Underutilized Crops for Nutritious and Sustainable Food Systems

By highlighting the benefits of neglected and underutilized crops the Periodic Table of Food will accelerate their development and uptake to make global food systems more sustainable, resilient, nutritious, and innovative.

What is the Problem and Why Does it Matter?

The world has become over-reliant on a few staple crops. Of the tens of thousands of edible plant species, six- to seven-thousand have been cultivated for food, and only three, rice, maize and wheat, provide nearly half of our daily calorie intake (FAO, 2018). This dependency is unsustainable, bringing inherent agronomic, ecological, nutritional, and economic risks:

  • Hidden hunger: Low dietary diversity and an over-reliance on a few main staple crops increases the risk of micronutrient deficiency, which is a leading cause of malnutrition, especially in regions of food and nutritional insecurity (FAO, 2018).
  • Environmental degradation: Main staple crops are produced under highly intensive systems, where fertilizers and pesticides are applied to ensure high productivity. This monoculture approach causes environmental degradation, impacts soil health, and reduces agrobiodiversity loss (WHO, 2005). 
  • Crop and livelihood vulnerability: Reliance on a few crops makes food-production systems vulnerable to plant diseases and pests (Food Secur., 2017) and climate change impacts (Environ. Sci., 2015), threatening the livelihood of millions of farmers.

Neglected and underutilized crops can offer a solution. Ranging from grains, vegetables and non-timber forest products, there are thousands of crops with the potential to build resilient and adaptable agricultural systems, while also increasing food and nutritional security. However, the investment needed to develop these crops, which is linked to a lack of detail about their functional properties, has hindered their wider uptake. The Periodic Table of Food Initiative will profile the biochemical composition of underutilized crops to de-risk investment in their development, with the ultimate aim of creating innovative, healthy, and resilient food systems that also support and maintain traditional, sustainable diets and livelihoods, in particular for marginalized populations. 

“There are a wide range of neglected crops that can contribute to the sustainable supply of diverse and nutritious foods,” says John Reich, Scientific Program Director of Urban Food Systems at the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR). “For example, the Moringa tree is fast growing, drought resistant and reduces soil erosion. Highly nutritious, all parts of the tree are edible, and it is incorporated into traditional medicines that have proven antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties. Another example is Teff, a highly nutritious and gluten free grain originating from Ethiopia and Eritrea, where it is a staple food crop. Teff is a viable alternative to other cash crops, because it can tolerate waterlogging and be stored without damage by common pests.”

He continues, “Many nutritious crops have the capability to handle future stresses from pests and diseases or environmental changes while also being economically viable in the right setting. Uniquely adapted to their local environment, these crops are often pivotal in the diets and traditions of indigenous people. However, nature’s toolbox is being lost as local climates change and cultures and practices are homogenized, with smaller farms replaced by large agricultural systems focused on growing main staple crops.”

FFAR is spearheading the Harvest for Health initiative, with the aim of accelerating the commercialization of neglected and underutilized crops to provide sustainable food options for businesses and consumers in developing and emerging markets. The high cost of research and development, coupled with limited investment, has meant that thousands of crop species offering resilience as well as functional and nutritional benefits remain unexplored.

“Harvest for Health will focus on pinpointing crops that will make food more healthy, flavorful and nutritious. To do this, we will develop a data-based decision framework that uses the unique nutritional, genetic, sensory, and functional properties of neglected crops to help identify those most likely to be profitable and worth investing in. The current challenge is determining which crops have those properties,” explains Lucyna Kurtyka,, Senior Scientific Program Director of Health-Agriculture Nexus at FFAR. “

Proposed Solution: A Periodic Table of Food

Prioritizing the development of specific neglected and underutilized crop species based on their biochemical composition requires robust data from reliable sources. Currently only a fraction of the total component parts of a relatively small number of crop species have been recorded, in part, because the methods used to measure these components vary, making cross-comparison difficult.

The Periodic Table of Food Initiative is a global effort to greatly expand our understanding of the biochemical components of our food, including neglected crops. At its core, the Initiative will create standardized kits and methods to allow researchers to categorize the tens of thousands of compounds that are present in these foods, culminating in a public database that can be mined for data by algorithms, like the data-based decision framework proposed by the Harvest for Health initiative. As known (and unknown) functional properties such as taste, nutrition, and consistency are identified by the food industry and scientists, prioritization can be finely tuned and predictions improved, to further de-risk investment in the development of these crops.

What is the Potential Impact?

Health and Nutrition:

  • Addressing hidden hunger. Providing dietary diversity and valuable nutritional components, which are often lacking in staple crops, neglected crops can constitute an important part of the diet of local communities that currently suffer from malnutrition (FAO, 2018).  
  • Catalyzing nutrition innovation. As the functional properties of underutilized foods are categorized and more widely understood, these crops can be grown and developed to meet shifting consumer preference towards nutritious, sustainable foods.

Sustainability:

  • Increasing food and nutritional security. Adapted to marginal lands, underutilized crops can protect against market disruptions and climate uncertainty (Sustainability, 2014).
  • Promoting sustainable production systems. Incorporating neglected crops to diversify agroecosystems will help reduce input requirements as they can be more resilient against pests, disease, droughts and temperature extremes, while also improving soil condition (Bioscience, 2011)

Economic Opportunities:

  • Catalyzing economic development. Highlighting the beneficial properties and unique advantages of neglected crops will increase their value in the global market, so that regions reliant on agricultural activities will have more options of what to grow in their fields.
  • Promoting novel foods. Stakeholders within the food industry can use functional composition data to design and predict the likelihood of uptake of innovative products with new flavor combinations or consistency to attract consumers (FFAR, 2019). 

Kurtyka explains that an increased uptake of neglected crops will be of huge benefit to those who need it most. “Incorporating neglected crops within the global food system has the potential to alleviate food and nutrition insecurity while also supporting sustainable production and wellbeing of farmers in regions where these foods are grown. Another important benefit is that these crops can keep traditional knowledge alive. By giving these crops value, the traditions surrounding their production and processing are maintained, giving local populations ownership and pride in their cultural heritage.”