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Amaranth, a green eaten throughout Africa

Amaranth, a green eaten throughout Africa's humid lowlands. ( AP Images)

01 November 2006

Resilient Plants Hold Promise for Reducing Hunger, Report Says, October 30, 2006

(U.S. science agency urges more study of native African vegetable)

By Kathryn McConnell
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- More scientific study of indigenous vegetables found in Africa could uncover ways to feed the continent's growing population and spur sustainable development, according to a new report from the National Research Council.

The plants are "typically overlooked" and have been judged as less valuable than better-known vegetables introduced into Africa from other parts of the world, the U.S. National Academies of Science (NAS) announced in an October 31 press release. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering within the NAS.

Sub-Saharan Africa currently has 206 million people who live with hunger, 40 million more than it had during the base measurement period of 1990-1992, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Sub-Saharan Africa remains the "greatest challenge" in meeting that goal, said Jacques Diouf, FAO director-general, in an October 30 press release.

Officials from more than 120 countries are meeting through November 4 in Rome to review progress towards meeting the internationally agreed goal set in 1996 of reducing by half by 2015 the number of hungry people in the world.

Greater development of native African plants "would be a boon" especially to women in Africa because women comprise a "large share" of the region's farmers, NAS said in releasing its second of three reports evaluating African plant resources that could help secure the region's food supply.

Most of the 18 plants that are the focus of the report, Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables, are "resilient enough to thrive in poor soil and well-suited to the small plots and limited resources of village families," NAS said.

The vegetables, already being consumed by many in Africa, but for which little scientific information is available, are:

Amaranth, a green eaten throughout Africa's humid lowlands;

Bamara bean, a legume that produces seeds with a healthy balance of carbohydrate, protein and oil that grows in very hot, dry climates;

Baobob, which produces leaves with protein, vitamins and minerals, and can produce during the rainy season and be dried for later consumption;

Cowpea, another plant that can thrive in dry conditions and which already feeds an estimated 200 million people;

Native potatoes, smaller than many commercial potatoes but containing twice the protein;

Okra, a high-yielding plant that is resistant to many pests and diseases and adapts to many climate conditions;

Shea, a nut that produces a solid vegetable fat used to enhance the taste and digestibility of regional dishes and can be adapted to produce commercial cosmetics; and

Eleven others that are mostly legumes and tubers.

Funding for the project was provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development's Bureau for Africa. NAS, comprising the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the National Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, is a private, nonprofit organization that provides science, technology and health policy advice under a congressional charter.

NAS plans to release in coming months a companion report on the promise of Africa's native fruits. Lost Crops of Africa: Volume I: Grains was released in 1996.

The NAS press release is available on the organization's Web site. The FAO press release is available on that organization's Web site.

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