Africa Learns To Feed Itself From A New Era of Plant Breeders

Posted by on December 23, 2014 in Africa, Entrepreneurship, Green, Health

Mars_AOCC_thumbnailIn the 1960s when the world faced chronic food shortages, the green revolution was born and it had an enormous impact on Asia, particularly in India and Latin America. These two continents were able to turn food deficits into food surplus by focusing on plant breeding. However, Africa missed out because of the level of investment, infrastructure, capacity and ability to use those techniques was missing. Now, after more than two decades of rising commercial food imports and food aid, the region is experiencing economic problems. Especially as the world’s economic recession has imposed a severe constraint on Africa’s export-oriented economies.

However, there are initiatives underway in Africa to try to change things, combining opportunities and science for accelerated plant breeding. The African Plant Breeding Academy, run by the University of California, Davis, in collaboration with Mars Incorporated and their global partners, have graduated their first class of plant breeders in Nairobi, Kenya. The Academy, a program of the African Orphan Crops Consortium, is based at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in Nairobi, and is designed to increase food security and helps eliminate malnutrition and stunting among Africa’s youth.

A total of 250 new plant breeders will be trained, enabling them to develop traditional African plants and trees that are important to African diets into hardier and more nutritious crops for smallholder African farmers in the region. This first class of 21 graduates includes four women and 17 men, representing 11 nations and 19 institutions throughout Africa. These men and women hold the future for a healthy, well-fed Africa in their hands. They will return to their home countries and institutions equipped to develop new and improved varieties of long-overlooked African plants and trees.

MARs Incorporated noted that only 57 plants in the world have been genetically sequenced; 101 are now being added. This new school of breeders will have the ability to make decisions about plant breeding more quickly, which will lead to better plants with a higher nutrient content. This is a huge leap for the diversity and sustainability of African agriculture and the start of a very different future for rural and urban food consumption patterns. According to the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, the first orphan crop to be grown was the baobab or wonder tree, which can be dried to produce fruit powder. It has ten times the antioxidant level of oranges, twice the amount of calcium than spinach, three times the vitamin C of oranges and four times more potassium than banana.

This academy and its 101 targeted crops will greatly improve the diets of Africa’s children and help to eliminate hunger and malnutrition, which causes stunting. Many Africans suffer from mineral, iron and vitamin A deficiencies, resulting in high mortality and morbidity rates, blindness among children and reduction in agricultural labour. Malnutrition is a direct product of food insecurity.

Photo Credit: Mars 

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