A globetrotting African grass finally comes home
After decades of improvement in tropical America, African forage grasses (whose scientific name is Brachiaria spp.) will make their way home under a new project funded by the Swedish government. Improved cultivars of the grass – selected or bred from materials originating in Africa – could not only benefit millions of the continent’s smallholder farmers but also help deal with the threat of climate change.
In addition to Brachiaria’s naturally good nutritional quality, the improved cultivars show better adaptation to infertile soils and stronger resistance to diseases and pests. That’s the secret to their success in tropical America, where farmers sow improved Brachiaria as a pasture grass on more than 25 million hectares, much of this in Brazil. One new cultivar (Mulato) is currently being tested and adopted in two dozen countries around the world.
The timing of Brachiaria’s African homecoming couldn’t be better. The region faces a serious shortage of animal feed, which is holding back the intensification of livestock production in response to rapidly rising demand for milk and meat, especially in urban areas. Overcoming the feed shortage is essential both for meeting consumer demand and for boosting the incomes of rural families who depend on mixed crop-livestock systems for a livelihood.
Brachiaria also offers a climate-smart solution to Africa’s feed shortage – one that can also help reverse land degradation. Inherently tolerant to drought, the grasses capture huge amounts of carbon – on a scale similar to that of tropical forests – and also show potential to reduce greenhouse gases emissions per unit of livestock, according to a recent review article by CIAT and partner scientists.
So that farmers can begin reaping benefits right away, project scientists will incorporate improved Brachiaria grasses into smallholder mixed crop-livestock systems, using participatory research methods. The project will also help farmers create small enterprises to sell improved forage seed. These will cater to women especially, since they bear much of the responsibility for feeding animals in zero-grazing livestock systems.
CIAT scientists will contribute to the project mainly by shedding new light on the potentially significant role of Brachiaria in climate change mitigation. To make the grasses even more climate smart, other partners will explore the ability of endophytes (beneficial fungi and bacteria living in plants) to further strengthen drought tolerance.
Funded by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), the 3-year project is being carried out by the Biosciences East and Central Africa (BecA) Hub and International Livestock Research Center (ILRI) in collaboration with CIAT, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), and Rwandan Agricultural Board (RAB).