By Conviron Scholar Sessen Daniel
Increasing world population, climate change, natural resources degradation and loss of biodiversity are critical challenges that are undermining food security and raising serious concerns over the resilience of our agricultural system. Will current agriculture, relying on just four crops to provide two-thirds of the global food supply, be able to meet the increasing food demands and provide adaptability to changing climates? Will it be able to realize the Food and Agriculture Organization’s vision of a “world free from hunger and malnutrition, where food and agriculture contribute to improving the living standards of all, especially the poorest, in an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable manner“? And importantly, will it safeguard biodiversity, the foundation of healthy ecosystems? There is an urgent need to redefine the way we do agriculture and to emphasize the role of agricultural biodiversity as a key driver for sustainable development and livelihood. This is even more compelling in smallholder farming systems, that are particularly vulnerable to environmental pressures and that face constrained access to input resources and markets.
Orphan crops, also known as Neglected or Underutilized crop Species (NUS), provide an exciting solution to address these issues, by standing in line with the International Day For Biological Diversity’s theme “Our solutions are in nature“. Orphan crops include several cereals, legumes, root crops, oil seeds, vegetables and fruits that provide livelihood to millions of people, mainly in smallholder farming communities. Teff, finger millet, fonio, okra, baobab, grain amaranth, shea, cassava, Bambara groundnut and plumed cockscomb are just few of the hundreds African Orphan Crops known for their nutraceutical properties, adaptability to local environments, ability to enhance food and economic security in rural populations and to diversify foods and diets. Wondering why you’ve never heard of them?
Orphan crops have long been overlooked by the global scientific community and have lagged behind characterization, conservation, breeding and genetic improvement efforts compared to major crops. They have been demoted by industry and governments to traditional crops that contribute marginally to agricultural systems, and have therefore featured scarcely in global food supply chains. Yet, they are instrumental in providing essential ecosystem services, building more diverse cropping systems, enhancing cultural heritage and traditional knowledge and, overall, meeting the Aichi Biodiversity Targets adopted under the Convention on Biological Diversity.
The time is ripe to shed light upon orphan crops and count them among solutions to “bend the curve on biodiversity loss“. In this view, genomics is a key asset to uncover their diversity, to gain evolutionary insights and to understand the genetic architecture of their key traits. A new era of “orphan crops genomics” could in turn lead to a more rational management of these key genetic resources, ensure the best adapted genetic diversity and leverage this crop diversity into breeding programs, paving the way towards more resilient, resource-efficient and diverse agricultural ecosystems.