New academy ‘to decode crop genomes, curb hunger’

Official Launch Event - African Plant Breeding Academy of the African Orphan Crops Consortium, December 3, 2013, ICRAF Headquarters, Nairobi
Copyright: Flickr/ ICRAF/Sherry Odeyo

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  • More than 600 million Africans rely on 100 ‘orphan’ crops for their livelihoods
  • An African initiative aims to use genomics to boost the production of such crops
  • But an expert says the crops’ health benefits should also be emphasised

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[NAIROBI] The African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC) has launched Africa’s first plant breeding academy to improve livelihoods of smallholder farmers by helping them increase production of crops with high amounts of nutrients.
The academy — to be hosted by the Kenya-based World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) — was officially opened early this month (3 December).
The academy will help farmers easily obtain seeds and seedlings of ‘orphan’ crops grown locally that can withstand the harsh climatic conditions in Africa.

“Africa is the most malnourished and least forested continent. We are in fragile conditions and we need initiatives like these to improve food production.”
Tony Simons, World Agroforestry Centre.

According to the consortium, orphan crops include cassava, millet, potato, sorghum  and others grown for subsistence that have been neglected by researchers and investors because they are considered valueless in the global market. The consortium says more than 600 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa consume orphan crops.
Tony Simons, director-general of ICRAF, says: “Africa is the most malnourished and least forested continent. We are in fragile conditions and we need initiatives like these to improve food production”.
Simons believes that improving the production of orphan crops will improve the diets of Africa’s children and help curb hunger and malnutrition.
The AOCC intends to use expertise and technologies of its members — including ICRAF, Life Technologies Corporation and the University of California, Davis, United States — to help the academy train 150 plant breeders and technicians over the next five years in genomics and select better ways of improving the crops.
The main goal is to enable the academy to rapidly sequence and assemble the genomes of 100 indigenous African food crops. 
The AOCC has received US$40 million through in-kind donations to fund the academy.
Ruth Oniang’o, the founder and editor-in-chief of Kenya-based African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition and Development, however, feels that the term ‘orphan crops’ should be replaced with one that would not sound negative to encourage people to embrace the initiative.
She tells SciDev.Net that the crops’ health benefits need to be emphasised because there are people who are already consuming them but are not so informed about their nutritional value.
“There is [a] need to demonstrate their [orphan crops] importance in health and socio-culturally,” says Oniang’o. “These crops are already uniquely nutritive and even those elements that were previously considered ‘anti-health’ may in fact and do indeed have health benefits”.
She adds that although plant breeding is an important way of improving food security in Africa, animal breeding and food systems approach should be considered because many low-income families cannot access foods from animal sources.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.