Magazine article New African

Neglected Indigenous Food Crops Could Be a Saviour: Underutilised Food Crops (Also Called Neglected or Indigenous Crops) Can Save the World, Especially Sub-Saharan Africa, from Hunger. So Why Have African Scientists Rarely Looked to Their Neglected Indigenous Crops to Provide Solutions to Their Food Needs and for Export? Curtis Abraham Went to Find Out

Magazine article New African

Neglected Indigenous Food Crops Could Be a Saviour: Underutilised Food Crops (Also Called Neglected or Indigenous Crops) Can Save the World, Especially Sub-Saharan Africa, from Hunger. So Why Have African Scientists Rarely Looked to Their Neglected Indigenous Crops to Provide Solutions to Their Food Needs and for Export? Curtis Abraham Went to Find Out

Article excerpt

THE UN FOOD AND AGRICULTURE Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), which is headed by the Senegalese-born Jacques Diouf, estimates that over 800 million people do not meet their daily required energy needs from their diets. But that is not the worst of it. Millions of people around the world and particularly in sub-Saharan Africa suffer more acute malnutrition during transitory or seasonal food insecurity.

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Around the world, the vast majority of people rely heavily on the trio of wheat, rice and maize. In fact, over 50% of the global requirement for proteins and calories is met by these three foods, according to the FAO.

But what if humanity was able to add another three or four more important food crops to its list? It could happen. And if it does, chances are that these new crops will come from arid or semi-arid parts of Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, where they would first be commercialised.

Underutilised food crops (also called neglected or indigenous crops) are plant species that are little used, or which were grown traditionally but have fallen into disuse. These species have been proved to have food or energy value, and were widely cultivated in the past or are currently being cultivated in a limited geographical area.

Furthermore, such crop species have enormous potential for contributing to improved financial situations, food security and nutrition and for combating "hidden hunger" caused by micronutrient (vitamin and mineral) deficiencies.

These crops also consist of local and traditional varieties or wild species whose distribution, biology, cultivation and uses are poorly documented. Underutilised crops are strongly linked to the cultural heritage of their place of origin; and tend to be adapted to specific agro-ecological niches and marginal land.

It is estimated that globally, over 7,000 wild plant species have been grown or collected, but amazingly, only less than 150 have been commercialised. And out of these the world's food needs are provided for by just 30 species of plants.

But throughout sub-Saharan Africa, for example, there are more than 2,000 native grains, legumes, roots, vegetables, cereals, fruits and other food crops that have been feeding people for thousands of years.

Placing too much reliance on just a few crops is risky even at the best of times, especially in developing regions, which are presently almost twice as dependent on wheat, rice and corn as richer nations. Much else can go wrong including crop failure, civil wars, commodity price fluctuation, climate change leading to destabilised food crop production, etc.

Furthermore, the "Green Revolution" is said to be reaching its limits in generating the ever-increasing amounts of food needed to feed a growing global population. It's a warning that Professor M. S. Swaminathan, one of the Green Revolution's leaders, and now chairman of the non-profit NGO trust, M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in India, gave farmers in the developing world 40 years ago. "I cautioned our farmers that single varieties, genetic homogeneity--these are the words I used--would increase vulnerability to pest and disease. Therefore you must have varietal diversity, you must conserve agro-biodiversity," he says.

However, crucial problems exist. Some of the shortcomings in harnessing these neglected food crop species to feed the world's poor are based on sheer ignorance. Surprisingly, mainstream international science as well as people living outside the rural regions of the world, have had little knowledge about these forgotten species. Furthermore, there has been a loss of traditional knowledge in growing such plants.

"If we see the farmer who is more than 50 or 60 years old, he still recalls the traditional farming systems in his memory," says Dr Oliver King, senior scientist at the M. …

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