In these times when the climate is changing, forests are under increasing pressure from logging, and agriculture is taking up more land, conservation of plant genetic resources is a priority. The rate of plants (and animals) becoming extinct has for a long time been increasing at an alarming pace. In the SADC region, as elsewhere globally, the problem has been recognized by scientists, and action is being taken to counter the problem.
The SADC Plant Resources Centre (SPGRC) – one of the NEPAD-SANBio nodes and one the BioFISA II BPU visited on October 19th – was established already back in 1989 with the help of Nordic donors. SPGRC’s motto is “Safeguarding plant diversity for sustainable livelihoods”. Their main focus is on cultivable and edible plants in terms of agriculture, but they also maintain wild fruit trees and medicinal plant species in their arboretum.
Their mandate is to conserve the plant genetic resources of the region through a network of National Plant Genetic Resources Centres, thereby contributing to the wellbeing of people in the region. As a part of this mandate they develop databases of the mandate species, germplasm (seed) collection and conservation, in-situ conservation and development of harmonization of PGR-related legislation in the region.
Their base collection and the smaller national seed collections ensure, for example, that if crops are wiped out due to natural disasters or droughts caused by climate change, some seeds are still safe and available for remedying the situation and avoiding the loss of important cultivars. Furthermore, under the BioFISA I programme and as a part of their efforts in conserving biodiversity, SPGRC developed policy guidelines on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.
As we all know, different plant species have numerous uses; and many (if not most) of the potential uses remain undiscovered. In addition to their use as food, plants have been used as traditional remedies – and, for example, as insecticides – since times historical, and preservation of such indigenous knowledge and resources (which forms a part of what the SANBio nodes focusing on plant genetic resources preservation and indigenous knowledge systems do) still remains a fertile field for scientific discoveries through validation and examining the optimal means of practical application.
The SANBio node focusing on livestock, co-hosted by the National Institute of Scientific and Industrial Research and the University of Zambia, has previously taken this approach. Back in 2009, under the BioFISA I programme, the node started researching a potential means of getting rid of ticks feeding on cattle which spread various diseases, including theileriosis, causing substantial economic losses. A huge number of small farmers lose many heads of cattle to tick-borne diseases on an annual basis. Dip tanks traditionally used to eradicate these pests are often long distances away from the farms, and their use is both expensive and inconvenient.
Looking into more economic and convenient ways to allow farmers to kill ticks, the researchers started looking into the properties of local plants to solve the problem. They discovered that Tephrosia plants contain natural agaricides that, after a simple extraction process, can be sprayed on cattle to achieve a similar effect to dip tanks. Not only have farmers benefited – over 500 have been trained over the years – but the initial results were encouraging enough for future development and research regarding Tephrosia Vogelii and related species that according to initial studies also contain additional useful properties, such as antifungal activity.
These simple examples demonstrate how different research institutions contribute towards a better future via different means which are, however, more often than not interlinked. And indeed, while each SANBio node has a specific focus, it is not limiting as even specific expertise can be applied to activities in other bioscience areas – and such efforts also facilitate networking which, in turn, is one of the most common contributors towards new innovations – cross-cutting and cross-disciplinary research and cooperation is fast increasing in importance in the globalizing world.