GMO-free bioscience to feed Africa's farming families

| 19th January 2014
Baobab Tree (Adansonia digitata), Mapangubwe National Park, South Africa. The tree is a rich source of nutritious fruit for wildlife and humans. Photo: Martin Heigan via
Baobab Tree (Adansonia digitata), Mapangubwe National Park, South Africa. The tree is a rich source of nutritious fruit for wildlife and humans. Photo: Martin Heigan via
For 600 million rural people across Africa, the food they grow is the food they eat. A new plant breeding academy in Kenya is using advanced genomic technologies to produce more robust and nutritious crops, writes Howard-Yana Shapiro.
While advanced genomic techniques will be employed, including marker-assisted selection for crop improvement, genetic modification is not part of the package.

Based in Nairobi. the new African Plant Breeding Academy will begin by training some 250 scientists and technicians over a five year period to sequence, assemble and annotate the genomes of Africa's 'orphan crops'.

These are plant varieties that grow in farm gardens all over the continent and are crucial to Africans' nutrition - but have been ignored by science, because they play no role in international trade.

101 crucial crops

And with the scientists trained, the next stage of the Academy's mission can surge ahead: the improvement of the 101 traditional African food crops so far been identified as crucial to Africa's future.

This will lead to the creation of improved planting materials that will then be offered to smallholder farmers throughout Africa - seeds and tubers that are more resilient to adverse conditions, including those brought about by climate change; more resistant to pests; more nutritious; and higher-yielding.

But while advanced genomic techniques will be employed, including marker-assisted selection for crop improvement, genetic modification is not part of the package. Nor is patenting or other forms of intellectual property protection.

The data will be freely available

Instead the data derived from this collaborative effort will be made publicly available - with the endorsement of the African Union - through a process managed by the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture.

The first 'orphan crop' to be worked on at the Academy will be Baobab, Adansonia digitata, which can be used as a dried fruit powder for many products. Baobab is called "the wonder tree" in Africa - and with good reason.

Its fruit has 10 times the antioxidant level of oranges, twice the amount of calcium as spinach, three times the vitamin C of oranges and four times more potassium than banana. It also has antiviral properties, is gluten-free ... and much more.

Giving Africa a chance

Backing the initiative is the African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC), a uncommon grouping of government agencies, scientific bodies, companies and non-governmental organizations from three continents - Africa, North America and Europe.

Among the AOCC members is ICRAF, the World Agroforestry Centre, which is also hosting the Academy in Nairobi. Professor Tony Simons, Director General of ICRAF, says:

"For the continent that is the most malnourished, the poorest, the most rural and the least forested, the AOCC gives Africa a chance through new science and its application to address many of its perennial problems of development."

In 2010, I learned for the first time that malnutrition and chronic hunger are causing stunting in children across Africa. Stunted children do not reach their full potential - physically or mentally or even financially.

Adults who were malnourished as children earn at least 20% less on average than those who weren't. It was shocking to try and grasp the scale of this tragedy, with more than 35% of the children in Africa affected.

Life in a handful of greens

If caught early the condition can be reversed, often by the inclusion in the diet of toddlers and mothers-to-be of a few handfuls of leafy greens.

But often parents do not know, or those leafy greens are simply not available. I still find it horrifying to think of the human potential that is going to waste, for lack of something so simple.

I'm in no doubt that improving these orphan crop varieties can greatly improve the diets of Africa's children, helping to eliminate hunger and malnutrition. However, there is another specter slouching into Africa.

The 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that by 2020, climate change will have halved the harvests of rainfed crops in many African countries. And some 96% of all African crops are rainfed, as opposed to irrigated.

No governments or organizations are seriously planning for this threat, which could result in one of the greatest human catastrophes of all time.

First cacao ...

I work for Mars Incorporated, itself a member of the Consortium. We previously led a similar uncommon collaboration that sequenced, assembled and annotated the cacao (cocoa) genome and, in 2010, published our data on the Internet.

We did it because cacao is beset by many different diseases and pests, and we wanted a lot of scientists working, fast, on these threats. After all our whole business depends on having a reliable supply of high quality cocoa beans.

Now we want to put our experience and expertise to an even better use. With African foodcrops the urgency is obviously higher and the stakes greater. What will happen to Africa's children when harvests fail due to a changing climate?

Training a new generation of African scientists

African Plant Breeding Academy has another, even longer term purpose. As we train more and more scientists, we will be placing the science and technologies that can help in fighting chronic hunger and malnutrition in the hands of many more practitioners. And who knows what they will be able to achieve in the future?

But I am sure that it will be seen as a huge leap forward for the diversity and sustainability of African agriculture - and the start of a very different future for people all over Africa, both rural and urban.

So far AOCC has raised about $50 million in in-kind contributions from its partners. Life Technologies developed and donated the advanced sequencers that are being used in the program.

BGI - formerly Beijing Genomics Institute - will make its sequencing and bioinformatics expertise available for scientists and researchers in Africa, particularly at the Academy. UC Davis' Seed Biotechnology Center developed the Academy's curriculum.

Other partners include WWF; the African Union - New Partnership for Africa's Development; iPlant Collaborative, and Biosciences eastern and central Africa - International Livestock Research Institute (BecA - ILRI Hub).

And as Professor Jian Wang, President of BGI, said at the Academy's launch in late 2013,

"We are confident that the combination of capabilities, experience and resources within AOCC will yield great scientific breakthroughs in African crops research and bring advancement to develop improved crop varieties, thus to contribute to the wellbeing of local society."



Howard-Yana Shapiro is Chief Agricultural Officer at Mars, Incorporated; Senior Fellow at the Department of Plant Sciences, University of California, Davis; and Distinguished Fellow at the World Agroforestry Centre, Nairobi, Kenya.

Howard has been involved with sustainable agricultural and agroforestry systems, pattern recognition, plant breeding, molecular biology and genetics for over 40 years releasing hundreds of cultivars into the public domain. He has worked with indigenous communities, NGO's, governmental agencies and the private sector around the world.

In 2009 he was named recipient of The Award of Distinction from The College of agriculture and Environmental Sciences, UC Davis. He led the global effort sequencing, assembling and annotating the Theobroma cacao genome and is part of the leadership team for the Arachis genome global effort.

Two plant breeding academies are being set up to train senior scientists and technicians on the methods of Marker Assisted Selection / Breeding to speed new cultivars to the African rural population.

He also collects and restores classic American, modern Japanese and Italian motorcycles. He recently became a member of the 200 Mile Per Hour Club on an unrestricted 1999 Suzuki Hayabusa - averaging 201.386 mph.



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