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AgriEducate Instagram Competition. Enter Now!

As they say, a picture paints a thousand words and can give so much life to the story of agriculture! That’s why we want YOU to tell the story of farming and Australian agriculture through submissions to your instagram page. Plus you can win some awesome prizes for your hard work.

Just follow the steps below and we’ll draw the winner on the Australian Agriculture Day – November 21!

It’s Stock & Land month!

Want to win a 3 month digital subscription to Stock & Land? AgriEducate have teamed up with the amazing team at S&L to give away three 3 months digital subscription packages that are valued at $26 inc. GST each.

To enter:

1.  Follow @agrieducate and @stockandland on Insta

2.  Post your best ag photo to your own Insta account and tell us in a 25 words or less how your photo best tells the story of agriculture

3.  Tag 3 of your mates in the photo

4.  Hashtag #AgriEducator and tag @agrieducate in the photo to make sure we don’t miss it!

You’re all done! Wait for our winner announcement on AgriEducate’s insta page on National Agriculture Day, Nov 21, 2017 at 9am AEST. The top 3 photos with the most likes will be contacted by a member of our team via Insta message to activate their Stock & Land digital subscription! Rally up your friends and family, and let’s share what agriculture is all about!

World Food Day: Migration, Agriculture and Youth

With the celebrations for World Food Day on Monday, we thought we’d take a close look at this year’s theme!

World Food Day is celebrated on the 16th of October each year – the birthday of the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (UNFAO). This year, the UNFAO turns 72!

The theme for 2017 is “Change the future of migration. Invest in food security and rural development”.

Whilst there are many incredible and impactful ways to invest in food security and rural development, one important investment that cannot be overlooked, is the investment in shaping the agricultural sector as an attractive, highly valued and professional sector for young people.

But before we delve into that – what does migration have to do with Development Agriculture?

Well, migration is both a cause and consequence of agricultural development.

Migration has both challenges and opportunities for countries of origin, transit countries and destination countries. In fact, migrants can be agents of development and are a vital part of the development process.  But migration is also a symbol of underdevelopment and a result of undesirable conditions.

Agricultural development can improve rural underdevelopment – one of the prime causes of migration – by enhancing food security, providing employment and incomes, supporting economic growth, managing natural resources and addressing inequalities.

Simply, agricultural underdevelopment can be a push factor for migration – driving people away from rural areas due to food insecurity, low-incomes and poor livelihoods. Luckily, agricultural development can be a pull factor – driving people towards opportunities in agricultural related employment, improved food accessibility and improved livelihoods.

Development agriculture and migration are thus clearly linked. Here are some facts which may surprise you:

  • More than 75% of the world’s poor and food insecure live in rural areas, mostly depending on subsistence agricultural production.
  • It is estimated by the UNFAO that by 2050, over half the population in the least developed countries will still live in rural areas.
  • Three-quarters of the extreme poor base their livelihoods on agriculture or other rural activities.
  • There was a 40% increase in international migrants between 2000 and 2015, with the total number being approximately 244 million in 2015.
  • According to 2013 estimates, there were 763 million internal migrants.
  • The UNFAO reports that in many African countries, more than 50% of rural households report having at least one internal migrant.

So with a clear link between development agriculture and migration, what can be done?

Efforts geared towards a more productive agricultural sector and improved food systems in general, would promote rural development, enable diversification into manufacturing and services, and promote greater employment opportunities particularly in agribusiness. These efforts include:

  • Promoting the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices
  • Public policies targeting smallholder family farms
  • Diversification to off-farm agricultural employment, including investment along the supply chain, and promotion of value-added goods.
  • Improved rural education and vocational training for the agricultural workforce in developing regions
  • Strategies to make a career in agriculture attractive for the youth of developing regions, and to change perceptions of agriculture work to highly skilled and professional employment.

One large challenge of migration is the ‘brain drain’ from rural areas – particularly of young skilled workers. With perceptions of working in agriculture as being poorly paid and poorly skilled, many highly talented young people are driven from rural areas in search of more prestigious and seemingly well paid careers. This only perpetuates a cycle of rural underdevelopment and food insecurity. Instead, if young people saw careers in agriculture (right along the supply chain) as being highly skilled, highly valued, well-paid and well perceived, then cycles of food insecurity and rural underdevelopment caused by migration may also be broken for the better.

In the spirit of this year’s World Food Prize recipient, Akinwumi Adesina, we must make Agriculture cool again. This means investing in promoting agriculture as a good choice for young people.

According to Adesina , “this requires new agricultural innovations and transforming agriculture into a sector for creating wealth. We must make agriculture a really cool choice for young people. The future millionaires and billionaires of Africa will come initially from agriculture”.

“The key is to make agriculture a business. Agriculture is not a way of life, is not a development activity, it’s a business.”

“The future of African young people lies in a more prosperous and inclusive Africa, and there is no other sector that has greater power to create growth than the agricultural sector.”

Need some inspiration? Take a read of our earlier post to hear Lindiwe Sibanda tell her story of choosing a career in agriculture over dentistry, and the amazing achievements she has had personally, and the incredible impacts she has had for food security and rural development globally.

So this World Food Day, as we focus in on agricultural development and migration, let’s get down to one of the root causes and key opportunities: investing in improving the perceptions of agriculture!

Pest and disease management for food security – there’s an app for that! (and it uses AI)

Pest and disease management for food security – there’s an app for that! (and it uses artificial intelligence)

It’s fair to say that pest management has come a long way since the days of scarecrows! 

The most recent green revolution wave focuses on how artificial intelligence can be used to boost food security, particularly through pest and weed management. The latest technologies use ‘deep learning’ – a process part of the broader terminology of machine learning whereby programmers go beyond just telling the computer what to do with task-specific algorithms and code, but instead develop multi-level, non-linear processing units that recognise patterns in large sets of data. The learning can be supervised (a programmer trains the computer), partially supervised or unsupervised (learns independently). Deep learning processes are already in use in many industries around the world, including agriculture. Application of AI to the agricultural sector can have enormous benefits for farmers and food production globally, in both developed and developing countries.

A key challenge to farmers in many developing regions of the world is accurately identify crop diseases, and a key challenge for researchers and extension agents is having the tools to assist. Diseases such as the cassava brown streak disease and cassava mosaic disease, could impact over 30 million farmers in East and Central Africa, impacting both security of income, food and nutrition. Other common diseases in this region include fungal diseases in banana crops such as Banana bunchy top virus, and late blight devastates potato farmers. New technologies using AI, big-data and mobile phones can take on the role of an extension worker in regions where it may not otherwise be possible for advanced scientific knowledge to reach the ground.

This week, we’ll take a look at 3 apps which are leading the way in using artificial intelligence to improve food systems and food security globally.

CROPTIX

A research team from the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) has developed a mobile phone app to enable cassava farmers to instantly diagnose crop diseases by taking a photo. The app will allow plant diseases to be diagnosed, alerts to be sent to surrounding farmers, and will connect farmers to a network of extension officers. Through the app, farmers can take a photo of a diseased plant and be given an instant diagnosis.

James Legg from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), has said “Smallholders or extension officers with a basic smartphone with a camera will be able to download the app for free, fire it up, point it at a leaf with disease symptoms and get an instant diagnosis. That is truly revolutionary!”

To develop the app, the research team generated over 200,000 images of diseased crops in coastal Tanzania and Western Kenya, using cameras, spectrophotometers and drones. The images are used to develop AI algorithms which enable the diseases to be automatically recognised by the app.

David Hughes, associate professor of entomology and biology at Penn State University has said “The app employs AI in real time so the farmer can be an active participant in disease diagnosis and crop health management, leading to more yields for smallholder farmers”.

At the moment, the app is only programmed for cassava, but the team are now looking at expanding to other root, tuber and banana crops. The app aims to reach 35,000 farmers by July 2018.

PLANTIX

Plantix is a similar app for automated disease diagnosis, developed in India by the Progressive Environmental & Agricultural Technologies (PEAT) in collaboration with the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and the Acharya N G Ranga Agricultural University. The app enables farmers to take photos of their crops to receive critical information on symptoms, triggers, chemicals as well as treatments, through artificial intelligence algorithms and image recognition technology. The images are geo-tagged to enable real-time monitoring, inclusion of weather information, and to develop a meta-data base on the spatial distribution of crops and pests in the form of high resolution maps.

The Plantix database currently has over half a million images! This includes over 30 crops, and 120 crop diseases. This includes Fusarium wilt, Sterility mosaic disease and Phytophthora blight.

Dr David Bergvinson (Director General, ICRISAT), has said “The app could prove to be a game changer in the field, providing farmers free, reliable and quick diagnosis of crop damage. The simplified dashboard with easy-to-use features helps the app take on the role of an extension worker as well. The app is a novel experiment in using digital technologies for agriculture”.

The program has been tested in the Krishna district in Andhra Pradesh, and uses Indian regional languages of Telugu and Hindi, and will soon be extended to include other regional languages.

WeedID

WeedID is a new app, developed by Masters student Yehezkiel Henson and a team of researchers at the University of Sydney, to assist in identifying weeds in rice fields in Cambodia. The app contains a photo dictionary, so when farmers observe a weed they can identify both the weed and the most appropriate method to manage it. The app aims to prevent the spread of weeds, and improve yields, incomes and knowledge in the region.  

The developer, Yehezkiel Henson , has said: “WeedID contains a photo dictionary of the most common weeds in northwest Cambodian rice fields at different stages of growth. The app has images of seeds, seedlings, mature plants and flowers that will all help to identify the weeds which are devastating Cambodian farmers’ rice crops”.

The apps database now covers 45 weeds  – which is 95% of the most frequent weeds identified in Cambodian rice fields. Weeds are a problem for rice production at various stages of the production process: weeds during cultivation significantly impact on yields (more than 50%), whilst contamination at harvest reduces the quality and consequently the price the rice can be sold for.

The WeedID app contains links to specific management information and details the most appropriate way to manage the weed”, said Yehezkiel Henson. “Different weeds require different management techniques. Depending on the life cycle, nutrient requirements or mode of reproduction, we will employ a different method of management… Some weeds, such as awnless barnyard grass (Echinochloa colona) can be managed simply by flooding the fields to drown them. Sometimes we may need to apply specific selective herbicides to manage them, as in the case of the smallflower umbrella plant (Cyperus difformis), also known as ‘dirty Dora’ in Australia” said Yehezkiel.

The app has been commissioned as part of an ACIAR project examining sustainable intensification and diversification in the lowland rice system in northwest Cambodia, and developed from funding from International Environmental Weeds Foundation (IEWF) and the Crawford Fund.

Daniel Tan, from the University of Sydney, has said: “The Cambodian smallholder farmers we work with are also hungry for information and use the technology available to solve problems. Farmers have shown us photos of pest animals, weeds and diseased plants taken on their phones, which our team have been able to identify. This prompted the idea to develop a free, user-friendly mobile tool to identify weeds in rice paddies so farmers can manage the problem and improve the crops that support their families”.

Seems like a very apt solution!

We have already seen the huge success stories coming from using mobile phones to assist farmers in developing countries to access big data. The use of artificial intelligence in these apps and technologies is the next step to overcoming the challenges faced by farmers in developing regions to access knowledge and information. The impacts of using AI in agriculture span both developed and developing regions of the world, and have huge potential for improving food security, farmers incomes and their livelihoods globally.

In the wave of technological revolutions coming into the agricultural sector, we now have machines which target and spray weeds using near-infrared imagery, drones to gather huge volumes of data, satellites to predict drought patterns, and now AI mobile apps to diagnose crop diseases. Mobile phones are not just a communication tool, but a key agricultural tool of the future. Coupled with AI, this new technology can take on the role of an extension worker in regions where it may not otherwise be possible for advanced scientific knowledge and big-data to be just heard on the grapevine.

Sources:

http://www.rtb.cgiar.org/blog/2017/09/28/new-app-diagnoses-crop-diseases-field-alerts-rural-farmers/

http://www.icrisat.org/mobile-app-to-help-farmers-overcome-crop-damage-launched-in-india/

http://sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2017/07/18/what_s-that-weed-in-my-rice-field-.html

The World’s top food secure nations. How does Australia sit?

Can you guess the world’s top food secure nations? Number 14 may surprise you!

Global trends in food security aren’t all that favourable at the moment. Global food security has now declined for the first time in four years. Some recent estimates by the UN say that this increase has been by about 38 million people in 2016.  Recent weather disasters, increasing numbers of refugees, greater household expenditure on food, and declining political stability around the globe are said to be the cause.  

But there is still some good news to go around!

With much focus on food security at the lower ends of the spectrum, it’s important to cast some light on food security trends in all countries across the globe.  On Tuesday, the Economist Intelligence Unit released the sixth annual Global Food Security Index, with some interesting results!

Ireland is now the world’s most food-secure nation. Ireland came in at first place, with an overall food security score of 85.6.  In the 1840s, the Irish famine caused the migration of half a million people to the United States, but it looks the times have changed.

The top 15 scoring nations were: 

  1. Ireland (79.9)
  2. Austria (77.6)
  3. France (77.5)
  4. United States (77.4)
  5. Germany (77.3)
  6. Switzerland (77.3)
  7. United Kingdom (77.3)
  8. Canada (76.9)
  9. Denmark (76.7)
  10. Sweden (76.6)
  11. Netherlands (76.3)
  12. New Zealand (75.4)
  13. Finland (75.2)
  14. Australia (75.0)
  15. Norway (74.6)

At the other end, the poorest scoring nations were the Democratic Republic of the Congo (22.1), Burundi (25.1), Madagascar (27.2), Yemen (28.8) and Chad (28.3).

So how can we explain these results? 

First,  let’s take a look at how food security is measured. The Global Food Security Index is comprised of five categories: Affordability, availability, quality and safety, as well as the new category to be added this year of natural resources and resilience.

The index places a high value on public investment in agricultural research, as this is a large determining factor on the availability and expense of food. Globally, there are decreases in the amount of investment in agricultural research and development. In Ireland, however, investment in agriculture is a government priority. In the past 5 years, Ireland has spent more than the US on public research in agricultural development, and the agricultural sector has grown significantly in proportion to the national economy.  

Climatic conditions are also incredibly important to the index. Austria – a country with a relatively stable climate and low soil erosion – performed strongly in the newly added fourth component of Natural Resources and Resilience. Singapore, on the other hand, performed far less favourably – with concerns about rising sea levels, vulnerability to extreme weather, and small land size creating a reliance on imports for food. As a result, Singapore fell the most in the rankings compared to previous years (by 15 positions), due to the addition of this new category. The US also fell in the rankings – despite a highly productive food system, there are concerns that water inefficiency and risk of drought threaten previous estimates of food security. Australia fell by nine places, owing to high sensitivity to freshwater shocks and soil erosion. 

Water security is also incredibly important in these figures. Given agriculture accounts for 70% of water withdrawals worldwide, the ability for nations to meet food requirements in an efficient and sustainable way is vital for food security. Sub-Saharan Africa performed the best in this category. Uganda, with 84% of people relying on subsistence farming, topped the ladder for water efficient production. This outcome is partly due to poorer investments and utilisation of technologies (including irrigation) to intensify production. Denmark came in at second place in the water category. Smart technologies and strict regulations have resulted in only 7.8% of water being lost before it reaches the consumer, compared to average figures of 30-60%.  At the other end, North America performed poorly. In Canada, 80% of water withdrawals are for agriculture. Predictions show that climate change is likely to shift crop production northerly, and increase reliance on irrigation, pesticides and herbicides. Further, the world’s two largest food producing countries (China and India) ranked 99th and 108th (out of 113 countries) respectively for water related risks.

Another interesting finding from the report was that Brexit will pose an extreme risk to the United Kingdom’s food security progress. About one quarter of food in the UK is imported from the European Union. Further, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy also accounted for over half of British farmers incomes in 2015. These subsidies will no longer exist following Brexit.

When we think of food security, it’s easy to quickly think of poor developing regions around the world. But, in a highly integrated global economy, it is important that food security is thought of as a global issue which affects both developed and developing nations. Investments in research and development in agriculture, improved technologies to foster more efficient resource use, adaptive strategies to mitigate risks to climate change, and smart policy development are vital for food security progress in countries all across the world.  

For more information, read the full report here: http://foodsecurityindex.eiu.com/

Sources:

http://foodsecurityindex.eiu.com/

https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2017-food-security/?cmpId=flipboard

Agricultural Professional Accreditation: A Youth Perspective

Professional standards and accreditation exist in many forms in industries in Australia and around the world. In accounting the two competing courses, Chartered Accountant (CA) and Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA) are well known and undoubtedly necessary for accounting graduates if they are to find employment as a recognised accountant. Doctors and dentists require a form of strict accreditation and must attend a certain number of academic conferences each year as one part of maintaining contact with the most recent research and best practice guidelines. Engineers must complete accredited university courses and go through industry accreditation to work in the industry, although differences exist between the engineering disciplines. Whilst lawyers must be admitted and complete the graduate diploma of legal practice (GDLP) before they are classified as a legal practitioner. However, in the Australian agricultural industry, there is no accreditation for agricultural science courses, nor is there accreditation for agricultural professionals, drawing the concern of many in the industry.

The ‘studying to be a farmer’ phrase is often used when discussing ongoing low enrolment in agriculture-focused tertiary education. In my own experience, and in the experience of many other agvocates, it seems that the above mentality around studying agriculture drives students into working in other fields. Akinwumi Adesina, the World Food Prize laureate for 2017, noted in his address that agriculture needed to be made cool again in Africa in order to attract more youth into the industry. Part of this ‘coolness’ is dispelling the ‘studying to be a farmer myth’ in both illustrating the wide ranging possibilities of agriculture and also that farming is actually a pretty cool occupation, where no one is ‘just’ a farmer.

So what is it about just studying to be a famer perception that is influencing career choices of young people around the world? Well firstly, studying farming is thought of as unglamourous, not very career diverse, typically remotely located and lacking the prestige of other professions such as law, medicine and engineering. The issues associated with the above misguided view of either studying agriculture or becoming involved in the agricultural industry appear in the low (albeit improving) tertiary education enrolment rates and the poor awareness of career opportunities within the industry.

There are many not-for-profit organisations targeting the misrepresentation of agriculture as unglamourous, lacking prestige and not very career diverse through insights into the various roles within the industry. However, I feel that the industry could do well in the accreditation sense in actively improving both the perception and tangible standardisation of agricultural professionals at either the tertiary level through accredited courses or the postgraduate level in a similar vein to CA and CPA. Experience at a number of universities suggests that courses vary significantly in content and length, resulting in differences in agricultural knowledge. Moreover, the lack of accreditation means that in drawing funding, curriculum changes and being taken seriously at universities is overshadowed by accredited courses such as nursing, engineering and medicine.

There are equivalents in the US and Canada where agronomists (known as agrologists in Canada) in certain states must be accredited in order to perform advisory services and charge consultation fees.

There are arguments out there that accreditation serves as but an additional cost for graduates and that consultants self-regulate in that market forces will drive excellence. Many larger consultant groups already provide year-long graduate programs for agricultural science graduates, yet these programs are not standardised or regulated in the content provided and methods taught. With sales and consultant fees driving service numbers and returns programs can often focus heavily on sales components over purely quality agronomical advice.

Thus there exists a dire need for a standardised and widely adopted agricultural industry professional accreditation program delivering:

  1. The accreditation and professional standards desired by graduates in developing well regarded courses and professionals.
  2. Appropriate competency levels for professionals with ongoing requirements for learning experiences throughout their consultancy career.
  3. A level of certainty for clients that consultants will be of a standardised agronomy competency.

An accreditation program will go a long way in meeting requirements of a rapidly growing internationally recognised industry, while providing critical evidence of the importance of professional standards and quality within Australian agriculture, to pull in more students and graduates.

Guy Coleman is the Founder of AgriEducate and a Director on the Board of the Ag Institute Australia (AIA). The AIA are in the process of developing a Chartered Agricultural Professional (CAP) accreditation program. Find out more here.

Crawford Fund Conference Scholars: Next Generation of Changemakers

In August the AgriEducate team had the privilege of attending the annual Crawford Fund Conference and meeting the inspiring next generation of development agriculture researchers, policy experts and change makers. Known as the Crawford Fund Scholars, these young people had a full three days of learning from leaders in the agricultural development space including Dr Lindiwe Sibanda, Dr Andrew Campbell and John Anderson AO.

We were fortunate enough to speak with many of the Scholars informally throughout the day and did interviews with Sam and Fynn. See their responses below and how they see the future of international development agriculture and what they will change in the world. See some of their reflections on the event here (cover photo source):

Sam

  • Tell us a little about your background in agriculture?

Dad runs Angus cattle in the NSW Central Tablelands and Mum is the proud manager of a veggie patch in our suburban backyard. I have willingly (and sometimes unwillingly) provided free labour to both of these enterprises. However, I never really got into agriculture until I started my agricultural science degree at the University of Sydney. During my time at uni, I have worked on a salmon farm in Tasmania, researched soil microbiology in Canberra, interned at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines and studied for a semester at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka.

  • In what ways can you apply that background to the agricultural sector, and development agriculture globally?

My ultimate goal is to support smallholder farmers in developing countries. I believe I can do this through the private sector or scientific research. However, I recognise that I have lifetime of work to do to make a genuine contribution.

  • What makes you interested in agriculture/agricultural development? Would you consider this as a career?

Like you, I believe in food security, poverty alleviation and environmental conservation. Agricultural development excites me because it is a vehicle to contribute to all of those things.

  • If during your career, you could change one thing in the world what would it be?

I would destroy the three widespread myths about careers in agriculture:

  • Myth 1: you must be farmer to work in agriculture.
  • Myth 2: you must live in rural area to work in agriculture.
  • Myth 3: you must have a background in agriculture to work in agriculture.

These misconceptions are as far-reaching as they are untrue. We must debunk them because they are deterring talented young people from agriculture-related careers and degrees. Careers in agriculture are soaked with opportunity, variety and meaning. Enabling talented young people to realise this will in turn enable us to sustainably nourish 9 billion people in 2050.

  • From your experiences, what is either your ‘best story’ or ‘favourite fact’ about agricultural development and global food security?

Dr TJ Higgins is an absolute hero. More than 200 million people in Africa (and millions of others in Asia) rely on the crop cowpea for their staple food. Devastatingly, a hungry type of moth (the cowpea pod-borer) commonly ravages cowpea crops. Smallholder farmers in developing countries can rarely afford the insecticides required to protect their crops. For this reason, Dr Higgins played a leading role in the development of Bt-Cowpea – a type of cowpea genetically modified to have inbuilt insect resistance. Dr Higgins invested more than 10 years of his life helping develop the technology and navigate the regulatory processes required to safely get it the farmers that desperately need it. Excitingly, Bt-cowpea is now on the verge of release in Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Malawi. Dr Higgins inspires me because he found a way to support the poorest of the poor using agricultural science. Find out more here.

 

Fynn

  •  In what ways can you apply that background to the agricultural sector, and development agriculture globally

I want to be able to ideally increase food security in developing nations and help figure out how to feed everyone sustainably. But I feel that’s not something I can graduate from and do, it’s a long process and I need to keep learning. I’m in a position, where not many people study agriculture and international relations, so hopefully I’m in a position to give an international perspective.

  • What makes you interested in agricultural development? Would you consider this as a career?

Absolutely, yeah, that is the career I want to have. It’s such an amazing sector of the world, it is an area where you can study, and apply it to make a difference and help people in a lot of ways. It’s not an area where you study agricultural science and do one job, there’s so many ways you can apply it, the industry is always changing, it’s an opportunity for a unique and varied career.

  • If during your career, you could change one thing in the world what would it be?

Increase the efficiency of food systems – its not just about increasing production, it’s about making the entire system more efficient. It’s crazy how many different issues there are, they’re all convoluted, you can’t just go in and fix one issue, it’s all dynamic.

  • From your experiences, what is either your ‘best story’ or ‘favourite fact’ about agricultural development and global food security?

Story – Vanuatu – I went to lots of villages in Santo and interviewed farmers and in government – head of dept of livestock, and people in livestock projects. It was amazing to hear the different perspectives coming from various entities of the system, and the different opinions on how to approach different problems in the country and this highlighted how it is so hard to improve the systems and how all the different entities have to work together, and how they do.

Orphan Crops: Looking to Biodiversity for Food Security

This week we look at the importance of biodiversity in nutrition and crop choice. In previous posts for the Crawford Fund Conference, we addressed the importance of food quality and nutrition, rather than just quantity.

There are around 30,000 edible plant species existing in the world.
Take a guess at how many we consume: 30,000? 3000? 300 perhaps?

Well the answer is closer to 30!

Scientists and policymakers are now turning attention to ‘orphan crops’ as the keys for improved food security. Orphan crops are crops that have been forgotten in agricultural production and trade over the past century, but are now being rediscovered for their nutritional, economic and social value. Examples of orphan crops include the African Yam Bean, the Desert Date and Ber.

 
Madagascar. A group of people heading towards Mangoky River at sunset in a landscape with Baobab trees. Baobab leaves and fruits are sources of food for people and fodder for animals (source)

With 95% of global food being sourced from maize, rice and wheat – there is great opportunity for orphan crops to have an increasing role in diets globally.

The great part about orphan crops is that they are uniquely suited to their local environments, meaning they are resistant to certain climatic variations and tolerant to local pests. They can provide dietary/nutritional diversity for communities, an option for crop rotation for farmers, create niche markets in local economies, and harness and protect local knowledge.

Ren Wang, the FAO Assistant Director-General, has stated that:

“by expanding the portfolio of crops available to farmers, we can help build more diverse and resilient cropping systems”.

The growth of orphan crops provides further opportunities for farmers in crop rotation systems. Enhancing agro-biodiversity at the field level not only promotes nutritional diversity, but disrupts pest and disease cycles.

Harnessing local knowledge and traditional crop species has enormous potential for improving food security in many regions of the world. Many researchers now believe that if perceptions for orphan crops was improved in Africa, food security could also be improved. A vast majority of traditional dishes in African nations are made from indigenous crops such as yams, finger millet, favabean and Bambara groundnut. There are now calls for research to focus on these crops, rather than on major crops such as rice [source].

According to Kenya’s Agriculture Secretary Felix Koskei:

“Indigenous crop research has lagged behind in Africa with both international and local institutions phasing in maize, wheat, and a small range of pulses. Seed companies have also concentrated on the same crops, which have high turnover both in volume and sales. This has resulted in improved indigenous crops not being available to farming communities”.

Fortunately, there are now various projects promoting research and development into orphan crops.

Take for example the ACIAR-funded project in Kenya which is working to promote underutilised crops in Busia Country. Many crops that were used extensively as traditional medicine in Kenya are now regarded as old-fashion. This includes Ethiopian kale, jute mallow, moringa, cowpea leaves and amaranth. The project aims to raise the profile of African leafy vegetables by establishing reliable government procurement contracts to source food to school feeding programs.

One smallholder farmer in Busia reported that where she previously waited for periods of three to four months to harvest maize, she could now harvest and sell African leafy vegetables on a weekly basis. These crops are also reportedly returning higher prices at local markets than traditional staple crops.

Annie (ACIAR) has said that:

“these kinds of crops can modernize agriculture, both technologically and commercially, for young people”.

The African Orphan Crop Consortium is currently conducting projects to sequence the genomes of 101 underutilised African crops, to improve the nutritional qualities and yields of crop varieties, and increase resilience to climate change.

The Consortium focuses on developing genomics resources for economically important but also socio-culturally relevant crop and tree species grown in Africa. The 101 crops identified as orphan or neglected crops were identified based on a survey of African plant breeders, policy makers, farmers, universities, sociologists and other stakeholders. This includes the African plum, taro, baobab, wild custard apple, chocolate berries, shea butter and favabean. Check out the full list here.

The first plant to be genetically mapped was the Baobab – an iconic tree of Africa. The plant is high in vitamin C, and found across sub-Saharan Africa. The plant has many uses across the continent. The leaves are eaten as vegetables in West Africa, and the pulp is made into porridge, juices, cooking oil, ice cream, energy bars, soda, jams, cookies and even cosmetics across the continent.

The baobab is well regarded for its’ ability to be produced during drought, and for the high nutritional content. However, it’s slow growth is a challenge which scientists are now seeking to tackle through genetic mapping and improvement.

Tony Simons, the ICRAF Director General, has stated:

“this information will allow breeders to use the same strategies and technologies as those for Western crops, such as maize, to make rapid improvements in African crops”.

The program is also training African plant breeders in genomics and crop improvement.

Further, the project led by Howard-Yana Shapiro (the agricultural director of the Mars Corporation) which initially looked at cacoa trees, makes the information publically available. Access to genetic data has enormous potential for crop improvements.

“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.”

Thinking outside the box of traditional crops, and looking into orphan crops, clearly has enormous potential for improving food and nutrition security globally.

 

Find out more information here:

http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/1032516/icode/

A Bunch of Big Names are Trying to Save Africa’s Orphan Crops—Here’s Why That Matters

Mapping the Genomes of Africa’s ‘Orphan’ Crops

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/jun/02/genetic-mapping-plan-to-boost-africa-crops

http://www.merid.org/en/Content/News_Services/Food_Security_and_AgBiotech_News/Articles/2017/May/31/orphan_crops.aspx

Meet the crops

https://theconversation.com/africa-must-re-adopt-its-orphan-crops-in-the-face-of-a-changing-environment-78197