As global temperatures continue to soar unusually for the season, this has added pressure to the many factors weighing on Africa’s food systems. Other factors include three consecutive years of poor rainfall in East Africa, the economic effects of COVID-19 and the current European geopolitical instability.
What are international scientists doing to improve food security and nutrition in the face of rising global temperatures? On the occasion of the International Day of Friendship, Dr Sunil Kumar Sahua research scientist based in Shenzhen at BGI-Research and the internal project manager of the African Orphan Cultures Consortium (AOCC) Project shares its work perspectives with a global network of scientists.
What is the mission of the AOCC?
The AOCC aims to open up the genomic data of some of Africa’s most important food crops to improve their nutrition, productivity and climate adaptability. These crops are often overlooked and less understood, but can potentially play an important role in increasing the incomes of African farmers while fighting malnutrition. Dr. Sunil makes three key points:
- Africa is expected to represent 25% of the world’s population in 2050
- Two-thirds of the world’s calories come from just five cultures
- Most of Africa’s orphan crops are not being utilized to their hunger-fighting potential
Dr Sunil pointed out that Africa has an arid environment, so major crops, such as rice and maize, cannot be grown across the entire continent. However, orphan crops have a special adaptability to grow in these particularly harsh environments. The robustness of orphan crops is vital for farmers to increase yields and incomes as global temperatures rise.
He said, “The AOCC plans to sequence 101 species of orphan crops that are often overlooked and not utilized based on their hunger-fighting potential. We select these crops based on their nutritional value, productivity and adaptive characteristics. So far, we have sequenced more than ten orphan crops, such as eggplant, breadfruit, jackfruit, and moringa.
AOCC has identified genes that are highly tolerant of high temperatures, low water availability and high salinity while providing excellent nutrition. For example, jackfruit has a high starch content. AOCCs jackfruit sequencing results identified a massive expansion of genes related to starch and sugar metabolism, which explains why these fruits are very sticky, large, and store lots of energy and nutrients, including various vitamins and proteins. Numerous studies have also shown that jackfruit is suitable for pre-diabetics and diabetics.
The jackfruit is one of the largest fruits or vegetables in the world since it is a fruit that is eaten raw when ripe. In Africa and many countries including India, unripe jackfruit is cooked. In Western countries, it is known as “pulled pork” because it tastes like meat when cooked.
Dr. Sunil also shared that he has a thing for eggplant due to its excellent taste and nutritional composition. BGI, in collaboration with Yunnan University, developed an eggplant-tomato hybrid plant so that it is possible for one plant to provide both eggplant and tomato to improve agricultural productivity.
However, two-thirds of the world’s calories come from just five cultures. Therefore, the improvement of major crops such as rice is also important. Using multi-omics research, BGI developed an improved version of perennial rice by crossing varieties. With perennial rice, you can harvest the rice seeds multiple times, but they will regrow. Unlike normal rice where farmers start from scratch for each crop, perennial rice can be harvested for 3-5 years, giving them more production, with less labor cost. This rice is grown in many parts of the world. Recently, BGI did a field test in African countries like Uganda.
Leveraging BGI and global resources to improve food security and nutrition
At the AOCC, one of the biggest challenges is collecting samples, as this can involve traveling to remote locations. Members of the AOCC African team play an important role in collecting these samples and sending them to us. But sometimes shipping samples from Africa to China is not easy due to customs issues. They then extract the DNA on their own and send it to Dr. Sunil to streamline the transport process and indirectly reduce the time he spends performing this task.
Dr. Sunil notes that “At BGI-Research, we have access to some of the best genomics and bioinformatics labs in the world in one location. In India, lab facilities are not so abundant or in one place, we often send our samples overseas for genetic sequencing and have to wait. If I had had access to BGI facilities during my PhD studies in India, I could have completed my 3 years of work in 6 months!
India is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, with several plant species being endemic to the country. And agriculture is one of the most important pillars of the Indian economy. Agriculture, productivity and nutrition are becoming more important than ever. In Dr Sunil’s view, India and BGI can work more closely together to improve food security and nutrition.
Similarly, Africa is also very rich in biodiversity. The AOCC project seeks to sequence additional varieties of crops. It is possible to use BGI’s technology and resources to gain detailed insight into the strong adaptation of these crops to Africa’s harsh environment, particularly with respect to high temperatures and limited water availability. ‘water. Based on these findings, scientists can improve these varieties by increasing their productivity and making these crops more tolerant to the harsh environment. This is important for the African population as the continent is on track to represent 25% of the world’s population in 2050.
A voice of the AOCC
At AOCC, it is amazing to see the enthusiasm to improve the lives of Africans by leveraging everyone’s strengths, sometimes in very creative ways. We continue to innovate with new technologies such as the single cell work done at BGI. It is however essential to develop and implement impactful objectives that will directly affect the ultimate stakeholder – the African population in our case. This is why we believe that well-trained African plant breeders working in national programs are key to developing new plant varieties using BGI and partner technologies to develop the full value chain.
About the International Day of Friendship
The international day of friendship (July 30) was proclaimed in 2011 by the United Nations General Assembly with the idea that friendship between peoples, countries, cultures and individuals can promote communication and the free flow of information and knowledge, to build bridges between communities.
About BGI Genomics
BGI Genomics, headquartered in Shenzhen, China, is the world’s leading provider of genomic sequencing and proteomics services. In July 2017, as a subsidiary of BGI Group, BGI Genomics (300676.SZ) was officially listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, cementing its position as a global leader in genomic testing and research services.