Agriculture – Africa’s Orphan Crops

A leading plant scientist is planning to map and then give away the genetic data of 100 traditional crops such as sweet potato, cassava, groundnut, asyam and finger millet. The aforementioned crops are often referred to as “orphan crops” due to the fact that they have been largely disregarded by governments, scientists and seed companies even though approximately 250 million smallholder farmers depend on them for income, food security and nutrition. Howard-Yana Shapiro, a vegan hippy scientist and agriculture director of the $36bn US confectionary corporation Mars spearheaded a partnership in 2010 that sequenced and published the complete genome of the cocoa tree from which chocolate is made and who now plans to sequence and publish the genetic makeup of Africa’s “orphan crops”. Shapiro believes in the enormous potential for developing higher-yielding and more resilient varieties of a large number of the orphan crops by merging traditional plant breeding methods with new biotech tools like “genetic marking” which doesn’t in any way alter or insert new genes in the same way that genetic modification does. Shapiro feels very deeply about the stunting caused by malnutrition which affects around 30% of African children so believes that by improving the crops the African orphan crop consortium, which includes organisations such as the conservation group WWF and Life Technologies, they can eradicate the “plague” that costs Africa $125bn annually. He plans to begin with genomics, then analysis, then to plant breeders, then to the field, then the seed companies and then to the farms. “The genetic information will be put on the web and offered free to plant breeders, seed companies and farmers on condition it is not patented. A new African plant-breeding academy will also be set up in Nairobi, Kenya,” he said. “It’s not charity. It’s a gift. Its an improvement of African agriculture. These crops will never be worked on by the big five [seed] companies. They don’t see them as competition.” Investments in African agriculture is going to be a key topic at the G8 hunger summit, which is taking place in Northern Ireland this coming weekend and will be attended by governments and 45 of the biggest agribusiness corporations who are expected to reveal initiatives to enhance African farming. Taylor Scott International

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