Understanding Orphan Crops: Sometimes it’s a Difference Between Life and Death

Katrien Devos studies switchgrass both as a renewable fuel source and as a forage. 

Improving the likelihood of a healthy crop of millet can mean the difference between small farmers in Africa or India being able to feed their families, or watching their children go hungry.

But “orphan” crops like millet don’t get much attention. Much more research is focused on creating higher yields for crops in the developed world, such as corn and wheat.

“Certainly if you want to do research on millets, in the US or in the UK, it is hard to get funding,” said molecular geneticist Katrien Devos, Professor of Plant Biology at the Institute of Plant Breeding, Genetics & Genomics at the University of Georgia.

“So getting a little bit more yield, for corn or wheat, sure it’s nice, the prices might go down a little bit. But it’s very different when you are actually in Africa where people don’t have enough to eat, where it can make a difference between life and death,” she said.

Many people may only know millet as an exotic cereal found in health food stores.

Yet this ancient crop, perhaps older than wheat, is a source of sustenance for millions of families. Finger millet is grown mostly in East Africa. Pearl millet is important in India and West Africa.

The work of Devos and her team on these little known crops is now getting unexpected attention because of our warming planet.

“These crops are really adapted to harsh environments. And so with climate change, and much more erratic rainfall patterns, I think there will be a need for having crops that are much better adjusted to those conditions,” said Devos.

Devos said beginning work on any orphan crop can be a thankless task. Often visiting researchers in Africa and India would promote the crops they knew, even when local conditions may not have been appropriate.

“And so there wasn’t a lot of interest on any level for indigenous crops, except for the people who live there,” she said.

Devos has a grant from the BREAD program (Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development), a partnership between the National Science Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support innovative basic scientific research to assist agriculture in the developing world. She works with collaborators in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and the United States.

“It allows us to develop the tools that we need to bring finger millet breeding into the 21st century,” said Devos.

Devos owes her career path to an inspiring high school biology teacher and biking trips in her native Belgium that exposed her to many varieties of plants. In fact, she decided upon a career in plant research before she entered college. Plants were more intriguing to her than animals.

“When we went out cycling, my brother was always looking at the sky and birds and animals, and I was always looking at the ground at plants. Also, plants don’t run away, “ she laughed.

A crucial part of where Devos focuses her research is to find out exactly what would be most beneficial to local growers.

“Basically what I am asking the breeders is, what are the traits that are important? Is it drought, or disease resistance? One thing you have to realize is when you are working with developing countries’ crops, so little research has gone into it, you really have to start from the base,” she said.

She and her collaborators work on blast fungus, which kills a lot of millet plants. While there are fungicides to treat it, the cost is prohibitive for subsistence farmers. Devos is working to develop host plant resistance to this fungus, to keep yields up even when there’s an infection.

“Finger millet is an inbreeding crop, meaning it is self pollinated. So once you start doing crosses, you can bring in genes for disease resistance for example, or for higher protein content. That’s where the real importance comes of crosses. You don’t have to put it in by genetic manipulation, you can just do it by breeding,” she said.

Along with being a AAAS Fellow, Devos has also been recognized with one of the University of Georgia’s top research awards: the Creative Research Medal, for “the pioneering and globally engaged nature of her work” in making subsistence farming communities more food-secure.

Scholarly creativity is something she nurtures in her students and post docs.

“Certainly there is an amount of routine experiments but in the end, if you want to discover something new, you really have to think of new ways of doing it.”

Devos also studies switchgrass. While it has been promoted for its promise as a biofuel, the current US political climate has put the future of renewable fuels in unknown territory. But that has not slowed her research.

“Switchgrass appealed to me because of its potential as a biofuel crop, and secondly, it also is grown as a forage. Very little had been done on switchgrass, so whether it would take off as a biofuel crop or not, whatever the research we would be doing would still be important, to improve switchgrass as a forage crop,“ she said.

Devos teaches a genetic mapping course, as well as several practical courses for graduate students such as grant writing and research ethics. She said her students reflect the global nature of her work.

“Diversity is really important in my lab,” she said. “People do have completely different approaches on doing things. Because it is not just the science. Somebody may be better trained in science than another person, but another may contribute more life lessons. You have different cultural influences. In most cases I find it works very well. Everybody learns from everybody.”