Jane Maland Cady: Crop Research, with Collaboration at the Core

They say a meal isn’t made successful just by the food you serve, but also by who is helping you to set the table. Well, to feed our planet both nutritionally and sustainably, we’ll need a lot more hands preparing this global table. Strong food systems require strong partnerships.

Researcher conducting a food frequency survey in Yanapai, Peru.

Researcher conducting a food frequency survey in Yanapai, Edgar Oliveri, Peru.

Motivated by a desire to help farmers in developing regions feed their families, in 1983 McKnight’s board of directors channeled the foundation’s first grants into agricultural research. Over the past 30 years, what started as McKnight’s “plant biology” program has evolved into our Collaborative Crop Research Program, or CCRP for short. Today’s CCRP seeks to contribute to a world where everyone has access to nutritious food that is sustainably produced by local people. We do this through collaborative research and knowledge-sharing about agricultural systems and resources that can help smallholder farmers sustainably improve productivity, livelihoods and nutrition.

Myriad challenges confront an ever-growing world population, expected to increase over 40% in the next 40 years. Declining per-capita food production in the regions where McKnight works is caused by complex, interconnected factors that include climate change, the degradation of soils and other natural resources, and limited control over land and other resources. McKnight’s CCRP aims to improve the economic, ecological, and social resiliency of smallholder farmers and their communities, providing project grants in 12 countries in Africa and in the Andes region of South America. Our research — born of collaboration with scientists, farmers and development practitioners — focuses on identifying farming practices and products that are sustainable, profitable, and suited to their geographic and cultural context. Through this mixing of knowledge bases, we aim to increase field understanding of the full range of ecological options for smallholder farmers.

Across programs, collaboration is at the heart of McKnight’s interests; it is explicit in our mission statement and in our guiding values. Fittingly, our many partners in McKnight’s place-based crop research include a diverse collection of smart, passionate agricultural researchers and development leaders. At regular intervals in recent years, this dedicated group meets to discuss, debate, and learn from our full body of work to improve our collective research efforts, support grantees better, and share what we are learning with other key field partners. Bridging languages, continents, and cultures, this multidisciplinary assemblage shares real-time, on-the-ground experiences to foster a deeper understanding of the work we all support together. This past August, when the group came together in Minneapolis, it was thrilling to see our CCRP network of innovative leadership in action, knowing we only started sharing knowledge through such convenings a few years ago.

Members of the Southern Africa Community of Practice

Farmers and researchers in southern Africa.

Collaboration is also evident in the organizations we fund, and in our relationships with other funders. Currently, the CCRP supports more than 60 organizations, from research institutions to farmer groups, through over 140 active grants. Beyond grants, the CCRP provides technical support to improve research quality and to facilitate strategic connections among project participants. In turn, our partner organizations directly reach tens of thousands of farmers, development organizations, researchers, and families with research-based information and approaches. And since 2008, in addition to ongoing work in Africa and the Andes, the McKnight CCRP has received supplemental funding from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to reach more communities in Sub-Saharan Africa to support work on regional crops like sorghum, millets, sweetpotato, enset, tef, and legumes. CCRP-funded work is building the research base that allows communities to rely on increasingly diversified and resilient food systems. Our partnership with The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has allowed McKnight to deepen our approach to positively support smallholder farmers to feed their families. And the payoffs are meaningful.

Through the CCRP’s emphasis on systems change through collaborative research, knowledge-sharing, and capacity building, we contribute to developing such capacities in several countries in which we work. As one example, the CCRP’s support for Andean grains (quinoa, amaranth and lupin) farming in Ecuador and Bolivia demonstrates our emphasis on long-term, place-based grantmaking informed by an understanding of local context. And in addition to producing a number of valuable agricultural products, our funded projects also contribute to regional public awareness, supportive local policies, increased capacity for innovation, and to some extent, broad improvements in the production and use of Andean grains.

After three decades in this field, we understand well that both what we do and how we do it matter — and in this case, the “how” requires deep, place-based collaborations. It is true that, despite relatively recent global increases in funding for agricultural research, activities in the world’s food sector remain mostly “business as usual.” Nonetheless, our colleagues and field partners in various regions are increasingly arriving at the same stark realization: we all need to think outside the box and work together when it comes to food and ag systems, and more sustainable approaches do matter. Our best solutions will come from cross-sector, multidisciplinary sharing and collaboration — many hands laying the foundation for a better-fed planet.


JMC_mk0784_cJane Maland Cady
International Program Director