$8.5m gene project for food security

Saturday August 30 2014

By ISAAC KHISA Special Correspondent

East African crop scientists have embarked on a five-year project to conserve indigenous plant genetic resources to improve food security across East Africa.

Plant genetic resources are seeds and planting materials (traditional and modern varieties, crop and wild plant species) that can be used to develop crop varieties resistant to pests and diseases as well as tolerant to climate change.

Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (Asareca) executive director Dr Fina Opio said the $8.5 million project funded by the Swedish International Development Corporation Agency, will see scientists across East Africa, including Somalia, Madagascar, and South Sudan collect, store and share information on the  available plant genetic resources.

“The project will also enhance the utilisation of the conserved materials by completing the characterisation, evaluation and documentation of the accessed materials,” Dr Opio said.

So far, 140,000 accessions (collections of plant materials from  particular locations) have been collected and conserved in the various national gene-banks in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Madagascar and Sudan, Dr Opio said.

Of these, over 27,000 accessions have been adequately characterised and 1,416 accessions evaluated for various agronomic and nutritional qualities, yield potential and for drought tolerance and thus ready to be taken up by farmers.

The project takes on urgency against a backdrop of climate change, social and political unrest, invasion of alien species, inadequate recognition of the value of traditional knowledge systems and expanding population pressure, threatening the existence of indigenous plant species viable for plant breeding in the region.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation, the world population is expected to rise from the current seven billion people to nine billion by 2050, putting more pressure on land to feed the rising population.

Whereas the indigenous planting materials have low yields per unit area compared with the improved varieties, modern plant breeders revert to traditional plants to obtain the genes that are useful for breeding programmes to address a particular agricultural problem.

According to the managing director of Ethiopia-based Climate and Natural Resources Management Consulting, Dr Abebe Demissie Tefera, East Africa has various crops with wild relatives (wild plants closely related to the domestic plant) that exhibit a large gene pool, which could help tackle climate change, pests and diseases.

For example, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Eritrea and Sudan have a wide collection of genetic resources, including cereals, legumes, oils crops, millets and forage species as well as those with high pharmaceutical values such as Prunus Africana, Warbugia ugandensis, and Fagara macrophilla.

Dr Abebe said sorghum and millet are unusually drought tolerant crops, whose potential can be harnessed to increase production in African countries in response to climate change.

“The wild relatives of these crops probably hold the key to food security and increased agricultural productivity in the region as sources of genes for adaptive traits in the wake of climate change,” Dr Abebe said.

In February, the African Orphan Crops Consortium released a list of 100 indigenous crop species — among them the African eggplant, amaranth, guava and cassava, finger millet and sorghum — whose genomes the consortium plans to sequence, assemble and annotate to improve nutrition on the continent.
The list is being disseminated so that researchers around the world can contact the consortium with suggestions for research.

The research is to be conducted at the Nairobi-based African Plant Breeding Academy hosted at the World Agroforestry Centre, with improved planting materials offered to smallholder farmers throughout Africa.