Africa’s forgotten crops could offset growing food insecurity

Michel Ghanem – Mohammed VI Polytechnic University

Why is it common sense to diversify our investment portfolio, but not the world’s food portfolio?” asks Dr. Arif Husain, Chief Economist at the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), and recipient of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize (quote from Twitter, 23rd March 2022). As we diversify our investments, and our energy sources, it is time to think seriously about diversifying our food system. In fact, doing so can also help with the first two, as our mainstream foods are also largely dependent on fossil fuels and fertilizer sources (Woods et al., 2010), and the alternatives are starved of investment.

Of the 7000 edible plant species, today just four (maize, wheat, soybean and rice) provide more than half of our calories. To add more complexity, the world’s exports and reserves of agricultural commodities are highly concentrated geographically, leaving the world vulnerable to price shocks, supply chain disturbances and climate change. According to the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE), 86% of all wheat exports come from just seven countries, while three countries hold 68% of global wheat reserves. The war in Ukraine has caused terrible losses in lives and illustrated the danger this concentration poses. The UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is warning that the conflict will escalate global hunger and poverty, as Russia and Ukraine together export about 30% of the world’s wheat and 53% of the world’s sunflower (UNCTAD, 2022). We will likely witness a significant shortfall in the portion of the world’s availability of demand for wheat, maize and barley will not be available toon the global markets. Food riots may also occur, as they did during the financial crisis of 2008.

Recently, there have been calls to expand “wheat production in high-productivity areas (North America and Europe) and in regions with suitable conditions (Sudan and Nigeria are promising), and to increase productivity in places where it is low (such as Ethiopia and Turkey)”. The recent example of India which announced days ago a ban on wheat sales “to manage the overall food security of the country”, shows the vulnerability of such a strategy.

It would be a mistake to think that investment on a single mainstream commodity will be enough to ensure food security. This strategy addresses the immediate symptoms of an acute crisis while leaving untouched the deeper malady. Continuing to rely on current global food chains delivering a narrow range of mainstream crops, susceptible to sudden supply chain shocks and long-term climate change, means that food security in Africa will remain vulnerable. The crisis should encourage us to rethink food systems, especially in areas where rapid population growth and changing diets based on processed products from mainstream staples have increased dependence on the international markets for food needs, and work to make them more resilient. Fundamentally, that means more diverse food systems.

The current crisis could in fact help to turn a long-lasting but neglected structural problem into an opportunity. Instead of a “more of the same” model based on a small number of globally traded mainstream crops, the worls needs to invest more in homegrown solutions. This requires, in ways that are complementary to the production of wheat, maize and rice, transformational investments in indigenous forgotten cereals, roots, tubers, grain legumes, oil crops, fruits and vegetables that are adapted to local palates and agroecologies, and cultivated according to traditional management practices , which are also often more “climate smart”.


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 ‘Small – scale family farming in an era of change’.

Join the conversation in the comments below or share this article on social media using #GFARinAction.


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