Forgotten Crops: The key to good nutrition & food security

I believe it’s time to bring back diversity to our food systems and bring back those ‘forgotten crops’.

Over the last century our industrial food systems have become dominated by just four crops – rice, maize, wheat and soybean – of which the three cereals provide well over 50% of plant-based human foods. Global populations have become dependent on these few key crops, production of which has tripled in less than 50 years. This reliance on a few globally traded crops for the most significant proportion of our nutritional needs, is I would argue, a significant challenge to meeting the nutritional and food security needs of a growing global population, particularly in parts of Africa and SE Asia, where the impacts of climate change are going to be most acute.

We know that biological diversity in the natural world is key to ecological resilience and yet we often forget that diversity of crops within our food system is key to the resilience of our food system, particularly in the context of unprecedented environmental, social and economic changes which are on there way. The latest Global Nutrition Report (2017 IFPRI) highlights that nutrition is still a large-scale and universal problem and that too many people are being left behind from the benefits of improved nutrition. 2 billion people lack key micronutrients like iron and vitamin A, 155 million children are stunted, 2 billion are overweight and the world is significant off the tracks in terms of meeting global nutrition goals (Sustainable Development Goals, UN decade for Nutrition etc). Dependence on a small number of cereal crops has in my view exacerbated these challenges.

Forgotten crops (sometimes referred to as underutilised or orphan crops) comprise the multitude of species that are currently largely neglected by major research, funding bodies and global food manufacturers/retailers. They have largely been ignored or neglected by advances in technology, policy, advocacy or marketing. They include cereals, grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, fruits, vegetables and roots. Although these species have long been overlooked, interest is growing in their potential to contribute to food and nutritional security and improved livelihood options for subsistence farmers.

There are over 20,000 species of edible plants in the world yet fewer than 20 species now provide 90% of our food – A number of which have the potential to yield under a range of soils and climates that unfavourable for, production of the more common staple crops whilst providing nutritionally superior forms of food with a wide range of micro-nutrients and minerals.

Quinoa is perhaps the best example of a crop that has come back into vogue, however there several hundred that offer real potential to address nutritional and sustainability needs. I will highlight a few of those, which have potential in various parts of the world:

  1. Pigeon Pea – A perennial legume grown in Africa and India. Pigeon pea has taproots which grow deep under the ground, reaching to a depth of six feet. It is drought resistant and its deep roots help in improving infiltration of water into the soil. As a legume it contributes nitrogen to the soil. They are rich in proteins and minerals.
  2. Millett – A small-seeded nutrient-rich cereal grains which have been cultivated since the dawn of agriculture. It is drought tolerant and can be grown on marginal lands in African and Asian countries. They are particularly adept at growing in semi arid regions and are draught resistant. They are also high in amino acids and other essential micronutrients.
  3. Winged Bean – Native plant of West Africa and SE Asia (although believed to originate in Papua New Guinea). It is a perennial climbing plant, characterised by its tuberous roots. Its roots seeds, leaves and pods are all edible and are rich sources of protein.
  4. Amaranth – A plant from Central America where it was an important food for the Aztec, Mayan and Incan civilisations. It’s starting to attract more attention mainly due to the high nutritional value of the seeds, resistance to drought and ability to produce grains in a relatively short time.

One of the most exciting and significant initiatives emerging in recent years is ‘Crops for the Future’ , the world’s first centre dedicated to research on underutilised crops for food and non-food uses. Hosted by the Malaysian government, it aims to improve food and nutrition security and health and incomes of the poor, by promoting underutilised crops and agricultural biodiversity. With little publicity, Prince Charles visited the centre at the end of 2017 and launched the Forgotten Foods Network, a global initiative that collects and shares information on foods, recipes and traditions around forgotten foods.

I for one believe that the solutions to some of the food systems challenges today, lie in the past as well as the future. Now is a time that businesses, governments and the research community need to look beyond the traditional ‘big four’ species into the diverse foods that used to be commonplace in the diets of past generations. We need to look beyond the world of bio-fortification as a solution to hunger and malnutrition and start to invest in, celebrate and champion plant crop diversity.

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