Issues Magazine

Biodiversity Back on the Menu: Will Traditional Crops Return to the Dinner Table?

By Michael Hermann and Nick Pasiecznik

Healthy diets, like healthy ecosystems and economies, depend on diversity. Despite calls for more diversity in food and underlying crop systems, the world has witnessed research and development focusing almost exclusively on a handful of crops. Much more needs to be done to turn rhetoric into reality.

Half of all the calories consumed by the world’s human population today originate from only three plants – rice, wheat and maize – which are eaten directly or fed to livestock. The top 15 “commodity” crops provide nine-tenths of humanity’s calorie intake, while there are more than 10,000 edible plant species.

As we await changing and more unpredictable climates in the future, it would seem to make good sense not to put our eggs into so few baskets. Yet we have witnessed the absolute opposite in recent decades: the intensification of agricultural systems and the reduction of the number of crops (and animals) in them. Increasing globalisation of trade and changing lifestyles again favour these few major crops, and the demands for research, and hence funding, inevitably concentrate heavily on these same commodities and their means of production.

As a result, many traditional crops and varieties have become neglected and underutilised, some to the point of extinction. Food plants, as well as others once more widely used for fodder, fibre, medicine or construction material, are part of a rich economic, social and cultural heritage and diversity that need not only preserving, but promoting. Many can play a much more important role than they do today in improving food security and ecosystem health and stability, and successes already seen with a few provide good examples of what can be done.

Biodiversity is important for sustaining our survival, and one way of protecting biodiversity is by supporting the use and appreciation of plant species that are currently neglected and underutilised.

Increasing Diversity and Biodiversity within Farming Systems

Underutilised crops in more diversified farming systems help farmers sustain their nutritional, environmental and financial security, providing better buffers against the increasing frequency and severity of droughts, floods and pest infestations, and against economic crises. Farmers traditionally use a variety of coping strategies to alleviate periodic hunger. They grow crops that are more tolerant to environmental extremes, maximise the use of local trees and food plants, use a variety of species and plant parts for balanced nutrition, and spread the harvesting period over the lean periods of the year. It is essential that strategies aimed at spreading risk are better understood, and that the best examples are further promoted.

But, in contrast to these facts, we watch as the homogenisation of agriculture focuses on only a few dozen major crops. Thousands of others of local or potential value are overlooked – by markets, by agricultural research and development, and by governments and policy-making bodies. Much more research investment is needed to narrow productivity, knowledge and technology gaps to make them more competitive with established staples and cash crops. They are valuable tools to cope with future challenges but, as with all good tools, they must be well-maintained to be effective.

Economic shocks are another reason to diversify. The 2008 food crisis saw many poor people return to using traditional food plants when the price of staple grains rose to unprecedented highs. Why not promote their increased use to offset suffering in the event of similar events in the future?

Crops for the Future: Paths out of Poverty

In smallholder agriculture, underutilised species often play vital roles, providing essential food, vitamins and/or income during times of the year when other farm produce may be scarce. Investing in increasing their production and commercialisation especially benefits poor farming families who depend on them – but underutilised crops have been largely overlooked in the “revolutions” of various colours and types that have tended to concentrate on only commodity and established cash crops.

Traditional crops are only seen as a side salad on the plate of agricultural development, a mere “something” of little nutritional value that is just for “show”. However, such crops should be seen as they are: as the spinach, the pulse, the powerhouse that provides all the extras that staples do not, and that sustains growth when there is little else on the menu.

A number of organisations with a global mandate are working towards these aims, however, such as Crops for the Future, AVDRC – The World Vegetable Center, Bioversity International, and the World Agroforestry Center. Many others work with specific crops and/or production systems, such as Australia’s own CSIRO and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.

Improving Diets by Diversification

An increasing problem in parts of the developing world is the “hidden hunger” of vitamin and mineral deficiencies and related illnesses that result from unbalanced diets. Forsaking a diverse range of traditional crops in favour of “modern” and/or “Western” foods is leading to a sharp rise in non-contagious disorders such as heart disease and diabetes. These are predicted to become the world’s biggest killers and so, in both the developed and developing world, serious efforts must be made to promote the need for nutritious diets from a broad diversity of crop plants.

Traditional, neglected varieties and wild crop relatives often have increased nutritional value compared with modern varieties, or at least complement them. However, in many societies, traditional foods have developed a stigma of being “poor people’s food”, and in many tropical areas traditional foods are substituted with imported staples such as wheat products. Reversing this erosion of local food cultures requires communicating the nutritional benefits of foods to balance the aggressive marketing of non-traditional crops by the food industry and agribusiness.

Improving the market value of such underutilised species and varieties provides incentives for more investment in research and production capacities. Making more use of what plants we already have in any given place appears to offer a more immediate solution to malnutrition and poverty than introducing novel crops and varieties.

In four South African villages surveyed by the Agricultural Research Council, every single family ate traditional leafy vegetables to supplement their diet. These are important fresh crops during the rainy season and are especially valuable in dried form during winter and spring. However, their availability in the local market as a source of cheap protein and as a winter vegetable was limited, but looked to have great potential.

Improved Incomes from Diversification

New crops require new markets, and new opportunities create new problems requiring solutions. Several underutilised plants, both wild and cultivated, have seen new markets develop, and commercialisation success stories have been triggered by the discovery or promotion of commercially relevant attributes – often nutritional or medicinal benefits.

In southern and eastern Africa, many wild plants are being increasingly harvested for medicinal extracts, such as devil’s claw (Harpagophytum spp.), hoodia (Hoodia spp.) and the African plum (Prunus africana). Also, “miracle” wild fruits with high nutritional content, neutraceutical or cosmetic properties are being collected and exported in ever-greater quantities, such as marula (Sclerocarya birrea), baobab (Adansonia digitata) and mafura (Trichilia emetica).

Overharvesting of wild species can lead to a loss of biodiversity, inequitable sharing of the benefits, and an inability to maintain a reliable supply, demand, and/or quality. The means to reduce or eliminate these problems must be encouraged. The FairWild Standard (www.fairwild.org) provides guidelines on the sustainable utilisation of wild plant resources.

Another initiative is by PhytoTrade Africa, which aims to create a sustainable, long-term market opportunity for these plants through public–private partnerships, into which thousands of rural producers across southern Africa can feed into in a profitable and enduring manner.

Seed Saving, Sharing and Showing

While making biodiversity work for us, we must also work for it to preserve what there is and ensure little is lost. With few exceptions there is no international commitment for the conservation of underutilised species, as is the case for cereal, cash and commodity crops. Gene banks exist but are poorly funded, and the International Treaty on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture does not cover traditional crops to any meaningful extent. There is little conservation research, particularly with regard to species that are difficult to propagate. Also, as a crop becomes neglected and is grown less often and less widely, the genetic base is likely to erode. Conservation will need extra attention as the same can be true, even if there is market development, since the spread of commercial varieties often replaces local landraces.

Spreading Knowledge by Linking and Learning

Many involved in agricultural research and development are crying out for more knowledge on underutilised plant species, more networking opportunities to share information, and more resources to see their activities reach fruition.

“What vitamin A-rich plants can be grown under rain-fed conditions in the Sahel?” “What examples exist for marketing indigenous leafy vegetables in Asia?” “What foods can be produced from Crataegus trees?” “Can we expect species ‘x’ to yield well in our area?” These are examples of questions that research and development workers are asking, but that currently cannot be answered quickly and thoroughly.

The main commodity crops of the world are vitally important to feed an ever-growing population. However, to meet the needs for more diversified diets and farming systems, we need to invest heavily and invest now to promote the value of the many thousands of plants that can provide different foods and other essential materials for humanity’s increasing needs.

New crops need new “champions” – motivated professionals and/or organisations who “adopt” a chosen species or group of plants, working to increase local, national or international awareness alongside the development of a plant’s potential as a commercial crop. Many at the outset of a career in agricultural research go to work on globally important crops. However, young professionals involved in agricultural development could consider one of the thousands of little-known crops and the systems they are grown in, first for a literature review, research thesis or even a development project. The impact of such work can be huge, and a single pioneer can play a significant role in turning what was once a forgotten food into a new crop that benefits poor farmers and local economies.

Crops for the Future is a global organisation assisting small-scale farmers in developing countries to improve their livelihoods by using traditional “underutilised” crops. It is dedicated to the promotion of these neglected plant species as a contribution to humanity. Crops for the Future was formed from a merger between the International Centre for Underutilised Crops and the Global Facilitation Unit for Underutilised Species, and covers both food and non-food crops.