Old Mountain Crops
The world’s food supply is precariously based on seven major crops — wheat, rice, maize, potato, barley, cassava and sorghum. We now cultivate fewer species of plants than did the pioneering farmers of Neolithic times. Such specialization and uniformity of our crops is the price we pay for the astonishing increase in the productivity of food crops over the past 50 years.
But the miracles produced by the plant scientists and agricultural technologies are mostly confined to the foods of richer countries, particularly cereals. The staple crops of the rural poor, particularly those in highland communities in the Andes, the Himalaya and in Africa, remain largely unchanged and are ripe for research work. The catch is that the impetus for improving the under-utilized staple crops of the poor will not come from the established international food industry, for transnational companies are not concerned with the ‘ development and improvement of subsistence crops. The industry looks for crops that require less processing, for “crops without seeds and chickens without feathers”. For development of subsistence crops, we must rely on independent initiatives from the international agricultural scientists.
Nazmul Haq, of the International Centre for Underutilized Crops in England, argues that millet is one of the most promising candidates for study. Millet has been cultivated since ancient times, and the small grained proso millet (Pancium rniliaceum), is not known in the wild. It gives a stable yield even under harsh climactic conditions, grows well in poor soil and at high temperatures, and requires less water than any other cereal. It is adapted precisely to those environments where food shortages are often greatest.
However, the proso millet’s relatively low yield compared to the established grain crops, has relegated it to the role of a subsistence crop, grown mostly in shifting cultivation. Making plants such as proso millet more productive is a prerequisite for improving the nutrition of the poor.
T’ef (Eragrostis t’ef) is another cereal overlooked by western science, but it is the most important crop in the highlands of Ethiopia. The t’ef grain, which is so small that you can fit seven seeds onto a pinhead, is first ground into flour, then made into a batter and fermented. The mixture is then shaped into a thick pancake called injara, which people eat with salt, or a spicy sauce.
Cultivation of t’ef grain is labour intensive; the land is ploughed three times to give a fine tilth, and the whole family is needed to weed the crop in the early stages. Yields average 700 kilograms per hectare, which is low by western standards. But t’ef is highly adaptable to climate and soil, is resistant to waterlogging, and can mature in as little as 45 days. T’ef is also nutritious: the grain is about 13 percent protein, and pregnant women on a diet of t’ef apparently never suffer from anaemia. British scientists who are working to produce more productive and drought resistant varieties suggest that t’ef is where wheat was 100 years ago. They hope to telescope its development.
Coordinated programmes could speed the development of another ancient crop, the grain amaranth (Arnaranthus spp). Amaranth is one of the few crops whose eminence was curtailed through legislation. At the peak of the Mayan and Aztec epochs, amaranth was revered as the staple food in the Andes. In certain Aztec rituals, worshippers ground amaranth grain into flour, mixed it with human blood, shaped the mixture into the images of gods and sacred animals, and then ate them. These rites proved too much even for the blood thirsty Conquistadors, who banned amaranth’s cultivation in an attempt to stifle native religions. But for the squeamish Spanish, amaranth might well have become one of the world’s major crops. Instead, it is now an obscure crop in Central America. In upland parts of Asia and in Africa, it is cultivated as a leaf vegetable.
The grain amaranth is an adaptable plant, resistant to drought, pests and tolerant of salt. It can thrive on poor, arid soils where cereals would curl up and die. The grain is highly nutritious, with protein content similar to wheat. Unlike wheat, this “super grain” is high in lysine, an essential amino acid. Collaboration between research centres in Africa, Asia and Latin America has enabled breeders at the Rodale Research Center in the United States to select plant lines that tend to be uniformly short in stature, mature early, and upon ripening do not scatter the seeds.
Quinoa, another Andean crop with ancient origins, is grown for its grain. Although it is now confined to the marginal lands of the Andes, quinoa (Cenopodium quinoa) was also a cherished crop of the Andes until it was banished by the Spanish. It has more protein than other cereals and like amaranth, contains essential amino acids.
The list of deserving crops is almost endless. There is an abundance of species, new, known or merely forgotten, that could help feed the world’s hungry, provide a better diet for others and broaden the base of our food supply.
Peter de Groot is based in London and writes on agriculture and biomass issues. This article is adapted from a longer one which appeared in the New Scientist.