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Hunger Battle: Grow wider variety of crops

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Crop diversity is fundamental and critical to agricultural growth and food security. Crop diversity enables farmers and plant breeders to develop higher yielding, more productive varieties with improved quality characteristics demanded by consumers. More importantly, a greater diversity of genetic resources in gene banks, accessible to all through an efficient and worldwide ex situ conservation system.  This allows for a secure food supply at more stable prices especially for poor. With more raw genetic material to breed for a more nutritious and varied food, healthier and more nutritious food would be available for consumers. Thus, it supports today’s production and provides the raw material needed to ensure the continuous supply of tomorrow, in the face of a fast-changing world.  With improving food production and availability, hunger and poverty will decrease, economic growth will be stimulated by creating jobs, both on- and off-farm, which raise people’s incomes and enable them in sustainable food security.

Figure 1. Global Hunger Map 2020.

Today, nearly 60 percent of all calories consumed come from just four crops: rice, wheat, corn, and soy (Soya bean). As everybody knows these are the most significant staple foods in the world. According to FAO sources, most people live on a diet based on one or more of the following staples: rice, wheat, corn, millet, sorghum, roots and tubers (potatoes, cassava, yams and taro), and animal products such as meat, milk, eggs, cheese and fish.  It is needed to understand that the staple food does not meet a population’s total nutritional needs and it needs a variety of foods to fulfill the nutrient requirements for a healthy life. Unfortunately, there are lots of people in the world facing the problem of getting the staple food even. Interestingly, there more than 50, 000 edible plants that could be used to get energy for the population. However, of more than 50, 000 edible plant species in the world, only a few hundred is used to contribute significantly to food supplies. For instance, just only 15 crops provide 90 percent of the food energy requirement. Among them Cassava, maize, plantains, potatoes, rice, sorghum, soybeans, sweet potatoes, wheat, and yams are seems to be the most leading food crops around the world.  

There are over 10, 000 species in the Gramineae (cereal) family, few have been widely introduced into cultivation over the past 2 000 years. Among them, rice feeds almost half of humanity. Wheat feeds about 35 percent of the world population.  Maize (corn) together with rice and wheat, provides at least 30 percent of the food calories to more than 4.5 billion people in 94 developing countries. This include 900 million poor consumers for whom maize is the preferred staple. Most importantly, about 67 percent of the total maize production in the developing world comes from low and lower middle-income countries indicating the importance of maize in the livelihoods of millions of poor farmers. Roots and tubers (not cereal) play an important role as a staple food for over 1,000 million people in the developing world. This accounts for nearly 40 percent of the food eaten by half the population of sub-Saharan Africa. Roots and tubes are high in carbohydrates, calcium, and some vitamins like vitamin C.

Besides the popular domesticated crops, there are plants used to meet other minerals and vitamins by the people. This is much prominent int the rural sector.  For example, in Ghana, the leaves of more than 100 wildlife species and the fruits of another 200 are eaten. In Swaziland, more than 220 species of wild plants contribute more to the diet than domestic cultivars. In India, Malaysia and Thailand, an estimated 150 wildlife species have been identified as emergency food sources.

With economic growth many countries are experiencing demand for more products of animal origin, such as meat, milk, cheese, butter, eggs, etc. that are normally not inexpensive. Some countries show ignorance about some of the ancient traditional food crops. Nonetheless, it is essential to increase, improve and cultivate different crop varieties to cope with global hunger.  Some statistics show that certain traditional minor crops like cassava, quinoa, can be introduced rapidly among the poor in developing countries to regain food security.

In the fight against poverty through a wider range of crops, crop breeding is a solution. This is the art and science of enhancing important agricultural plants for the benefit of humanity. It may work to make our food, fiber, forage, and industrial crops more productive and nutritious with growing food expectations. Interestingly, that also contributes to environmental protection. Plant breeding has been practiced by farmers since the dawn of agriculture, as they selected plants for larger seeds, more tasty fruits, and other valuable traits. Today, both farmers and scientists work to breed plants. For instance, Crops to End Hunger (CtEH), a  CGIAR initiative to accelerate and modernize the development, delivery and widescale use of a steady stream of new crop varieties. These new varieties are developed to meet the food, nutrition, and income needs of producers and consumers. Also, meet market demand and provide resilience to pests, diseases, and new environmental challenges in the face of climate change.

Growing a wider variety of crops to address food insecurity must take many aspects into consideration. Here are some of the key insights. See what you can do to fight this battle as a responsible citizen of Mother Earth.

  • Protect food production is with pest- and disease-resistant crop varieties, meaning that the conservation, sharing, and use of crop biodiversity to breed resistant varieties.
  • Understanding the relationship between climate change and plant health to protect biodiversity and boost food production now and for generations to come.
  • Be mindful of gender relations in crop management. Lack of gender perspectives has hindered wider adoption of resistant varieties and practices such as integrated pest management.
  • Grow healthy crops taking into account the environment. For example, an ecosystem approach that combines different strategies and practices, like minimizing the use of pesticides. It helps to protect pollinators, plant pests, and other beneficial organisms.
  • Try to produce enough food to feed a growing population without increasing agriculture’s negative impacts on the environment, particularly through greenhouse gas emissions and unsustainable farming practices that degrade vital soil and water resources and threaten biodiversity.
  • Behavioral change (in yourself) and other policy changes on the part of farmers, consumers, and governments.

Sources:

IDRC (2010). Facts and Figures on Food and Biodiversity. Canada: IDRC Communications, International Development Research Centre.  Retrieved from https://www.idrc.ca/en/research-in-action/facts-figures-food-and-biodiversity

Staple Foods: What do people eat? Retrieved from https://www.fao.org/3/u8480e/u8480e07.htm

Wells. B. (2021). Protecting plants will protect people and the planet. Retrieved rom https://www.cimmyt.org/blogs/protecting-plants-will-protect-people-and-the-planet/

Saman Janaranjana Herath
Saman Janaranjana Herath
PhD (NRE). MBA (Fin). Associate Professor, University of Mount Olive, North Carolina, USA. Writer,

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