Enhanced crops to help fight hunger in Africa

Saturday February 14 2015

A family from Siaya County in western Kenya dries their crop of finger millet. The crop is among those orphaned on the continent. PHOTO | FILE

A family from Siaya County in western Kenya dries their crop of finger millet. The crop is among those orphaned on the continent. PHOTO | FILE |  NATION MEDIA GROUP

By CHRISTABEL LIGAMI, TEA Special Correspondent

At least 10 improved planting materials from orphaned crops will soon be released to smallholder farmers throughout Africa by the Nairobi-based World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).

They are the baobab, groundnuts, white sapota, custard apple, marula, African eggplant, drum stick, lablab beans, finger millet and the common bean. They are among some 100 crop species identified as orphaned by African countries, and in need of improvement.

Orphan crops/tree species are those that have been neglected by researchers and the industry in general because they are not economically important on the global market.

The improved varieties are more resilient to adverse conditions including those brought about by climate change; are more resistant to pests; more nutritious; and produce higher yields. They have been under development since 2011 using advanced genomic technologies.

Such technologies are used to manipulate and analyse genomic information. Genomics is the study of genes and their functions.

According to Ramni Jamnadass, the science domain leader at ICRAF, the 10 crops identified on the continent are in the final stages of analysis before they are released into the market.

“They are among the 100 African crop species selected under the African Orphan Crops Consortium, whose genomes have been sequenced, assembled and annotated to produce a better variety for planting,” said Dr Jamnadass. “The new plant varieties grow in farm gardens all over Africa and are crucial for good nutrition on a continent where malnutrition remains a challenge.”

Dr Jamnadass added that the main aim of improving the crop varieties is to standardise their nutrients in order to enable farmers to get quality planting materials that produce high yields with high nutritious value.

The crops will help to fight the hidden hunger that is on the rise in developing countries.

Hidden hunger occurs when people get little essential vitamins and minerals from the foods they eat, causing them to remain undernourished.

It weakens the immune system, stunts physical and intellectual growth, and could lead to death. It wreaks economic havoc as well, locking countries into cycles of poor nutrition, lost productivity, poverty and reduced economic growth.

The crops will also meet the high demand for vegetables and fruits in African countries and thereby reduce hunger and boost food supply on the continent.

According to the 2014 Global Hunger Index, about two billion people in developing countries get few essential vitamins and minerals from the foods they eat, so they remain undernourished.

Malnutrition and chronic hunger are causing stunting in children across Africa. Stunted children do not reach their full potential — physically or mentally.

The improved crops were produced using the latest scientific equipment and techniques to genetically sequence, assemble and annotate their genomes, in order to guide the development of more robust produce with higher nutritional content.

Currently, 250 plant breeders and technicians are being trained in crop improvement over a five-year period. Their work will drive the creation of improved planting materials that will then be offered to smallholder farmers throughout Africa.

This approach will enable them to make improvements in plant species much more quickly than they could using only traditional breeding techniques.

The genomic approach will be particularly useful in speeding up improvements in the 35 orphan tree crops.  Tree crops are challenging to improve because they take longer to mature and require more space to grow than field crops.

The first orphan crop to be sequenced, assembled and annotated at the academy was baobab, which can be used as a dried fruit powder for consumer products.

“Baobab is called ‘the wonder tree’ in Africa because its gluten-free fruit has 10 times the antioxidant level of oranges, twice the amount of calcium of spinach, three times the vitamin C of oranges, four times more potassium than bananas, antiviral properties and much more,” said Dr Jamnadass.

“By sharing knowledge of the genome sequences of baobab and other African crops, scientists and technicians working at the academy will inform plant breeders and farmers of species varieties that are more nutritious, productive and robust.”

A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that by 2020, climate change will have halved the harvests of rainfed crops in many African countries. Some 96 per cent of all African crops are rainfed as opposed to being irrigated.

“No governments or organisations are seriously planning for this threat, which could result in one of the greatest human catastrophes of all time; this is the only way to help the governments plan,” said Dr Jamnadass.