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Know Your Community: Tropical Legumes

Click here to view a pdf of the story and here to view the CSA News Magazine. 

This story was featured in CSA News Magazine produced by the Alliance of Crop, Soil, and Environmental Science Societies.

by Kerry Clark

Legumes are a critical component of global food and feed systems and are particularly important in the tropics where protein energy malnutrition is associated with millions of deaths each year. Legumes are attractive as a food security and environment-friendly crop because of their symbiotic relationship with soil microbes to fix atmospheric nitrogen, thereby decreasing the reliance on nitrogen fertilizer inputs and leading to improved production system sustainability. 

Long used as traditional food and forage, legumes can serve as a source of dietary protein, flour, vegetable oil, a component of animal diets, a source of soil fertility as a green manure or intercrop, and have a myriad of industrial uses. However, many important legumes are not well adapted to tropical environments, and many other tropical legumes are so low yielding that they do not compete well in production priority with higher-yielding grain crops.

To help raise legume production and yields in the tropics, the Tropical Legume Community of ASA provides a forum for advancing and sharing research on all aspects of tropical legumes including breeding, germplasm adaptation, agronomic production, nutrition, fertility needs, and smallholder access to legume seed. The community will assist in bringing together both U.S. and international researchers on tropical legumes to build collaborations and networks that we hope will lead to the strengthening of tropical legume research and funding opportunities.

In our community debut at the 2016 ASA Annual Meeting in Phoenix, oral and poster presentations covered the topics of legume nutrients, common bean physiology, green manure intercropping, seed policies, symbiotic nitrogen fixation, and building soybean breeding and evaluation programs in Africa. 

Some examples of community members working in tropical legumes include Julie Grossman at the University of Minnesota, who is exploring ways to better manage plant–soil–microbe relationships in order to enhance soil fertility with the ultimate goal of developing sustainable food production systems. Virupax Baligar is conducting collaborative research on perennial legume cover crops in Cacao plantations at the USDA-ARS Beltsville, MD Agricultural Research Center and research institutes in Brazil and Peru. At Michigan State University, the Sieg Snapp lab and a team of national and international collaborators have conducted action agroecology research for more than a decade with legumes in Africa where they have found sustainable production practices such as rotation with food legumes to be limited in scope.

At Texas A&M, Forrest Smith and Jim Muir focus on domesticating native legumes for regional use as forage, rangeland reseeding, prairie restoration, wildlife plantings, roadside revegetation, and ornamentals and have conducted similar efforts in northeastern Brazil and southern Mozambique. Kristin Bilyeu, with the USDA-ARS in Columbia, MO, and Dennis Thompson and Brian Diers, with the University of Illinois, are collaborators in the Feed the Future Soybean Innovation Lab, which helps to provide access to the global soybean revolution to African smallholder farmers.

Most of these programs have collaborations with researchers in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America, and many U.S.-based labs are actively involved in training students from tropical countries in legume breeding, physiology, and agronomy. Although the majority of members of the Tropical Legumes Community are based in the United States, we are actively seeking new members from research programs in the tropics. We welcome suggestions on future programming to our leadership, Kerry Clark, chair, University of Missouri (clarkk@missouri.edu), and Dennis Thompson, vice-chair, University of Illinois (dennis@dennisthompsonllc.com).