This crop is not an orphan anymore: it now has a home
Standing before 20 other senior scientists at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), Dr Wonder Nunekpeka spoke the words on everyone’s mind. “My crop has been an orphan but is not anymore! I will be a father for it.” Breeders of plants such as the edible aroid cocoyam applauded and roared their approval. The fight to combat hunger and preserve Africa’s indigenous foods is on.
Tears welled in some eyes, however. In Sub-Saharan Africa, almost 40% of under-fives are stunted while over 15 million children have lost one or both parents, many because their mothers were anemic in childbirth. Anemia, a lack in the number or quality of red blood cells, is largely a preventable nutritional deficiency. The drive to work with the genetic richness of the continent’s traditional diets is long overdue.
On 11 December, the African Plant Breeding Academy (AfPBA) graduated the first cohort of plant breeders. After six weeks of training in three two week blocks at ICRAF, which also hosts the African Orphan Crop Consortium Laboratory, the scientists from eleven countries and 19 institutions returned to home to work on the neglected crops that are central to their peoples’ nutrition and culture.
“It’s profound,” said Howard Shapiro, chief agricultural officer for Mars Inc., which funds the academy. “Globally only 57 plants have ever been genetically sequenced. We are adding another 101. These are professors and heads of research institutes at the top of their game. They now have the ability to make decisions about plant breeding quicker, which will lead to higher yielding and more nutritious plants.”
Wonder Nunekpeka from Ghana’s Biotechnology and Nuclear Agricultural Research Institute is working on Hibiscus sabdariffa. “It produces iron rich leaves when other vegetables are in scarcity,” said the researcher who has already started breeding with samples from Ghana’s coastal and Guinea savannah and rain and deciduous forests. “What made it to be orphan was that it is low yielding.”
The course was taught by renowned plant breeders from US universities, such as Allen Van Deynze, Rita Mumm, Bruce Walsh and Iago Hale. Orphan crops are crops that are under-researched and undervalued by decision makers because they figure little in global trade. Yet they are vital sources of energy (e.g. Shea oil), protein and micronutrients (e.g. spider plant) in resource-poor societies.
Often only one or two traits – a tough seed coat in the case of the African yam bean –prevent African orphan crops (AOCs) from providing nutrition to millions more people. The African yam bean is an exceptionally nutritious pulse, whose utilization is poor and localized. AOCs are also usually resilient to environmental stresses and adapted to local conditions.
The Bambara groundnut, for instance, yields well in marginal areas which are too arid for the common groundnut, maize and even sorghum. This African grain legume — grown by 70% of farmers in Zimbabwe — packs 17–25% protein, 42–65% carbohydrates and 6% lipids. Busiso Mavankeni, one of four women on the AfPBA course, wants to breed a cultivar that matures in 100 days rather than the current 140.
Genomes for eight out of the 101 species, including Baobab, are being already being sequenced by the Beijing Genomics Institute. Just 20 g of Baobab pulp provides twice the amount of calcium as spinach, three times the vitamin C of oranges and four times more potassium than bananas.
The genomes will be further analyzed by ICRAF’s lab with machines donated by Thermo Fischer Life Technologies.
Knowing where traits lie on the genome enables the scientists to breed out factors that impede productivity. “What BGI is doing is writing the treasure map,” says ICRAF director general Tony Simons, which can be plumbed to create improved planting materials for smallholders. The aim is not to create GMO crops but expedite conventional breeding methods with knowledge of genomes.
Dr Firew Mekbib focuses on the Ethiopian potato, a super orphan on which there has been no research. “We need to de-orphanize and microtuberise it,” said the associate professor at Haramaya University. He plans a superior cultivar by 2018 and a center to research 40 orphan crops. Shapiro, who led the way in 2010 by making the cocoa genome public, says, “What we are seeing here is a scientific explosion”.
After Mekbib spoke, the class erupted in friendly debate. “You are breeding for a dual purpose – potato leaves for livestock and tubers for human consumption. Remember that these are different objectives,” said University of Arizona’s Bruce Walsh. “Farmers have curated this crop,” said Desire Pokou of Côte-d’Ivoire’s Centre National de Recherche Agronomique. “You need to bring out all they know.”
“You could breed a crop with good nutritional contents,” said University of New Hampshire’s Iago Hale. “But then you take it to the people and they say – we do not like tubers with that shape. Do a survey on consumer preference first. Ask people – what does an acceptable crop look like? Which tuber would you like to eat? Could you taste it? The last thing you want to do is breed something no one wants to eat.”
Dr Sunday Makinde from Lagos State University is breeding the fluted pumpkin, a vine from the rain forest ecosystem, the seeds and leaves of which are used in daily dishes called egusi and ogbono. “The problem is that you cannot tell the male and female plant apart until they flower. Only the female produces pumpkin so the farmers cannot tell which to grow when they are young,” says the botanist.
Godson Nwofia’s crop is coco yam. Like other neglected crops, it is almost undocumented – at least in Africa. “If you go to the internet, you get little or no information. Production in Nigeria used to be the world’s highest but has halved because of the Taro leaf blight. If we do not work on it, how will we recover it?” Cocoyam is a critical weaning food, its starch more digestible than that of yam or cassava.
Cocoyam flowers erratically, however, so is hard to hybridize. “It is only vegetatively propagated,” says the associate professor from the Michael Okpara University of Agriculture. “Yet if the crop remains a clone, any disease can come and it is gone.” He also wants to make this “woman’s crop” attractive to men too. “Right now no man will touch it. We need to prove that it can put money into pockets.”
AfPBA is part of the African Orphan Crop Consortium (AOCC), which includes the African Union – New Partnership for Africa’s Development; Mars; Google; ICRAF; BGI; Life Technologies; World Wildlife Fund; University of California, Davis; University of Ghent; iPlant Collaborative; and the International Livestock Research Institute. It will train 250 plant breeders and technicians over the next five years.
“Among other topics, we’ve covered building breeding populations, analysis of variants, phenotyping, how to select for nitrogen use efficiency and drought resistance, and experimental design,” said Professor Emerita Rita Mumm from the University of Illinois at the AfPBA closing ceremony, after which the graduates danced to Kool and the Gang and threw their caps in the air.
All genomics data from the AOCC will be made public with the endorsement of the African Union through a process managed by the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture. The internet giant Google is assisting with the data pipeline. Some crops have genomes many times larger than the human genome. The cocoa genome once resided on 18 external hard drives.
MARS is granting seed funds for AfPBA graduates for breeding programmes. But the long term goal is support from the private sector and African governments. “We want political buy in,” said Dr Diran Makinde on behalf of NEPAD CEO Dr Ibrahim Mayaki. “Ministers of Agriculture need to own the orphan crops. It is all about food security and improving the quality of life of our farmers.”
Recruitment is currently underway for the second Class of African Plant Breeding Academy (AfPBA). AfPBA’s goal is to train practicing African plant breeders in the most advanced theory and technologies for plant breeding. This six‐week program will be delivered in three 2‐ week classes with session one beginning in Nairobi, Kenya, on June, 2015. For more information, see pba.ucdavis.edu. Applications are due by February 15, 2015.