By HENRY OWINO (Senior Science Correspondent)
Malnutrition in many African nations is widespread but can be addressed by diversifying food systems with a wider range of nutritious crops. To support this, the African Orphan Crops Consortium is applying genome-enabled methods to improve the production of under-researched (‘orphan’) crops on the continent.
According to Ramni Jamnadass, “Orphan Crops” are crops that have received only minor investments in the past, but often are well adapted to local environments and cultures and are nutritious, being rich in vitamins, essential minerals and other micronutrients important for healthy diets.
Jamnadass is the Leader for ICRAF Theme on Tree Genetic Resources based in Nairobi, Kenya. She is also lead author of a Comment piece about the Consortium that has been published in Nature Genetics.
She explains the reasons for the orphan crops past neglect
include; a focus over the last century on increasing the yields of major crops
as the primary providers of calories but with less attention being given to providing
In some cases, too, orphan crops have been difficult to research and improve because of their particular biologies. With the advent of new crop improvement methods that include genomic approaches, however, such barriers are easier to overcome.
“The Consortium works on 101 orphan crops chosen as priorities for consumers and farmers in Africa. These encompass plants that are part of Africa’s historically neglected bounty of biodiversity,” Jamnadass clarifies.
Many of the species are at threat, meaning that if they are
not improved and brought into wider cultivation now, the opportunity to do so
will be lost forever. The plant species included feature a wide range of
nutritious foods, such as edible roots, leaves, seeds, and fruit.
The Consortium develops genomic resources of these crops and makes these available freely to all. At the same time, the UC Davis led African Plant Breeding Academy, empowers the continent’s plant breeders to use these resources through an intensive training and mentoring program.
The Academy is a model for the importance of continuing education and professional development of Africa’s scientists. By the end of 2019, 114 alumni from 27 African nations, collectively working on more than 100 crops, had graduated.
In the Academy’s teaching, participants share their
experiences to support translational learning so that new breeding approaches
can be fully exploited. This involves considering ‘orthologous’ genes that
contribute to the same function across crops and for which knowledge of
their role in one crop may be applied to another.
As Africa’s national economies transform there will be new opportunities for orphan crops to support forward-looking healthful food systems. These are needed to counter the current trend toward more homogenised diets, something which applies worldwide, with its negative consequences for human health and the environment.
Jamnadass concludes: “Though the challenges involved are complex, the rewards for society in diversifying food production are large. We encourage more colleagues to engage in orphan crop research and to support such work in Africa and globally.”