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Boosting the conservation of crop wild relatives in Southern Africa

Mama Mamrhasi from Hobeni Village, South Africa, displays wild spinach (known as 'imifino' in Xhosa, one of the official languages of South Africa) that she has collected from her home garden. Credit: Katie Tavenner
Mama Mamrhasi from Hobeni Village, South Africa, displays wild spinach (known as 'imifino' in Xhosa, one of the official languages of South Africa) that she has collected from her home garden. Credit: Katie Tavenner

Bioversity International’s South African Development Community Crop Wild Relatives Project is drawing to a close with a final dissemination meeting that took place in Pretoria, South Africa, on 23–24 November 2016.

Bioversity International’s South African Development Community Crop Wild Relatives Project is drawing to a close with a final dissemination meeting that took place in Pretoria, South Africa, on 23–24 November 2016.

The project, which has seen the understanding of crop wild relatives (CWR) improved across the South African Development Community (SADC) and especially in the partner countries of Mauritius, South Africa and Zambia, finishes at the end of 2016. But Chike Mba, team leader of seeds and plant genetic resources at FAO, told the wrap-up meeting that the “unique and innovative” SADC work on CWR was creating “a community of practice that could be part of the global network initiative that FAO is trying to establish”.

Dr Julian Jaftha, Chief Director of Plant Production and Health at South Africa’s Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, told the meeting that “South Africa is experiencing the impacts of climate change on food supply and security and has suffered severe droughts”. He praised as “very timely” the project’s goal of addressing CWR conservation and use as a potential resource to mitigate these threats.

The three-year project was co-funded by the ACP-European Union Science and Technology programme. It had two main aims. First, to develop scientific expertise in SADC to conserve CWR and identify traits potentially useful to enable agriculture to adapt to climate change. Secondly, to ensure that the conservation of CWRs was incorporated into National Strategic Action Plans (NSAP). Together, these would enhance the link between conservation and use of CWR in the three partner countries and within the SADC region, as a means of underpinning regional food security and mitigating the predicted adverse impact of climate change.

The meeting heard in detail how these aims had been achieved. The project trained more than 50 people from 14 SADC countries. The scientists and breeders who attended the training workshops now have a better understanding of in situ conservation, characterisation and pre-breeding. In the partner countries, trainees made use of their increased capacity and received further on-the-job training during the diversity assessments and conservation status analysis of CWR and the development of NSAPs.

Each country team developed a checklist of CWR occurring on their territory, prioritized the CWR for conservation and analyzed hotspots of CWR distribution, richness and conservation gaps. Based on this analysis, the team identified priority conservation areas and actions to feed into their country’s NSAP. This process was helped by an interactive online toolkit that the project developed, based on a book produced on behalf of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN by the University of Birmingham, a project partner.

The University of Birmingham and Bioversity International undertook a similar survey and analysis across the SADC region, which revealed that half of the priority CWR are not conserved ex situ at all, and of the 55 that are in protected areas, 22 are present in five or fewer populations. Nine have only a single protected population. This region-wide analysis highlighted several areas of concern that will need to be addressed, including the vulnerability of some of the populations to climate change. The University of Birmingham and Bioversity International are working closely with the SADC Plant Genetic Resources Centre (SPGRC) to develop an integrated strategy for conservation and use of CWR for consideration by the SADC region.

A meeting in mid-2016 agreed to make project data available online through Dataverse – an open-source application for sharing, citing, reusing and archiving research data. Currently, datasets of the occurrence of CWR in Zambia and South Africa and across the SADC region are available through Dataverse.

One benefit of the project is that the agricultural and environmental sectors had to work together to develop the NSAP, which enhanced their understanding of one another and of the importance of agricultural biodiversity. In addition, the NSAP process, along with awareness-raising events organized by the project helped key policy makers to appreciate the significance of CWR in agriculture and climate change. As a result, CWR and agriculture might find a more favourable position in other environmental policies.

Nationally, the NSAPs drawn up by the country partners are being considered by their respective governments. Ultimately, the project expects that policymakers who are now more aware of CWR will help to ensure that these CWR NSAPs are adopted and that the proposed actions will be implemented.

Closing the two-day meeting, Dr Ehsan Dulloo, the project leader, said “we would love to see a scaling out of the project to other countries in the region and to work with the SADC secretariat to pursue similar projects in order to create a regional network of sites for the conservation of CWR in southern Africa”.

Photo: Mama Mamrhasi from Hobeni Village, South Africa, displays wild spinach (known as 'imifino' in Xhosa, one of the official languages of South Africa) that she has collected from her home garden. Credit: Katie Tavenner

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