The Silent Environmentalists

Serendipity Berry. Image from wikipedia

Elephant ears are leafy vegetables. African locusts are tree-borne legumes. All are standard fare in various parts of Africa. What they also have in common is that they are, from the point of view of plant breeders, orphans. They are neglected by breeders because they are not cash crops. Conversely, they are not cash crops because they are neglected by breeders.

That neglect matters. The cereals which dominate human diets—rice, wheat and maize—have had their yields and nutritional values boosted over the years by scientific breeding programmes. In the modern era of genomics, they have had their DNA scrutinised down to the level of individual base pairs, the molecular letters in which genetic information is written. They are as far removed, nutritionally, from their ancestors of as little as two centuries ago as those ancestors were from the wild plants which begat them. Orphan crops have yet to undergo such a genetic revolution.

Even for adults, a lack of calories and essential nutrients is harmful. For children it can be devastating. Poor childhood nutrition leads to stunting—inadequate bodily development, including the development of the brain. A report published by the World Health Organisation on November 16th, 2017 suggests that almost a third of Africa’s children, nearly 60m of them, are stunted. And stunted children grow into adults unable to achieve their potential. Researchers at the World Bank reckon the effects of stunting have reduced Africa’s GDP by 9-10% from what it would otherwise be.

One way to reduce stunting would be to improve the crops that Africans, particularly those in the countryside, actually eat—in other words, orphan crops. Such improvement is the purpose of two recent, interrelated projects that are now getting into their strides. Both are based in Nairobi and are conducted under the auspices of the World Agroforestry Centre, an international non-governmental research organisation. One is the African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC). The other is the African Plant Breeding Academy. The AOCC’s task is to obtain complete sequences of the DNA of 101 neglected food crops

Breeding and disseminating new crops is a long-winded business, but a DNA-based approach has already shown promise. One scientist who is embracing it is Robert Mwanga of the International Potato Centre. Dr Mwanga was an early proponent of the scientific improvement of African crops. His own work, for which he was awarded the World Food prize in 2016, is on sweet potatoes. The varieties of these root-tubers that were popular in Uganda, his native land, and other parts of Africa in the mid-1980s, when he began his studies, are deficient in vitamin A. A lack of this vitamin damages children’s eyesight and opens them to infection by such things as measles. This is a disease that can kill, and, if it does not, it can cause brain damage.  Starting with Asian varieties that had more vitamin A in them, Dr Mwanga bred a dozen strains that are vitamin-A rich and have more dry matter (and thus more calorific value) than African landraces. He then led a campaign to encourage local farmers to adopt his novelties—which they did…

Julia Sibiya of the University of KwaZulu Natal, in Durban, meanwhile, is working on sorghum, another under-studied African crop. She is also working with Dr Achigan-Dako to set up MoBreed, a pan-African collaboration with the self-appointed task of improving ten orphan crops, including Kersting’s groundnut, the African custard apple and fonio, a type of millet.

Happiness Oselebe… is even more ambitious. Dr Oselebe works at Ebonyi State University in Nigeria. Not content with improving existing crops, she wants to create a new one by domesticating serendipity berries. These are wild vines that produce a protein 3,000 times as sweet as table sugar. That, she thinks, could be the starting-point not merely for something grown for local consumption, but of an industrial-scale cash crop.

Excerpts from Nutrition and Genetics in Africa, Economist, Nov 25, 2017

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