afrol News, 27 September - Researchers specialising in cowpea production are currently gathered in Dakar, Senegal, trying to forward their "revolution" of African agriculture. Cowpeas are "the perfect crop for Africa," they hold.
According to the scientists gathered in Dakar, there are almost no limits to what a wider use of cowpeas could mean for Africa. The "long neglected crop" is said to have "the potential to halt hunger for millions in Africa, sustain the livestock revolution underway in developing countries, rejuvenate nutrient-sapped soils, and even feed astronauts on extended space missions."
"It is hard to imagine a more perfect crop, particularly for Africa, where food production lags behind population growth, demand for livestock products is soaring, and climate change is bringing new stresses to already challenging growing conditions," said Christian Fatokun of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).
But, Mr Fatokun, who himself is a cowpea breeder, said, "fulfilling the promise of this marvellous legume requires intensive efforts to deal with threats that inhibit production and long-term storage."
"The good news in Senegal is that researchers will be revealing new and innovative approaches to dealing with the pests and weeds that attack cowpeas at every stage of their lifecycle and with the voracious weevils that devour dried cowpeas," he added.
The cowpea, which is also known as the black-eyed pea, is one of the world's oldest crops. It is currently cultivated on 10 million hectares, mainly in Central and West Africa, but also in India, Australia, North America, and parts of Europe.
Cowpeas are treasured for their high protein content - grains contain about 25 percent protein - leaves and stalks that serve as especially nutritious fodder for farm animals, and the fact that their roots provide nitrogen to depleted soils.
For many in Africa, the crop is a critical source of food during the "lean period" - the end of the wet season when food can become extremely scarce in semi-arid regions of sub-Saharan Africa. Cowpeas provide strong yields, even in hot and dry conditions, and scientists are developing ever more resilient varieties.
In addition to human food security, especially the animal feed potentials of cowpeas in Africa is seen as enormous. Scientists at IITA say new "dual use" cowpea varieties bred to satisfy both human and animal nutrition needs could be generating US$ 299 million to US$ 1.1 billion by 2020, given their potential to simultaneously boost livestock production and reduce hunger.
This widely ranging and rapidly intensifying interest is currently being highlighted at the World Cowpea Conference in Dakar, where ground-breaking work in all aspects of cowpea production would be showcased.
For example, new research presented at the conference focuses on the successful use of cutting-edge genome analysis tools to probe cowpea DNA for genetic traits associated with prized qualities like drought and disease resistance. "When we can zero in on a particular place in the genome and essentially point to the DNA that is providing the traits we want," said Mr Fatokun.
But also the cowpea beetle is widely treated at the Dakar conference. One reason cowpeas are not as widely cultivated as corn or rice is that storage of dried peas is complicated by the tiny reddish-brown beetle, which rapidly reproduces in traditional grain sacks and renders the food inedible.
At the conference, scientists from the US and Niger are reporting on an effort to disseminate a simple storage technology to African farmers, which comprises a three-layer plastic bag that shuts off the oxygen required to fuel a beetle population explosion.
Other research discussed at the conference focuses on the challenges of translating cowpea production into income and how to encourage wider adoption of improved cowpea varieties along with better approaches to cultivation and storage.
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