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World food safety day. Frontier research meets tradition: science needs to listen to traditional farmers of the Global South in order to improve crops. The involvement of geneticists at the Sant'Anna School Plant Science Research Centre and AfricaConnect

Publication date: 07.06.2022
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The achievement of zero hunger calls for a radical redesigning of agricultural production system worldwide. For food security and food safety to be a reality for all, science must not neglect smallholder farming systems, which involve estimated 570 million people and support the livelihoods of more than 2 billion people, mostly residing in the Global South. The relevance of such data is highlighted by the team of Crop Genetics at the Center of Plant Sciences, Sant’Anna School, on the World Food safety day. Zero Hunger is also one of the 17 Sustainable Goals set by the 2030 Agenda of the United Nations. The Plant Science research group at the Scuola Sant’Anna is studying methods to access the knowledge of smallholders and include it in quantitative methods supporting crop improvement, in the framework of AfricaConnect, a special program focusing on African themes.

In several research projects conducted in the framework of AfricaConnect, a special program of Sant’Anna School focusing on African themes, scientists from the Italian university collaborate with local farmers and institutions to employ advanced research on development issues. Countries involved in this process include EthiopiaNigerMozambiqueKenyaMalawi. There, the Sant’Anna School team in crop genetics combines plant genomics with climate science and participatory methods to accelerate the production of climate-ready plant variates that could support the sustainable intensification of local agriculture. This approach is designed to advance knowledge on local agrobiodiversity and on crop adaptation processes, while contributing to increased inclusion of local farmer communities and enhanced local food sovereignty. 

Crop varieties traditionally cultivated by smallholder farmers have local adaptation traits that respond to climate as well as to local uses. In these cropping systems there is a tight connection between culture and cropping, so that agrobiodiversity is telling a complex story made of plant genes as well as of cultivation practices and food uses.

Food security and food safety require that local growers can crop nutritious food in a sustainable and reliable way, even in the face of climate change. The key to this ability may be in the genes that are traditionally maintained in traditional agrobiodiversity and that can be accessed through participatory methods targeting traditional knowledge.

“Participatory methods – says Prof. Matteo Dell’Acqua, Coordinator of the Center of Plant Sciences – allow to tap into traditional knowledge of local farmers. This knowledge is key to support adaptation strategies to address local needs and improve food security in a sustainable way. African smallholder farming systems are a hotspot of cultural and agricultural diversity, and data-driven participatory methods could valorize this diversity for the benefit of local and international agriculture. With these methods, advanced research meets traditional knowledge unveiling great potential in interdisciplinary methods to improve the performance of crops under real farm conditions. This can help breeders and stakeholders in the selection of candidates and in fine tuning variety recommendation domains for climate adaptation in crop production”.

Agriculture is also culture. Modern approaches in data science, including DNA sequencing and climate analysis – concludes Prof. Mario Enrico Pè, among the founders of AfricaConnect – allow to break new ground towards the full understanding and valorization of local diversity to enable the sustainable intensification of smallholder agriculture”.