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Ancient crop in new spotlight

The cowpea, also known as the black-eyed pea, is one of the world's most ancient crops.
by Staff Writers
Dakar, Senegal (UPI) Oct 1, 2010
One of the world's oldest crops could combat hunger for millions, sustain livestock in developing countries an even feed astronauts in space, researchers say.

Scientists from around the world gathered in Dakar, Senegal, last week to talk about the wonder crop at the Fifth World Cowpea Research Conference, a release from the organizers, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, said.

The cowpea, also known as the black-eyed pea, is one of the world's most ancient crops and is currently cultivated on 24 million acres, mainly in Central and West Africa, but also in India, Australia, North America and parts of Europe.

It was brought to the Americas on slave ships and became a favorite of President George Washington, who was looking for a variety of pea that could withstand the warm climates of the southern United States.

"It's hard to imagine a more perfect crop, particularly for Africa, where food production lags behind population growth, demand for livestock products is soaring, and climate change is bringing new stresses to already challenging growing conditions," Christian Fatokun of the IITA said.

For many in Africa, the crop is a critical source of food during the "lean period," the end of the wet season when food can become extremely scarce in semi-arid regions of sub-Saharan Africa.

Cowpeas provide strong yields, even in hot and dry conditions, and scientists are developing ever more resilient varieties.

Even NASA is on the cowpea bandwagon. With the plant's ability to produce nutritious leaves in only about 20 days, NASA scientists are considering sending cowpeas to the International Space Station, where they could be cultivated to provide food for astronauts.

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