Sean Mayes

We are too reliant on too few crop species. Using more underutilised plants will improve global food security, says Sean Mayes.

The world depends for its basic diet of carbohydrates, fats and proteins on a very limited number of crop species.

For carbohydrates, three related species, wheat, rice and maize, dominate human consumption. Any short term improvement in food security will need to include modification (either transgenic or through conventional breeding) of these and other staple crops.

However, a focus purely on current major crops often developed under high intensity agriculture cannot form the whole solution to the production aspect of food insecurity – a square peg in a round hole is still a square peg in a round hole, even if we can sand down the edges a little for a better fit.

Diversification of crops and (eventually) displacement of some major crops will be necessary under current predicted changes to climate because of the need to make agriculture more sustainable and less energy intensive. Water availability for agriculture will also become one of the defining concerns over the next fifty years. Changing crops is likely to be particularly necessary where climate change will have most impact – in the developing world. Novel approaches to food production in urban communities will also need to be developed.

Developing other options

Underutilised, orphan or neglected crops are labels often applied to plant species that are indigenous, rather than non-native or adapted introductions, and often commonly form a complex part of the culture and practice of the people who grow them. One of the legacies of colonial times is that many well adapted native crops were displaced by introduced species. In many cases, the displaced crops, if still cultivated at all, are seen as of ‘low status’ and often it is women who cultivate them, while men cultivate the major crops.

From the 7000 estimated underutilised plants which currently exist as minor or niche crops, we also need to develop a limited number which will become the (additional) major crops of tomorrow. Identifying the crops which have the genetic potential to be used beyond their current geographical and community boundaries is critical.

One way to identify underutilised crops with the potential to make more of a contribution would be to look for crops with trait values that currently exceed the equivalent trait in major crops. For example, bambara groundnut is more drought tolerant than the equivalent major crop, peanut (Arachis hypogaea L.), which was introduced from South America into Africa and has partly displaced bambara groundnut. Bambara groundnut is still grown widely in sub-Saharan Africa although often at a small holder level and it currently commands a premium price at the markets compared with other legumes.

There is clearly also an issue of fair access to germplasm (genetic resources) for underutilised crops. Recent international agreements, such as the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture which came into force in 2004, are designed to ensure that the originator community benefits directly from any wider exploitation of their crop resources and such agreements will, hopefully, ease some concerns. This is also clearly the ‘just’ approach to accessing germplasm developed over millennia by indigenous populations.

Making it happen

Crops for the Future (CFF) is a global organisation that works with its partners to advocate research, policies and build capacity to use underutilised crops for the diversification of agricultural systems and diets. It was formed following a merger between the International Centre for Underutilised Crops (ICUC) and the Global Facilitation Unit for Underutilised Species (GFU) in 2008.

An independent institution, CFF is hosted in Malaysia jointly by Bioversity International of the  Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and the University of Nottingham, Malaysia Campus (UNMC). Bioversity brings extensive research and advocacy expertise and outreach, while UNMC brings specific crop research expertise.

The Malaysian government has recently approved funding and initial running costs to build a Crops for the Future Research Centre, adjacent to UNMC, which will allow the systematic evaluation of a series of crops with potential for wider use and which could make a useful contribution to food security (and develop crops for non-food uses, such as fibres for textiles or construction.)

The establishment of CFF will also help focus efforts for diversification of the plant species that humans exploit. Shifting away from our over-dependence on a limited number of crop species is crucial. If climate change and other pressures on food production, such as pests and diseases, lead to the catastrophic and long term failure of a major crop in some parts of the world, it is important to have a Plan B available – and preferably Plans C, D and E, as well…

About Dr Sean Mayes

Dr Sean Mayes is an Associate Professor in Crop Genetics at the University of Nottingham, UK and is involved in research on both temperate and tropical crops.

Crops for the Future and partners will be co-hosting the Second International Symposium on Underutilised Crops in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia from 27th June to 1 July 2011.

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