Malnutrition in many African nations is considered widespread but can be addressed by diversifying food systems with a wider range of nutritious crops, according to scientists. To support this, the African Orphan Crops Consortium is applying genome-enabled methods to improve the production of under-researched (or “orphan”) crops on the continent.
A genome is an organism’s complete set of DNA, including all of its genes. Each genome contains all the information needed to build and maintain that organism.
“Orphan crops”, explains Ramni Jamnadass, lead author of a Comment piece about the Consortium just published in Nature Genetics, “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. The reasons for their 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 crucial micronutrients.”
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. 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, scientists say, adding that 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.”