A classical approach to saving life’s variety

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The beginning of the tragedy to come wasn’t so clearly understood, but it became more visible as scientists studied the demise of the dinosaurs and came to consider, over the centuries, the reduction of species. The destructive trend is clear and fast encroaching on domesticated plants and wild animals alike, putting some species such as the whales and panda bears on the endangered list and threatening food security.

Consequently the world is losing biodiversity at rates not seen before.

In Nigeria, for instance, the country has lost some 6.1 million hectares or 35.7% of its forest cover since 1990. Worse, Nigeria’s most biodiverse ecosystems—its old-growth forests—are disappearing at an even faster rate. Since 2000, Nigeria has been losing an average of 11% of its primary forests every year, twice as fast as in the 1990s.

Adeniyi Jayeola, a Senior Lecturer in plant systematics, Department of Botany and Microbiology, University of Ibadan, says, “The deterioration we find worldwide today is unprecedented. Unless we act together, and quickly too, we may sooner than later induce a global ecological crisis far beyond the control of any technology. It is a multi-faceted challenge requiring all hands to be on deck.”

Areas visited in Nigeria in particular and the world in general have shown that man has demonstrably failed to accord the environment the respect it deserves, whether this is the air, sea, or land.

Consequently, out of more than 10,000 species in the past people today depend on only 12 species for 80% of all their food.

To stem the loss of biodiversity, in 2002, 10 years after the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), 193 nations participating in the treaty had agreed to “achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional, and national level as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on earth.”

This year, parties are converging to take stock of the journey so far but the general assumption is that more action needs to be taken.

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What is biodiversity worth?
As the world prepares to take a retrospect on set targets, we can, however, no longer expect nature to provide us with a free lunch. Efforts to protect natural resources could depend on our putting a price tag on the goods and services they provide us. The United Nations Environment Programme’s 2007 Global Environment Outlook 4 report states that the pollination of crops by honeybees alone is worth US$2−8 billion, and the global herbal medicine market was worth US$43 billion back in 2001.

In addition, the tropical forests provide a whole variety of leaves, fruits, barks, roots, and nuts which form the mainstay of the modern pharmaceutical industry. We depend totally on the variety of life for our food security. The loss of biodiversity therefore presents us with one of the toughest puzzles, and concrete steps are needed to slow down the tide.

Innovative approaches to contain biodiversity loss
Despite the decline in species, which are currently disappearing at 50–100 times the natural rate, a regenerated forest on IITA’s campus in Ibadan has proved that indeed we can restore nature if we so desire. The forest, located on the west bank in IITA, sits on 350 ha of land and was initiated from abandoned farmland.

Forty three years after its establishment, this swathe of securely protected trees stands out as one of the least disturbed patch of forest in Nigeria with floristic characteristics ranking almost at par with a natural forest. The regeneration of the forest has brought appeal from the scientific community as researchers are seeking to uncover and understand the variation in plant species, composition, and structure of a forest regrowing from abandoned farmland and the causes of the variation.

David Okali, Chair, Nigerian Environmental Study/Action Team, who plans to do the study on the IITA forest with other colleagues, says such long-term studies are rare. The results on the rate of growth will be used in calculating directly the rate of carbon storage in the forest.
As the world marks the International Year of Biodiversity, Okali says deliberate efforts to conserve nature are important to stem biodiversity loss, stressing that the reestablishment of the IITA forest presented a good scenario for conservation.

Apart from forest regeneration, Okali says local communities could adopt other initiatives to curtail the loss of biodiversity. These include a return to traditional practices that made it a taboo for people to cut some species of trees or kill sacred animals. Also traditionally regulating hunting practices, and planting and protecting shade-providing fruit trees that adorn the village squares will help.

The success of the regenerated forest at IITA has reinforced the possibility that the opportunity is still within our reach.

Based on this experience, it is clear that the plan by parties to the CBD to create a global network of terrestrial and of marine protected areas can be done if there is the will and the means. How this will happen and funded is a question that all Governments must answer.

Made to measure: smart natural resources management approaches

Coffee-banana intercropping. Photo by P. van Asten, IITA.
Coffee-banana intercropping. Photo by P. van Asten, IITA.

Coffee and banana yields in the East African highlands are often only 10 to 30% of those achieved in commercial farms in Latin America and Asia. This is the result of a mixture of biotic stresses on the crops such as pests, diseases, and weeds, and abiotic constraints such as poor soil quality and drought.

Poor crop management practices that do not sufficiently address these constraints prevent farmers from reaping maximum benefits from their efforts.

However, the importance of these yield-limiting factors differs from region to region. The natural resources management (NRM) approach therefore starts with identifying the gap between the actual, attainable, and potential yields for each location.

Diagnostic surveys and analytical tools such as the boundary line analysis are used to rank and quantify the causes of low yields. This then guides the development of tailor-made measures and actions for farmers.

Smart use of mineral fertilizer and organic matter
Poor soils are one major cause of low yields in the East African highlands. Much of Africa’s soils are old and poor, situated on very old continental plates. Only a few places have soils that still have substantial nutrient stocks, such as those derived from young volcanic material and metamorphic rocks.

Years and years of soil erosion and poor farming methods that mine minerals have worsened the situation.

IITA is working with farmers to combine organic manure and mineral fertilizer to replenish soil nutrients to meet the needs of banana and coffee.

Piet van Asten, IITA systems agronomist based in Uganda, says the approach stresses the judicious use of mineral fertilizer that is moderate in quantity, applied at the right time and in the right way, and combined with locally available organic matter.

“The combination of fertilizers and organic matter provides much-needed additional nutrients that are efficiently used up by the crops. The organic matter helps to retain mineral fertilizers applied in the topsoil and reduces losses from leaching,” he says. “It also improves the soil physical properties which help to retain soil humidity and control the temperature. Plants thrive in such humid and temperate environments as the roots are better able to take up nutrients.”

Poster on banana fertilizer recommendations for Uganda. Courtesy of P. van Asten, IITA.
Poster on banana fertilizer recommendations for Uganda. Courtesy of P. van Asten, IITA.

Sources of local organic matter are mulch, urine, manure, and compost.

Research has shown that adding mineral fertilizers and mulch to both coffee and banana nearly doubles their yields. However, the fertilizer type and dose have to supply the nutrients that are lacking.

Through mapping soil and plant nutrient status, IITA identified the missing nutrients in each region. Subsequently, it developed region-specific recommendations for using fertilizer and organic mulch in parts of Uganda.

Training materials were also developed to teach farmers how to identify nutrient deficiencies in their own farms by observing plant leaves. This should ultimately help them to localize their fertilizer needs down to the farm level.

Halting and preventing soil erosion by placing contour bunds stabilized by forage/mulch grasses and leguminous plants are also important to conserve and improve soil quality.

Smart intercropping systems
IITA has been working on promoting the intercropping of banana/plantain and coffee as research has clearly shown that intercropping works better than monocropping either crop.

Coffee, a shade-loving plant, performs well when grown under banana/plantain. Research findings showed that creating space for the banana/plantain does not reduce the yield of coffee but instead, the farmer gets bonus income from the banana.

Such intercropping systems, says van Asten, spread the socioeconomic risks of farmers as they become less vulnerable to the price fluctuations of a single crop.

“The two intercrops provide farmers with permanent piecemeal harvests from banana and annual or biannual cash booms from coffee,” he said.

Intercropping has other benefits. It leads to sharing of inputs, such as fertilizers purchased through the cash crop system, such as coffee farmers’ cooperatives. It also improves fertilizer-use efficiency, as fertilizer applied to the cash crop also benefits the food crop.

Coffee plants perform better when grown under the shade of banana plants. Photo by P. van Asten, IITA.
Coffee plants perform better when grown under the shade of banana plants. Photo by P. van Asten, IITA.

Intercropping improves the biophysical efficiency of the systems by providing better and more permanent canopy and soil cover that reduce erosion. It improves soil organic carbon stocks (carbon sequestration) through the biomass produced.

Another benefit, says van Asten, is that intercropping can sometimes increase the quality of some crops. For instance, under suboptimal growing conditions, shade-grown coffee is often of better quality and thus could fetch more money on the market.

Linking to input and output markets
In a study of the factors that limit farmers’ usage of mineral fertilizers for their banana plants, Uganda farmers cited lack of access as one constraint. Moreover, they said it was not available in smaller packaging and more affordable sizes. IITA is working to encourage farmer cooperatives that are organized around postharvest handling, sorting, and bulking to organize the supply of inputs such as fertilizer for their members.

According to van Asten, cooperatives have better access to input/output markets and improved powers of negotiation. They have improved access to market information, bulking and storage facilities, savings and credit schemes through collaboration, and agreements with input/output dealers. They can also facilitate the exploration of niche markets through the certification of products in terms of quality, production, and techniques.

Smart extension services
To meet the information needs of farmers, IITA and partners are exploring options to make location-specific information accessible. This includes the use of extension publications, videos, and mobile phone services.

Farmer detrashing banana intercropped with coffee. Photo by P. van Asten, IITA.
Farmer detrashing banana intercropped with coffee. Photo by P. van Asten, IITA.

Together with the Grameen Foundation, IITA is exploring how information can be tailored to the location of the farmer through a (decision-tree) series of questions. The more information a farmer can provide, the more precise the recommendations will be.

The NRM work on coffee and banana shows that there are practical, readily available measures that farmers can use to increase yield and contribute towards the fight against poverty and hunger. However, they have to be region- and crop-specific for maximum impact.

“For all these measures to be successful, they must start with using clean and resistant planting materials. Investing in fertilizers for use on diseased plants is a futile exercise,” concludes van Asten.

Scott Miller: Guardian of life

Scott Miller, Undersecretary for Science, Smithsonian Institution and Chair, Executive Committee, Consortium for the Barcode of Life. photo courtesy of S. Miller.
Scott Miller, Undersecretary for Science, Smithsonian Institution and Chair, Executive Committee, Consortium for the Barcode of Life. photo courtesy of S. Miller.

As Deputy Undersecretary for Science at the Smithsonian Institution (SI), Scott Miller helps oversee the work of SI’s science units, including the National Museum of Natural History, National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and others. He is also Chair of the Executive Committee of the Consortium for the Barcode of Life (CBOL), and Co-Chair of the US Government Inter-Agency Working Group on Scientific Collections, where he works on science capacity building activities on national and international scales. He maintains an active research program in the systematics and ecology of moths, and the application of that information to conservation and agricultural issues in New Guinea and Africa.

How did you become interested in biodiversity?
I grew up fascinated by nature as a child, and was able to get involved early in insect research projects at a local natural history museum, leading to a career in biodiversity. As I gained a broader perspective, I became especially concerned about helping developing countries to develop the capacity to manage their biodiversity wisely. They lead to my work in Africa.

What will the International Year of Biodiversity achieve?
This is an important opportunity to raise the profile of biodiversity issues. But we have to remember that our reliance on biodiversity is constant, and so must be our attention to understanding and wise management.

Most ecological studies show that biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate worldwide. Could you comment on this?
I agree that biodiversity is being degraded at an alarming rate. While the exact rate can be debated, it is clearly not sustainable.

What is the value of lost biodiversity?
We need much better economic models and data for biodiversity and ecosystem services, but some studies give an idea of the economic importance [Costanza et al. 1997, Pimentel et al. 2000]. One-third of global crop production relies on insect pollinators, valued at some US$ 117 billion. Natural biological control is valued at some $400 billion. Soil arthropods that maintain soil fertility provide trillions of dollars in value to agriculture.

How can Africa reduce the loss of biodiversity?
Action is needed at all levels, from wise government policies, enlightened management of industries that use natural resources, through the empowerment of local people to conserve and benefit from their own natural resources. Wise management requires understanding biodiversity, and valuing conservation to maintain the benefits to society over the long term. The economies of most African countries are based on natural resources, and sustainable development requires wise management. I have always been impressed by the “Working for Water” program in South Africa as a model for integrating landscape scale conservation, invasive species management, economic development and job creation, but there are many other success stories across Africa.

You worked in the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) in Kenya some time ago. Tell us about your experiences in conservation and sustainable development.
My time in Kenya was a tremendous learning experience for me, and I hope I was able to help build programs that will have lasting impact. I am still involved in Kenya through collaborations with icipe, Mpala Research Centre, and the National Museum. We tried to help local people understand the value of their biodiversity, how to restore degraded landscapes, and how to benefit from the biodiversity resources. Among other things, I was involved in an integrated conservation development project at Kakamega Forest in western Kenya that involved many synergetic components. These included strengthening forest management, replanting degraded lands, reducing the use of wood as fuel (through promoting efficient cooking stoves), developing sustainable income sources (especially “low tech” uses of natural products, and ecotourism), providing microfinance facilities, and enhancing the accessibility of health care and family planning.

What do you think of IITA’s efforts in agrobiodiversity conservation/sustainable agriculture?
Historically, IITA has played a very important role in agrobiodiversity conservation efforts. While some of those efforts remain strong, I am concerned that financial pressures threaten some of them, such as the collections that support biological control research and application in insects and fungi. The institutional infrastructure for understanding biodiversity is very weak in West and Central Africa, and as an international organization, IITA can play a vital role in filling the gap, and building national capacity. I am pleased to see IITA’s leadership in the CGIAR study of biomaterial collections beyond plant germplasm, which recognizes these collections as Global Public Goods.

Do you see the investment in conservation well spent?
IITA’s investment has been critical in the past, and needs to be enhanced to support future agricultural development and pest management. Climate change will bring new challenges to agriculture in Africa, and crop germplasm will be crucial, as well as knowledge of crop relatives, pest organisms, and beneficial organisms. The native forest on IITA’s Ibadan campus is an important biodiversity resource, and the protection that IITA has provided it for many years has been an important service.

What is the contribution of insect diversity to agriculture?
Insects provide vital ecosystem services to agriculture, including pollination, biological control of pests, and the maintenance of soil fertility. A recent study on the impact of CGIAR research in Africa (Maredia and Raitzer 2006) found that 80% of the impact (valued at $17 billion) resulted from four biocontrol programs using insects and mites. All those programs had to solve significant taxonomic problems (e.g., understanding the biodiversity) before they became successful, underscoring the importance of research and documentation.

How does the Consortium for the Barcode of Life contribute to the conservation and protection of biodiversity?
DNA barcoding is a species diagnostic system using short sequences of DNA (www.barcoding.si.edu), and the Consortium is an international organization promoting the development of standards and the building of the reference library of sequences. Understanding species, being able to identify them, and being able to communicate about them are basic to managing and using biodiversity. Thus, CBOL contributes through allowing fast and accurate identifications in difficult situations such as the immature stages of plant pests, the wood or roots from medicinal plants, or parts of butchered wildlife or fish in the illegal trade.

CBOL works closely with organizations with similar interests, such as BioNET INTERNATIONAL and the Global Taxonomy Initiative of the Convention on Biological Diversity. We are communicating with organizations such as the International Plant Protection Convention to help establish formal protocols for the DNA-based identification of agricultural pests.

Unlocking the diversity of yam

IITA scientists inspect yam plants in the field gene bank. Photo by O. Adebayo, IITA.
IITA scientists inspect yam plants in the field gene bank. Photo by O. Adebayo, IITA.

The International Year of Biodiversity (IYB) has emphasized the need for global action that will unravel the genetic diversity of yam, a root crop that provides food security to 300 million people in sub-Saharan Africa.

Yam is grown in about 51 countries in the tropics and subtropics, with yields averaging about 11 t/ha in the major producing countries of West Africa (Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Bénin). However, little is known about the tuber crop’s diversity.

“This aspect is important for yam improvement to meet the demand of people depending on this crop for food and livelihood,” says Ranjana Bhattacharjee, IITA Scientist working on fingerprinting the yam germplasm collection.

Yam provides calories and puts money in the pockets of farmers. The tuber-bearing climbing plant from the genus Dioscorea also plays a major role in sociocultural activities in West Africa including traditional marriages and the New Yam Festival.

Globally, there are over 600 species of yam but only a few are cultivated for food or medicine. Scientists fear that some species are threatened and might become extinct as a result of climate change and genetic erosion. This prompts the calls for conservation.

The major edible species of African origin are white Guinea yam (D. rotundata Poir.), yellow Guinea yam (D. cayenensis Lam.), and trifoliate or bitter yam (D. dumetorum Kunth). Edible species from Asia include water or greater yam (D. alata L.), and lesser yam (D. esculenta [Lour.] Burkill). Cush-cush yam (D. trifida L.) originated from the Americas. White Guinea yam and water yam are the most important in terms of cultivation and use.

Yam tuber. Photo by IITA.
Yam tubers. Photo by IITA.

This preferred staple is usually eaten with sauce directly after boiling, roasting, or frying. The tubers may also be mashed or pounded into dough after boiling, or cooked with sauces and oils. They can be processed into yam balls, chips, and flakes.

Fresh yam tubers are peeled, chipped, dried, and milled into flour that is used in preparing dough called amala (Nigeria) or telibowo (Bénin). Commercial products based on dry flakes or flours from the tuber are produced in Nigeria, Ghana, and Côte d‘Ivoire for export and sale in urban areas.

Though millions depend on the crop, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, not many outside of Africa know about the tuber’s potential for commercialization, and its role in enhancing food security in the region, according to Robert Asiedu, Director of the Program on Root and Tuber Systems at IITA.

“We talk about yam tubers as a food staple of millions of Africans to donors or investors who don’t even know what yam is, how it looks or tastes. So the question is: How would they even think of investing in research in a ‘little-known’ staple like yam?”

Perhaps yam’s low profile in the developed countries or in the West is the major limitation in attracting funding for research, but this hardy tuber is an important “part of man” especially in Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, and the South Pacific Islands where it is widely eaten. According to Asiedu, it is the “preferred and most appreciated staple food and calorie source” in areas where it is grown.

Yam faces constraints that include the high costs of planting material and of labor, decreasing soil fertility, the inadequate yield potential of varieties, and increasing levels of field and storage pests and diseases associated with intensive cultivation.

To tackle some of these constraints, work at IITA for the last few years has focused on improving the tuber, primarily white and yellow Guinea yam, and water yam.

Man with huge yam tuber. Photo by IITA.
Man with huge yam tuber. Photo by IITA.

The breeding program uses the 2,216 accessions of Guinea yam and 816 of water yam in IITA’s genebank to study resistance to anthracnose and virus diseases. Improved populations have been developed with partners in the national agricultural research and extension systems (NARES), who have released varieties in Nigeria (National Root Crops Research Institute, 7) and Ghana (Crops Research Institute, 3).

Despite the success in yam improvement, new challenges keep on coming, prompting researchers to use other tools, such as molecular characterization to unlock the genetic diversity of yam.

Recently, the Global Crop Diversity Trust funded a project in IITA to duplicate, document, and distribute the germplasm of yam to other partners in accordance with the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Such support is indeed a milestone in yam research. The project also aims to fingerprint the entire germplasm collection at IITA. This will help in understanding the extent of genetic diversity present in the collection. From this, the genes for important traits can be determined through association mapping, a tool that could be used successfully to improve and sustain the crop.

As the world marks the IYB, serious attention from other donors is necessary to keep the crop as a “part of man.”

Safeguarding local varieties ensures food security

Cassava pile after harvest. Photo by IITA.
Cassava pile after harvest. Photo by IITA.

Cassava is a food security crop to more than 600 million people in the developing world, providing incomes to resource-poor farmers, improving their livelihoods, and serving as a buffer against food crises.

The strategic importance of cassava, however, is being threatened, especially in Africa, as local varieties are in danger of disappearing because of genetic erosion and other human and natural factors.

“In Guinea, for instance, about seven local cassava varieties are fast disappearing. This is risky, especially for cassava since it is a clonal crop,” according to Paul Ilona, IITA Senior International Trials Manager. Clonal crops are those propagated through cuttings or other plant parts, not by seeds.

Genetic erosion is a process whereby the already limited gene pool of an endangered species of plant or animal diminishes even more when individuals from the surviving population die out without getting a chance to breed within their endangered low population.

Both local and improved cassava varieties alike create a robust gene pool, offering choices for breeders in future breeding programs. However, the loss of genes from the extinction of some local varieties could limit future improvement programs. The endangered varieties may hold key traits that could offer possible solutions to hunger and poverty in the future.

Woman selling cassava, local market, Nigeria. Photo by IITA.
Woman selling cassava, local market, Nigeria. Photo by IITA.

To prevent the genetic erosion of cassava, IITA and the Institut de Recherche Agronomique de Guinée (IRAG) have stepped up efforts to save native African varieties with the collection of 73 local varieties from Guinea, West Africa.

These varieties are now conserved under ex situ conditions at IITA’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC) in Ibadan, Nigeria. They form part of a collection to safeguard the continent’s plant genetic resources. The collecting mission in that West African country last year was funded by the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT), IRAG-Guinea, and IITA.

“The conservation of local varieties provides hope for future cassava breeding programs and helps to guarantee food security in Africa,” says Dominique Dumet, GRC Head and coordinator of the collecting mission.

Ilona says the loss of native cassava varieties might limit the number of genes available for breeders to work with. “For breeders, any time we lose (crop) genes, it hurts. That is why the conservation of local cassava varieties at GRC is important to us,” he says.

Apart from cassava, the IITA-GRC holds over 25,000 accessions of major African food crops, including cowpea, yam, soybean, bambara nut, maize, and plantain/banana. IITA shares these accessions without restriction for use in research for food and agriculture.

The collecting mission makes Guinea the fourth country, after Angola, Togo, and Bénin, to allow IITA to collect and share their germplasm with other countries, since the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture went into force in June 2004.