Scottish potato boffins to help developing nations

Yams are a vital staple food in many tropical regions. Picture: AFP/Getty
Yams are a vital staple food in many tropical regions. Picture: AFP/Getty
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SCOTTISH scientists are using their expertise in potato breeding and genetics to help growers in developing nations improve a key staple crop.

Specialists at the James Hutton Institute for agricultural research are collaborating with researchers and growers from seven countries on a five-year project aimed at improving the resilience of yams and optimising the crop’s potential.

The yam is a staple food in many tropical regions, particularly Africa, the Caribbean and the South Pacific. There are more than 600 known varieties. It is a nutritious crop, containing high levels of carbohydrate and dietary fibre as well as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Its tubers vary in size from that of a small potato up to around 2 metres in length and weighing over 60kg. More than 54 million tons are produced in sub-Saharan Africa annually, nearly all of which comes from a five-country “yam belt” that includes Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Ivory Coast.

It is the region’s highest-value crop, equivalent to the top three cereals added together.

Nigeria is the world’s largest producer and exporter, accounting for more than 70 per cent of global output.

It can be prepared in many ways, from boiling to roasting, and is often used in soups and stews. It is a key ingredient in foo-foo, a traditional mash made of starchy vegetables and plantain.

But demand massively exceeds supply due to in­adequate production and storage and a lack of technical expertise.

Genetic improvement could contribute significantly to addressing challenges from pests and diseases and poor growing conditions.

This is where Scotland’s respected tattie boffins come in.

Dr Glenn Bryan, potato genetics and breeding team leader at the institute’s Cell and Molecular Sciences group, says the challenges of yam breeding are considerable but the potential benefits are enormous.

“Yam, despite being taxonomically different from potato, shares many similarities with this important UK crop,” he said.

“Potatoes and yams are only very distantly related but they are quite similar in their biology. And they are both very important to the economies of the countries where they are grown because they are subsistence crops, they are staples.

“Yam is very important in Africa because it is a sought-after commodity for families and people at the poorer end. It’s a good crop for farmers as well because it yields a good profit. But it is beset by all kinds of problems. The crop faces many pest and disease threats, as well as storage issues, and has a complex reproductive system,” he added.

“This project is aimed at increasing the yields of this potentially highly profitable but highly challenging staple.”

Important traits for breeding include improved tuber yield and quality and resistance to diseases and pests.

As part of the $13.5 million (£8.7 million) AfricaYam initiative, which is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, seven scientists flew in from Ghana and Nigeria to Dundee last week to see at first hand what their Scots counterparts are working on.

Dr David De Koeyer, Africa­Yam project leader, said: “Yams are primary agricultural commodities and major staple crops in Africa, where yam cultivation began 11,000 years ago.

“In West Africa they are major sources of income and have high cultural value. They are used in fertility and marriage ceremonies, and a festival is held annually to celebrate its harvest.”