MSU researcher finds new ways to support global crop production

Ajit Srivastava develops solar technologies for drip irrigation systems and tractors powered by solar energy to help smallholder farmers in Burkina Faso increase crop production.

Ajit Srivastava (left) works with smallerholder farmers in Burkina Faso to help develop solar technologies for drip irrigation systems.
Ajit Srivastava (left) works with smallerholder farmers in Burkina Faso to help develop solar technologies for drip irrigation systems.

Ajit Srivastava spent his childhood in the shadows of the Himalayan foothills on a 16,000-acre government farm, which was also the site of the first agricultural university in India. Pantnagar University of Science and Technology was established in collaboration with the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in 1960 through a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

On that government farm, Srivastava saw firsthand the U.S. land-grant model of building agricultural capacity through research, education and outreach. Today, he continues to use those early influences in his research to improve agricultural modernization in Africa and to help feed the world’s growing population.

Global food production needs

“The motivation for my current research is finding ways to increase global food production by 60% to meet the demand of a growing population,” said Srivastava, professor in the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering at Michigan State University (MSU). “If we are going to increase our food production, we have to find a way to make the smallholder farmers more productive, especially because they represent 80% of the world’s 500 million farmers.”

MSU is part of the $5 million USAID Appropriate Scale Mechanization Consortium (ASMC) project led by UICU. This is a sub award under the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sustainable Intensification at Kansas State University. The Sustainable Intensification Innovation Lab supports collaborative research and development efforts to produce measurable impacts on reducing global hunger, reducing global poverty and improving the nutrition of smallholder farmers.

Srivastava’s current work, connected with USAID ASMC, helps develop appropriate-scale mechanization for agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa using modern sources of energy to increase sustainable productivity and reduce the drudgery of farm work. Additionally, as a Fellow of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, he is leading a major initiative to modernize African agriculture.

Solar-powered irrigation systems

“In Africa today, nearly 70% of farm work is done by hand, with 20% by draft animal power, and only 10% by mechanized power,” he said. “Solar energy is delivered everyday free of cost. You just have to harness it. Then we started thinking about how we can build on that source of energy, so the solar irrigation project is a part of that and then using those same solar panels to recharge batteries.”

Irrigation is critical to being able to grow crops during the dry season, which can then improve food security, nutrition and household income. Srivastava’s team established a solar drip irrigation system on a farm in Burkina Faso that has successfully grown crops during the last two years. They also have been working on solar-powered two-wheel tractors that hold promise in Africa.

Fieldwork to study solar drip irrigation systems is also happening on campus. At the MSU Student Organic Farm, Srivastava is testing different irrigation protocols and solar energy resources to reduce the water and energy needed for growing vegetables.

“This gives us a tool to look at a variety of things all to improve the water and energy footprint of growing crops,” he said. “The Student Organic Farm was the ideal location because they had already been looking at sustainability in terms of work, food and organic production.”

International and production agriculture experiences

Srivastava’s background in production agriculture and his global experiences have enabled him to succeed in research, administration and innovation. He earned his degree in agricultural engineering from G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology in India in 1966, and following graduation was employed as an assistant agricultural engineer managing a fleet of tractors and agricultural machines on the campus farm.

In 1967, Srivastava came to the United States to his pursue graduate and postdoctoral studies at land-grant universities, including Rutgers University, the Ohio State University and Cornell University. With an interest in production agriculture, Srivastava’s work has covered mechanical asparagus harvesting, rotary grain harvesting combines and rollover protection structures for tractors.

In the summer of 1977, an agricultural machinery faculty position opened at MSU, and Srivastava has been in East Lansing ever since. He contributed to two patents in the 1980s related to a mechanical buncher for leafy green vegetables and a way of separating out the soil from the roots in agricultural soil sampling to study compaction. He also worked on a no-til planter for navy beans and an on-farm onion-peeling machine that both helped farmers in Michigan.

In 1997, Srivastava was appointed chair of the Department of Agricultural Engineering (since renamed the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering). During his time as chair, enrollment and research nearly tripled and the department broadened its focus to include food, water, energy and health.

Srivastava was also the co-principal investigator on a $25 million USAID grant to establish the MSU Global Center of Food Systems in Innovation in 2012 that would address global food security, technology and innovation. In 2015, Srivastava stepped down as chair to pursue research again, especially international work.

“MSU’s reputation, particularly in international agriculture, has given me the platform I need to engage,” he said. “It’s important that we continue to maintain that involvement.”

Building the systems of tomorrow

Srivastava’s recent research connecting solar energy with scalable tractors and drip irrigation helps build a system of production agriculture that can be more easily deployed in developing countries. This work also helps smallholder farms globally, enabling them to produce more crops sustainably and increase resiliency to combat variable weather patterns associated with climate change.

It gets back to that land-grant model, that MSU model, of building capacity through research, education and outreach.

“International work is important. We live in a global village and we cannot isolate ourselves,” Srivastava said. “We gain by creating new markets for our know-how and technologies. It’s a mutual benefit for all.”

This article was published in Futures, a magazine produced twice per year by Michigan State University AgBioResearch. To view past issues of Futures, visit www.futuresmagazine.msu.edu. For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at whetst11@msu.edu or call 517-355-0123.

This article was published in In the Field, a yearly magazine produced by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. To view past issues of In the Field, visit www.canr.msu.edu/inthefield. For more information, email Eileen Gianiodis, editor, at gianiod1@msu.edu or call 517-355-1855.

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