A continent-wide consortium of scientists are working to enhance food security and nutrition amid rising global temperatures by discovering the genetic secrets of some of Africa’s neglected “orphan crops”.
The African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC) Project is working to sequence the genomes of 101 African species and make the results available as open-source data. This can enable other scientists and plant-breeders to improve the nutrition, productivity and climatic adaptability of the crops.
As global temperatures continue to soar unseasonably early, it has added to the many factors piling pressure on Africa’s food systems. Other factors include three consecutive years of insufficient rain in East Africa, the economic effects of Covid-19 and the war in the Ukraine.
So far, the initiative has completed the sequencing of 11 species, including the jackfruit, bambara groundnut, shea tree and water yam.
The chosen crops were identified in a participatory manner by scientists, development practitioners, consumers and producers as being important for supporting African consumers’ diets and farmers’ incomes.
The genomic information produced by AOCC is put into the public domain for use by plant breeders and other crop scientists. The ultimate objective is to ensure that the improved varieties and cultivars of orphan crops developed with the support of genomic information are released to farmers for cultivation.
Training African plant breeders
AOCC, which is in partnership with World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) and endorsed by the African Union, also conducts a training program for Africa’s plant breeders, to enable them to use advanced breeding methods. According to AOCC scientific director Prof. Allen van Deynze, they believe that well-trained African plant breeders working in national programmes are key to developing new plant varieties using the technologies of various international partners to develop the full value-chain.
Dr. Sunil Kumar Sahu, the internal Project manager of the AOCC, says that Africa is poised to contribute 25% of the world population in 2050. Furthermore, two-thirds of global calories are derived from just five crops and most of Africa’s orphan crops are not being utilised to their full potential to combat hunger. Dr. Sunil is also a Shenzhen-based research scientist at Chinese genetics company BGI-Research.
He points out that Africa has an arid environment so major crops, such as rice and maize, cannot be grown across the continent. However, orphan crops have special adaptability to grow in these particularly harsh environments. The robustness of orphan crops is vital for farmers to increase their yields and incomes as global temperatures rise.
The AOCC has identified genes that are very tolerant of high temperatures, low water availability, and high salinity while providing excellent nutrition.
The jackfruit, for example, has high starch content. The AOCC’s jackfruit sequencing results identified massive expansion of genes related to starch and sugar metabolism which explains why these fruits are very sticky, large and store a lot of energy and nutrition, including various vitamins and proteins. Many studies have also shown that jackfruit is suitable for pre-diabetics and diabetics.
Jackfruit is one of the largest fruit or vegetables in the world. It is a fruit that is eaten raw when ripe. In Africa, and many countries, including India, unripe jackfruit is cooked. In western countries, it is known as “pulled pork” because it tastes like meat when cooked.
Diversifying food sources
According to Dr. Sunil, two-thirds of global calories are derived from just five crops. Therefore, improving major crops such as rice is important too.
Using multi-omics research, BGI has developed an improved version of perennial rice by crossbreeding varieties. With perennial rice, you can harvest the rice seeds multiple times, but it will grow back. Unlike normal rice where farmers start from zero for every crop, perennial rice can be harvested for three to five years, giving them more production, with less labour cost.
This rice is being grown in many regions worldwide. Recently, BGI did a field trial in African countries such as Uganda.