February 15, 2012

Orphan Crops in Agricultural Landscapes

By Lloyd Timberlake
Lloyd Timberlake is a freelance writer

The “Green Revolution” never took off in Africa, for many, many reasons. One is that Africa contains so many different and varied agricultural ecosystems and in so many of these it is hard to grow the big international staples such as wheat, corn, rice, and potatoes.

So Africa remains a hungry continent. Per capita food yields have been declining there for decades; more than one-third of African children suffer stunting (low height to weight), irreversible after age two, with lifetime debilitating neurological effects. According to the Millennium Project’s Task Force on Hunger, 75% of Africa’s underweight children reside in smallholder farming systems. To complicate matters, the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that global warming will halve rain-fed crop yields in some African countries by as early as 2020; 96% of African agriculture is rain-fed rather than irrigated.

Africa’s varied ecosystems do contain crop species very important to African farm families, if not to science. These crops have no international markets, but are very important for food security. The US National Research Council gathered information about these species into three separate volumes – grains, vegetables and fruit – calling the books The Lost Crops of Africa. Others refer to them as “orphan crops.”

It has occurred to a number of people that a good place to start improving productivity and nutrition on the continent is with crops Africans already use and know how to grow. It is also likely that the biggest gains will be made in crops that have received the least attention to date from 21st Century plant breeding technologies.

So an international consortium of governmental and non-governmental bodies, scientific institutes and companies has launched a $40 million effort to improve the productivity of some of these food crops, while making them more nutritious and more robust in the face of weather disasters, pests and disease.

The African Orphan Crops (AOC) consortium, officially launched at the Clinton Global Initiative meetings in September 2011, is also meant to improve the incomes of the 600 million Africans involved in farming by providing them with greater surpluses to sell on the market. Ibrahim Mayaki, CEO, New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) Planning and Coordinating Agency and a consortium leader, had earlier brought the concept before the African Union Assembly (African heads of state), which endorsed the initiative.

Other consortium leaders include the World Wildlife Fund – US and Mars, Incorporated. Working partners include IBM (which is opening five technology centers in Africa); DuPont/Pioneer Hi-Bred; the World Agroforestry Centre; Bioversity International; African Academy of Sciences; TransFarm Africa (at the Aspen Institute); The Life Technologies Corporation, and the Plant Breeding Academy at the University of California, Davis.

AOC will work primarily by sequencing, assembling and annotating some two-dozen crops that are important for food and income and that have been chosen through work with African scientists from a shortlist of 96 species. Early sequencing will be done by the Beijing Genomic Institute to focus research on these genomes and the markers found. Some 250 plant breeding scientists and 500 technicians will be trained over the next five years at centers to be opened in Ghana and Kenya by the Plant Breeding Academy of the University of California, Davis. The consortium plans to draw growing numbers of African biodiversity and agricultural centers and universities into the training and breeding effort.

AOC has already begun to sequence Faidherbia albida, a tree that can be used for nitrogen fixation, carbon sequestration and erosion control. It has edible seeds, and unlike most trees, sheds its leaves in the rainy season; so it can be grown among field crops without shading them.

Some of the better known crops the AOC is considering sequencing or working on in other ways include cassava, oil palm, peanuts, sorghum, millet, amaranth, marula, cocoyam, Ethiopian mustard, groundnut tree, African potato, acacia (Faidherbia albida), baobab, and bananas (matoke).

The goal is to sequence the 24 species by the end of 2014, depending on funding. The resulting genetic information will be put into the public domain the same way Mars, Incorporated, released the cacao genome, over a web site that anyone can access. This will be managed by the intellectual property organization, Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture (PIPRA).

“This work will not only help Africans feed themselves and their nations, it will help produce more food without expanding agriculture and in the process destroying precious natural ecosystems,” said Jason Clay of WWF-US. “By 2050, we will need to produce twice as much food as we do today. If we are to have any natural habitat left, we will need to ‘freeze the footprint’ of agriculture.” Diversifying food production systems to include many more crops on farms and in the landscape mosaic could also enhance overall biodiversity.

Photo credit: © WWF-Canon / Simon Rawles; Constantine Kusebahasa at the market, Rwenzori Mountains, Uganda

1 Comment

  • Daniel Bornstein
    February 21, 2012 at 5:14pm

    Excellent article. This sounds like a good example of how agricultural research can better incorporate farmers’ priorities. Right now the international agricultural research infrastructure focuses too heavily on enhancing productivity of the globally-traded commodity crops, at the expense of indigenous varieties in Africa. The International Institute for Environment and Development wrote a great paper on the need for participatory research: http://pubs.iied.org/pdfs/17122IIED.pdf