$40 million project aims to revitalize Africa’s orphaned crops

A consortium of international partners, known as the African Orphan Crops consortium, plans to identify at least two dozen African food crops and tree species that have been neglected by science because they are not economically important on the global market.

The idea is to genetically sequence and breed some of the continent’s most important, but neglected, native crops.

As a member of the consortium, the World Agroforestry Centre will be highlighting the important tree species that could form part of this project.

“There are hundreds of tree species that could be contributing to better nutrition in communities across Africa provided farmers had access to quality planting material,” said Ramni Jamnadass, Head of Research into Quality Trees  at the World Agroforestry Centre. “And trees often provide other benefits to smallholder farmers and the environment such as controlling erosion and providing shelter”.

Central to the new initiative will be the African Plant Breeding Academy to be established in 2012 by UC Davis in Accra, Ghana. University researchers will train African scientists to incorporate the latest technologies for breeding these orphaned crops in Africa.

The consortium will sequence the genome — an organism’s entire collection of genes — for each species and make that information freely available to scientists around the world. That information will then be applied, using the most advanced breeding techniques and technologies, to develop new varieties of crops that are more nutritious, produce higher yields and are more tolerant of environmental stresses, such as drought.

“As this knowledge is used to develop improved varieties of these ‘orphan crops,’ African farmers will be able to grow highly nutritious, productive and robust crops for local consumption and create surpluses that can be marketed for income,” said Howard Yana Shapiro, global director for plant science and external research at Mars Inc. and an adjunct plant sciences professor at UC Davis.

Shapiro said that the need for enhanced, native crops is acute throughout most of Africa, where per capita food yields have been declining for decades and more than one-third of African children suffer the debilitating effects of malnutrition.

The consortium has developed a list of 96 species, which will be narrowed to 24 food crops and tree species whose genomes will be sequenced. The selected species will have the potential to play a nutritionally significant role in the African diet and directly or indirectly improve food security in Africa. Some of the better-known species to be considered for sequencing include amaranth, marula, cocyam, Ethiopian mustard, ground nut tree, African potato, acacia, baobob, matoke bananas, African medlars, African eggplant and Cape tomato.

“Virtually every small-farm producer growing food crops for subsistence in Africa is growing a species that the consortium will be striving to improve,” Shapiro said.

The consortium has already begun to sequence Faidherbia albida, a type of acacia tree that can be used for improving soil nitrogen content and preventing erosion. The tree also has edible seeds and, unlike most trees, sheds its leaves during the rainy season so that it can be grown among field crops without shading them.

Members of the African Orphan Crops consortium are: UC Davis, Mars Inc., Life Technologies Corporation and BGI, partners in the African Orphaned Crops consortium include the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, the World Wildlife Fund-U.S., DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-bred International, IBM, the Gates Foundation, the World Agroforestry Centre, Bioversity International, African Academy of Sciences, and TransFarm Africa at the Aspen Institute.

 

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Kate Langford

Kate Langford

Kate Langford is a consultant writer with close to 20 years’ experience in communicating natural resource, environmental and land management issues for various government and non-government organizations. She previously worked as Communications Specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and has worked in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Scientific Communication.

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