Ever tried an African pear? Or a bush mango? Or a tree tomato? Or, perhaps, a custard apple?
African pear, or butterfruit, is 48% oil and can be processed into a spread that can be used as a natural plant-based substitute for margarine.
Packed with a set of fatty acids, bush mango is rich in protein. Its seeds can be used to make cooking oil and chocolate-like treats; its skin can be used in cloth coloration.
Tree tomato, or tamarillo, tastes like a mix of passion fruit and sweet tomatoes. High in vitamins A, B6, C, E, iron, potassium and antioxidants, this fruit has many health benefits. And so does the custard apple, which tastes just like it sounds.
All of these species and many other “forgotten fruits” are in the NUS group, which stands for “neglected and underutilized species”. Originating from the tropical regions of the world, these species have been cultivated by the indigenous peoples for millennia. Very high in minerals, nutrients and vitamins, neglected and underutilized species can provide famine and malnutrition relief, because they have so much more to offer than more recognized and commonly used species.
Unlike oranges or apples, NUS species perform well under extreme weather conditions and adapt easily. Neglected species are insurance crops that will provide in difficult times, and apart from immediate effect on famine prevention, underutilized species are also donors of genes for future climate-proof plant breeding.
There is only one issue: They are not popular. People do not know about them and, hence, there is hardly any investment in their production systems. So, even though forgotten fruits are still abundant in the tropics and are consumed by the locals, they are likely to be wiped out because production systems for more recognized species are more developed. Seeds and knowledge about their cultivation are also more available. In the meantime, according to Prof. August Temu from the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF), a Partner in GFAR, expanding cultivation and use of underutilized and neglected species will be an indispensable contribution to food security.
From forgotten to familiar
August Temu has no doubt that the nutritional qualities of neglected species are very high. Together with other scientists at ICRAF, he has been working with vegetative propagation to allow farmers to produce more fruits and faster, while preserving their genetic traits. The trouble is that their cultivation and consumption is confined to specific ecological areas. So, the real challenge is creating a thriving market for NUS.
The first step to market development is creating a product through research and brainstorming. Forgotten fruits should be given a chance to be tested for cultivation and for product development in other areas of the world. This way foods, cosmetics and medicinal products made from NUS can be adapted to customer taste in, for instance, Europe. As has already happened with baobab, moringa and chia, there is a chance that butterfruit spread or oil from African mango seeds will become popular, which can stimulate development of their value chains and boost incomes of the people who grow them.
Once these crops are made familiar, the business development strategy becomes easier and lower-cost, both for farmers and for business investors. This way, neither of them will have to invest in new seeds, as many fruit tree orchards will already be in place. Businesses won’t need to invest in training of farmers, while farmers will get to work with what they already know very well, which means they will have high productivity to begin with.
So, the production is already there. There is, obviously, an opportunity for the development of numerous food fads at the very least. It is quite amusing to think that, unlike with many other food system issues that require big policy changes and will largely entail reduction in consumption, in the case of the neglected and underutilized species it is smart marketing and increase of consumption that will come to our rescue. And as we know humans today are performing quite well on both fronts!
What is needed is a promotional effort: We really need to talk much more about the forgotten fruits. So don’t be afraid of fruits with an unfamiliar shape, color or taste…partaking may just be good for you and for the farmers who grow them!
This blog by Katja Bessonova, Communications Officer at the Swedish International Agriculture Network Initiative (SIANI) is based on an interview with Prof. August Temu, Deputy Director General responsible for Partnership and Impact at the World Agroforestry Centre. It is part of our Partner Spotlight this week on SIANI.
Other blog posts being featured this week that explore the links between food and forests:
GFAR Secretariat is turning the spotlight on the work and collective actions of Partners in GFAR who share in our mission to strengthen and transform agri-food research and innovation systems globally. Not a GFAR partner yet? Join now!