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US varsity UC Davis is partnering with a plant-breeding consortium to fight malnutrition and poverty in Africa by improving the traditional crops of the continent

baobab hbieser pixabayThe fruit of this tree, native to certain tropical areas of Africa, contains high amounts of vitamin C. (Image source: hbieser/Pixabay)

The African Orphan Crop Consortium — conceived by Howard Shapiro, a senior fellow at UC Davis and the chief agricultural officer at Mars, Inc. — is attempting to map and make public the genomes of 101 indigenous African foods.

According to Shapiro, these ‘orphan’ crops are crucial to African livelihood and nutrition, but have been mostly ignored by science and seed companies because they are not traded internationally like commodities such as rice, corn and wheat.

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

Launched in 2012, the African Orphan Crop Consortium brings together Mars, UC Davis, and a wide range of researchers, industry groups and policymakers. Together, collaborators have contributed about US$40mn of in-kind support.

The World Agroforestry Centre built a state-of-the-art genomics laboratory in Nairobi, Kenya, and UC Davis expanded its intensive, hands-on Plant Breeding Academy into Africa.

At the Plant Breeding Academy, Africa’s top breeders learn how to incorporate genomic information, statistics and the latest breeding strategies into their programmes.

To improve a crop, breeders traditionally cross plants with desired traits and select the best offspring over multiple generations. Some traits, such as flavour and size, are often determined by many genes acting together, while other traits, like disease resistance, may be regulated by a single gene. Once a plant genome has been sequenced, breeders can home in on genes that affect specific traits and select for those genes at the seedling or seed stage. This accelerates the crop improvement process.

Busiso Mavankeni, plant breeder with Zimbabwe’s department of research & specialist services, said, “I believe this project will succeed where others have failed because it focuses on crops that have evolved to grow here.

“By improving these neglected crops, we help the children who eat them and the farmers who depend on them to support their families.”

Initially, the African Orphan Crop Consortium had planned to sequence the genome of about 16 indigenous crops, but that number grew when the group surveyed Africa’s agricultural leaders.

“We were told in order to have any impact on nutrition we would need to improve at least 100 crops,” Shapiro said, adding, “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.”

Other crops include the legume, pigeon pea, as well as a form of grain called finger millet, and spider plant, a leafy green vegetable that’s already about twice as nutritious as spinach.

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.