Friends are hard to come by in times of war and when you’re hungry even a single morsel of food can be your best friend. During the 1860s, in the United States, the Civil War put food security to the test. Starvation was threatening but there was one crop which helped save the people of the South. General Robert E. Lee called it “the only unfailing friend the Confederacy ever had.”
Lee called that friend a “cornfield pea.” It’s unclear whether he thought it ironic that the crop which saved so many Confederate lives was brought to the Americas by enslaved African people. Despite the pea’s association with the evils of slavery giving it a sorry reputation, it later became a popular dish all over the South, traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day. It is better known as the cowpea or black-eyed pea and bears the affectionate name of Hoppin’ John. And it continues to save millions of people from starvation.
“The cowpea has nourished people for many centuries,” said Ousmane Boukar, a cowpea breeder working with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria. “But now it needs a hand to ensure it can continue to be an unfailing friend even while the climate crisis is affecting production.” Boukar, a Cameroonian who developed a taste for cowpeas as a child, is leading a project to unite the crop with its distant cousins in the wild to develop climate-smart varieties.