There are over 12,000 crop species classified as suitable for human consumption, and yet according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the majority of the world is fed on only 30 crops. Among this select group are rice, maize and wheat, which provide almost 60% of the population’s dietary energy, creating a precarious reliance on only a handful of crops.
Scientists are increasingly conducting research into ‘orphan crops’ – species currently under-utilised in the food system or previously neglected by mainstream scientific research or development programmes – as a means of assuring greater food security.
Forgotten sources of essential nutrients
So what are these forgotten crops? Take Baobab trees, known in Africa as ‘wonder trees’. The baobab’s fruit contains ten times the antioxidant level of oranges, twice the amount of calcium as spinach, three times the vitamin C of oranges and four times more potassium than bananas – and has antiviral properties. Through a specific breeding programme, Mars’ African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC) has modified varieties of baobab to increase its resilience against pests and climate change. Researchers are also starting to explore using dried baobab fruit powder as a nutritional supplement to be added drinks.
Finger millet or kodo millet have also been identified by the AOCC as high-potential crops. Both have similar protein levels to wheat, and are rich in B vitamins, calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium and zinc. Moreover they are resilient crops, requiring little water and are traditionally grown in marginal areas where major cereals would normally fail.
Other companies are looking to seaweeds and sea vegetables as previously neglected sources of protein. Hinoman Ltd, for example, has focused on mankai, a native plant enjoyed in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam for generations. Using hydroponic growing technology, the company are able to produce a variety of mankai with a high protein content.
Novelty crops or scalable solutions?
As GreenWave Directors Bren Smith and Brendan Bashin-Sullivan write, “orphan crops need to demonstrate not only exceptional nutritional value, but positive environmental and ecological externalities, and potential to meet large-scale need”.
The scientific research community and funding agencies are now developing programmes to produce orphan crops at greater scale. The African Orphan Crops Consortium, for example, is planning to sequence the genomes of 100 orphan crops with the aim of developing more robust crop varieties, with higher nutritional content. McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program is another example, providing research funding into teff, a grain with high dietary fibre and protein) in Ethiopia, and groundnuts in the Andes.
One important question for sustainable scale is whether the greater diversity and resilience of these crops can also be reflected in a more diverse and resilient market. For Mark Driscoll, Head of Food at Forum for the Future, the most interesting and important opportunity for orphan crops is to address nutritional deficiencies where communities currently lack access to diverse food sources. “How can orphan crops address the lack of protein in parts of Africa and South East Asia? How can these crops be used to reduce the demand which is predicted in parts of China, Brazil and India?”
As Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the FAO, has warned, "While some research is taking place, the results do not always reach smallholders." Can IP restrictions on the genetically modified crop varieties be avoided or managed to make them available and affordable to small-holders and local farming operations?
Diran Makinde, lead for the African Orphan Crops consortium contends, “It is critical that the [scientific research and funding] agencies in liaison with national governments support the design of policies to give smallholders access to the improved seed.”
Creating a market for underused crops
Another potential barrier to scale for new crops is consumer acceptance. Are people ready to start buying teff or baobab fruit powder? What can be learnt from the recent rise of quinoa to help change attitudes and create a mass market for these previously forgotten crops?
Greater awareness of quinoa’s nutritional qualities, and initiatives such as the FAO’s International Year of Quinoa in 2013, significantly changed consumers attitudes to the previously forgotten grain. However this approach has since been criticised. Rapidly growing demand did increase income for the Bolivian farmers growing quinoa, however the rising prices in local markets also intensified income disparities, with poorer non-farming populations no longer being able to afford the local staple crop.
Bioversity International is now working to encourage farmers to grow other underutilised crops, whilst also trying to ensure the balance between market supply and demand is sustainable. For example, finger millet has been introduced into school lunches in India instead of rice, Unicef is working to include minor millets in its children’s food aid programme, and a popular restaurant chain in Bolivia has introduced cañahua-based dishes onto its menus.
Image caption: Neglected and underutilised species - Finger Millet
Image credit: Bioversity International / Flickr