Siobhan Gardiner, a PhD student at Cranfield University, is a 2017 recipient of the SCI’s David Miller Travel Bursary Award. The award aims to give early career plant scientists or horticulturists the opportunity of overseas travel in connection with their horticultural careers. In September this year, Siobhan travelled to the International Society of Horticultural Science (ISHS) symposium, in Antananarvio, Madagascar. The Symposium was titled ‘Survey of Uses of Plant Genetic Resources to the Benefit of Local Populations’ and here Siobhan reports on her experience.
Madagascar is in the process of rolling out its national strategy for the protection, conservation and sustainable usage of plant genetic resources. The objective is to ensure the equitable sharing of benefits arising from their use in harmony with food, agriculture, local populations and local ecosystem services. To this day, the combined effects of uncontrolled exploitation of resources and natural constraints has caused widespread genetic erosion as a downstream consequence of domestication. With 70% crops grown within a country (on average) being historically non-native, interdependency between providing countries is increasing with the stresses of climate change and the adaptive capacity of many traditional crop varieties.
A unique hotspot
As a unique biodiversity hotspot, 90% of Madagascar’s 12,000 or so plant species are endemic. Rich plant genetic resources remain unstudied and traditional knowledge is increasingly realised as being just as important as the plant germplasm itself. Food insecurity amongst the majority-small holder agricultural communes remains a key priority for policy makers in the Indian Ocean region, and there is growing international engagement between development agencies, researchers and private organisations.
One such example is the work of the world vegetable centre, who presented projects on the promotion of household gardening with traditional African vegetables to improve diets of children and young women. Malnutrition in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda causes stunting in 26-35% of young children, and 73% of young children are anaemic. The figures in Madagascar are similar. The ‘home garden scaling project’ works to build capacity of target households to improve vegetable production skills, availability of seeds, and nutritional awareness. The results of these studies have reinforced the need for adaptive research in safe and effective pest and disease management strategies that would be suitable for a home garden setting.
Working together in collaboration
A collaboration between the Madagascan ministry of agriculture and other agencies in the Indian Ocean region has focused on chemo-diversity of dye plants, and the capitalisation of local knowledge and entrepreneurship to improve local revenues and applications in food manufacturing. Due to its insularity and unique soils, many endemic plants are rich in pigments, anthraquinones and flavonoids. Their continued work will seek to improve extractions and use in other areas, but most importantly – to protect the traditional knowledge associated with these natural dyes, and the growing local economies that have been founded on women entrepreneurs in small holder communities.
Vanilla remains a key cash crop in Madagascar, with small holder farmers struggling to keep up with increasing demand for naturally derived flavours against adverse weather, disease outbreaks and price volatility. Whilst research continues in increasing production capacity and resilience in the natural vanilla supply chain – there is an increasing interest in producing natural vanillin in Madagascar as a cheaper and easier source of flavouring. One way is through the bioconversion of eugenol derived from cloves, which as a crop was introduced to Madagascar in the nineteenth century. The island is now the second biggest producer of cloves worldwide, with annual production varying between 10,000 and 15,000 tons, providing incomes for around 60,000 small holder growers in the Malagasy east coast. The horticultural centre of Tamatave is seeking to secure supply and increased production capacity of cloves in the region, which is also under stress from poorly understood horticultural systems, poor flowering and irregular tree-level performance.
A web portal has been launched to protect the conservation of tropical genetic resources like vanilla and cloves, and help the dissemination of common procedures for propagation and horticultural management. This included input from CIRAD in Reunion, who preserve collections of vanilla from Africa, Asia and the Americas (48 accessions). The genetic resources are conserved under an insect proof shade house and populated through in vitro propagation. In accordance with OECD recommendations, the facility has obtained a quality management certificate to French industry standards which guarantees the safety, durability and quality of the genetic resources conserved and disseminated. Its maintenance requires specific expertise and financial resources dedicated in the long term. Networking by promoting synergies will ultimately enhance the effectiveness of such collections in the future.
In general, it is widely seen across many developing nations that cash crop markets heavily influence the decisions made by impoverished small holder communities and landscape dynamics. The Mananara North Biosphere Reserve in Madagascar is no exception. It is a very rich area not only in terms of endemic biodiversity, but in cash crops such as vanilla, cloves and coffee. It is also an area which is exposed to cyclones, market changes caused by political crisis and price fluctuations at a local level. This has prompted an increase in the rate of the unsustainable mobilisation of forest resources in the quest for suitable land. The University of Antananarivo is seeking to continue research in this area to encourage action and investment in the protection of such resources, whilst securing food sovereignty and resilience of local communities to these challenges.
Much of the local research presented by peers here in Madagascar is focused on qualitative socioeconomic data capture on the habits and behaviours of small holders, as they respond to market and environmental challenges. Looking ahead, what they need to move forwards in implementing systemic change in the field – is the technical and financial infrastructure through international collaborations to turn these insights into action.
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