Food Security Challenges May Be Answered With Underutilized Crops

FAO chief says adaption to changing climate will be difficult without a variety of plant species.

Published on: Dec 13, 2012

Neglected crops that are currently underutilized by farmers can play an important role addressing the food and agriculture challenges of the future and should be reevaluated, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Director-General José Graziano da Silva said this week at the start the International Crops for the 21st Century seminar in Cordoba, Spain.

In his remarks, Graziano da Silva noted that FAO estimates that some seven thousand species of plants have been cultivated or consumed as food throughout human history. Today, many of these species are disappearing.

"If we lose these unique and irreplaceable resources, it will be more difficult for us to adapt to climate change and ensure a healthy and diversified nutrition for all," the FAO chief said. "Currently there are about 870 million hungry people in the world, a world that produces enough food for everyone.

FAO chief says adaption to changing climate will be difficult without a variety of plant species. (UN Photo)
FAO chief says adaption to changing climate will be difficult without a variety of plant species. (UN Photo)

"Globalization has created an abundance of food in some parts of the world, but has failed to end the chronic shortages that exist elsewhere," he added.

Graziano da Silva added that globalization has created a certain homogeneity of products, accompanied by a loss of different culinary traditions and agricultural biodiversity.

According to FAO, the caloric intake of most people on the planet is based today on only four crops: rice, maize, wheat and potatoes.

"Our dependence on a few crops has negative consequences for ecosystems, food diversity and our health. The food monotony increases the risk of micronutrient deficiency," Graziano da Silva said.

More attention to both production and consumption

To address these challenges, the FAO's top executive has called for more attention to both production and consumption issues. FAO has called for the sustainable intensification of agricultural production via a model it calls "Save and Grow" – a food production model that also preserves and enhances natural resources.

Graziano da Silva stressed that neglected and underutilized species play a crucial role in the fight against hunger and are a key resource for agriculture and rural development. He also called for increased research on underutilized crops.

"While some research is taking place, the results do not always reach smallholders," he noted.

The FAO chief also underlined the importance of sustainable diets. "While almost 870 million people go hungry, an even greater number are overweight or obese. And even as inadequate access to food causes suffering in poor countries, every year consumers in industrialized countries waste 220 million tons of food, an amount equivalent to sub-Saharan Africa's total annual food production," he said.

As the Cordoba meeting aims to highlight, many underutilized crop species haven't been lost yet, and form the basis of local food systems in many world regions. These crops are well-adapted to their local agro-ecological conditions and remain important to the livelihoods of the communities that use them.

"For millennia, communities have developed crops in harmony with the environment, using the rich natural surroundings. And so food is also part of our culture and identity," Graziano da Silva said.

"We must not lose track of our agricultural and culinary roots, nor the lore and wisdom of our ancestors.  On the contrary, we must learn from them, to ensure that our future has even more diversity," he concluded.