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Local knowledge, global importance

Rural people have vital knowledge about crops and farming systems (IPGRI)
Rural people have vital knowledge about crops and farming systems

Minor crops may be described as 'neglected' or 'underutilised', but in their native areas, where people depend on them as important components of subsistence farming systems, these crops are neither. Grown with few or no inputs, often on land and under conditions where 'improved' crops would fail, they have a myriad of uses - food, animal feed, medicines, building materials, fuel and income, for example - and many have multiple uses. Small-scale farmers have always relied on their local crops, growing unique and complex mixtures in their fields and gardens to meet their needs. Yet these agrobiodiversity hotspots, and the wealth of traditional knowledge that is associated with them, are under threat in a world where a handful of major crops, with more obvious economic benefits, increasingly dominate.

Minor crops are certainly often neglected with respect to scientific research. The sheer number of species is a challenge to botanists and agricultural researchers alike. But with increasing awareness of the real need for sustainable agriculture, biodiversity conservation and locally based food security, these traditional agroecosystems - which combine all three - should now merit more research.

Very limited information about these plants may be available in libraries and databases around the world, but extensive information does nonetheless exist. Today's smallholder farmers have not only their own life experience, but also hold the accumulated knowledge of previous generations. Now, capturing this indigenous knowledge before it is lost forever, and indeed so that it can be more widely used and benefit other communities, is a significant challenge.

Women hold knowledge

A recent survey by the South and East Africa Network for Underutilized Crops (SEANUC) found that women in particular know a great deal about the minor crops that they grow. Responsible for selecting seeds and planting material for their many crops, the women considered chemical characteristics that would affect processing and storage, for example, as well as taste, nutritional qualities and medicinal properties.

In the same study, which was carried out in South Africa, researchers observed the impact of a major commodity crop replacing a traditional crop. Recent introduction and promotion of the potato, Solanum tuberosum, had resulted in the Livingstone potato, Plectranthus esculenta, being neglected. Planting material was no longer available in the communities surveyed, but the women were aware of the highly nutritious qualities of the tuber they had lost, and were keen to revive the crop. With help from the researchers, fourteen accessions of Plectranthus were collected from the north of South Africa, from which the women selected two lines. Three years later Livingstone potato is again being grown and eaten in these communities. Sadly, other displaced crops may fare less well where knowledge of the crops has been lost.

That agrobiodiversity and traditional farming systems are important locally is no longer in question, but their importance for the long-term sustainability of the global food system is less acknowledged. The advantages of these crops over those that currently dominate world agriculture - their nutritional and health qualities, medicinal potential, tolerance of drought and other climate extremes, and non-reliance on fertilisers and other inputs, for example - will have more significance as climate change, population growth and urbanisation shape tomorrow's world. Conserving, documenting and promoting dynamic use of these crops requires scientists and farmers to work together so that these neglected crops are no longer marginalised but are given the attention they deserve.

Date published: November 2004


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