APPROACH AND METHODOLOGY
AOC is currently composed of the following organizations: New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD); WWF-US; Mars, Incorporated; DuPont (the world's biggest seed company); IBM (opening five technology centers in Africa); the World Agroforestry Centre; Bioversity International; African Academy of Sciences; TransFarm Africa (at the Aspen Institute); and the Plant Breeding Academy at the University of California, Davis. AOC will genetically sequence, assemble, and annotate its chosen crop and tree species through the Beijing Genomic Institute to focus research on these genomes and the markers found. Growing numbers of African biodiversity and agricultural centers and universities will be drawn into the work, with appropriate training of both scientists and technicians at a center in Ghana to be opened by the Plant Breeding Academy of the University of California at Davis (UCD) and at African institutions. (African government leaders unanimously endorsed the project at an African Union meeting in mid-2011, and it also has the backing of the NEPAD-implemented Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme).
AOC has developed a shortlist of 96 species that will be narrowed with the help of African scientists on the basis of:
1. Range of species occurrence and use in agriculture in Africa.
2. Current and prospective role in diets of African populations in general, but with special focus on populations affected by food insecurity.
3. Degree to which a sequencing investment could improve food security directly or indirectly (yield is not a particularly good proxy for this).
4. Species role in agricultural/forest ecosystems and socio-ecological systems (degree to which a species can be used in intensified multiplexed systems, number of crop cycles per annual cycle, energy requirements for harvest and preparation, degree to which a species has multiple uses e.g., human food, fodder, materials), etc.
Some of the better known among the 96 are amaranth, marula, cocoyam, Ethiopian mustard, ground nut tree, African potato, acacia (Faidherbia albida), baobob, bananas (matoke), African medlars, African eggplant, and Cape tomato. Virtually every small farmer growing food crops for subsistence in Africa is growing a species that AOC will be striving to improve. Thus the work should mean more food for Africa, more food that is more nutritious and more reliable, and the opportunity to market surpluses. AOC has begun to sequence Faidherbia albida, a tree that can be used for nitrogen fixation and erosion control for crops. It has edible seeds, and unlike most trees, sheds its leaves in the rainy season; so it can grow among field crops without shading them. The 24 species will be sequenced by the end of 20124.
The resulting genetic information will be put into the public domain the same way Mars, Incorporated released its Theobroma cacao genome, over a web site on which people must register, but anyone can register. This will be managed by the intellectual property organization PIPRA.
The Plant Breeding Academy will be established in 2012 both on the campus of the University of California, Davis, and at a yet to be decided location in Ghana. The Life Technologies Corporation, a global bio bioprocess technology tools company, has agreed to provide technology equipment for both locations. Over the five-year commitment period, Africans will take over all teaching and training.
IMPLEMENTATION, TIMELINE, AND DELIVERABLES
The commitment falls into two types of activity: 1) sequence, assemble and annotate crop species; and 2) train African scientists both to do this work and to use the results to improve crop varieties.
Sequencing has already begun, and a rough sequence of Faidherbia will be available at the CGI launch in September 2011. It is impossible to give a timeline for sequencing the other two dozen species because some are simple and can be done in a matter of weeks or months and others are more complex and could take a matter of years. Thus the commitment is - conservatively - to do 24 species over five years. More will doubtless be done. The Beijing Genomic Institute will begin the work, and, depending on the speed with which equipment becomes available, the work will move to the Ghana training center. As soon as the results become available to AOC, they will be made available on the web as described above.
The training timetable is as follows: UCD will set up the infrastructure at and staff, mainly with UCD people, the Ghana center over January-June 2012. The first classes will begin over the July-December semester, 2012. There will then be 3-4 classes per year for both PhD level students and technicians (as noted, 250 of the former and 500 of the latter to be trained over the 5-year commitment). UCD trainers will be replaced by an all African team by the end of the third year. UCD will work with NEPAD and the center's African advisory board to determine the staff of post-docs needed in areas such as plant science and molecular biology.
The improvement of the crops, based on the sequencing, etc., will take place all over Africa and perhaps all over the world. AOC will depend on its partners, such as the Gates Foundation and TransFarm Africa, to distribute the resulting seeds after seeing to it that they are certified for use in various countries and regions - work the two organizations are already undertaking. African farmers are fairly good at adapting to new varieties, and in fact Kenyan farmers took to hybrid corn faster than US farmers did. However, there are many government and non-governmental organizations working to spread good seeds in Africa, improve regional trade, and train farmers.
Per capita food yields have been declining in Africa for decades. More than one-third of African children suffer stunting (low height for weight), irreversible after age two, with lifetime debilitating neurological effects. Smallholder farming systems also contain 75% of Africa's underweight children, according to the Millennium Project's Task Force on Hunger. According to the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by 2020 global warming is expected to halve rain-fed crop yields in many African countries; 96% of African agriculture is rain-fed rather than irrigated. Thus Africa needs to increase yields and nutrition, and an excellent place to start is by improving traditional crops already widely used on the continent, e.g., by breeding for more nutrition as well as productivity, drought resistance, pest resistance, etc.
Most of these rain-fed crops have been neglected by science, particularly plant breeders (thus are described as 'orphan crops') because they are not economically important globally and Africa has few professional plant breeders. Yet traditional plant breeding - looking for favorable traits in the field and then trying to capture these traits in new varieties - is very slow and laborious. Sequencing genomes of species and re-sequencing varieties can speed the breeding process and make it more cost effective.