Orphan Crops: Looking to Biodiversity for Food Security

This week we look at the importance of biodiversity in nutrition and crop choice. In previous posts for the Crawford Fund Conference, we addressed the importance of food quality and nutrition, rather than just quantity.

There are around 30,000 edible plant species existing in the world.
Take a guess at how many we consume: 30,000? 3000? 300 perhaps?

Well the answer is closer to 30!

Scientists and policymakers are now turning attention to ‘orphan crops’ as the keys for improved food security. Orphan crops are crops that have been forgotten in agricultural production and trade over the past century, but are now being rediscovered for their nutritional, economic and social value. Examples of orphan crops include the African Yam Bean, the Desert Date and Ber.

With 95% of global food being sourced from maize, rice and wheat – there is great opportunity for orphan crops to have an increasing role in diets globally.

The great part about orphan crops is that they are uniquely suited to their local environments, meaning they are resistant to certain climatic variations and tolerant to local pests. They can provide dietary/nutritional diversity for communities, an option for crop rotation for farmers, create niche markets in local economies, and harness and protect local knowledge.

Ren Wang, the FAO Assistant Director-General, has stated that:

“by expanding the portfolio of crops available to farmers, we can help build more diverse and resilient cropping systems”.

The growth of orphan crops provides further opportunities for farmers in crop rotation systems. Enhancing agro-biodiversity at the field level not only promotes nutritional diversity, but disrupts pest and disease cycles.

Harnessing local knowledge and traditional crop species has enormous potential for improving food security in many regions of the world. Many researchers now believe that if perceptions for orphan crops was improved in Africa, food security could also be improved. A vast majority of traditional dishes in African nations are made from indigenous crops such as yams, finger millet, favabean and Bambara groundnut. There are now calls for research to focus on these crops, rather than on major crops such as rice [source].

According to Kenya’s Agriculture Secretary Felix Koskei:

“Indigenous crop research has lagged behind in Africa with both international and local institutions phasing in maize, wheat, and a small range of pulses. Seed companies have also concentrated on the same crops, which have high turnover both in volume and sales. This has resulted in improved indigenous crops not being available to farming communities”.

Fortunately, there are now various projects promoting research and development into orphan crops.

Take for example the ACIAR-funded project in Kenya which is working to promote underutilised crops in Busia Country. Many crops that were used extensively as traditional medicine in Kenya are now regarded as old-fashion. This includes Ethiopian kale, jute mallow, moringa, cowpea leaves and amaranth. The project aims to raise the profile of African leafy vegetables by establishing reliable government procurement contracts to source food to school feeding programs.

One smallholder farmer in Busia reported that where she previously waited for periods of three to four months to harvest maize, she could now harvest and sell African leafy vegetables on a weekly basis. These crops are also reportedly returning higher prices at local markets than traditional staple crops.

Annie (ACIAR) has said that:

“these kinds of crops can modernize agriculture, both technologically and commercially, for young people”.

The African Orphan Crop Consortium is currently conducting projects to sequence the genomes of 101 underutilised African crops, to improve the nutritional qualities and yields of crop varieties, and increase resilience to climate change.

The Consortium focuses on developing genomics resources for economically important but also socio-culturally relevant crop and tree species grown in Africa. The 101 crops identified as orphan or neglected crops were identified based on a survey of African plant breeders, policy makers, farmers, universities, sociologists and other stakeholders. This includes the African plum, taro, baobab, wild custard apple, chocolate berries, shea butter and favabean. Check out the full list here.

The first plant to be genetically mapped was the Baobab – an iconic tree of Africa. The plant is high in vitamin C, and found across sub-Saharan Africa. The plant has many uses across the continent. The leaves are eaten as vegetables in West Africa, and the pulp is made into porridge, juices, cooking oil, ice cream, energy bars, soda, jams, cookies and even cosmetics across the continent.

The baobab is well regarded for its’ ability to be produced during drought, and for the high nutritional content. However, it’s slow growth is a challenge which scientists are now seeking to tackle through genetic mapping and improvement.

Tony Simons, the ICRAF Director General, has stated:

“this information will allow breeders to use the same strategies and technologies as those for Western crops, such as maize, to make rapid improvements in African crops”.

The program is also training African plant breeders in genomics and crop improvement.

Further, the project led by Howard-Yana Shapiro (the agricultural director of the Mars Corporation) which initially looked at cacoa trees, makes the information publically available. Access to genetic data has enormous potential for crop improvements.

“It’s not charity. It’s a gift. Its an improvement of African agriculture. These crops will never be worked on by the big five [seed] companies. They don’t see them as competition.”

Thinking outside the box of traditional crops, and looking into orphan crops, clearly has enormous potential for improving food and nutrition security globally.


Find out more information here:


A Bunch of Big Names are Trying to Save Africa’s Orphan Crops—Here’s Why That Matters

Mapping the Genomes of Africa’s ‘Orphan’ Crops



Meet the crops


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