RU grad student leads study of sustainable food

Do native African crops have a future in the US?

African vegetables like amaranth and spiderplant could one day come to American farms, supermarkets and tables, thanks to a Rutgers scientist studying heat-resistant crops to meet the threat of global warming.

David Rohan Byrnes of Highland Park, a graduate student at Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences in New Brunswick, is conducting the research after recently being awarded the 2013-14 Norman E. Borlaug International Agricultural Science and Technology Fellowship.

“I was inspired to take on a project like this through realizing as an ecology and natural resources major, as many people have realized through other means, that our food systems will have to adapt to a changing climate — in an environmental sense as much of our growing regions are getting warmer, as well as in a cultural sense as the demographics and demand for a variety of healthier foods is intensifying,” Byrnes said. “I am evaluating a few plants for nutrition, their positive and negative traits, which are the top 10 leafy green vegetables consumed in sub-Saharan Africa, as part of the process to open exporting markets for small-holder African farmers,” he said.

“One of those plants, amaranth, is popular with ethnic groups in our area, including countries from Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, as well as India,” he added. “This crop has made its way onto supermarket shelves as a gluten-free grain, but we are interested in it as a leafy vegetable because it is often compared to spinach, yet it can be grown during the heat of the summer when spinach cannot. This presents the opportunity to market the vegetable as a locally sourced option.”

“However, little is known of the nutritional content, which given the rate of malnutrition in Feed the Future countries, this is a major priority,” he said. “So ... we are developing these crops to be rich sources of nutrition for consumers and sustainable sources of income for farmers.”

Byrnes is scheduled to travel to Tanzania to continue this work in early next year. African indigenous vegetables, consumed by millions in sub-Sahara Africa, have not been well studied. His research will help characterize the nutritional composition and anti-nutritional factors of amaranth, vegetable nightshade and spiderplant.


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