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UFS graduate's crop research to diversify SA food security

Marcele Vermeulen, a graduate in the Department of Plant Sciences who will receive her PhD at the December graduation ceremonies at the University of the Free State (UFS), is part of a team that is working hard to add to the diversity of staple foods in South Africa.
Marcele Vermeulen / ©Barend Nagel

Global food security is currently threatened both by climate change and the low diversity of crops relied on by humankind to feed a growing world population.

In the drive to focus on alternative crops, Vermeulen is researching the crop, Amaranthus cruentus, (grain amaranth). It is more tolerant to environmental stress for large-scale production, thereby also diversifying staple crops.

Relatively new development

"Amaranthus cruentus is an excellent candidate due to its high nutritional value and tolerance to drought and high temperatures. It can be mixed with conventional maize meal, to increase the protein intake of its consumers," said Vermeulen.

The production of A. cruentus as a grain crop in South Africa is a relatively new development.

In her research, Vermeulen explores the possible threats to crop production and paying particular attention to dominant plant pathogens in the Amaranthus cruentus, and found a correlation between fungal pathogens and insect pests.

Insect pests can influence plant diseases

Although reports on fungal pathogens and pests specific to A. cruentus are limited to and information for South Africa is limited to this study, there is a possibility that by controlling insect pests such as weevils, one might also be able to control fungal pathogens of Amaranthus cruentus.

Vermeulen believes that control of weevil pests should thus be the focus of future pest and pathogen management strategies and breeding programmes in A. cruentus.

"Knowledge gained in my thesis will hopefully aid in the development of future cultivation practices, integrated pest/pathogen management programmes, as well as for the registration of crop protection products for A. cruentus," adds Vermeulen.
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