Covid-19 and the elephant in the room
Despite the current focus on the threat of Covid-19, it’s still dwarfed by climate change. That was the main message ACCI director, Professor Mark Laing, had recently for a webinar comprising speakers from across Africa and California.
The webinar, which discussed how plant breeding can be deployed to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on African food security, was organised by the Institute for Agricultural Research Samaru and the Faculty of Agriculture, Ahmahu Bello University, Zaria Nigeria.
Participants included Prof Rita Mumm, director of UC Davis African Plant Breeding Academy, Prof Eric Danquah, director of our sister organization, the West African Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI), Dr Richard Edema, director of Makerere Regional Centre for Crop Improvement (MaRCCi), Uganda.
In his presentation Laing said food security was an issue in Africa before Covid-19 with 300 million people at risk, and the pandemic will exacerbate the problem in multiple ways and in urban areas in particular.
These challenges will include increased global economic hardship, especially in poorer countries, reduced exports with diminished value of raw materials and agricultural products and the slow recovery of global air transport, which will affect high-value exports.
There will be reduced access to IMF and World Bank funds which will result in less funds for research and development at universities and research stations. “Universities are in trouble globally because their fixed costs remain but they are not able to operate. And online options for lecturing are not possible in much of Africa, nor are they appropriate in the agricultural sciences for applied aspects of the curriculum,” said Laing.
He said research stations are likely to be affected in terms of salaries, infrastructure and funds for research and extension. Covid-19 impact could also mean reduced philanthropy to Africa which would have huge implications for agriculture if it affected organisations like Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).
A much bigger threat looms
“COVID-19, however, is a tiny problem when compared to the climate crisis the world faces,” said Laing. “Maybe 0.2% of the population will die from the virus in the next two to three years, versus millions dying every year, and the extinction of mankind in the next 100 years.”
In May 2020 the world’s CO2 level reached 417.1ppm, a record for the last three million years, despite a 17% reduction on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Laing said the world only has 10 years to make massive changes to the global economy and technology structures to stop increasing global GHG.
“After that, the GHG and heating feedback systems will run away from us, like a loaded truck running down a steep hill when the brakes stop working,” he said.
In the next 30 years the world will see levels of GHG climbing, the global temperature increasing by more than 3.6°C, seas rising, hurricanes increasing, floods and fires more frequent, and the hot, dry areas of the world getting hotter and drier, becoming uninhabitable, creating 800 – 1000 million refugees.
“Plant breeding is the heart of agriculture but current approaches are too slow,” he said. “It takes 5-25 years to breed new hybrids and varieties. There will be more people, less land, less water, shorter seasons, more pests and diseases and a rapidly changing environment.”
The future of plant breeding In Africa
Where to from here? Laing believes we have the tools to accelerate breeding new varieties, but only if societies and politicians commit the resources to it.
Stable funding for plant breeding is crucial. With conventional breeding it takes 5-15 years to release new varieties and hybrids, and even with accelerated breeding, continuity of 5-10 years of guaranteed funding is needed to ensure that breeders can deliver new varieties to growers.
“We need locally bred varieties for the many agroecological niches in Africa, with their own unique day length, altitude, rainfall, temperatures, soils. And these are changing rapidly. We cannot parachute in solutions from outside – they are not locally adapted.”
Local conditions are changing rapidly. Conditions are hotter and drier so new crops and new crop varieties are needed, for example tepary bean bred to be palatable through gene editing, or cassava that can be harvested in seven rather than 18 months. Laing also mentioned perennial cereals such as Eragrostis curvula to replace Eragrostis tef, perennial wheat and sorghum that ratoons.
Resistance is needed for new pests and diseases and breeders need to accelerate the process to breed and release CMD and CBSD-resistant cassava varieties. And plant breeding must be oriented towards the market or it’s a waste of time.
Laing discussed a number of different techniques for accelerating breeding of improved varieties including:
- Speed breeding with 22 hours of light + 2 hours of darkness. In the UK this technique has made it possible to produce six cycles of wheat per year.
- Doubled haploids to eliminate selfing generations.
- DNA fingerprinting to reduce the numbers of backcrossing steps.
- Male gametocides for breeding and hybrid seed production.
- Proteomic markers for quantitative traits such as heat or frost tolerance. Polygenic traits are governed by many additive genes, but relatively few dominant proteins are involved.
- Gene editing (CRISPR-CAS) is a viable technology that is affordable and not blocked by biosafety regulations.
Laing said the problem of how to speedily propagate vegetative crops must be solved. “Once we have a superb new cassava variety with increased yield, that can be harvested early, has good taste and resistance to pests and diseases – then what ? How do we go from one perfect cassava plant to 10 million plants across a region ? Who will do it, who has the capacity, what is the profit incentive?”
The propagation of self-pollinating crops like rice, wheat, sorghum is also an issue. “There is no financial incentive for seed companies to do this, but government departments do not have the logistics, marketing infrastructure or the motivation to do it either,” said Laing.
Seed Storage across Africa needs attention. Parent seed, foundation seed, inbred lines and landraces comprise a priceless heritage, but they are stored under corrugated iron, with fluctuating temperature and humidity. Laing described how a solar chimney design has been tested and proven to work well. It doesn’t require electricity and could be a viable solution.
Grain storage is a continental problem and if we could kill the pests and stop the moulds we could reduce losses of 70%, which would contribute towards food security. A UKZN technology package also exists to optimise shelf life of fresh produce by pasturising and protecting it.
Laing said local processing should be the goal and we should avoids exports of primary produce and imports of expensive processed products.
Article & photo: Shelagh McLoughlin