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Neglected Crops in Africa Could Help Ease Hunger

A woman shops for yams at Mile 12 market in Lagos, January 14, 2012.
A woman shops for yams at Mile 12 market in Lagos, January 14, 2012.
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Hello again, and welcome to As It Is! I’m Jonathan Evans in Washington.

On our program today, we tell how a new law in the United States may help hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. But first, researchers are finding new ways to ease hunger problems and improve nutrition in Africa. Christopher Cruise has this report.

Neglected Crops in Africa Could Help Ease Hunger

Things may be changing soon for some crops in Africa. A group called the African Orphan Crops Consortium says these plants are not getting enough attention. And it thinks they could help ease hunger and improve nutrition on the continent.

The consortium opened the African Plant Breeding Academy last year in Nairobi, Kenya. The academy is the result of cooperation among international organizations. They are hoping to use genetic information from 100 African plants and trees that researchers have largely ignored. But food scientists say these crops have lots of possibilities.

Howard-Yana Shapiro is a Senior Fellow at the University of California, Davis. He is also the Chief Agricultural Officer and Global Director of Plant Science and External Research for Mars Incorporated, the candy company.

Mr. Shapiro says he began thinking about ways to improve nutrition at the local level after seeing how poor nutrition affects children in Africa and India. He says a woman who does not eat right during her pregnancy can affect the physical and mental health of a baby. These problems, he says, cannot be corrected.

Mr. Shapiro spoke to VOA from Nairobi. He said the African Plant Breeding Academy will work on many different kinds of plants.

“Some of them are tree leaves, like baobob. Some of them are funny plants called ‘African nightshades.’ Some fit into a family called ‘cocoa yams.’ Some have names that are completely unfamiliar to anyone in the Western world but are the basis of daily food for a family in rural Africa.”

He says hundreds of African plants have been ignored because they are not economically important in international trade. But food scientists say the plants still have value to people in Africa.

The African Orphan Crops Consortium plans to train plant breeders and researchers over a one-year period about the genetics of these crops. The consortium hopes they will produce more food with higher nutritional levels.

“They’re being trained as I speak -- I just came from the classroom -- and they’re learning how to use these tools that this advanced laboratory will help them at their home institutions move forward breeding on these crops which are so critical.”

Mr. Shapiro says anything researchers learn will be shared with the world, without cost.

“I wanted to make the information -- put it in the public domain, to speed breeding going forward to improve the nutritive quality of these plants.

I’m Christopher Cruise.

And I’m Jonathan Evans. You are listening to As It Is from VOA Learning English.

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama signed a new Farm Bill into law. Under the legislation, the federal government will no longer guarantee automatic payments to farmers. For more on the new law, we turn again to Christopher Cruise.

New Farm Bill Becomes Law in the United States

Critics say the law replaces the old payment system with new assistance that may violate international trade rules. The law also includes changes in how the United States helps hungry people around the world.

The new Farm Bill ended five billion dollars a year in automatic payments to farmers. The president said the law sends a message to people who have abused the system.

“This bill helps to clamp down on loopholes that allowed people that received benefits whether they were planting crops or not. And it saves taxpayers hard-earned dollars by makin’ sure that we only support farmers when disaster strikes or prices drop.”
President Obama recently signed a new farm bill.
President Obama recently signed a new farm bill.
The new legislation expands programs that protect farmers from bad weather or low crop prices. It raises the lowest price growers will be paid for some crops. And it offers a taxpayer-supported insurance program to farmers. The program guarantees that their wages do not drop much from year to year.

Dan Sumner is an economist with the University of California, Davis. He told VOA on Skype that the new Farm Bill could cause problems.

“And that’s the kind of assurances that the U.S. government is willing to provide that most farmers in the world, in fact, don’t have access to.”

He adds that with the help of the government, American farmers can produce and export more crops. But he warns that could hurt crop prices.

“That drives down world prices and it’s a little tougher for the farmers in developing countries to compete with that.”

US government subsidies pushed down world cotton prices in the early 2000s. The United States lost an international trade dispute over those payments. Dan Sumner says the new Farm Bill could re-open that dispute.

But groups representing growers say trade rules do let governments pay a limited amount of subsidies to farmers. Dale Moore is the chief of policy at one of those groups, the American Farm Bureau Federation.

“We’re pretty confident that it would take an extremely bad situation for us to even come close to violating those particular limits, something the United States hasn’t come close to in years.”

Other changes in the bill should help food aid get to more needy people around the world. Aid groups will be able to spend more of the assistance they receive to buy food from markets near where it will be used. Earlier rules forced aid groups to buy food from American farmers.

Eric Munoz works for the aid group Oxfam America.

“Not only will that save money, but it’ll reach people faster. So the, the actual program of buying locally is, is a much quicker response than buying food from the United States and shipping it.”

He told VOA on Skype that with the same amount of money, help can now reach more hungry people.

I’m Christopher Cruise.

And that’s our program for today. Join us tomorrow for another As It Is. I’m Jonathan Evans. Thanks for listening!