Orphan crops, which are also described as neglected or underused crops, are domesticated plant species that have often been cultivated for centuries, but are not widely grown or traded. They are usually grown by small-holder or subsistence farmers and sold locally. As widely grown cash crops reach their maximum yield potential, a renewed research focus on these overlooked species could help to improve global food security.
Over the past 50 years, the global food supply has become increasingly homogeneous, with three crops – maize, wheat and rice – accounting for about 60 per cent of the global food energy intake. Global meat production depends upon a fourth crop, soybean, which accounts for 65 per cent of the global protein feed supply. The focus on improving the yields of a relatively small number of high-yield crop varieties has reduced the diversity of the average person’s diet and left the global food system overly reliant on a small number of cash crops.
The yields and nutritional values of cash crops like maize, wheat and rice have improved over decades through scientific breeding programmes. Yield increases from these crops have plateaued over recent decades and it is possible that the maximum yield potential of these species has been reached. A focus on other crops that have not benefitted from decades of selective breeding could help improve agricultural productivity and increase biodiversity, which is an integral part of a robust global food system.
There is a growing realisation that in some parts of the world food security is unlikely to be improved without a strong focus on orphan crops. In Ethiopia, for instance, teff is a staple food for 50 million people. Improving the productive capacity of farmers growing teff, through agricultural research and development and extension, would go a long way toward improving food security, not just in Ethiopia, but wherever teff is grown and traded.
Some orphan crops are consumed by large numbers of people, but have garnered little research interest compared to more widely-traded agricultural products. Cassava, for instance, is a staple food for 800 million people that will benefit from increased research attention. Global yields of cassava have not significantly improved in more than 25 years. In Nigeria, which is the largest producer of cassava in the world, yields have not improved since 1961. Over the same time period, however, Nigerian corn yields have more than doubled due to breeding programmes and other production improvements. There is little doubt that with similar research and development attention, orphan crops could also experience similar gains in yield.
Researchers working on orphan crops are more likely to be closed off from mainstream agricultural science than those working on more widely grown cash crops. This situation is beginning to change, however, with the establishment of research organisations with a specific focus on orphan crops. Two orphan crop research organisations were established in Kenya in 2013: the African Orphan Crops Consortium and the African Plant Breeding Academy. Together they aim to sequence the DNA of over 100 orphan food crops and disseminate this information to other African research organisations.
Many orphan crops are grown and consumed in Africa and Asia, often by poorer farmers. With the development of overseas markets, however, additional global demand could see new opportunities for the development of export markets or the adoption of orphan crops by wealthier farmers abroad. Teff, which originated in Ethiopia, for example, is already being grown in the United States, South Africa, the Netherlands, Canada, France and Israel and is sold as a health food in the second-largest food retailer in Australia.
Yields from orphan crops are likely to increase as a result of rising research and development interest. In the short term, increased yields will benefit those already growing and consuming these crops. To fully realise the benefits of orphan crop research, however, new markets to both grow and consume these species need to be cultivated.