“The world’s big four crops – wheat, rice, maize, and soybean – make up over 70% of the world’s food supply,” Professor Sayed Azam Ali, CEO, Crops For the Future (CFF) told FoodNavigator-Asia.
CFF is an independent international research centre, part of the Association of International Research and Development Centres for Agriculture (AIRCA). It is located in Malaysia.
“Over the 10,000 years that [mankind has] been involved in agricultural activity, we’ve planted over 7,000 crops, but now, the majority of what we consume has been reduced to just four types, less than the minimum threshold,” added Prof Sayed.
Without making a strict definition, he describes an underutilised crop as one that “does not have the benefit of a big research centre, or international centre protecting it.”
He believes that it is important to increase the use of these crops, and reduce dependency on the Big Four in order to combat nutritional collapse and food security issues worldwide.
“We invested so much in the big crops previously [due to food supply challenges] as they were calorie-dense and could feed people, but now, we have an even bigger challenge, […] instead seeing a collapse of nutrition around the world,” said Prof Sayed.
He cites the domination of the big four crops as a major reason for this global nutritional collapse.
“It’s partly because [people’s] diets are so homogenised with these crops being made into processed foods,” he explained.
“New, high quality science is showing that the content of the food we eat is becoming less nutritious – we can feel full, but the food actually has no nutrients in it, e.g. proteins, vitamins, micronutrients.”
He also explained that increased industrial activity in the past decades has caused a rise in atmospheric carbon, which integrates into crops.
This causes the carbohydrate content to increase at the expense of other nutrients, leading to ‘hidden hunger’, where populations are well-fed but micronutrient-deficient.
“This is a very significant issue, because nutrition now becomes the biggest killer,” said Prof Sayed. “We’re looking at poor development, stunting, weak brain development and much more.”
A recent Stanford University study published in PLOS calculated that by 2050, 125.8 million years’ worth of disease burden will be caused by micronutrient-deficient populations.
The countries that will be most affected by this are in Southeast Asia and Africa. Roughly 44 million of those will be lost in South East Asia, due to the region’s rice dependency.
Over-dependency on Big Four carries high risk of vulnerability
Over-dependency on the big four has also opened up doors for many potential food security issues, especially in terms of vulnerability.
“What will happen if one crop fails? If a disease hits any of the Big Four, the world is alarmingly vulnerable to the consequences,” said Prof Sayed.
“It’s like putting all our eggs into one basket. We already know that volatile climates and agriculture don’t mix, and given current environmental issues like global warming, this system is a huge risk, making us very vulnerable to food supply,” he added.
CFF role in promoting underutilised crops
Current crops undergoing intensive study at CFF include the kedondong and the Bambara groundnut.
“We look at how to make these crops into new, cool foods without losing their cultural value. It will be easier to market these by giving them a new twist,” he added.
For example, kedondong is a sour fruit traditionally consumed as a beverage, but CFF has turned this into an effervescent form, reducing its sour taste and increasing its appeal.
“The key is to add nutritious ingredients, micronutrients as well as flavour into these [previously unpalatable] foods,” said Prof Sayed.
“The marketing and association factors are also very important. If a celebrity endorses a product, associating it with him/her, it will quickly and effectively [change people’s mindsets],” he added.
That said, Prof Sayed commented that the intention is not to bring these in the direction of superfoods or fads.
“The danger with superfoods is the overhype over what normally are single crops. This will reduce dietary diversification, which is what we are working towards,” he said.
Future development and directions
One of CFF’s major research projects is on the Bambara groundnut, traditionally grown in Malaysia and Thailand.
“We want to make it into Malaysia’s national food,” said Prof Sayed.
“It is very resilient to climate changes, and very nutritious. It can grow in idle land that is too dry for big crops, so there is lots of potential for it.”
“I intend to collaborate with food and beverage industry partners at any point of the value chain, from genetics to product development to market, especially those who have the flexibility to try new experiments,” he added.