From a total of 391,000 known plant species, 5,538 are known to have been used for human food since the origin of agriculture. And of the 1,097 plants now recognized as vegetables, only a fraction is commercialized and widely eaten.
The reduction of agricultural biodiversity in global food systems is of increasing concern, leading to a lack of available foods to constitute diversified diets, particularly in the developing world.
For nearly 30 years, CGIAR researchers have worked to bring back key crops. At the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI, now the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT), researchers launched a multi-country collaboration known as the Underutilized Mediterranean Species project, focusing on the potential of rocket, oregano, pistachio, and hulled wheats, including farro, spelt and emmer.
In addition to bringing back several neglected crops from oblivion, including rocket in Italy, quinoa in Bolivia, leafy vegetables in Africa south of the Sahara, and minor millets in India, this work has opened up markets for these nutrient-dense and locally adapted crops, leading to increased incomes for smallholder farmers, boosted diversity in fields and home gardens, raised yields and improved diversity in diets.
Although domesticated 3,000 years ago, quinoa, until recently, was practically unknown outside of the high Andes. Today it is such a popular “superfood” that the UN even proclaimed 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa. Now rediscovered for its nutritious properties, it can be found in homes around the world, but this newfound global appetite has only included a handful of quinoa varieties. As prices rose, farmers increasingly abandoned many traditional local varieties, replacing them with varieties that have export markets. CGIAR researchers helped ensure that the genes of thousands of quinoa varieties are maintained for future climate change adaptation, as well as for combating emerging pests and diseases.
A victim of its own popularity, rocket genetic resources were highly threatened in the wild because of unsustainable harvesting. Research by CGIAR showed how the use of emerging technologies, along with domesticating wild species, could lead to rocket being more sustainably used, conserved, and consumed. Rocket today is a commodity crop around the world, in part thanks to CGIAR’s work in popularizing it and finding ways to grow it more sustainably.
Farro is now popular as a healthy wheat variety and commercially included in a number of products like pasta and biscuits, but it actually has a long agricultural history. It was popular in the Mediterranean region for hundreds of years as a staple food but eventually fell into disuse. Even in the mid-1990s, it was considered a relic crop and only cultivated in a few places. CGIAR research helped bring it back to the table. In 1996, CGIAR researchers at IPGRI played a major role in ensuring the inclusion of a specific action on underutilized species in the FAO Global Plan of Action for plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. This was an important step to raise awareness about the value of these species among decision-makers. The IPGRI work paved the way for a new global endeavor on neglected and underutilized species (NUS). The highly innovative NUS program, now active for more than two decades, takes an interdisciplinary, intersectoral, participatory approach to mobilizing NUS to fight food and nutrition insecurity, poverty, climate change, and the marginalization of disadvantaged groups such as women and Indigenous peoples.
This blog is part of the GFAR Partners in Action series, celebrating the achievements of our diverse network of partners who are working together to shape a new, sustainable future for agriculture and food. Each month we will be showcasing stories related to a key theme in agri-food research and innovation. The theme for May is ‘Forgotten Foods’.
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