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Better Chickens, Improved Food Security in Africa

Courtesy of Sue Lamont

One extra egg a day. What would that mean to your family?

Susan Lamont, a distinguished professor of animal science at Iowa State University, says for many families in Africa it could be significant.

“When we look at food security in Africa, we have to recognize that for the poorest people there, their diets are very deficient in protein. This can have huge impacts, especially on cognitive development of young children,” Lamont said.

“And so even being able to provide a family with perhaps an egg a day into their diet is going to have a very large impact on the health of the family.”

Improving the diets and the food security of families in Ghana and Tanzania is one of the goals of an international collaboration, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, that took Lamont to the continent earlier this year.

Specifically, Lamont said the project will use sophisticated genetic tools and the expertise of researchers at Iowa State and the University of California, Davis, to understand the genetics of the chickens found in the African countries.

“What we will do, after we identify the genes and the genetic variance that are important for good health, we [will] use that information to survey a large number of chickens,” Lamont said. “And we can predict which ones will pass on to their offspring the best resistance to diseases.”

Diseases including Newcastle Disease, a highly contagious respiratory illness that is known in the U.S. but is not usually as virulent as the strain found in parts of Africa. Lamont says it can be devastating there, especially for small farmers.

“They might not know the details of what Newcastle Disease is, but they see that, particularly in the dry seasons, when the disease comes through they can lose half of their birds,” Lamont said. “And that’s a tremendous loss for a small farmer.”

Lamont says once the strongest genetics are identified, the American scientists will work with colleagues at universities in Ghana and Tanzania to breed those traits into future generations of stronger, healthier birds. They will also forge relationships with local communities to get the better chickens to farmers and families.

“This will also give [us] the opportunity to give training to children in good practices of husbandry, raising those birds,” Lamont said, “and those schools can serve as distribution sites for the improved stock.”

Lamont traveled to Tanzania and Ghana in January, along with others working on the project. It was her first visit to Africa and she said it gave her a new perspective on topics she had considered only intellectually. And the poverty and lack of infrastructure she saw only reinforced the importance of the project.

“I knew it with my head,” she said of how different life is for many there, “but until you are there and you see it and you see the very marginal living that most people have, it’s hard to fully appreciate that.”

If they succeed in breeding better chickens, some families may have another egg on the table. Or perhaps even a dozen.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.