WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded five grants totaling $4.5 million in support of research to improve the production of the common bean, a main staple produced throughout food insecure areas of the world, including East and Southern Africa. The awards were made by the U.S.D.A.’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (N.I.F.A.) in coordination with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). USAID provided the funds for the grants.

“Over the next 50 years, we will need to produce roughly as much food for the world’s population as has been produced in the entire history of mankind,” said Catherine Woteki, chief scientist at the U.S.D.A. and Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics. “A challenge this serious and urgent requires the best and brightest ideas in food and agricultural science. The projects awarded today have the potential to unlock those ideas and improve the production of one of the world’s most vital food crops.”

The grants are part of the government-wide “Feed the future initiative,” which is President Obama’s whole-of-government global hunger and food security initiative designed to support country-driven approaches to address the root causes of hunger and poverty and forge long-term solutions to chronic food insecurity and under-nutrition. The partnership is also part of the USAID-U.S.D.A. Norman Borlaug Commemorative Research Initiative, which addresses food security needs by linking U.S. research and scientific innovations to effective adaptations in the fields across developing countries.

“This new research will help us solve critical production and disease constraints in common bean, the most important grain legume in human diets,” said Julie Howard, chief scientist with USAID’s Bureau for Food Security. “Because common bean is the primary staple crop for over 200 million Africans and cultivated mostly by women, the potential impact of more productive, disease-resistant varieties on household nutrition and incomes in our Feed the Future countries is substantial. We are pleased to support this collaborative approach to tackling some of the most challenging problems affecting legume productivity, one of Feed the Future's primary research themes.”

The U.S.D.A. said that the five projects will provide research for two core focus areas: reducing production constraints from soil-borne pathogens and improving transformation technologies in the common bean.

Funding in fiscal year 2012 was awarded to the following institutions:

• Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa, $250,000 — Routine and reproducible transformation system for the common bean;

• Michigan State University, East Lansing, Mich., $1,900,000 — Developing and delivering common bean germplasm with resistance to the major soil borne pathogens in East Africa;

• University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Neb., $250,000 — Development of transgenic beans for broad-spectrum resistance against fungal diseases;

• University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Neb., $1,100,000 — Genetic approaches to reducing fungal and Oomycete soilborne problems of the common bean breeds in Eastern and Southern Africa; and

• Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., $1,000,000 — Improving bean yields by reversing soil degradation and reducing soil borne pathogens on small-holder farms in Western Kenya.