A Focus on Forgotten Crops

This Southern Burkina Faso farmer holds a handful of shea nuts, an orphan crop in Africa. (photo: Catharine Watson/World Agroforestry Centre)
This Southern Burkina Faso farmer holds a handful of shea nuts, an orphan crop in Africa. (photo: Catharine Watson/World Agroforestry Centre)

UC Davis is partnering in a global plant-breeding consortium fighting malnutrition and poverty in Africa by improving the continent’s traditional crops.

The African Orphan Crop Consortium — conceived by Howard Shapiro, a senior fellow at UC Davis and the chief agricultural officer at Mars Inc. —  is making great strides in its ambitious attempt to map and make public the genomes of 101 African food crops. These “orphan” crops are crucial to African livelihood and nutrition, but have been mostly ignored by science and agricultural companies because they are not traded internationally, like rice, corn, and wheat.

The genomic data gathered on African orphan crops will help plant breeders select more quickly for traits that improve the nutritional content, productivity, and resilience of Africa’s most important food crops.

The consortium’s ultimate goal is to eradicate stunting, a condition caused by chronic malnutrition that affects 195 million children worldwide. In some countries in Africa, about 40 percent of children under 5 are stunted and never reach their full potential — physically, mentally, or economically.

“I believe this project will succeed where others have failed because it focuses on crops that have evolved to grow here,” said Busiso Mavankeni, plant breeder with Zimbabwe’s Department of Research and Specialists Services and a recent graduate of the UC Davis Plant Breeding Academy in Africa, the educational arm of the consortium. “By improving these neglected crops, we help the children who eat them and the farmers who depend on them to support their families.”

At the UC Davis Plant Breeding Academy held in Nairobi, Kenya, Africa’s top breeders learn how to incorporate genomic information, statistics, and the latest breeding strategies into their programs.

Initially, the consortium planned to sequence the genome of about 16 African crops. “We were told in order to have any impact on nutrition we would need to improve at least 100 crops,” Shapiro said. “In the end, we went with 101 crops, including the Baobab tree, which can survive even the worst drought. You can eat its leaves, which are actually quite tasty.”

The group collaborates with researchers all over the world, and all of its sequence information will be posted to the Web and offered free to anyone on condition it not be patented.

“Because we share our information, we can build on each other’s research,” said Allen Van Deynze, professional researcher with the Department of Plant Sciences. “We hope to have five genomes out for public review within the next six months.”

(Article by Diane Nelson, UC Davis. Reprinted, in part, from CA&ES Outlook magazine, spring/summer 2016)

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