Neglected or overlooked local food crops could well be making a comeback into markets in Africa thanks to the work of a consortium of scientists.

‘Orphan’ crops, which include a range of neglected or overlooked plants producing fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains and roots, are often very nutritious and can suit current agricultural systems. They also have extensive, although reducing, genetic diversity. As their name suggests, orphan crops have mostly rarely been researched. However, scientists, governments and agricultural development agencies have been re-thinking the importance of orphan crops because of the risk of growing only nutritionally limited and resource-intensive crops, as most of the world does now.

One of the biggest challenges of making orphan crops more popular is that appropriate means to bring this about are lacking. To understand this better, a research team from World Agroforestry (ICRAF), Institute for Development Research at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna, Scotland’s Rural College, The Crop Trust, Division of Human Nutrition and Health and the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health at Wageningen University reviewed the literature and found that there was a lot about success and failure in promotion of orphan crops but little about the relative importance of production versus consumption and how these interacted.

Writing in the journal, Global Food Security, the team discussed how they had analysed secondary data on crop production, finding that improving governments’ food policies could help with bringing orphan crops into the mainstream marketplace but there wasn’t clear guidance on which interventions might be best.

The team took this finding further by interviewing a range of agricultural and food experts, revealing that multi-disciplinary teams were critical for creating and managing strategies to bring such crops into the mainstream. However, again, there was no clear agreement on particular measures for particular crops.

‘Potential solutions involve work on the appropriate “biophysical” design of farming systems to integrate orphan crops,’ said Stepha McMullin, lead author of the study and a scientist with ICRAF, ‘“tailoring” of orphan crops to fit more optimally in production designs; the development of processing procedures so that orphan crops can be more readily used as ingredients in processed foods; and appropriate messaging on how orphan-crop foods can help achieve healthy diets and increase interest amongst consumers.’

The team’s literature review started with a group of 30 crops from the African Orphan Crops Consortium’s list of under-utilised and/or under-researched species. The extent to which the crops had been researched varied. All were relatively under-researched compared to major staples although some, such as sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), were more researched than others. But because of their importance in traditional African food systems, the researchers consider that the crops could hold specific lessons for future mainstreaming of orphan crops.

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This story is originally published by ICRAF

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