As rising global temperatures affect crop yield

As global temperatures continue to rise at an unusually early rate, this has added pressure on the many factors putting pressure on Africa’s food systems. Other factors include three consecutive years of insufficient rain in East Africa, the economic impact of COVID-19 and ongoing geopolitical instability in Europe.

What are international scientists doing to improve food security and nutrition in the face of rising global temperatures? dr Sunil Kumar Sahu, a Shenzhen-based research scientist at BGI-Research and in-house project manager of the African Orphan Crops Consortium’s Sequencing Project (AOCC), shares his perspectives from working with a global network of scientists.

What is the mission of the AOCC?

The AOCC, in partnership with World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF), aims to make the genomic data of some of Africa’s most important food and tree crops freely accessible to improve their nutrition, productivity and climate resilience. Often overlooked and less understood, these crops can potentially play an important role in boosting African farmers’ incomes while tackling malnutrition. dr Sunil makes three important points:

– Africa is poised to contribute 25% of the world’s population in 2050
– Two-thirds of the world’s calories come from just five crops
– Most African orphan plants are not being used to their full potential to fight hunger

dr Sunil pointed out that in the last hundred years of colonialism, sub-Saharan Africa’s local food systems have been replaced and dominated by maize and rice, which are not native to Africa. They need more water, have a lower stress tolerance, and are generally less nutritious. However, the local orphan plants, which have been neglected by the global scientific community, have a special adaptability to grow in these environments. The resilience of orphaned plants is critical for farmers to increase yields and income as global temperatures rise.

He shared: “AOCC has sequenced 101 African species of orphan crops that are often neglected and not used according to their potential to fight hunger and malnutrition. The plants were selected by the African Union (AU) based on wider scientific, academic, business and policy consultations. Plants were prioritized based on their importance to local communities, economic potential, nutritional value and their ability to adapt to the local climate. So far we have sequenced over ten rare crops such as African eggplant, breadfruit, jackfruit and moringa.”

The AOCC has identified genes that have the potential to confer tolerance to high temperature, drought and high salinity while maintaining excellent nutrition. For example, jackfruit has a high starch content. The AOCC’s 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. Many studies have also shown that jackfruit is beneficial for both pre-diabetics and diabetics.

Jackfruit is one of the greatest fruits or vegetables in the world as it is a fruit that is eaten raw when ripe. In many African and Asian countries, including India, unripe jackfruit is cooked. It’s known as “pulled pork” in western countries because it tastes like meat when cooked.

dr Sunil also shared that he has a soft spot for eggplant due to its excellent taste and nutritional composition. BGI has developed an eggplant-tomato hybrid crop in cooperation with Huazhong Agricultural University, so that one plant can provide both eggplant and tomato to increase agricultural productivity.

However, two-thirds of global calories come from just five crops. Therefore, BGI strives to improve yields for important crops. Using multi-omics research, BGI has developed an improved version of perennial rice by crossing cultivars. With perennial rice, you can harvest the rice seeds multiple times, but they will grow back. Unlike regular rice, where farmers start from scratch for each harvest, perennial rice can be harvested for 3 to 5 years, resulting in higher production with lower labor costs. This rice is grown in many regions around the world. BGI recently conducted a field trial in African countries such as Uganda.

How India and Africa could work more closely with BGI to improve food security and nutrition

One of the main challenges at the AOCC is collecting specimens, as this can involve traveling to remote locations. African AOCC team members play an important role in collecting these samples and sending them to us. But sometimes shipping the samples from Africa to China is not easy due to customs problems. They then extract the DNA themselves and send the DNA to Dr. Sunil to streamline the transportation process and indirectly reduce the time it spends on this task.

dr Sunil notes, “At BGI-Research we have access to some of the world’s leading genomics and bioinformatics laboratories in one location. In India there are not that many laboratory facilities or in one place, we often send our samples overseas for genetic sequencing and have to wait. If I had had access to BGI’s facilities during my PhD studies in India, I could have finished my 3-year thesis in 6 months!”

India is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world with several plant species 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. According to Dr. Sunil allows India and BGI to work more closely together to improve food security and nutrition.

Africa is also very rich in species. The AOCC project aims to sequence additional crop varieties. It is possible to use BGI’s technology and resources to gain detailed insights into the strong adaptation of these plants to Africa’s harsh environment, particularly in relation to high temperatures and limited water availability. Based on these findings, scientists can improve these strains by increasing their productivity and making these plants more tolerant of the harsh environment. This is important for African populations as the continent is projected to account for 25% of the world’s population in 2050.

A voice from the AOCC

Prof. Allen Van Deynze, Scientific Director of the AOCC: At the AOCC, it is amazing to see the enthusiasm to improve the lives of Africans by using each other’s strengths, sometimes in very creative ways. We continue to innovate with new technologies such as B. the work on single cells, which is carried out at BGI. However, it is crucial to develop and implement impactful goals that have a direct impact on the ultimate stakeholder – in our case, the African people. For this reason, 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 entire value chain.

About BGI Genomics

Headquartered in Shenzhen, China, BGI Genomics is the world’s leading provider of genome sequencing and proteomics services. In July 2017, BGI Genomics (300676.SZ) was officially listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange as a subsidiary of BGI Group, solidifying its position as the world’s leading genomic testing and research service provider.

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