By Curtis Abraham
The vast majority of the world’s population today relies heavily on wheat, rice and maize. In fact, over 50 per cent of the global requirement for proteins and calories are met by these three grass species, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
But what if we were 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 food crops — or native food crop species that have been neglected or underutilized — will come from arid or semi-arid parts of sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia, where they would first be commercialized to help feed the hungry and malnourished, particularly in these very regions.
The FAO also estimates that over 800 million people do not meet their daily required energy needs from their diets, while millions more suffer acute malnutrition during transitory or seasonal food insecurity. In addition to this, over 200 million children suffer from protein-energy malnutrition (PEM) — a lack of calories and protein that denies the body the ability to perform essential functions, including provision of essential amino acids and development and maintenance of muscles. This is the most lethal form of malnutrition, and every year nearly 13 million under-fives die as a direct or indirect result of it.
But neglected native food crops, plant species that are little used, or which were grown traditionally but have fallen into disuse, can help alleviate hunger and malnutrition in afflicted populations. These neglected species have proved food or energy value, have been widely cultivated in the past or are currently cultivated in a limited geographical area. Furthermore, such crops have enormous potential for contributing to improved financial situations, food security and nutrition, and for combating ‘hidden hunger’ caused by micro-nutrient (vitamin and mineral) deficiencies.
They are also local and traditional crops or wild species whose distribution, biology, cultivation and uses are poorly documented. They 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’s estimated that, globally, over 7,000 wild plant species have been grown or collected, but amazingly only less than 150 have been commercialized, 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.
Earlier reports such as the 1999 Nature’s Cornucopia: Our Stake in Plant Diversity, by the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, DC, argue that the loss of genetic diversity in plants that humans rely on as food crops is undermining agricultural productivity.
This loss is effectively robbing humanity’s ability to breed more productive and disease-resistant crop varieties. But plant breeders often turn to wild relatives of domestic crops in search of desirable traits like disease resistance.
In 2011, Crops for the Future Research Centre (CFFRC), which came about as a merger between the International Centre for Underutilized Crops and the Global Facilitation Unit for Underutilized Species, was born near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and is evidence of the global importance of neglected native crop species. It’s the first-of-its-kind global center with the mandate for research and development on underutilized plants for food and non-food uses.
The organization is said to have access to a vast reservoir of indigenous and neglected plant species and related knowledge systems, many of which can contribute to food and nutritional security, income generation and bridging the urban-rural divide, both in terms of knowledge and development.
“We need to advocate, sensitize and promote the utilization of these crops,” says Dr. Lusike A. Wasilwa, Head of Crop Systems, KALRO Secretariat Head of Crop Systems, KALRO Secretariat Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organization. “These crops are important for all even if they reside in urban or rural areas. You, however, want to focus on helping rural Kenyans to combat chronic hunger and malnutrition.”
Placing too much reliance on just a few crops is risky even at the best of time, especially in developing regions, which are almost twice as dependent on wheat, rice and maize as richer nations.Much else can go wrong, including crop failure, civil wars, commodity price fluctuation, global climate change leading to destabilized food crop production... and so forth.
Additionally, with a rise in the global population, the “Green Revolution” is said to be reaching its limits in generating the ever increasing amounts of food needed to feed more mouths on the planet.
It’s a warning that Professor M.S. Swaminathan, chief architect of the Green Revolution in India during the 1960s and 70s, gave farmers in the developing world 40 years earlier.
“I cautioned our farmers that single varieties, genetic homogeneity — these are the words I used — would increase vulnerability to pest and disease,” says Dr. Swaminathan, "Threrefore you must have varietal diversity; you must conserve agro-biodiversity”.
In addition, East Africa faces chronic food shortages (Covid-19 lockdowns, severe drought and the war in Ukraine has only exacerbated this situation) that affect millions of people in the region, and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) research programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) identified east Africa as one of the developing world’s vulnerable areas where food supplies could be worst hit by climate change.
According to a 2013 joint agency research report conducted by Oxfam International and the Institute for Development Studies titled Squeezed: Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility, “high and rising food prices no longer come as a surprise, but rapid price changes and the cumulative effects of five years’ worth of price rises are still squeezing those on low incomes.People are working harder over longer hours and their wages are not keeping pace with inflation, so they [have] to adapt wherever, and however, possible”.
A substantial part of this adaptation in the food security sector is the growing popularity of neglected and underutilized food crop species, which have emerged from the shadows in recent years and are moving fast into the mainstream of rural development in some east African countries and elsewhere in the developing world.
One of the biggest success stories in recent years is Kenya’s re-introduction of African Leafy Vegetables (ALVs) to its urban and semi-urban areas during the 1990s. Kenya has led the way in demonstrating what can be done in terms of utilizing and promoting the nutritional benefits of ALVs as well as the contribution they can make to livelihoods.
Kenya has a natural abundance of indigenous edible vegetables, fruits and other underutilized and neglected species which are inexpensive to produce and well adapted to the environments in which they grow. Communities in western Kenya have utilized several tasty species of African Leafy Vegetables for food for generations. They have also been a source of income for many poor families in the region.
A survey conducted in three markets in western Kenya indicated that ALVs contributed 10 per cent of the income generated by commodities in the markets during the study period. However, in recent times these crops were largely reverted to for sustenance in time of crisis such as drought and famine, as well as social upheavals by other communities in Kenya.
Dr Hannah Jaenicke, former Director of the International Centre for Underutilized Crops, says that her team noted, for example, that in Kenya, during and after the 2007-08 post-election violence, “many people survived because they reverted to eating [wild] herbs and vegetables”.
The bio-diversity of Kenya’s estimated 210 ALVs in particular was in serious danger of extinction from the 1980s and most of the 1990s in spite of playing an important role in food security and in improving the nutritional status of poor Kenyan families.
“Despite these beneficial attributes, leafy vegetables have generally been neglected by both researchers and consumers,” writes Dr. Eliabetta Gotor in a 2010 article: The Impact of Biodiversity International’s African Leafy vegetables Programme in Kenya: Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal.“They are often dismissed by researchers and national agricultural programmes because of the large number of species involved, their very localized use, their wild, semi-wild or weedy nature.... Consumers neglect them because of the association of leafy vegetables with poor rural lifestyles, which means they are often regarded as a low-status food.”
The popularity of ALVs has, in part, increased thanks to the collaboration of several local NGOs and international research organizations.These vegetables are easily adapted to the environmental conditions they are being grown and are easy to grow and manage.
In 2007, the majority of households interviewed in four regions of Kenya — Kisii District in Nyanza Province (now Masimba and Kisii Districts), Tharaka-Nithi District in Eastern Province (now Tharaka and Meru South Districts), Kilifi District in Coast Province (now Kilifi and Kaloleni Districts) and peri-urban Nairobi — grow ALVs, with the figure going to as high as 98 per cent and 96 per cent in Kisii and Tharaka.
A market survey conducted in Kakamega municipal market and two rural (Kiboswa and Chavakali) markets indicated that African Leafy Vegetables contributed 20 per cent of the total value of commodities traded during the study period.
The most important species include spider-plant (Cleome gynandra), African nightshades (Solanum villosum and Solanum scabrum) pumpkin leaves (Cucurbita moschata) and Cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata).
Kenya’s abundant wild fruit diversity is also being explored by food scientists. Kenya has diverse agro-ecological zones which contribute to the production of a wide diversity of exotic and indigenous fruits. These fruits play a vital role in the livelihoods of many rural and urban communities in Kenya. During drought situations, native fruits are widely eaten by Kenyans for survival. Experts estimate that there are — or were — about 400 indigenous fruit species found in Kenya.
In the rural areas, for example, some 60 to 80 per cent of the population lacks adequate amounts of food during a period of at least two to five months every year.Whereas experts recommend a daily intake of about 200g of fruit, in Kenya this can be as low as 20g per day, and yet the country has 400 indigenous plants, many of them producing fruit.
Although indigenous fruits have been used as sources of food and income, research and development initiatives to create a favorable framework for their domestication and commercialization are limited. Moreover, the existing information is scattered and its impact on improvement of native fruit species is insufficient.
Knowledge on specific indigenous fruit species is a prerequisite for effective improvement, and there is a need for well-coordinated research and development in order to generate more information on Kenya’s indigenous fruits.
The Kenya Agriculture Research Institute began to undertake research on neglected indigenous fruits over a decade ago. Since then they have made several collections and some trials and nurseries have been established in western, coastal, eastern and central Kenya.
In 2011, these initiatives were spread to all the country’s provinces. A 2010 study identified 57 indigenous fruit species in Mwingi District and showed that wild fruits form a very important safety net for rural Kenyans during the months of food shortage.In particular children consumed significant amounts of fruit — far more than the adults.Efforts are now taken to encourage families to grow some of these wild species within their home gardens to increase the availability of fresh fruits and improve their nutritional security.
In spite of the progress, however, several challenges exist. Research carried out by Mary Abukutsa Onyango of Maseno University’s Department of Botany & Horticulture (where an MSc course on traditional vegetables was launched during efforts to rescue the country’s ALVs) a few years ago discovered that the seed production system of spiderplant, slenderleaf and African nightshades in Kakamega was informal.
Farmers produced and stored their own seeds then distributed them among themselves, but they lacked adequate knowledge on how to grow and process seed optimally. In Kisii district, about 310 kilometers west of Nairobi near the shores of Lake Victoria, some farmers in Kisii district have already been trained on seed production and processing methods with the aim of commercializing seed production of ALVs.