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African consortium announces 100 crops for sequencing

The African Orphan Crops Consortium, which includes the University of California, UC Davis, Mars Inc. and other global partners, released the names of the 100 African crop species whose genomes it plans to sequence, assemble and annotate to improve the nutrition of African farm families. The list of these 100 species, developed by African scientists, is being released so that researchers around the world can contact the consortium with suggestions for research needs regarding the selected species. The crop list, which includes the African eggplant, amaranth and the spider plant, is available at the consortium’s website. The first orphan crop to be studied will be baobab, because its fruit has antiviral properties and other health benefits, ten 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 bananas.  (UC Davis, 17/01/2014)   


Biochemical and nutritional properties of baobab pulp from endemic species of Madagascar and the African mainland

Cissé Ibrahima and colleagues from the Institut National d'Hygiène Publique (INHP, Côte d'Ivoire) and CIRAD, studied the biochemical characteristics of the fruit pulp of five endemic baobab species from Madagascar and one from Côte d’Ivoire. Contents in vitamin C, polyphenols, lipids, proteins and minerals were evaluated. Comparing the results for each species, the researchers found high variability in biochemical characteristics and mineral content between the various species. None of them could be identified as a clear all-round winner. To date, despite the baobab fruit's nutritional importance, the lack of knowledge on pulp preservation causes loss. Future research should focus on increasing the pulp storage time while preserving its nutrition value.    (African Journal of Agricultural Research, 12/11/2013)   


Organic farms support more species

Research led by Sean Tuck of Oxford University's Department of Plant Sciences, looked at data going back thirty years and found that on average, organic farms support 34% more plant, insect and animal species than conventional farms. This effect has remained stable over time and shows no signs of decreasing. For pollinators such as bees, the number of different species was 50% higher on organic farms. It is however important to note that the study only looked at 'species richness', i.e. how many different species, not the total number of organisms. High species richness usually indicates a variety of species with different characteristics. Taking the example of bees, species richness indicates how many different species of bees there are on a farm but not the total number of bees.   (, 03/02/2014) 


A call to remember the forgotten crops

Monkombu Swaminathan, the veteran Indian crop scientist and World Food Prize laureate, wants the UN to devote a year to the world’s ‘orphan crops’ working with agricultural research organisations. Orphan crops are neglected and underutilised plants species (NUS) that can play an important role in contributing to food security either directly by being grown on the farm and commercialised or through their genetic resources, potentially useful in developing improved varieties of conventional crops. Swaminathan argues for an international concerted effort to develop research frameworks and programmes that would explore and exploit the potential of orphan crops in agriculture. Orphan crop are often proven to be adapted to a wide variety of weather patterns, soil conditions and/or pests and pathogen outbreaks. The esteemed scientist also presses the fact that many of the world’s grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables have relatives in the plant kingdom that naturally possess many of the micronutrients lacking in today’s diets. In his opinion, society doesn’t always need to genetically engineer nutritious crops when natural ‘bio-fortified’ plants already exist: his point being that orphan crops offer a viable option for food and nutrition security, as much as GM crops can.  Editor’s note – Promoting NUS for food and nutrition security is not new. What can be gained from a UN year devoted to the world’s ‘orphan crops’? Visit Bioversity International IFAD-NUS III project website and see outputs of their related 2013 international conference highlights on Note previous IFAD funded NUS projects since 2001. Also visit Crops for the Future website - Reuters, 20/12/2013)


The weaver ant: an effective biological control agent in mango plantations

Research by CIRAD and IITA aimed to control fruit flies infestation in West Africa’s mango plantations found that weaver ants are a natural and effective biological control method against fruit flies. In-depth studies confirmed the ants’ impact on the structure and composition of plant-eating pests. These studies also showed that they prey mainly on larvae, as they leave infested fruits, and rarely on adults.  However, this is not their only mode of action. The scientists discovered that they have a repellent effect on fruit flies: after ants have been on mangoes, fruit flies turn away from them and lay much fewer eggs. This phenomenon of repulsion, which was confirmed in the laboratory and in the field, is caused by physical (micro-spots) and chemical (pheromones) signals left by ants.  (CIRAD, 10/2013)


Identification and evaluation of sorghum germplasm from Eastern Kenya

Catherine Muui at Kenyatta University and colleagues collected the germplasm of sorghum landraces in four major sorghum growing regions of the eastern province of Kenya. Information was collected on farmer preferred traits, seed sources and variety type and recorded for each of the forty four different landraces obtained. Results show that the landraces carry unique traits associated with environmental adaptation, biotic stress resistance, grain yield and quality, food preparation and post-harvest processing. The authors believe this yet untapped diversity could be useful in crop improvement programmes. They fear however that the decline in use of the landraces may erode the genetic base of sorghum and prevent the use of distinctive traits in the future. The study underscores the importance of farmer-led ex situ conservation of plant genetic resources.,_2013    (African Journal of Agricultural Research, 19/09/2013)


Boost for seed research: developing a new seed bank management system

Peter Cyr, a genebank manager, and his team was asked by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, devoted to protect the world's plant genetic resources, to develop a new seed bank management system – GRIN-Global – that could provide for developing countries needing a zero-cost system as well as mature, better-supported gene banks. According to Cyr, ‘sharing information will be much easier as we will all be running the same system and it provides some wonderful capacity building for Third World countries’. Nearly every gene bank used a different data cataloguing system, making it difficult for plant breeders to search for potential genetic material. The GRIN-Global system is being introduced at seed storage banks around the world to begin consolidating data management.   (Weekly Times Now, 04/11/2013)


New strategic framework for addressing neglected and underutilised species

A new framework for addressing neglected and underutilised species (NUS) was launched in September 2013 at the 3rd International Conference on Neglected and Underutilized Species. The framework outlines the status of NUS around the world, describing their vulnerability and key challenges they face. In response to threats to NUS, it calls for changes in perceptions, increased capacity, enhanced research, improved conservation, greater stakeholder involvement, increased investment in value chains and a supportive policy environment.  (IISD Reporting Services, 29/09/2013) 


A global strategy for the conservation and use of cacao genetic resources

Developed by the Global Network for Cacao Genetic Resources (CacaoNet), the strategy is the result of a consultation process that drew upon the global cocoa community’s expertise in all aspects of cacao genetic resources.  The specific goal of the Global Strategy is to optimise the conservation and maximise the use of cacao genetic resources for cocoa farmers to have access to a diversity of improved planting materials, the genetic diversity needs to be available to researchers engaged in breeding programmes to produce trees that can resist new pests and diseases, tolerate droughts and other environmental stresses and produce higher yields of good quality cocoa.    (Thomson Reuters, 11/09/2013 and Bioversity International, 2012) 


Population genetic structure in a social landscape: barley in a traditional Ethiopian agricultural system

This study incorporates extensive farmer interviews and population genetic analysis of barley landraces (Hordeum vulgare) to build a holistic picture of farmer-  mediated gene flow in an ancient agricultural system in the highlands of Ethiopia. Phenotypic analysis of barley samples made possible links between genetic  patterns and traits identified by farmers. The study finds that differential farmer management strategies lead to markedly different patterns of population structure  across elevation classes and barley types. The extent to which farmer seed management appears as a stronger determinant of spatial structure than the physical  landscape highlights the need for incorporation of social, landscape, and genetic data for the design of conservation strategies in human-influenced landscapes. The  reaserch recognises the importance of considering farmers' economic and cultural needs in designing appropriate conservation strategies.     (Evolutionary Applications, 12/08/2013)    


Promoting value chains of neglected and underutilised species

This publication, commissioned by the Global Facilitation Unit for Underutilized Species (GFU), presents guidelines and good practices for value chain development (VCD) of neglected and underutilised species (NUS).  The guidelines draw upon  lessons learnt and good practices described in eight case studies, various publications on the topic, and the experience of the author, Margret Will, in horticultural marketing and VCD. The objectives of this publication are to:  provide  recommendations on how to gear VCD of NUS to pro-poor growth; elaborate on challenges and opportunities in marketing of NUS; highlight success factors enhancing the utilisation of the potential of NUS; and indicate factors hampering VCD of  NUS and thus putting the objectives, the promotion of biodiversity and pro-poor growth at risk.          (GFU via Agrobiodiverse, 27/08/2013)    


Salt tolerant taro varieties identified in Palau

Three varieties of taro (Dungersuul, Dirrubong, Kirang) were identified as salt-tolerant in one of the research trials carried out in Palau. The research is led by Dr Aurora Del Rosario,  Researcher/Extension Specialist of the Palau Community Colleges Cooperative Research and Extension in Koror, in collaboration with Palau Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment and  Tourism and SPC through its Genetic Resources and Crop Production, Extension and Climate Change Teams of the Land Resources Division. Research also included treatments which  looked at impact of fertilizers and manure.(Marianas Variety, 26/06/2013)


Five Pacific island countries to revive and unlock the potential of bele, an indigenous vegetable

Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Fiji will address together priority research needs to revive bele (Abelmoschus manihot, also known as aibika or slippery  cabbage) a neglected but nutritious native crop. The project activities aim at rationalising national bele collections, establishing regional collections and documenting traditional knowledge  both on farming practices and food processing. Bele is known to have medicinal properties, requires low maintenance, and some varieties are tolerant to drought, other to pests.  Unfortunately, some 30 varieties of bele were noted to have been lost over the years in Papua New Guinea in the early 1990s.(SPC, 02/07/2013)


Breeding better barley for Ethiopia's staple bread

A team of plant breeders led by Fetien Abay of Mekelle University in Ethiopia and Åsmund Bjørnstad of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences followed an approach called participatory  plant breeding to select the varieties of barley most adapted for the preparation of injera (a very popular bread in Ethiopia). They found that, if cooked in the traditional way, injera prepared  with barley from a variety that is a cross between the Himblil and Saesa variety, scored very high among the Ethiopian tasters. Editors’ comment: Production of Teff, one of the earliest plants to be domesticated and the grain which is traditionally used in Ethiopia for the preparation of injera , while no aggregated stats  exists, is almost two times that of barley in Ethiopia (FAO stats, HarvestChoice). It is also high in dietary fibre, iron, and provides calcium and protein. A question for scientists/breeders and  policymakers to ponder, is while the cheaper injera made from barley is comparable tastewise: How does it compare on nutritional content? Another issue, is that teff is adapted to  numerous environments; drought stressed and water logged. Are the barley varieties similarly adapted?(Crop Science Society of America, 02/07/2013)


Launch of a new African Plant Breeding Academy

The University of California at Davis, in collaboration with the African Union’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and the African Orphan Crops Consortium launched the  African Plant Breeding Academy. The Academy is designed to train a generation of plant breeders who will help improve the nutritional value of indigenous African crops. The Consortium (of  which the Academy is part) aims to sequence the genomes of 96 indigenous orphan crops that are important for African diets (African eggplant, potato, cocoyam, Ethiopian mustard, as well  as cassava, cacao, millet, sorghum and legumes, among others). Participating African plant breeders at the new academy will be trained in the most advanced theory and technologies for  plant breeding, quantitative genetics, statistics and experimental design, in support of critical decisions for crop improvement.(UC Davis, 20/06/2013)


Decoding 'orphan crop' genomes and making the information free to boost harvests

Howard-Yana Shapiro, the agriculture director of the $36bn US confectionery corporation Mars, led a partnership that sequenced and then published in 2010 the complete genome of the cacao tree from which chocolate is derived. He plans to work with American and Chinese scientists to sequence and make publicly available the genetic makeup of a host of crops such as yam, finger millet, tef, groundnut, cassava and sweet potato.  More on the cocoa genome research at Mars Corp.  (The Guardian, 02/06/2013)


Opportunities and limitations for functional agrobiodiversity (FAB) in the European context

Planned reforms in European agricultural policy could facilitate the implementation of functional agrobiodiversity (FAB) concepts in the sector. However, impediments to the adoption of FAB approaches still exist, mainly (i) translation of general knowledge to tailored, ready-to-use management practices, (ii) limited information on the effectiveness of FAB measures in terms of crop yield and quality, profitability, and reduction of agrochemical inputs, (iii) lack of appropriate financial accounting systems that allow fair accounting of the private investments and public benefits, and (iv) the implementation of FAB measures at the right spatial scales, which requires coordination among the various actors in a region. This paper explores the current and new legislation that may provide incentives to address these limitations. (via ELN-FAB Newsletter, April 2013)


Agro-ecosystems: reservoirs of biodiversity to be promoted

Biodiversity conservation policy and scientific choices made over the past 20 years have led to the development of global assessments, and management and conservation tools for living organisms. Such standardisation of environmental policies and instruments tends to marginalise cultivated tropical ecosystems and their related practices. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers demonstrate how the standardisation of conservation methods has lead to a decline in species diversity and local knowledge in agricultural landscapes. Because they are reservoirs of biodiversity in their own way, agro-ecosystems should be better understood and protected. (IRD, 02/2013)


Wild foods could improve nutrition and food security

Malnutrition could be greatly reduced and food security improved by ensuring improved access to nutrient-rich forest-derived foods like berries, bushmeat, roots, insects and nuts for the world’s poorest populations. The critical role forests could play in improving food security and nutrition is poorly reflected in national development and food security strategies. Forest foods haven´t received much attention in part due to the current method of measuring food security in terms of energy (or calories) and not in terms of micronutrients, which has meant that foods that aren´t a good source of calories – but have plenty of micronutrients – have been overlooked. (IRIN and CIFOR, 10/04/2013)


Wild parent spawns super salt-tolerant rice

A cross between two different rice parents – the exotic wild rice species Oryza coarctata and rice variety IR56 of the cultivated rice species O. sativa expels salt into the air through glands on its leaves. IRRI is perfecting the new salt-tolerant rice and will test it widely to ensure it meets all the needs of farmers and consumers. The new variety will be available for farmers to grow within 4–5 years. (IRRI, 15/04/2013)


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