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The Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR) brings together all those working to strengthen and transform agricultural research for development around the world. As part of this role, GFAR is working with New Agriculturist to showcase and raise awareness of important initiatives and their outcomes, to update and inspire others.

Realising the benefits of enhanced agrobiodiversity

Underutilised crops must be retained and promoted (© FAO/Olivier Asselin)
Underutilised crops must be retained and promoted
© FAO/Olivier Asselin

The catastrophic failure of grain harvests in 2008 and subsequent price hikes for rice and wheat provided dramatic evidence for the fragility of both agricultural production and the wider food economy in many developing countries. Long-term food and livelihood security can be achieved, but if productivity and yields are to be stabilised and improved, a two-pronged approach is essential. In particular, a wide array of underutilised crops must be retained and promoted, in order to diversify agro-ecosystems and optimise the productivity and ecological benefits of crop rotation.

As far as food is concerned, the bulk of the calories in the world's diet will continue to come from a few major staple crops. These will, nevertheless, need to be continually improved to maintain long term productivity, within the limitations of a sustainable agroecology. However, other food and livelihood security plants - which range from grains and pulses, fodder and fibre plants, root and tuber crops, fruits and vegetables to an array of non-timber forest products (NTFP) - must increasingly be used to provide a balanced diet, protect the farm ecosystem, and provide protection from internal and external market disruptions, especially in developing countries.

These 'development opportunity' plants and crops have great untapped potential to support smallholder farmers and rural communities through improved food and nutrition security, as well as income. Many are well adapted to extreme climatic conditions or to high pest and disease pressure, offering resilience to both biotic and abiotic stresses and providing harvestable yields where major crops may fail. Preserving and drawing on such valuable genetic resources is imperative if we are to address present and future environmental challenges.

Global initiative for diversity

The DOCNet initiative builds on the momentum for sustainable use of plant genetic resources arising from regional frameworks like the Agricultural Biodiversity Initiative for Africa (ABIA) formulated by FARA, the Suwon Agrobiodiversity Framework by APAARI, ongoing initiatives by AARINENA and FORAGRO and the Bali meeting of the ITPGRFA Governing Board (March 2011).

In January 2011, a collective movement was formed at a stakeholder meeting to promote collaborative action to strengthen the role and value of agrobiodiversity in the context of development. Provisionally termed the Development Opportunity Crops Network (DOCNet), members and prospective members include UN organisations and international research networks and institutions, together with NGOs and representatives of civil society. The initiative is supported by the secretariats of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR) and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA)*.

Underutilised plants and crops have great untapped potential to improve food security (© FAO/Raphy Favre)
Underutilised plants and crops have great untapped potential to improve food security
© FAO/Raphy Favre

Focussing initially on crops and plant-based NTFPs, a thorough review of published literature has helped identify key gaps in knowledge and documentation concerning the potential of underused agricultural biodiversity. Initiative members have highlighted several cross-cutting issues, such as the genetic improvement of underutilised plants, strengthening of seed systems and curriculum development. Within these topics, opportunities for collective actions are now being identified, building on successful activities of partner organisations and their complementary geographical and technical strengths.

Documenting diversity

One case study for collaborative development of a landscape-level sustainable production system in Lin'an county, China, has revealed that crop diversification results improved economic status of the rural population and reduced dependence on state support (INBAR, 2011). NTFPs, in particular bamboo and hickory nuts, have become valued alternative sources of income. Collaborative planning and innovation allows rural people not only to engage in forestry and forest management, but also to participate in processing, business management and marketing of NTFPs. As a result, per capita GDP in Lin'an has increased more than 15 fold in 20 years, from US$400 in 1990 to US$6,500 in 2009.

This case study, along with several others including mungbean in Asia and maca in Peru, were included as part of a presentation about the DOCNet Initiative at the Science Forum 2011 of the CGIAR's Independent Science and Partnership Council (Hoogendoorn et al., 2011). Preparation for this presentation enabled the group to include representation from many stakeholder groups. To facilitate sharing of information, the Initiative used a number of tools, including a document 'repository' on Google Docs, a discussion forum on LinkedIn, brief opinion surveys with Survey Monkey, together with more standard email exchanges and reviews of draft documents. A follow up stakeholder meeting will be held in January 2012. One goal of the 2012 workshop will be to draft a peer-reviewed publication based on the paper presented in Beijing. A Position Paper, based on case studies of development opportunities through research and development on underutilised crops, will also be prepared as well as prioritising the 'collective actions' put forward in that paper.

Influencing policy

Discussion has been stimulated about the value of diversified farming systems (© FAO/Olivier Asselin)
Discussion has been stimulated about the value of diversified farming systems
© FAO/Olivier Asselin

In the coming months, a key challenge for the Initiative will be to design strategies which go beyond current research efforts in crop improvement, in order to promote sustainable use of 'opportunity' crops and products in a more holistic way. Discussion has been stimulated about the value of diversified farming systems, not least their capacity to maintain sustainable ecosystem functions, provide nutritious and locally available food at affordable prices and support rural and urban poor people to participate in the market place. However, more targeted research is necessary to further focus global policy attention on the benefits of diverse and locally adapted agro-ecosystems, and their potential both to improve productivity and move millions of people out of poverty.

* The Initiative includes at the moment: GlobalHort, INBAR, Crops for the Future (CFF), Plant Resources of Tropical Africa (PROTA), the Platform for Agrobiodiversity Research (PAR), AVRDC - The World Vegetable Center, PROLIINOVA, GFAR, AARINENA, APAARI, FARA, ITPGRFA, and the Crop Diversification for Improved Livelihoods Team within FAO-AGPM


  • Hoogendoorn, J. with Achigan-Dako, E., Hermann, M., Hughes, J., Jaenicke, H., Kahane, R., Palmier, H. 2011. Development Opportunity Crops: A new initiative for collective action. Paper presented at the Science Forum 2011, Beijing, 17-19 October 2011. See also p 21 of the book of abstracts.
  • INBAR, 2011. Key factors for integrated sustainable development in the mountain areas of Lin'an county, China: the role of bamboo. pp 37-39 in: Case studies of Development Opportunities through Research & Development on Underutilized Crops. Jaenicke, H. (ed). Global Horticulture Initiative, Rome (document in preparation).

Written by: Norman Looney (The Global Horticulture Initiative), J. Coosje Hoogendoorn (INBAR), Jackie Hughes (AVRDC), Remi Kahane (The Global Horticulture Initiative), Michael Hermann (Crops for the Future), Dyno Keatinge (AVRDC) and Harry Palmier (GFAR)

Date published: January 2012


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