Neglected crops need a rethink | PNG National Agricultural Research Institute

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Neglected crops need a rethink

By James Laraki (January 14, 2013)

NEGLECTED crops that are currently underutilized by farmers can play an important role addressing the food and agriculture challenges of the future and should be reevaluated, says the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

Speaking at an international seminar in Cordoba, Spain last month, the FAO Director General, José Graziano da Silva said neglected crops need a rethink as these crops could help the world face food security challenges of the future. “We must not lose track of our agricultural and culinary roots, nor the lore and wisdom of our ancestors,” says FAO chief.

In remarks made at the international Crops for the 21st Century seminar, Graziano da Silva noted that FAO estimates that some seven thousand species of plants have been cultivated or consumed as food throughout human history. Today, many of these species are disappearing. "If we lose these unique and irreplaceable resources, it will be more difficult for us to adapt to climate change and ensure a healthy and diversified nutrition for all," the FAO chief said.

"Currently there are about 870 million hungry people in the world, a world that produces enough food for everyone," he said. “Globalization has created an abundance of food in some parts of the world, but has failed to end the chronic shortages that exist elsewhere."

Graziano da Silva added that globalization "has created certain homogeneity of products, accompanied by a loss of different culinary traditions and agricultural biodiversity."
According to FAO, the caloric intake of most people on the planet is based today on only four crops: rice, maize, wheat and potatoes."Our dependence on a few crops has negative consequences for ecosystems, food diversity and our health. The food monotony increases the risk of micronutrient deficiency," said Graziano da Silva.

To address these challenges, the FAO chief has called for more attention to both production and consumption issues. FAO has called for the sustainable intensification of agricultural production via a model it calls "Save and Grow"  a food production model that also preserves and enhances natural resources.

The FAO chief stressed that neglected and underutilized species "play a crucial role in the fight against hunger and are a key resource for agriculture and rural development and called for increased research on underutilized crops. He noted that while some research is taking place, the results do not always reach smallholders.

During this international seminar, the FAO chief also underlined the importance of sustainable diets, adding while almost 870 million people go hungry, an even greater number are overweight or obese. He also made mention of the suffering in many poor countries due to inadequate access to food every year, while consumers in industrialized countries waste million tons of food.

The seminar highlighted that many underutilized crop species haven't been lost yet, and form the basis of local food systems in many regions. These crops are well adapted to their local agro-ecological conditions and remain important to the livelihoods of the communities that use them.

For us in PNG, we normally assume that underutilized species are crops that are used but not major staples. However, it is possible to include also the staple crops which are not fully utilized to the extent of commercialization, export potential, downstream processing or value addition, and alternative uses.

PNG has a rich biodiversity which includes a wide range of neglected and underutilized species of plants for food; both cultivated and gather from the wild. Some of the latter can be domesticated and this is one of the focus of NARI’s research. An example is the domestic and development of Galip nut. NARI started work on this important indigenous nut in 2007, as earlier work indicated that research and development on this high quality nut could address food security and generate cash income for rural communities in the lowlands.

NARI’s current research portfolio on plant genetic resources is aimed at conserving and utilizing the diversity within the main staples and traditional crops such as Aibika. NARI is also embarking on research and development projects in crop improvement and post harvest to improve potentials and value addition to food crops, including underutilized species. While current focus is on sweet potato, yams, taro and cassava, NARI will also be looking into other crops including grains and legumes, vegetables, and fruits and nuts.

While, we note that there are no affirmative action policies at national level for the utilization of the diversity of underutilized species, we must make every effort to promote the sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. We must not lose track of our agricultural and culinary roots, nor the lore and wisdom of our ancestors as the FAO chief says.  On the contrary, we must learn from them, preserve and use them to ensure that our future has even more diversity.

Photo: A young galip plant bearing fruit. Galip is an indigenous nut that NARI has been developing since 2007 to address food security as well as cash income – NARIFile pic.

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