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Making more of undervalued crops

Different kinds of underutilised plants can be found on sale at food markets in Tanzania, where the recent AVRDC conference was held (WRENmedia)
Different kinds of underutilised plants can be found on sale at food markets in Tanzania, where the recent AVRDC conference was held

While some crops have entire research institutes devoted to their development and promotion, hundreds more have been neglected by agricultural science, their potential untapped. That at least was the premise for a recent symposium that welcomed the champions of the world's underutilised crops. Gathered together in Arusha, Tanzania, participants discussed how to promote these forgotten plants, particularly in the context of food security, nutrition and health, income generation and environmental sustainability.

But why have these plants been neglected? Can they ever become mainstream foods, enjoyed by rich and poor alike, and do they have anything special to offer? Many thrive in marginal environments, and perhaps contain genes that could help other crops cope with climate change, but what kinds of support are needed to uncover their potential? These were some of the questions put to participants of the symposium by New Agriculturist for this Points of view.

Why the neglect?

The problem is about westernisation, especially in Africa. The colonial system introduced crops from all over the world and so our people forgot about our own crops. Why? Because people who brought these crops promoted them and our people, because of lack of education, embraced them, to the detriment of their own crops.
Odunayo Clement Adeboye, Department of Plant Science, Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria

Many plants have been neglected in the past because processing was very difficult. Maybe they had a very hard seed coat or they had some bitter flavour. But nowadays I think it is important to recognise that some of these obstacles have been overcome.
Hannah Jaenicke, International Centre for Underutilised Crops, Colombo, Sri Lanka

Many neglected crops thrive in marginal environments (Peter Cunningham)
Many neglected crops thrive in marginal environments
Peter Cunningham

The international agricultural research has always promoted species and varieties therein of just a limited number of crops and so people have grown accustomed to that fact, and now what you find on your platter is a very limited number of species.
Patrick Van Damme, Department of Plant Production, University of Ghent/FBW, Belgium

Despite their high nutritional, medicinal and economic values, these underutilised crops have been considered as minor crops and receive very little funds for promotion and have been neglected by researchers, development planners, even the international organisations.
Alice Makala Kavishe, HORTI-Tengeru, Tanzania

Food for the poor?

There are so many poor households that have got the plants growing in the garden and if they learn how to use them, they can get medicine, they can get shelter, they can get food, they can have better nutrition and improve their livelihoods, and they can maintain their tradition and culture that is attached to these plant species.
Oladele Idowu, University of Ibadan, Nigeria

I don't believe my vegetables are a poor man's food. I sell weekly at the Tengeru market and my customers include the rich and the poor. My neighbours, some of whom are very rich, also come for the fresh vegetables right at the farm. People now know the benefits of these local vegetables and they are taking them up to improve their health and provide an alternative taste.
Ndelifose Johnny Nanyaro, organic farmer, Arumeru District, Tanzania

Some of these indigenous vegetables used just to sprout spontaneously when the rains come and then they go, but now people need to know that they can cultivate indigenous vegetables just like any other crop. So they should no longer be considered as food only for the poor. It is a crop just like any other crop, but even more important, because it is more nutritious.
Jarret Mhango, Mzuzu University, Malawi

As the world develops, inputs for exotic farming prove to be too expensive. Where should poor farmers get enough money to buy fertiliser, expensive seed and chemicals? Indigenous vegetables still remain the best option for the rural poor.
Mohammad Rahim, Department of Horticulture, Bangladesh Agricultural University

Neglected plants are becoming more popular due to their nutritional value (WRENmedia)
Neglected plants are becoming more popular due to their nutritional value

Promoting better health

Even though general consumption of calories is increasing even in Africa, we are losing out on the vital vitamins, minerals, micronutrients and we are becoming obese without enjoying the quality of food that traditional crops can provide.
Gordana Kranjac-Berisavljevic, Faculty of Agriculture, University for Development Studies, Tamale, Ghana

Neglected crops can play a role in addressing hidden hunger (i.e. malnutrition) but because of the difficulty to domesticate them, I do not see them playing an immediate role in the global food crisis.
Sidi Sanyang, Director Regional Policy and Markets, Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA)

They don't only benefit poor people but they also benefit rich people because nowadays the rich people are actually suffering certain diseases more than the poor. The poor diet of rich people - which is high in fat, high in sugar - causes heart diseases and diabetes and they die early. If poor and rich people start using these neglected species they will benefit greatly.
Boitshepo Giyose, food and nutrition security advisor, NEPAD

Defence against climate change

I think climate change is affecting the cropping patterns of many of the crops that people use and therefore it is extremely important to come back to some of the so called "forgotten" and "underutilised" plants, because many of them actually can withstand droughts or floods much better than the commercial crops. There are good examples from research, that genes that are available in underutilised traditional plants can then be introduced through breeding efforts into some of the commodity crops.
Hannah Jaenicke, International Centre for Underutilised Crops

They grow in marginal areas. So if the policy makers are considering climate change and an expansion of droughts or severe weather effects, those indigenous vegetables are much more resilient.
Jackie Hughes, Deputy Director for Research, World Vegetable Center (AVRDC), Taiwan

Ongoing improvements

Now most people do not know about the grain amaranth, they only know about the weedy types that grow in cattle sheds when it rains. But recent improvement has been done by the Kenya Seed Company and now we have a new variety called Amaranthus dubius that produces grains as well as leaves. These leaves are highly nutritious, the grains are super nutritious and also the market price is quite fair.
Marion Nduta Ng'ang'a, Department of Seed, Crops and Horticultural Sciences, Moi University, Eldoret, Kenya

Where so-called mainstream crops can fail, local underutilised species may help provide food security (Peter Cunningham)
Where so-called mainstream crops can fail, local underutilised species may help provide food security
Peter Cunningham

The World Vegetable Center is now conducting its first regional trials on indigenous vegetables and fruits in Malawi, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda to identify varieties with desirable characteristics such as longer shelf life, smooth texture, pleasant colours and a sweeter taste.
Timotheo Kitomary, researcher, Africa regional office, World Vegetable Center

Targeting future support

The major challenges are the lack of emphasis given by research centres, bureaus of agriculture and other concerned bodies. The second challenge is with regard to the policy and the government. The government has to put emphasis on these neglected crops.
Anbes Tenaye Kidane, Areka Agricultural Research Centre, Ethiopia

Concerted efforts, such as improving agricultural techniques of farming these underutilized crops need to be taken into consideration. This can be done through farmer field schools and demonstrations on best farming methods. In this way, farmers can learn more on how to improve the production of these crops.
Murlee Yadav, Department of Horticulture, Allahabad Agricultural Institute-Deemed University (AAI-DU), India

Now, you can actually go and buy nightshade in Arusha and Dar es Salaam, so everybody can eat it, they get their minerals. But you also need to increase the seed sector. That has to be stronger because without seeds you can't plant it, grow it and sell it.
Jackie Hughes, World Vegetable Center

Availability of domestic or regional markets for neglected and underutilised crops is important as it can serves as a motivation for farmers to engage in surplus production of these crops. However, we first need to establish the domestic market.
Murlee Yadav, AAI-DU

Governments in Africa under the auspices of the Africa Union through the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) should initiate a programme of networking among African research institutes, so that we add value to these underutilised crops, process foods from these underutilised crops and then extend this to the people, and I am sure people will embrace it.
Odunayo Clement Adeboye, Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria

With contributions from: East African radio and print journalists participating in DFID-funded training at the symposium

Date published: May 2008


Have your say

Undervauled crops can be made valued crops by developing imp... (posted by: Dr. Murlee Yadav)

The productivity of these crops are very low due to lack of ... (posted by: Dr. Murlee Yadav)


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