Breeding out hunger and malnutrition

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Cutting edge genetic technology has a big role to play in the eradication of hunger and achievement of food security in Africa.

To a layman with no science background or no knowledge of genetics and breeding, creating new species or variety of plant or animal with attributes that are different from the parent organisms is always like a miracle–or maybe, for some, black magic. My first and brief exposure as a student to tissue culture and breeding was no different, despite my agricultural background.

So I was not really surprised today, during a visit to the tissue culturing and plant breeding unit of the Biotechnology and Nuclear Agriculture Research Institute of (BNARI) in Accra, Ghana, as part of the 6th FARA Africa Agriculture Science Week, to see respected professionals in other fields of agriculture and the environment falling over themselves to take pictures and ask questions.

The truth is that plant breeding has always been at the vanguard of the fight against hunger and malnutrition, from building resistance to diseases in plants, to breeding mutations into insect pests, to creating early-maturing or longer-storing varieties, to bio-fortifying crops with critically deficient nutrients in the diets of many of the rural poor. Agricultural breeding has, in the past, saved industries from collapse and countries from hunger.

This is a truth that has not been lost on the various international agricultural research institutes like IITA, ICRISAT, and ILRI, among others, all working out of Africa to enhance food security and alleviate hunger in the burgeoning population of the continent. Neither is it lost on the planners and agriculture policymakers of Ghana, as evidenced by what we witnessed on the field trip to the BNARI.

The potentials of breeding are being explored by researchers at BNARI in the areas of mutation breeding to control insect pests such as fruitfly, a pest of crops in Ghana and other African countries, and tsetse fly, a disease vector that causes Nagana in cattle and sleeping sickness in humans. The male insects are collected and exposed to controlled radiation that sterilizes them and later released to the wild to stagnate population growth rates.

Also through breeding, the BNARI researchers have been able to create a cassava variety that is mosaic virus-resistant, high-yielding and at the same time biofortified with vitamins to reduce human malnutrition–quite magical, indeed! This tissue culturing unit produces lots of disease-free plantlets of a number of crops both tree and vegetable for Ghanaian farmers to plant on their fields.

It is little wonder that the FAO recently awarded Ghana recognition  for “notable and outstanding progress in fighting hunger,” having reduced the number of hungry people within its borders from 40.5% of its population in 1990-92 to less than 5% in 2010-12. Ghana was one of only two African countries awarded this prize, out of 18 countries in all.

Many African countries are still grappling the problems of food security, hunger and malnutrition, but they would do well to adopt the biotechnological approach of Ghana in fighting these problems. By breeding out hunger and malnutrition, Africans can succeed in feeding both present and future generations of Africans.

Blogpost by Bunmi Ajilore, a social media reporter for AASW6.

Photo: G. Wekesa

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