UC Davis celebrates African Plant Breeding Academy

Adding to major crops like tea, being picked here, the African Plant Breeding Academy will focus on 100 traditional crops that have been neglected for having lower economic priority. (Mars Inc./courtesy photo)
Adding to major crops like tea, being picked here, the African Plant Breeding Academy will focus on 100 traditional crops that have been neglected for having lower economic priority. (Mars Inc./courtesy photo)

Program in Kenya will support 600 million smallholder farmers and their families.

UC Davis celebrates opening of African Plant Breeding Academy

The opening of the new African Plant Breeding Academy, designed to improve the livelihood and health of Africa’s 600 million smallholder farmers and their families, was celebrated Monday in Nairobi, Kenya, by researchers from the University of California, Davis, and their global partners from the African Orphan Crops Consortium.

The academy plans to sequence, assemble and annotate the genomes of 100 traditional African food crops to guide development of vegetables, fruits and other agricultural products that are more robust and nutritious. This work is intended to help eliminate hunger and malnutrition, which frequently causes physical stunting and incomplete neurological development among children in rural Africa.

“The African Orphan Crops Consortium and the new African Plant Breeding Academy represent an unprecedented opportunity to leverage the training programs we have developed for plant breeders in Africa,” said Allen Van Deynze, director of research at UC Davis’ Seed Biotechnology Center. “The partnerships allow African breeders to take advantage of the latest technologies to rapidly advance development of crops that are important to African diets and health.”

Located at the World Agroforestry Center in Nairobi, the academy, over five years, will train 250 plant breeders and technicians in genomics and market-assisted selection. The work will drive production of improved crops, which will then be shared with smallholder farmers throughout Africa. 

The academy also will provide scientists and technicians with a dedicated place to apply genomic tools to facilitate development of food crops that have higher nutritional value and can better withstand climate changes, pests and disease.

Howard-Yana Shapiro, chief agricultural officer for Mars Incorporated and a senior fellow in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences, gave the opening address at the African Plant Breeding Academy event.

“In 2010, I learned for the first time that malnutrition and chronic hunger cause a devastating condition called stunting in children,” said Shapiro. “It was shocking to try and grasp the scale of this tragedy, with more than 30 percent of the children in Africa affected.

“Today, we are opening an academy that will place fundamental science that can help in fighting chronic hunger and malnutrition in the hands of many more. This is a huge leap forward for the African Orphan Crops Consortium and the start of a very different future for Africa’s orphan crops,” he said.

The term “orphan crops” refers to African food crops and tree species that have been neglected by researchers because they are not seen as an economic priority on the global market. The first orphan crop to be sequenced, assembled and annotated at the academy will be the baobab tree, which can be used to make a dried fruit powder for consumer products. The baobab fruit also has 10 times the antioxidant level of oranges and four times more potassium than a banana. It also has antiviral properties and is gluten free.

By sharing knowledge of the genome sequences of baobab and other African crops, scientists and technicians working at the academy will inform plant breeders and farmers of species varieties that are more nutritious, hardier and more productive.

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 African Orphan Crops Consortium is a unique partnership that leverages expertise of the University of California, Davis; Mars Incorporated; the African Union; the World Agroforestry Centre; BGI; Life Technologies Corporation; the World Wildlife Fund; iPlant Collaborative; and BECA-ILRI.

The consortium was officially launched in 2011 during the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting, in an effort to improve the nutrition, productivity and climatic adaptability of some of Africa’s most important food crops. During the G8 International Conference on Open Data for Agricultureheld in partnership with the World Bank Group in Washington, D.C., consortium leaders announced that they would be making data publicly available to scientists, plant breeders and farmers.

During the 2013 Clinton Global Initiative meeting, Shapiro confirmed in an opening speech that the consortium had raised approximately $40 million in in-kind donations to support the work.

Plant breeding training at UC Davis

The African Plant Breeding Academy is the latest offering of the UC Davis Plant Breeding Academy, a premium professional certificate program, available since 2006 in the United States, Europe and Asia. For more information on the African Plant Breeding Academy’s course curriculum, dates, application process and scholarships, please visit the PBA in Africa — Plant Breeding Academy website at: http://pba.ucdavis.edu/PBA_in_Africa/.

About UC Davis

For more than 100 years, UC Davis has been one place where people are bettering humanity and our natural world while seeking solutions to some of our most pressing challenges. Located near the state capital, UC Davis has more than 33,000 students, over 2,500 faculty and more than 21,000 staff, an annual research budget of nearly $750 million, a comprehensive health system and 13 specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and more than 100 undergraduate majors in four colleges — Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Biological Sciences, Engineering, and Letters and Science. It also houses six professional schools — Education, Law, Management, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine and the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing.

(This article was written by Pat Bailey, UC Davis News Service, December 3, 2013.)

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