Friday, 30 March 2018

Next Einstein Forum Closes on a High, Awarding High Impact Innovations

The third and final day of Next Einstein Forum (NEF) Global Gathering 2018 in Kigali on Wednesday kicked off on a sober tone with "Breakthroughs from across the world" looking first at how indigenous crops on the continent could be harnessed to meet the challenge of climate change and food scarcity.



Dr Sayed Azam-Ali, the chief executive and founder of Crops for the Future, explained the necessity for science and technology to be used to access and retain the knowledge of "super foods" naturally found in Africa by using climate solutions to translate that knowledge into contemporary practices.

Crops for the Future has designed biotechnology applications for the genetic improvement of underutilised crops, as well as a database capturing crops and agricultural methods of remote rural farmers that often only exists orally.

The company then applies this knowledge to grow the crops industrially and modify them into consumer products.   

"When an African farmer dies it said that an entire library dies with her," Ali said as he introduced his company's research into the genetic mapping and archiving of crops such as the Bambara groundnut - a drought resistant plant with antioxidant properties originating in West Africa, with a nutritional value higher than that of fresh cow's milk and soy beans.

"There are four crops that Africa needs to survive in the future and unfortunately those plants are not found on the continent. What we have done is developed the first database of underutilized crops ... We can turn this pyramid around and put these indigenous crops back on top of the pyramid." 

In the discussion "Feeding the World" Director at the World Bank for Food and Agriculture Dr Simeon Ehui warned that "yield decline of cereal crops in Africa could reach about 27 percent to as much as 50 percent due to climate change".

"We need to do much more. Climate change does not have any borders," Ehui warned. The response from NEF fellow and biotech specialist Dr Sanushka Naidoo was a call for more coordinated research into genetic modification to improve crops and yields.

"We can select drought resistant varieties using genetic markers. We can look at the genome specifics. We are also looking at how to use gene editing to look at the susceptibility of certain plants," said Dr Naidoo, whose research at the University of Pretoria focuses on mechanisms to produce long-lasting resistance to pests and pathogens in certain crops.

"Do we have the skill to master gene modification? If we don't we are doomed," concluded Dr Ousmane Badiane, Africa Director at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

On diseases, the NEF audience heard of Professor Chamindie Punyadeera's use of saliva samples, rather than blood or other invasive procedures, to detect oropharyngeal cancers, the sixth most common cancer in the world.

"Give it another five years and you'll see doctors and dentists using these techniques. This should increase the chances of opportunistic testing," Punyadeera said, adding that detection of HPV virus, a prevalent and easily contracted sexually transmitted virus that can lead to cancer, could be decreased by using saliva detection.

The cost of saliva testing kits was currently at around $40 per kit, but that was coming down as its application became widespread, Punyadeera said.

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