Knowledge for a sustainable world

Ben Bennett, Gillian Summers, Philip C Stevenson, Sarah Arnold

Ethiopia faces multiple interacting development challenges linked to environmental change and land degradation, which have negative consequences for food security. As a plant diversity hotspot for both wild plants and domesticated crops, Ethiopia harbours biological resources that could play important roles in solving these challenges. UK Research and Innovation, through the Global Challenges Research Fund, are funding a new project collaboration between Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and Professor Phil Stevenson at NRI, NRI’s Dr Sarah Arnold and Professor Ben Bennett, and partners in Ethiopia including Professor Sebsebe Demissew, a botanist from Addis Ababa University. The project aims to enable the realisation of the potential of Ethiopia’s abundant and unique plant diversity to address global challenges in food security, health and nutrition, and poverty and displacement.

This new project is part of a ‘Challenge Cluster’ which will conduct research and capacity building to identify and manage areas of high plant diversity, to develop value chains around currently underutilised plants and to critically evaluate the roles that plant diversity can play in addressing development challenges. The crops to be studied include Faba bean (Vicia faba), a legume eaten as a snack and commonly added to stews in Ethiopian cuisine, noug (Guizotia abyssinica) an oilseed, sometimes known as ‘nigerseed’, and enset or the false banana (Ensete ventricosum) which is the principal starch staple for 20 million Ethiopians.

One example of existing activities being undertaken by the project cluster is identifying varieties of enset with high content of the essential micronutrients zinc and iron that can potentially help to address chronic malnutrition. Further crop varieties possessing resilience to climatic stressors and other valuable traits are almost certainly waiting to be discovered. Likewise, genetic diversity within wild relatives is likely to offer useful traits that can be used in crop improvement for more sustainable and resilient agriculture, while rural communities may be able to benefit from economic opportunities and new value chains based on products from areas of high plant diversity.

Professor Phil Stevenson and Dr Sarah Arnold will develop approaches to measure the ecosystem services of pollination and natural pest regulation associated with important areas of plant diversity to help understand the benefits and trade-offs of plant diversity on food production. Professor Ben Bennett will focus on the socio-economic impacts of areas of high wild and domesticated plant diversity to inform their sustainable and equitable management, evaluate associated plant-product value chains and their roles in addressing broader local and regional development challenges.

As wild and domesticated plant diversity is lost to the conversion and degradation of natural habitats and the homogenisation of agricultural landscapes, the opportunity to apply Ethiopia's indigenous plant diversity to address development challenges is rapidly diminishing. The research in this project is urgently needed to identify and manage the most important remaining hotspots of Ethiopian plant diversity.

This project builds on over 30 years of successful collaborations between Kew and NRI, and between the UK and an extensive network of Ethiopian partner universities, institutes and communities. It seeks to urgently identify and manage the most important remaining hotspots of Ethiopian plant diversity, whilst building an evidence base for the botanical and ecosystem service benefits that these hotspots can provide to local communities and Ethiopia as a whole.

This award is one of over 140 projects, across 18 calls, that form the UKRI GCRF Collective Programme, designed to enhance the overall impact across UKRI’s six strategic GCRF Challenge portfolios in global health, education, sustainable cities, food systems, conflict and resilience. Research across these is contributing to realising the ambitions of the UK Government’s aid strategy and progressing the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Links: Profiles: Professor Phil Stevenson | Professor Ben Bennett | Dr Sarah Arnold | Professor Sebsebe Demissew

UKRI | GCRF | UKRI announcement