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Homegrown African crops can help fight malnutrition



March 1, 2016

Harvesting Bambara groundnuts Photo KkibumbaHave you heard of Bambara groundnut, pigeon pea or finger millet? All are highly nutritious but neglected African food crops, now being genome sequenced to breed better varieties that can reduce widespread childhood nutrition.

UC Davis and Mars Inc have formed an unlikely pairing in the African Orphan Crop Consortium, with a $40 million budget for investigating 101 African crops. All have the potential to alleviate childhood malnutrition and stunting, which affects a frightening 40% of Africa’s children under 5 years old. Stunting means many of these children will not develop properly physically or mentally, leading to economic hardship – and so the cycle continues.

Pigeon peas, Cajanus cajan. Photo C.L. Ramjohn

Pigeon peas, Cajanus cajan. Photo C.L. Ramjohn

Many home-grown African crops have excellent nutrient levels but they have not been carefully bred and developed because they are not crops that are traded internationally, unlike wheat, rice and corn.

An example is bambara groundnut (Vigna subterranea), a common home-grown legume throughout Zimbabwe with 25% protein, 60% carbohydrate and 6% fat, that needs to be developed for improved disease resistance, drought tolerance and reduced maturation times.

The genome sequencing allows those working in the UC Davis-run Plant Breeding Academy in Nairobi, Kenya, to identify the desirable traits in each crop and use them to select the right seedlings to grow on, greatly reducing the breeding development period.

All genome sequence information will be published free online for anyone to use, on the condition that it cannot be patented.

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