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T


he UN Food and Agricul- ture 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. 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 calo- ries 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. Tese 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 im- proved financial situations, food security and nutrition and for combating “hidden hunger” caused by micronutrient (vitamin and mineral) deficiencies. Tese crops also consist of local and


South Asia, and Southeast Asia where they would first be commercialised


Southeast Asia. Chances are that new food crops will come from arid or semi-arid parts of Africa,


Having a meal in


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 col- lected, 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 fluc- tuation, climate change leading to desta- bilised food crop production, etc. Furthermore, the “Green Revolution”


is said to be reaching its limits in generat- ing the ever-increasing amounts of food needed to feed a growing global popula- tion. It’s a warning that Professor M. S. Swaminathan, one of the Green Revolu- tion’s leaders, and now chairman of the non-profit NGO trust, M. S. Swaminath- an 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 vulner- ability to pest and disease. Terefore 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 tra- ditional knowledge in growing such plants. “If we see the farmer who is more than


50 or 60 years old, he still recalls the tra- ditional farming systems in his memory,” says Dr Oliver King, senior scientist at the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, referring to millet farmers of the Kolli Hills in the Tamil Nadu region of India. “But when we interact with the younger girls or boys or younger youths, they re- ally don’t know about the farming system for millet. It’s a kind of cultural erosion.” Food insecurity is a routine fact of life


for many of the world’s poorest people in the best of times, and the global food crisis, which has been brought about by a combination of food scarcity and rising food prices, has only made matters worse. As the food crisis is not about to disap-


pear any time soon, scientists are searching for new ways to utilise these neglected food crops. Among other things these forgotten species could be essential components in helping to diversify farming systems in


New African March 2011 | 61


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