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An international body for gathering and promoting knowledge about underused crops is to be established in Malaysia.

Crops for the Future will encourage investment and research into neglected and underused plant species — such as Africa's baobab and marula trees — for the benefit of the poor and the environment.

"There are thousands of crops that poor people rely on but are not commercialised, such as maize, wheat and beans," said Hannah Jaenicke, director of the International Centre for Underutilised Crops (ICUC), which is merging with the Global Facilitation Unit for Underutilized Species (GFU) to create the new body.

"This is about promoting awareness and encouraging novel uses and marketing methods."

ICUC, currently based in Colombo, Sri Lanka, says that Crops for the Future will be hosted by a joint venture between Bioversity International — an NGO promoting the use and conservation of agricultural biodiversity — and the UK-based Nottingham University's Malaysia campus.

"This is a really exciting development," said Christine Ennew, pro-vice chancellor for internalisation and Europe and professor of marketing at Nottingham University. She said their agenda could "have major benefits for improved food security and the ability of food systems to adapt to climate change."

"We will bridge the gap between science and the use and marketing of crops,"  added Jaenicke.

Topics might include studies of the market chain and niche markets — to determine what risks producers of low volume high value crops face; promoting extended shelf life, for example by dehydrating jackfruit; or encouraging dual use of crops such as making juice from marula fruit and using the oil from its nut for cosmetics.

The centre is seeking up to US$1 million a year in funding from donors. Currently the majority of ICUC funding comes from the UK's Department for International Development, with Canadian, Swedish and Swiss governments also contributing.

Its formation will be announced at the annual general meeting of the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research in Maputo, Mozambique, on Sunday (30 November).