co-director Leo Zulu, “yet maintain the agricultural production goals and desired economic benefits.”

MSU’s involvement in the program plays well into the university’s multidisciplinary nature. It’s also a cross-training opportunity for many researchers.

“You could be an expert on mosquitoes or disease transmission but know little about planting cycles or irrigation systems,” Walker said. “Those are things researchers might need to know if they are to design an intervention against mosquitoes.”

The increase of malaria is a problem affecting many countries. The researchers pointed to a recent study that showed when a sugar cane-growing region was irrigated, malaria transmission went up almost three-fold.

The MSU grant is part of a $7.3 million project funded by the NIH’s Fogarty International Center designed to spur global health innovation and develop interdisciplinary research training.

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Other members of the MSU team include Terrie Taylor, a physician and one of the world’s top malaria experts; Sieglinde Snapp, a professor of plant soil and microbial sciences; and anthropology professor Anne Ferguson.

Other team members are Mark Wilson of U-M’s School of Public Health, as well as scientists from the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College and the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, both in Malawi.

By: Tom Oswald