Orphan crops to the rescue

Egged on a bit by Wally Falcon, Chris Fedor of Stanford University basically says in a new article that the best way to combat Ug99 is not to grow wheat. Well, not really. Rather, that if more money had been spent in the past on crops that are not wheat (or maize or rice or even potato), wheat wouldn’t have been grown so much in East Africa and we wouldn’t be having this problem now:

Ug99 … occurred because there was not enough research on more agro-climatically appropriate crops. Perhaps the lesson, then, is that agricultural research should spend more time and money developing yield improvements for native, local crops like teff, cassava, sorghum and pigeon pea so that developing countries will have viable alternatives to just wheat, rice and maize.

I’m not so sure about the Ug99 bit, but I’m all for more money for orphan crops. Problem is, it’s hard for a Cinderella to compete with her Big Sisters when you’re looking for the biggest, fastest impact and research funding is perceived as a zero-sum game. Witness the CGIAR megaprogramme saga. Not to say that there’s no hope, though.

3 Replies to “Orphan crops to the rescue”

  1. Is anybody in charge of the CGIAR reform looking at this question of the mix of research between the supercrops — rice, maize and wheat — and the so-called “orphan crops”?

    From what I’ve seen of the reform process so far, it appears to me that the CGIAR is doubling down on the super crops — that is, we may see even more funding, above the 90% of all past funding, go to rice, maize and wheat. Is this based on rational analysis or is it due to the strong influence of the people and institutions that benefited from all those past investments?

    Rice, maize and wheat have high adoption rates of improved varieties compared to the orphan crops. National agricultural research systems have relatively strong breeding programs on these crops, mostly as a result of all the past investment. The private sector is also very strong in the 3 supercrops.

    But the most potential lies in the orphan crops. Yield gains and wider adoption by developing country farmers have yet to be realized. At the very least, this question of the mix of research between the crops needs greater consideration by the CGIAR.

  2. I agree with Falcon that clearing land of wheat would reduce Ug99 – but this needs to be done in Ethiopia, where there are thousands of susceptible wheat landraces maintaining lots of disease. It was with reason that the Soviet Union in the 1970s had a `Phytopathological Research Laboratory’ in Ambo, Ethiopia, looking at just this hotbed of crop disease.

    But I do not agree with Chris over what he calls: ‘agro-climactically appropriate crops’ or that: ‘agricultural research should spend more time and money developing yield improvements for native, local crops like teff, cassava, sorghum and pigeon pea’. I have no objection to the crops listed (I used to be a sorghum collector) but strong objections to the ‘native, local’.

    And what is ‘agro-climactically appropriate’: what’s wrong with growing wine grapes in California, Chile, and New Zealand? It is not just climate that determines success for a crop, but also pest and disease load – which, of course, is highest for co-evolved native and local (and orphan) crops. Anderson in ‘Plants, Man, and Life’, 1954 p. 150 wrote about sunflower: ‘the one native American crop. [although] no world crop originated in the area of its modern commercial importance and sunflowers are no exception.’. Anderson and the British crop botanist Purseglove agreed why. In Anderson’s words: ‘In the region where a crop was domesticated there are the maximum number of pests and diseases which have evolved to prey on that particular kind of plant.’ …. ‘the farther you get from its center of origin the more of its pests you can hope to leave behind.’

    The best advice for any crop production – major or orphan – is to get away to pastures new: wheat in North America and Australia, soybean in North and South America, and most plantation crops, nearly all plantation forestry and lots more.

    Instead of costly attempts to breed orphan crops for regions of origin where they are weighed down with biotic constraints (and where funding will be diverted from more important crops) the quick, cheap, and probably successful path, would be crop introduction: quinoa in Ethiopia, tef in the Andes, amaranth everywhere. Despite the huge effort promoting orphan or neglected crops there is nothing on the need for more crop introduction – despite around 70% of crop production in Africa and the Americas being from introduced crops: an obvious success story.

    I am a great fan of orphan crops – I am at present fermenting tef for injera (a favourite food); eat quinoa and black beans, and once had to show a room full of biodiversity experts in Panama how to get mangosteen out of its case.

    It is quite remarkable how successful crop introductions were – even with a very narrow genetic base.

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