Beating world hunger: the return of ‘neglected’ crops

A spoonful of quinoa, one of the 'neglected' crops of the Andes Copyright: Wikipedia

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For many centuries, farmers in southern India’s Kolli Hills grew nearly 30 varieties of millet. But during the past three decades, the cereal fields were replanted with cassava and sago palms, as more and more farms agreed to supply starch for local producers of processed food.

Today, millet is not grown there, and local communities instead eat government-distributed rice, which although sold at a discount price is less nutritious.

Far away in the Andes of South America, traditionally cultivated grains such as quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) and amaranth (Amaranthus caudatus) are a natural source of protein and iron. Like native potato varieties however, they are seen as ‘poor people’s food’ and are being replaced by noodles and rice.

Similarly, sub-Saharan Africa is endowed with almost 1,000 types of leafy vegetable and fruit rich in micronutrients. But again, these are not considered fashionable to eat — unlike exotic, imported cabbages — so are disappearing from the African landscape.

Nor have any of these crops featured much in modern agricultural research, even though — given their nutritional value — they could contribute to food security and poverty alleviation.

Shrinking food basket

Since the early 20th century, people have relied increasingly on a select few plants for food, with about half of the world’s calorie intake coming from just three crops — rice, wheat and maize.

According to the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) based in Rome, Italy, at least 7,000 plant species could be cultivated for food, but only 150 crops are grown commercially.

“The world increasingly relies on a shrinking food basket of a few crops to fulfil the dietary needs of its people,” agrees M. S. Swaminathan, a leading Indian crop expert and chair of the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), which focuses on sustainable agriculture and rural development.

Traditionally, crop research has paid little attention to species that are important to a community or region, but not in international markets.

“Underused species important for agricultural biodiversity have not been the subject of international research and development,” warns Rodney Cooke, director of the technical advisory commission at the Rome-based International Fund for Agricultural Development.

Neglected crops and hidden hunger

To address this, IPGRI launched a project in 2001 to incorporate these ‘neglected’ crops into ongoing research activities throughout the developing world. The current focus is on millets in India and Nepal; medicinal plants in Egypt and Yemen; grains in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru; and leafy vegetables in Africa.

This striking plant produces amaranth, one
of South America’s ‘neglected’ grains
Photo Credit (Wikipedia)

In April 2005, IPGRI, the Global Facilitation Unit for Underutilized Species and MSSRF held a meeting on agricultural biodiversity in Chennai, India.

Participants agreed that increasing research on neglected crops could improve nutrition among poor people and help achieve the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people suffering from hunger by 2015 (see Neglected crops ‘crucial’ to beating hunger).

They warned that interpreting the goal as meaning that each person gets more food ignores the fact that malnutrition is also about people not getting enough micronutrients, vitamins and minerals — a problem described as “hidden hunger”.

IPGRI estimates that 150 million children — 27 per cent of the world’s child population — are underweight, with malnutrition contributing to at least half of the 10.4 million child deaths each year.

Vitamin A deficiency, which can cause blindness, afflicts 120 million children a year, of whom 250,000 to 500,000 go blind. Some two billion people are anaemic because of iron deficiency.

In the past, these deficiencies were tackled through food fortification programmes, but these cannot be replicated in remote rural areas, points out IPGRI director-general Emile Frison. “Dietary diversity is the way forward,” he says.

Back to the fields

Together with local partners in the South, IPGRI is returning several neglected crops to the fields.

One partner, Bolivia’s Foundation for the Promotion and Research of Andean Products (PROINPA) is working with farmers to improve crops, food security and sustainability. Various types of local potatoes, roots, grains, cereals, legumes, vegetables and fruits are researched, grown, processed into food products and promoted.

In India, MSSRF is collaborating with IPGRI and the International Fund for Agricultural Development to re-establish the traditional role of millets in the farming system and local diet.

Like the Kolli Hill dwellers, poor communities in Ballia village in Orissa, eastern India, grew a variety of millets 30 years ago. This all changed when an irrigation project allowed intensive rice cultivation with two or three crops in a year. As rice demanded more labour, nobody could be spared to grow the millets.

During drought or when food resources are scarce, people in Kolli or Ballia who cannot afford to buy food through the public distribution system survive on rice stored for sowing during the next crop cycle. This can in turn lead to problems buying seed for the next season.

No grain, no gain

MSSRF is helping these communities build their own village ‘grain banks’ to store both rice and millet. Local community groups manage an initial reserve of the grains for members to borrow from during times of need. The ‘loans’ must be returned as grain, along with grain ‘interest’.

Farmers in Kolli say the grain banks are helping to conserve traditional millet varieties that were in danger of being lost.

Meanwhile, Kenya is witnessing renewed interest in local vegetables.

“Ironically, as Africa grapples with nutrition problems, it is endowed with a high diversity of underused fruits and vegetables that are rich in micronutrients,” says Ruth Oniang’o, founder of the Rural Outreach Program, a Kenyan non-profit organisation that promotes African leafy vegetables to improve the nutritional status and livelihoods of vulnerable groups, especially women and children. .

Since 2001, IPGRI — with support from the International Development Research Centre in Canada — has launched major public awareness campaigns, trained farmers to grow leafy vegetables in clean conditions and worked with a marketing expert in Kenya on how to attract new customers.

A local NGO, Family Concerns, distributes the farmers’ produce to Kenya’s largest supermarket chain.

Oniang’o says there is an urgent need to increase research on nutrition and crop genetics, and to improve seed storage facilities, and processing and marketing of African leafy vegetables. 

From fields to supermarkets

It is not enough to encourage local farmers to grow their traditional crops. Successful marketing is just as important for creating sustainable livelihoods.

Take yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius), a succulent root from Peru that was once eaten by farmers to quench their thirst. Twenty years ago, yacon was not included in Peru’s crop statistics and was absent from its supermarket shelves.

In the 1980s Japanese scientists found the roots were high in a low-calorie sugar called oligofructose, which could be used in an energising drink, while the leaves contained a compound that lowered blood sugar and could be useful for diabetics. As news of the findings spread in the late 1990s, demand increased. Today, yacon is available in Peruvian supermarkets.

Elsewhere others are working hard to create demand for farmers’ products.

Gerardo Jorge Blajos of PROINPA says that in Bolivia school breakfasts now use up to 120 tonnes of quinoa flour every year and about 30,000 nursing mothers get three kilograms of quinoa every month from government-funded programmes.

Overcoming the obstacles

But despite these initiatives, small farmers growing crops outside the mainstream find it difficult to enter international markets.

Yacon may be enjoying a renaissance in Peru, but it cannot be sold in Europe. The European Union’s Novel Foods Regulation states that foods not present in the EU before 1997 must be proved to be free of allergenic, toxic and other hazards before they can be sold. Yacon farmers simply do not have the resources to supply exhaustive data.

In fact, the only exotic plant product that has been allowed into Europe since that legislation came in is the juice of the noni fruit (Morinda citrifolia), which is marketed by a large US company that was able to supply extensive food safety evidence. 

The juice of the noni fruit
is the only exotic foodstuff
that has been allowed
 into Europe under the terms
of the Novel Foods Regulation
Photo Credit (USDA)

“Pioneering small companies in developing countries are losing out,” says Michael Hermann from IPGRI’s regional office for the Americas, in Colombia.

He adds that while those promoting exotic foods must increasingly accommodate legitimate food safety concerns and generate data needed for their acceptance in target markets, the high burden of proof has discouraged investment in supply chains and in market development.

Making neglected crops a sustainable option

Participants at the Chennai meeting called for action to conserve agricultural diversity and to make better use of it to improve food security, nutrition and incomes for the rural poor in developing countries.

As well as more research on traditional crops, they recommended that policies to preserve them be integrated into national development plans, and food and nutrition security programmes, especially those providing food aid and school meals.

Getting neglected crops back on the menu is important, they said, but so is ensuring that the poor get a fair share of any commercial benefits that arise from exploiting these genetic resources.

Some of the ongoing efforts have shown the way forward. The Kolli Hill millet farmers have taken an interest in conserving their local varieties, bringing more area under millet cultivation and improving yields by using traditional breeding methods.

Incomes have increased, in part because the farmers grow millet without using chemicals. A local company is working with the farmers to export their millet as organically grown food, for which there is considerable demand in the West.

Inspired by this initiative a local government agency in the Kolli Hill area is trying to promote such similar activities elsewhere in the area.