URBANA — You can't just pop a soybean into the mouth of a chicken.
And you can't simply pick soybeans, known for their high protein and oil content, and mix them directly into nutritional meals for hungry children.
Soybeans, the ubiquitous crop grown throughout Illinois, have not, until now, been comprehensively studied by researchers as a possible crop and food source in sub-Saharan African countries, according to University of Illinois agricultural economist Peter Goldsmith.
That's because of the myriad challenges soybeans present. They are not native to the continent (they originated in China), which presents adaptability issues for growing the plants in subtropical environments. Plus, soybeans require some processing before being fed to chickens or children, Goldmsith said.
But because soybeans are considered a low-cost, efficient source of high-quality protein and oil, the federal government is sponsoring a major new effort to explore soy's possible role in increasing the food supply in Africa.
The $25 million, five-year initiative called Feed the Future Innovation Laboratory for Soybean Value Chain will be administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID. The lab is one of several recently announced as part of the Obama administration's Feed the Future initiative set up to increase global food security, increase farmer incomes and improve nutrition.
The grant will help the UI-led consortium "launch foundations for soybeans in Africa, to bring soybean production expertise established by more than a century of research to these developing countries," said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who was on campus for Friday's announcement.
The research expertise will include scientists in plant breeding, crop production management and more. Goldsmith, the UI professor, will lead the effort.
"In a developing country context, in a tropical context, which is really Africa's situation, (the soybean) has shown tremendous potential to alleviate poverty, develop economies and improve nutrition," said Goldsmith, who has been involved in soybean research in South America and other low-latitude areas, roughly 15 degrees north to 15 degrees south of the equator.
The UI is well known around the world for its soybean research — it is home to the National Soybean Research Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's soybean germplasm collection. And the Africa project will involve an extensive list of UI experts, such as researchers who will look into different soybean cultivars that have potential to resist certain diseases and can better tolerate soils found in subtropical climates; livestock specialists who will work with farmers on raising healthier chickens; agricultural economists like Goldsmith who study supply and demand; researchers who will examine the environmental impacts of growing soybeans in these countries; and more.
The soy consortium also will include researchers from Mississippi State University, the University of Maryland, Delaware State University and others.
"All the work will be done in Africa. ... That's what we've committed to do," Goldsmith said.
Research will be centered in Ghana, Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi and Ethiopia.
The focus is on feeding the world, on developing production capacity in Africa, but, "we're also developing economies," said Bob Hauser, dean of the UI's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and an economist. "And fundamental to economic growth in Africa and other places in the world is a strong agricultural economy. Once you have that in place, the rest of the economy can grow. And once that happens, we get what economists call income effect, increasing demand not only for food but everything else," Hauser said.
"We pride ourselves in being a land grant university with a huge research mission and global impact," said UI Chancellor Phyllis Wise. "This is what the world expects of the University of Illinois and this is what we're expected to do," she said of the initiative.