Crop insecurity: what is the future of our food?
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The so-called “green revolution” of the 1960s was a pivotal moment for agriculture. Decades of investment in agricultural research — much of it supported by the US government — resulted in new, higher-yielding crops that were introduced to developing countries along with fertilisers, agrochemicals and irrigation techniques.
These technologies transformed global food production, saving millions from starvation in famine-prone countries and setting the model for modern agriculture. In 1970, the “father” of the green revolution, Norman Borlaug, an American geneticist who helped pioneer high-yielding, disease-resistant crops, received the Nobel Peace Prize. He remains the only agriculturalist ever to do so.
However, all revolutions have consequences. The need for food security favoured the intensive production of a few crops and the displacement of species that couldn’t compete in terms of yield or ease of mechanisation. As a result, just four crops — wheat, rice, maize and soyabean — now provide more than half of the world’s food. More than seven billion people rely on these major crops, not just for food but increasingly as raw materials for animal feed and bioenergy systems. Any failure in their supply chains would put the world’s agri-food system in jeopardy.
The success of the green-revolution crops has encouraged the agricultural industry to extract even more from them. New technologies, including drones, artificial intelligence, robotics and biotechnologies, target incremental improvements in the yields of the green revolution crops. The question is whether such narrowly focused gains will be enough. The green revolution was the future once, but the planet and humanity’s needs are no longer those of the 1960s.
The decline in the diversity of our food systems is recent and risky, and has preoccupied me throughout my career. Back in the 1980s, during my postgraduate research in Niger, West Africa, I noticed that local farmers grew many more crops than those promoted by the government advisory service.
One in particular — bambara groundnut — intrigued me. It appeared across the region, mostly grown on a small scale or in homesteads by women, while men grew crops such as maize in fields. Although attracting scant interest from researchers and development agencies, it was often climate-resilient crops such as bambara groundnut, with its nutritious and tasty seeds, that fed the family when maize failed.
When I joined Nottingham University in 1988 as a lecturer, I started researching bambara groundnut in earnest.
Most senior colleagues were unimpressed; some were even hostile, telling me, “Don’t waste your time on these crops; if they were any good, we would have discovered them by now; they are underutilised for a reason.” Now, in the face of changing climates, researchers are beginning to see that underutilised species can help diversify agriculture and feed the future. Our task is to convince policy makers, investors and universities that diversity is an opportunity.
The scale of the challenge is formidable. A rising global population coupled with a warming planet will lead to increasingly scarce water and energy resources — what Sir John Beddington, formerly the UK’s chief scientific adviser, has called a “perfect storm”. Demand for food and animal feed is set to at least double by 2050. Rural populations are moving to cities and arable land is being degraded. As our climate changes, green revolution technologies will become riskier, costlier and more demanding on the planet. We will need not one but several solutions to transform agriculture so that it nourishes us without diminishing the natural resources on which we all depend.
Across history, humans have cultivated more than 7,000 crops. Forgotten “orphan” crops have been grown and protected by local communities for millennia, and represent a treasure trove of biodiversity. Instead of ignoring them, we need to select and improve the ones that can provide nutritious food — even in challenging environments.
Once we recognise the need to diversify global agriculture, the next question is how. While agencies such as Bioversity International and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation have long supported agricultural biodiversity, until recently there had been no global centre specifically for research on underutilised crops.
In 2011, the Malaysian government and the University of Nottingham announced they would support the company Crops For the Future (CFF), as the world’s first centre dedicated solely to research on underutilised crops. The choice of Malaysia as the host country of CFF was against stiff competition from other countries and institutions. I was made chief executive officer in August that year.
Our vision is to help diversify agriculture to support humanity in changing climates. We cannot do this alone and are building a global alliance of partners, from national and international agencies to universities, private companies and, most importantly, the communities that have protected underutilised crops until now without help or investment.
One reason such crops are neglected is a lack of trusted information on their potential. Growers, consumers and investors are unlikely to diversify from familiar options without clear evidence of alternatives. So we are developing a global evidence base on underutilised crops to provide researchers, growers and policy makers with state-of-the-art knowledge on the advantages of particular crops in current and future climates.
CFF researchers are also testing the nutritional content of crop ingredients and identifying prototype products. For instance, we have shown that insects fed on underutilised crops can be used to replace fishmeal in aquaculture feed. In the future this could extend to poultry and livestock feeds. We have also been applying technologies developed for use with major crops to underutilised crops to accelerate the breeding of new varieties.
In his Nobel Peace Prize speech “Peace and Humanity”, Borlaug described the green revolution as: “A temporary success in man’s war against hunger and deprivation; it has given man a breathing space.” Fifty years later, this space is running out. To “breathe”, we need to diversify agriculture beyond a few crops grown intensively as monocultures. For “space” we need to cultivate more complex urban landscapes, such as roof surfaces and gardens, to encourage city dwellers to contribute to a new kind of agriculture.
For generations, agriculturalists, scientists and funders have chosen to focus on obvious targets, such as increasing the grain yield of the top four crops. Not only have we forgotten the myriad of other crops that once fed us but we have ignored the multiple systems in which they were grown. These include “intercrops” of different species, agroforestry systems within tree canopies and crops that grow alongside livestock or aquaculture. Complex systems are not popular with scientific journals, statisticians and investors because it is not easy to demonstrate their advantages — but they may underpin the climate-resilient agriculture that we will need in the future.
By growing more food, we may have reduced the spectre of hunger but we have not won the war against deprivation. Our global diet — energy rich and nutrient poor — is linked to an increase in diet-related diseases such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. The double burden of over and undernutrition is especially evident in emerging economies, where active rural communities are rapidly becoming sedentary urban dwellers.
Not only are there now more obese than underweight people on the planet but, in both cases, their diets are impoverished. More than 1.5 billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies caused by monotonous, calorie-rich diets; this is known as “hidden hunger”. Supermarkets may stock thousands of food products but they use the same ingredients again and again, often blended into processed products that are transported across the world.
A diversity of products instead of ingredients means that a range of crops, animals and even insects have been displaced by a modern, uniform and processed diet. If we can rediscover such foods, we can test the suitability of the crops from which they derive and make products and cuisines from them that are nutritious and desirable. This needs a global effort that links our culinary heritage with scientific studies and new technologies.
We increasingly recognise that a healthy diet contains fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and seeds, and fewer sugary snacks and beverages, processed meats and salt. However, we overlook the role that ingredients from forgotten crops can play in diverse diets. While they may not achieve the same yields, underutilised crops such as moringa often contain more vitamins, nutrients and phytometabolites than are found in cereals and other staples. If we can include them in our diets, we can put nutrition rather than calories at the heart of our food systems.
Last year, CFF launched the “Forgotten Foods Network” to share information on foods, recipes and traditions that are part of our common heritage so that we can create a library of forgotten foods and a global evidence base for consumers and researchers. My CFF colleagues are making tasty, nutritious products from the leaves of moringa, seeds of bambara groundnut, pods of winged bean, fruits of ambarella and even the flowers of butterfly pea. The opportunities are endless if we have imagination, evidence and raw materials.
Like human societies, agriculture is at a crossroads. We can either protect and promote uniformity — or support and celebrate diversity. It is not a question of whether the green revolution has fed most of us but whether this model can nourish us in the future. While high-input crop monocultures are easy to justify in terms of yield, mechanisation, intensification and profit, they are increasingly vulnerable in volatile climates. While diverse crops and cropping systems are complex, they provide vital resilience.
I now live in Malaysia, where CFF has its headquarters, a place which hosts 5 per cent of the world’s biodiversity. Instead of just plants, wherever I go, I see agricultural opportunities all around me. If you eat, you are involved in agriculture — we don’t have to leave it to others to provide all our food from far away. We need to see agriculture as a career for young urban professionals, a livelihood for displaced communities and an enjoyable activity for you and me. Our crops shouldn’t be limited to a few monocultures, but should include a multitude of species supported by knowledge of their uses, cultural values and benefits for humanity and the planet.
Sayed Azam-Ali is CEO of Crops For the Future. Parts of this piece appeared in a previous article he wrote for Foodtank.com
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