Climate change is a good thing – it can help us increase food production. The key is diversifying from staple crops and investing in the forgotten crops. Malnutrition, poverty and meeting food demands are huge concerns; what if these problems can be solved by an increased use of forgotten crops?
What if we use climate change to our benefit to increase food security by branching away from staple crops and focusing on underutilised crops? Food security is when nutritious food is available and accessible at all times to everyone in order to live a healthy life. Underutilised crops are crops that have been forgotten or neglected on a global scale but are grown on a small-scale by indigenous communities in rural areas. These neglected crops are very climate-resilient and some thrive under extreme conditions. There are 50,000 edible plants species and 7,000 of them have been cultivated for human use, yet 60% of the world’s food consumption comes from 3 main staple crops: rice, wheat and maize. Climate change can cause a reduction in the yield of these crops as they are very sensitive to climate, which can impact food security. The major staple crops that have provided global food security in the past will struggle to do so in the changing climatic conditions of the 21st century. It is estimated that by 2050 there will be a 24% decline in corn and 11% decline in rice production. This decline will also struggle to meet the increased demand of producing 50% more food by 2050 to feed the growing population. This demand is near impossible to meet without contributing to the destruction of the environment, even more than agriculture has already done.
There is a huge potential for underutilized crops. Crops For the Future (CFF) was the world’s first research centre specialising in underutilized crops – established in Malaysia in 2011. CFF does extensive research on these neglected crops such as moringa and the Bambara groundnut. Experts argue that underutilized crops are a key to reducing the impact agriculture has on the environment as it allows for countries to rely on domestic products and reduce their reliance on imported goods that have a high carbon footprint. Temperatures in Malaysia are expected to increase by 1.5-2°C by 2050 meaning existing staple crops will be unable to grow. Crops such as moringa and Bambara groundnut are very resilient to climate change meaning they can grow in extreme conditions that would otherwise wipe out staple crops. The unpredictability of temperature and rainfall patterns highlights the importance of diversifying away from staple crops to increase food security. As professor Sayed from CFF eloquently puts it:
A Harvard study published earlier this year predicted that climate change will make staple crops less nutritious due to increasing carbon dioxide levels. It has been predicted that this could result in a zinc deficiency in 175 million people and a protein deficiency in 122 million people by 2050. What if this could be prevented? Underutilized crops are usually of very high nutritional value. For example, moringa is a good source of micro-nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, beta-carotene, antioxidants, omega 3 and essential amino acids. The moringa tree is completely edible – even the leaves and barks, this means less waste will be produced. Neglected crops contain compounds that can have preventative effects on some chronic diseases and can improve the health of indigenous communities who use underutilised crops. Therefore, diversifying what we eat not only improves food security but they also have potential for reducing malnutrition and improving overall global health. Underutilised crops play a huge role in reducing poverty as it allows locals to pursue resource-based development rather than commodity-based development.
This all sounds great, but is it too good to be true? Why are these crops not readily available in our supermarkets and where is the hype and hashtags about them? Many underutilised crops do not achieve the high yields that staple crops achieve – a problem for our growing population. However, it is argued that higher yields can be achieved through biotechnology, therefore this should not be a huge concern. The lack of information has been a huge constraint in the promotion and marketisation of underutilised crops, and highlights the importance of improving availability and access of information. The commercialisation of underutilised crops will be difficult unless co-operation between stakeholders within private sectors and the civil society is strengthened for and by local farmers which could encourage social, ecological and economic sustainability. Food programs such as The National Plan of Action for Nutrition of Malaysia III 2016-2025 have incorporated the use and promotion of underutilised crops to reduce nutritional deficiencies. Local communities in Malaysia are thriving on underutilised crops due to the application of an asset-based community development approach, and by working closely with institutions like CFF to maximise the potential of the crops. Although producing underutilised crops on a global scale seems like a good idea in the western world, not everyone is happy about this potential solution. I had the opportunity to visit CFF in Malaysia in 2017 when doing a module on food security at The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus and got to listen to the opinions of the famers.
When speaking to the local farmers they said they were hesitant about large scale production of underutilised crops. Underutilised crops are biological assets of high value to the local communities and globalisation of the crop could easily turn the crops from an “asset” and into a “commodity”. This is not in the interests of the local farmers and ignores the communities crucial need for food security.
The forgotten seeds are sprouting In Malaysia, but for us it looks like these seeds will have to remain forgotten for a little while longer.