Scientists at the University of California, Riverside will help meet this challenge by focusing on cowpea, a protein-rich legume crop of immense importance to Africa that complements starchy staple crops such as corn, cassava, sorghum and millets in the diets of millions of Africans.
The research, which is expected to significantly benefit resource-poor African farmers, is being made possible by a three-year grant of nearly $1.7 million to UC Riverside from the Generation Challenge Program of the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
A team of researchers, led by Jeff Ehlers, Phillip Roberts and Timothy Close work in both field and labs studying the cowpea.
Jeff Ehlers: We're here at the University of California, Riverside Coachella Valley Agricultural Research Station about eighty miles due east of the Riverside campus. And this location provides an ideal site to do drought work on different crops -- particularly cowpea. It allows us to plant late -- this particular trial was planted in August 10th and you can see now we're in mid-November and it's still quite warm out here. It's probably ninety-five right now at ten o'clock in the morning. The other thing about this site, which is very unique, which allows us to mimic what's happening in Africa is the very poor soil. This is virtually a beach sand type soil, as you can see, very sandy and not a lot of water holding capacity, so it's quite easy to subject the different varieties to drought and see real effects.
Philip Roberts: One of the things we can do in field station environments like this, and we also do the same in Africa, is that we can grow out many different cowpea varieties or types and screen for those that do better under pathogen pressure. So, we can pick out the ones that have resistance and then we can use those as parents in a breeding program to transfer through traditional crossing, transfer resistance genes for those pathogens into the improved varieties.
Jeff Ehlers: So, many times in Africa the rainfall during the season will start and the farmers will plant at the beginning of these rains, in the hope that the rainfall will continue and be good. Unfortunately, in many years the rainfall stops for a long period of time before resuming again and they'll suffer devastating losses to drought. So we're trying to select cowpeas that will grow through these drought periods and then still end up yielding well once the rain resumes again.
Narrator: UCR is well-positioned for this research project, having decades of experience with the cowpea - both in Africa and California.
Jeff Ehlers (in lab): Over the years at UCR, we've developed a large collection of cowpea genetic resources and these are cowpea varieties that have been collected from villages to research stations to varieties that are sold commercially in markets and so on. And so this represents the diversity that exists in the cultivated crop species.
Philip Roberts: What we do in the lab is we use DNA samples to identify these genetic traits that we're interested in cowpea and the DNA system is like a fingerprinting system and we're looking for distinct fingerprints that are linked on the chromosomes of the cowpea plant.
Jeff Ehlers: We see a lot of potential for cowpeas in the United States in many different new, as well as old applications. There's opportunities as a fresh snap bean product; we're developing all white types that can be used in value added foods. They can be added in to nutritionally supplement many of our common foods such as mashed potatoes or breads, cookies and crackers. And the high protein content and the high fiber content, the high folic acid content all will help supplement these staple foods that we all eat, so there's many different things that cowpea can be used for.
Wellington Muchero, UCR doctoral candidate: Just to give an example, in parts of Africa, actually in the northern parts of Senegal and also there are statistics showing from Somalia, that up to 90% of the crops is sometimes lost to the fungal pathogen and in parts of India the same thing has been reported as well, this is not part of Africa, but it's also a similar problem where up to 71% of the crop has been reported to be lost as a result of this particular fungus. So, if we are able to find resistant genes, like I say before, resistant genes and also varieties that are intolerant to drought, we can easily - or at least we can make efforts to improve the huge potentials tenfold.
Narrator: What happens at UC Riverside in the next few years will benefit whole new generations in Africa - of scientists, farmers and families.