“Lost Crops of Africa”

Lost Crops of Africa: …

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The third and final volume of the Lost Crops of Africa series was recently published by the National Academies Press. Its topic is Fruits. I just received a copy, as well as a one of the second volume on Vegetables, which was published two years ago. Vol. 1 on Grains was published in 1996.

In that gap of time is a story, but the good news is that this project has finally been brought to a successful conclusion, the result of an incredible effort by Dr. Noel Vietmeyer and Mark Dafforn. The concept is that there are a lot of important cultivated and wild foods native to Africa that are neglected in research and planning, and so in effect “lost” beyond the local areas where they are well known.

Taken together the three volumes profile 11 cultivated and several wild grains, 18 vegetables, and 24 cultivated and wild fruits. I won’t list them here, but hope to take a few moments to highlight individual species and my comments on them in the future.

I had the privilege of contributing briefly to this project in the early stages, mainly as an intern in 1992 with an office of the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council called BOSTID (Board on Science and Technology for Development). At the time the plan was for a six volume series covering grains, cultivated fruits, wild fruits, vegetables, legumes, and roots and tubers. As I was told, the idea grew out of an earlier successful project on Lost Crops of the Incas (1989), but that it very quickly it became apparent that in the case of Africa there were quite a lot of species of interest.

Unfortunately BOSTID, which had done a lot of quality (and interesting) publications since its establishment in 1970, disappeared into another office in a mid 1990s reorganization and the Lost Crops of Africa project was put on hold. Funding was found to publish Vol. 1 in 1996, but then the effort relied on Noel and Mark, and a decision was made to condense the rest of the series into two volumes. Mark led the project to ultimately complete editing and publication (sponsored by the Africa Bureau and the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance of USAID). Incredible, but altogether the effort spanned 20 years. Mark and Noel deserve a huge amount of credit for their perseverance on this project.

I haven’t found any reviews of volumes two and three, but from quick perusal these cover the quite a number of species in the same highly readable style of vol. 1 (which was summarized in the New York Times on April 23, 1996; see also a review in ODI’s Natural Resource Perspectives 23 [9/97], and a short critical perspective on H-Africa).

Altogether the contribution of this series is in bringing various edible plant species to broader attention in a world that focuses – at its risk – on a few cultivars of a few main crops. Having this information in book format is of obvious use (such volumes from the BOSTID are still referenced in the field and these post-BOSTID volumes will continue to be as well, no doubt). Much has changed since the first volume was published in terms of the technologies for disseminating information, and I’m given to think that a wiki format to complement the online versions of the books could facilitate updates and ongoing contributions by specialists in the field. That would assure the longer term impact of this important work as a living resource. Who would set it up and maintain it is another issue.


4 thoughts on ““Lost Crops of Africa””

  1. BOSTID published a series of monographs on underexploited technologies of potential economic value to developing nations. It contained about 40 volumes as I remember. Each was on a limited topic, and each drew on the volunteer efforts of large numbers of scientists who knew the research literature and offered their informed opinion on the likely value of the crop or technique.

    As Don says, the last three books in the series focused on African native plant species. I think the books on plant and animal species were especially important. I recall Bob Watson describing the series as the most cost-effective science program funded by the U.S. government. That was in the final days of the program as he and I were trying to save it.

    Unfortunately, it fell to the budget cutters ax at a time when science and technology was falling out of favor in the U.S. foreign assistance bureaucracy (and at the time I was retiring from USAID).

    Noel and Mark deserve a huge amount of credit for the work that they did on the program over the years, and especially finishing the work on the crops of Africa after USAID stopped supporting the program.

    1. Thanks John, I appreciate your responding and providing more background. Do you think that some foundation could revive BOSTID in some new guise? That is, since it had such a good reputation and there is significant renewed attention to agriculture.

  2. The Policy and Global Affairs Division of the National Research Council has the organizational capacity to resuscitate the monograph series without the creation of a new Board. It might simply, for example, create a committee to continue the exploration of underexploited genetic resources of potential economic value.

    I know that Noel and Mark spent years trying to find financial support for the continuation of their program, and were unable to keep it alive.

    The situation may now have changed. There is more interest in science and innovation in the donor community today than there was a few years ago. There is also more concern with preservation and sustainable utilization of biddiversity. Perhaps most important, new technology might make the effort more feasible. For example, a Wiki might provide a platform for the scientific community to make such information available on the Internet without the expense of writing a book, publishing it, and going through the extensive review processes used by the National Research Council for the African Crops series.

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