Stories tagged: finger millet

Agroecology in Action: Harnessing the Power of Orphan Crops

Howard-Yana Shapiro, Chief Agricultural Officer of Mars, writes on Farming First about how orphan crops can benefit African farmers and the wider world.

Africa has thus far missed out on having its own ‘green revolution’. One reason for this is that it has no large, homogenous ecosystem, such as India’s Deccan Plateau. Any approach to boost productivity and food security must fit Africa’s myriad, small and distinct ecosystems.

The term agroecology refers to using ecological processes in agriculture, and maintaining balanced and healthy ecosystems. Pursuing an agricultural revolution that makes use of African crops that are already adapted, already grown and eaten by local farmers, would therefore be a good place to start.

At the African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC) our goal is to improve these varieties –  “orphan” in that they have received very little scientific attention – so that they are more nutritious, higher yielding and hardier in the face of weeds, pests and the changing climate that is already altering Africa’s smallholder cropping systems. We do this by working to sequence the genomes of 101 of these important African orphan food crops and making the data publicly available, and training African scientists to make rapid improvements to them, benefitting smallholder farmers and consumers across the continent.

This plan was hatched back in 2011 by myself at Mars, Incorporated, Ibrahim Mayaki at the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, and Tony Simons, Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). It quickly won the backing of the African Heads of State meeting at the African Union Assembly. Today the consortium contains 15 government organisations, scientific and agricultural bodies, universities, companies, regional organisations and NGOs, along with a network of 20 agricultural and horticultural organisations.

The AOCC’s African Plant Breeding Academy (AfPBA), based at ICRAF in Nairobi, will have trained 84 of its target 250 African plant scientists to work on the genome ‘maps’ by the end of 2018.

This approach could benefit the 600 million who constitute Africa’s rural population, most of whom grow much of their own food.

How does this relate to agroecology?

First, more than a quarter of the chosen species are trees, such as the baobab, the leaves of which contain twice as much calcium as spinach, three times the vitamin C of oranges and four times more potassium than a banana. Many of these tree crops are native to their ecosystems and provide other benefits, such as shade, water management and food for wildlife. Our work serves to preserve and improve these species, so they can continue to perform these important natural functions.

Second, many of the crops being sequenced have been in their given regions for a few centuries, are non-invasive and do not harm the local ecosystems. A cornerstone of agroecology is to maintain balance in ecosystems. Protecting and improving native crops will lead to increased diversity on farms, which will contribute to this goal.

Finally, using genetic interventions to make these crops more resilient and adaptable to a changing environment often means farmers need to apply fewer additional inputs to them in order to harvest a bumper crop.

Africa seems unable to get enough of the orphan crops approach. Two members of the 2017 class have started a continuing education program for MS-level scientists in their home country of Ethiopia.  Four graduates from West Africa are collaborating to raise funding for training more than 70 graduate students on breeding of orphan crops. Members of the 2017 class are establishing an African Plant Breeders Association to cover the whole continent.

The benefits of orphan crops

The AfPBA and its lab have some of the best sequencing equipment in the world, certainly the best in Africa. Students – and these students are already among the best plant scientists in their countries – can use the equipment, but graduates also continue to have access to it.

One great benefit of this approach to education is that it is either done locally by AfPBA graduates or in Nairobi. The plant scientists are not taken to Europe or the United States, only to stay and contribute to Africa’s brain drain.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) decided recently to join the consortium. This has led to an ambitious letter of intent between the two organizations. It calls upon the two to work together to assist FAO member countries to develop and implement appropriate policies, regulations and laws that facilitate the genetic improvement of orphan crops; to strengthen institutional and human capacities of FAO member countries activities for research and development, especially in molecular genetics, plant breeding and seed delivery systems, and to advocate for enhanced crop diversification, crop rotations, associations and crop sequencing in a way that orphan crops are integrated and can become part and parcel of sustainable cropping systems.

We believe this could help spread the benefits of orphan crops throughout the planet. Already there has been talk of a Chinese Orphan Crop Consortium and an Indian Orphan Crop Consortium.  

As The Economist’s science editor commented after a visit to our facility last year:

“Bananas, mangoes, pineapples and pawpaws are all tropical fruit that have gone global. If some of Africa’s orphan crops, suitably improved by genetic knowledge, were to follow suit, the benefits to African farmers would be huge.”

This future is within grasp, and can be done by harnessing the power of what nature already has to offer.

 

Sprouting Grains for Stronger Bones: The Power of Finger Millet

In this guest blog post, Jerome Bossuet of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) explains the potential that the calcium-rich cereal finger millet has for combatting calcium deficiency around the world.

Calcium is key for growth and we need plenty of it in our daily food from a very young age. Yet, about half the global population, mostly in Asia and Africa, lack calcium in their diet and are prone to many related ailments ranging from cardiovascular diseases and diabetes to bone loss, which leads to crippling osteoporosis at old age.

Scientists from Aberystwyth University, UK and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) recommend biofortifying finger millet, an already calcium-rich dryland cereal grown in India and Africa, to combat this significant micronutrient deficiency.

One woman out of three and one man out of five will be exposed to bone loss and related fractures during their lives and the societal cost is rising fast, both in developed and developing countries. Think of a bone lifesaving account. Children need to get as much calcium as possible during their childhood to prevent osteoporosis which is very difficult to detect at an early stage. In the US, osteoporosis is costing around US$ 17 billion annually.

Different strategies are in place to prevent calcium deficiency with contrasting results. Food fortification e.g. breakfast cereals or flours, may not reach the most vulnerable, while supplementation tablets have well documented side-effects. Eating calcium rich food, like dairy products, seems to be the most efficient way to combat calcium deficiency. However, many cannot switch to dairy because of lactose intolerance, purchasing power or being vegan. Therefore, selecting (biofortifying) and promoting calcium-rich crops has a great potential to combat calcium deficiency. This is where finger millet stands out.

An Indian farmer’s organization in Kolli hills, in Tamil Nadu has been advocating for finger millet (called ragi in India) for years. They grow and market it, they eat it in various ways and value its resilience and health benefits. Here, children eat sprouted finger millet as part of their midday school meal. The group have been  processing and packaging this super grain for urban markets, with the support of the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), Bioversity International and IFAD.

Photo credit: Alina Paul-Bossuet

Children eating finger millet chappatis at school in India. Photo credit: Alina Paul-Bossuet

This is a survival dryland cereal which can grow with little rain, on poor soils, yet could reach yields of 10 tons per hectare when irrigated. It is the richest source of calcium among cereals, 3 times more than milk and 10 times higher than brown rice or maize. It is traditionally eaten as weaning porridge in some parts of India and Africa.

Under the CGIAR Research Program on Drylands Cereals, a nutrition profiling of hundreds (628) of finger millet varieties in Africa shows great variability in grain quality content. Breeding research has started working on calcium biofortification of finger millet, gaining a better understanding of what environmental factors and genes influence calcium grain richness without impeding its agronomic performance. Finger millet varieties in the pipeline with double the calcium of average varieties (up to 450 mg/100g edible portion) are now being tested by Kenyan and Tanzanian farmers. Dr Ojulong, ICRISAT research scientist working on finger millet highlights the vast potential of this work. “With the development of this biofortified finger millet that still performs well in the field, you need to eat a third less finger millet to meet your daily calcium requirements. Some Kenyan food processors are very keen on using it for the growing baby food market.”

Rural Kenyan women learn a new way to cook finger millet porridge for better nutrition. Photo credit: Alina Paul-Bossuet

Rural Kenyan women learn a new way to cook finger millet porridge for better nutrition. Photo credit: Alina Paul-Bossuet

However, eating finger millet is not enough to get its nutritional benefits, our body has to absorb it. This is what a nutritionist calls bioavailability, which is usually quite poor for grains, as it also contains compounds like phytates and tannins that prevent calcium absorption. However, such anti-nutrient compounds are important in plant growth and grain preservation. Tannins for instance prevent mould or insect damage. The way grain is processed and eaten highly influences calcium absorption. A nutrition study assessing women self-help group diets in rural Karnataka State, India showed that a portion of finger millet consumed two times a day together with one portion of pulses and vegetables, met the recommended calcium daily requirements.

The most nutritionally sound way to prepare finger millet is grain decortication followed by malting (germination and heat treatment).  But processed grains have a limited shelf life compared to decorticated grains. In Kolli hills, it works well because people have easy access to small village mills and can prepare small quantities depending on their immediate needs. The rest of the harvest can be safely stored for months.

Integrating the Kolli hills nutrition improvement practices could ensure calcium biofortified finger millet delivers its promises. Calcium deficient households could learn the best ways to cook finger millet to minimize the nutrient loss and recipes should suit their palate and preferences.

Increasing the market demand for this grain as a Smart Food would also incite farmers to grow it and local food processors would develop a range of value-added products reaching new consumers. MSSRF has been supporting farmer groups to raise the profile of this ‘climate-smart nutri-cereal‘, which they say can help in the fight against hidden hunger. India has already incorporated millets in the Public Distribution System food basket, and it would make sense for African countries to add finger millet in the food aid basket too. Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania have promoted finger millet to a high value crop because of high potential in malnutrition alleviation and also as a high value cash earner

To have a proof of concept for food security decision-makers, Dr Ojulong and his colleagues recommend support in scaling up the initial success of biofortified finger millet in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as implementing pilot nutrition studies for vulnerable groups (like children, nursing or post-menopausal women) in finger millet-eating communities to confirm the extent of finger millet calcium absorption and benefits.

Through this approach, which incorporates agriculture, nutrition and health, along with policy and market research, finger millet could combat calcium deficiency in coming years.