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TESTING GROUND : California Researchers Join the Effort to Stop Another African Famine

October 06, 1985|DAVID DeVOSS

To the north there lies a desert as harsh as any moonscape. Beyond the ragged mountains, the inferno turns to dust. The western coast feigns temperance, but its image is deceiving, for seasons there are normally marked by fire and flood.

The irony of this bleak portrait is that it describes both Southern California and the African Sahel, a vast crescent of arid poverty extending south from the Sahara Desert.

There are plenty of parallels linking America's richest agricultural state to the world's most benighted quadrant. The fertility of the Gambia River delta equals the fertility of the irrigated farmlands around Sacramento. Summer heat in the Imperial Valley matches that of the Nubian desert in northern Sudan. The same pattern of salinity that limits horticulture in the western San Joaquin Valley also stunts crops planted on Senegal's plateaus.

In California, agronomists largely have overcome the state's climate and topography through research conducted in laboratories and at experimental farms. African leaders hope the technology developed here will slow their Malthusian spiral before the clash of uncontrolled population growth and diminishing resources ends in disaster.

For the 26 African nations that are chronically food-deficient, the greening of California has special significance. "Heroic challenges successfully met seem to rejuvenate you Americans," says Siteke Mwale, special assistant to Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda. "If your scientific methods of agriculture could be applied with African patience, our lack of productivity might eventually be resolved."

The apocalyptic drought that has killed 3 million Africans, turned 10 million others into refugees and placed another 13 million at risk has emblazoned as never before the ugly face of famine on America's conscience. But long before the rain stopped falling three years ago, California academics were trying to ensure the production of essential foodstuffs.

For African farmers the immediate priority is survival, and to that end Anthony Hall, a 45-year-old plant physiologist at UC Riverside, has invested nine years researching the cowpea. A legume, the cowpea is rich in protein and well adapted to arid soils, a quality appreciated in northern Senegal, where annual rainfall has dropped from 16 to 8 inches.

Supported by a grant of $600,000 from the U.S. Agency for International Development, Hall is breeding cowpeas for greater heat tolerance and growth potential. It's an arduous task that keeps him shuttling between Africa's bush, the Imperial Valley and experimental nurseries at the Riverside campus in search of plants with heightened resistance to drought.

"UC research is designed for application on California farms, but in the Sahel people are starving," says Hall. "If a new cowpea germplasm developed here can reduce Senegal's dependence on international relief, I think both sides will benefit."

The breadth of the cooperative effort is typified by the work of William Sims, a vegetable specialist at the University of California at Davis, who has introduced genetically improved tomatoes to 27 developing countries. In Egypt, where he's a paid consultant to the Ministry of Agriculture, farmers quadrupled the size of their harvests by switching to a high-yield varietal developed at Davis.

The tomato may be merely a garnish to some, but to Sims it's the panacea for much of what ails Black Africa. "The tomato contains more Vitamin C than an orange," he says, beaming. "Africa's problem is a lack of technical advice. Ethiopians still plant a tomato that's 40 years old."

Unfortunately, increased production does not always result in higher levels of nutrition. Tropical countries lose a quarter of their grain harvests to rats, insects and spoilage from faulty storage. The average is even higher in the Sahel, where roads and refrigeration seldom extend beyond the cities.

"Most of the world's good land already is under cultivation," says Joseph Eckert, a UC plant pathologist who in 1964 developed an inexpensive fungicide that prevents mold from appearing on citrus after the fruit is brought home from the store. Today, his advice is sought by Egypt, Thailand and numerous West African countries, which collectively lose 26% of their oranges to post-harvest disease. "It's more cost-effective to prevent mold and fungi than to clear and plant marginal jungle land," Eckert says,contemplating the still life composed by a mound of decaying fruit.

Animal disease rivals the drought as a destroyer of protein in Africa. The perspective of doctors involved with the largest veterinary research program in the world--an undertaking at the UC School of Veterinary Medicine in Davis with a $16-million budget--is that the best way to keep food fresh is to keep it alive. But maintaining healthy livestock is no easy task in Africa, since a lack of vaccines and other treatments allows a host of parasites to thrive.

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