Larry Murdock, Former Bean/Cowpea PI Honored

Larry Murdock, a PI in the Bean/Cowpea CRSP who worked on cowpea grain storage technologies and was the visionary behind Bt cowpea research, has been named a "Distinguished Professor" at Purdue University-the first in the Entomology Department.

May 8, 2015

Dr. Murdock’s research on improving pest management techniques in West and Central Africa to reduce crop losses in cowpea from bruchids has led to the development of several affordable and practical technologies that are easily accessible to smallholder, resource-poor farmers in these regions. The widespread use of these technologies, which Dr. Murdock also facilitated, has significantly improved food security throughout these regions, positively affecting the lives of thousands of smallholder farmers and their families who rely on their cowpea crop for both household food and income.

Dr. Murdock’s technologies, developed in collaboration with entomologists at the Institut de la Recherche Agronomique et Developpement (IRAD) in Cameroon and the Institut Senegalais Recherches Agricole (ISRA), Senegal, included solar disinfestation, which destroys cowpea weevil larvae and pupae using solar energy to create lethally high temperatures in storage containers, and triple bagging of grain in hermetically sealed plastic sacks (now called PICS bags), which eliminate the oxygen cowpea weevils need to develop and survive. The combination of these technologies has proved extremely effective in destroying bean weevils in the stored cowpea crop, enabling farmers to substantially extend the storage life of cowpea for up to four months without loss in quality. The benefit to farmers has been improved availability of protein-rich cowpea for household food security and increased grain market value for those farmers with sufficient harvests to sell their excess grain when cowpea prices increase, usually several months after harvest.

Dr. Murdock’s work on pest management technologies in Africa began in 1987 under a USAID-supported project of the Bean/Cowpea CRSP (Collaborative Research Support Program). Having visited Cameroon a year earlier to try to help farmers with their loss of stored cowpea grain to bruchids, Dr. Murdock focused his research on developing technologies to prevent postharvest cowpea destruction, which generally occurred with two months of harvest and resulted in widespread food insecurity. Rural resource-poor communities in this region grow and consume cowpeas with sorghum or millet as staples. Due to the region’s low average cowpea yields and extended dry season and ensuing hunger period, the ability of families to store cowpea for extended periods of time is vital for household food and nutritional security. Without access to control measures for weevils, cowpea grain cannot be stored for periods greater than four to six weeks. Although synthetic chemical insecticide options are available to control cowpea weevil during storage, they are inaccessible to resource-poor farmers because of their high cost and clearly pose health risks when misused within the context of the house.

While Dr. Murdock knew that cowpea weevil eggs were present on the harvested cowpea crop, he didn’t understand how the weevils survived and developed in a stored, dry seed crop without water. Analysis led him to realize that the metabolic combination of oxygen and carbohydrates in the stored cowpea produced not only carbon dioxide and energy but also water, which allowed the weevils to survive in a seemingly waterless environment. He quickly realized that if oxygen could be removed from the storage equation, water could not be produced—and the cowpea weevils would die of thirst well before they could destroy the cowpea crop. The outcome of this research was the hermetically sealed triple bag—an effective, low cost, user-friendly technology that enabled cowpea storage for up to four months.

Dr. Murdock and his collaborators’ development of PICS bag technology has been a major achievement for the agriculture development community. Dr. Murdock knew, however, that the project wasn’t finished just because the technology had been developed. He understood that the technologies had to be disseminated widely to the vulnerable, resource-poor farmers in West Africa for their value to be realized. To that end, Dr. Murdock cultivated partnerships with NARS, NGOs, foundations, and private sector groups to inform farmers of the value of the improved cowpea storage technologies and to enhance access to the materials to effectively utilize them. As a result of these partnerships, nearly 3 million grain storage bags have been distributed to more than 31,000 West African villages, where farmers have been instructed on how to implement and use the technologies. Further, the bags are now produced in Africa, creating a cottage industry that benefits makers and users.

Research on using triple bagging technology for other crops and crop-derived products has continued to expand since the initial project was launched in 1987. Grants totaling approximately $24 million have ensured that PICS technology has continued to impact the developing world. The original hermetic storage technology and newer PICS project have generated a return on investment greater than $500 million (based on numbers available through 2013). Virtually all of this value reflects direct financial benefits to poor African farming families who grow cowpeas.

Dr. Murdock’s legacy includes teaching and advising graduate students, many from developing countries. Dr. Murdock has mentored numerous West African MS and PhD students conducting research on cowpeas in diverse disciplines at Purdue. These scholars have returned to their home countries to assume leadership positions in universities, national agriculture research systems, and even government.

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