Purdue Crop Storage Bags Feed Millions, Aim for More
A Purdue University entomology professor is changing the lives of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa. Distinguished Professor of Entomology Dr. Larry Murdock developed a new method of storing cowpeas—a staple in sub-Saharan Africa—about a decade ago. Years of research since then revealed that the method is applicable to many other crops. The team’s mission is now changing the lives of millions more farmers as it battles hunger by expanding the use of a seemingly simple technology: airtight storage bags.
The technology recently captured the College of Agriculture’s annual TEAM award, which recognizes interdisciplinary achievements.
Murdock originally proved his concept, called Purdue Improved Crop Storage (PICS), in 2007 with cowpeas—more commonly known in the U.S. as black-eyed peas. West and Central Africa were plagued by the crippling loss of the crop due to poor storage techniques; weevil infestations devastated farmers’ harvests in the region as the pests destroyed nearly all of the cowpeas stored on farms.
Murdock created hermetic—or airtight—triple-layer, chemical-free storage bags to wage war against the weevils.
“There are always insects associated with the crop when it’s first harvested, although the numbers are very small,” says Murdock. “If you put the grain in that airtight container, then the insects use up the oxygen…due to their respiration. With the lack of oxygen, the insects can no longer produce the energy they need and cease feeding. Because they cease feeding, they cease reproducing.”
The simple post-harvest technique means farmers are able to increase their income; previously, they had to sell their entire harvest immediately when prices were lowest, because weevils quickly ruined the crops. PICS bags also eliminate the need for chemicals that farmers often misused on their crops and provide a reliable source of nutritious grain for thousands of villages.
Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the original PICS project added corn with PICS2. Now, PICS3 is expanding to other crops and spearheading the commercialization of the bags, which are produced in Africa. The bags have already led to powerful change; about 7 million have been distributed.
“The bags that are sold currently are a tiny quantity compared to the need that is out there,” says Purdue Research Associate Professor of Entomology Dr. Dieudonné Baributsa. “Last year alone, manufacturers and distributors were able to sell almost 2 million bags, but we know that represents almost nothing compared to the need of the bags at the farm level.”
Reaching those farms is the biggest challenge facing PICS3. While continuing its efforts in west Africa, the team is working to expand the use of PICS bags in east African countries. Baributsa says, for a farmer in a rural area, the closest distributor could be 50 miles away.
“It’s really a challenge for a farmer to walk 50 miles just to buy one bag,” says Baributsa. “The bags are produced in large quantities, but we don’t meet demand in the sense that the distribution network doesn’t reach all the farmers who need the bags. Some are asking for the bags, but they are not able to access them.”
One key objective for PICS3 is developing a sustainable supply chain to make the bags more readily available. Funded by a $10 million Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant, Baributsa says the PICS3 project is working with the private sector to develop the distribution system.
“With the support from the Gates Foundation, we can only go to a limited number of villages,” says Baributsa. “In Tanzania, we were able to reach 3,800 villages, but we know Tanzania has more than 20,000 or 40,000 villages in the whole country, so how do we reach these extra villages?”
To raise awareness and use of the bags, the PICS team is partnering with not-for-profit organizations and extension agencies, which exist in each small community; PICS trains the extension agents who subsequently teach farmers how to use the bags.
Baributsa says sales “are shooting up” through radio and television spots that connect farmers with a local vendor. The team is also utilizing farmers’ mobile devices, which are similar to cell phones; an interested person can text PICS, and the team will text back the closest vendor.
“I think most Hoosiers would be very proud to know Purdue is helping millions of people have food available that otherwise might not be available to them,” says Murdock. “It’s a mixture of exciting new science and humanitarian benefits. When this project is over, the technology awareness will be far greater and in use by millions of people, generating hundreds of millions of dollars of benefit to people who need it most.”