- Neglected and underutilised crops may help sustain agricultural production in marginal areas, especially salinisation-hit swathes, according to a review. These crops are less known for food, feed, fuel and fibre in many parts of the world and are better candidates in the face of climate change.
- Changes in both agricultural production and food consumption can lead to significant shifts in how an agrifood system functions, so it is important to understand the many and complex pathways from farm to plate.
- India’s Department of Biotechnology, which has been supporting research in underutilised crops through competitive grants, is also conceiving a mission programme on millets which will be operationalised by December 2019.
As salt-spoiled soils increase across the world, can neglected and underutilised crop species be the rising stars in sustainable agriculture in salinisation-hit countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh?
Spotlighting the ongoing research globally on ‘new crops’ to meet the food demand for an increasing population, a review describes the full potential of some of the underutilised crops and species to adapt to marginal areas, especially saline areas, in a changing climate.
According to review co-author Shoaib Ismail, the term ‘new crops’ includes ‘underutilised crops’ (which are grown and used in one part of the world but unknown in other regions); ‘neglected crops’ (that were once grown but now not grown for different reasons) and ‘non-conventional crops’ (found in the wild but have not been explored for human and animal consumption or other use).
“Underutilised crops are less known for food, feed, fuel and fibre in many parts of the world and are better candidates in the face of climate change. Many existing crops are producing less due to temperatures extremes, shortage of water, poor quality of water and natural disasters,” Ismail, a Pakistan-based senior halophyte agronomy specialist told Mongabay-India.
These underutilised crops once tested and found sustainable can be introduced in those regions, bred with local crop varieties to produce better crops in terms of quantity and quality. Not to mention their contribution to the flavours in your food palate.
Only 30 crops provide food for human consumption globally, while more than 10,000 crops have the potential to be grown as food, added Ismail.
Quinoa, for example, is one such grain that is on the platter of virtually every health-conscious individual these days. The ancient grain is mainly grown in the Andean countries of Peru and Bolivia and has gained a firm toehold in Europe.
Because of its nutritional qualities and its adaptability to different agro-ecological conditions, the Food and Agricultural Organisation’s Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva called it “an ally in the fight against hunger and food insecurity” while declaring the year 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa.
Some other examples of these new crops are safflower, oats, amaranth, mustard greens, cowpea, castor and grasses such as Panicum laevifolium among others.
Soil too salty
Salinisation refers to a build-up of salts in the soil, which can eventually reach levels toxic to plants.
Saline areas, for different reasons, have expanded in all irrigated and dry regions of the world, hitting availability of staples and the economic conditions of poor farmers who struggle to make ends meet, explained Ismail.
According to the World Atlas of Desertification, the global annual cost of salt-induced land degradation in irrigated areas is estimated to be US$ 27.3 billion related to lost crop production.
The Atlas points to the Aral Sea Basin in central Asia, the Indo-Gangetic Basin in India, the Indus Basin in Pakistan, China’s Yellow River Basin, the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia as among the most known regions where salt-induced land degradation has been taking place.
Sea level rise in coastal regions such as those in Bangladesh and Australia has gradually pushed in saltwater. According to Bangladesh’s Soil Resources Development Institute (SRDI), the country saw a 26 percent increase in salinity in a span of 35 years, with saltwater intruding into non-coastal stretches as well.
An estimated 76 million hectares of mostly irrigated land has been lost to salinisation, often in association with further losses to waterlogging, says the 2018 assessment of global land degradation by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).
In supplemental roles, underutilised crops can be grown “well” in these saline areas and add to the repertoire of existing crops available, bridging the feed gap, the review suggests.
“Salinity is a very complex issue, it can be very localised or it may be at a larger scale (basin-scale) which means larger irrigated areas having depressions or other reasons to accumulate salt and increase salinity,” explained Ismail.
India and Pakistan have a lot of salinity issues and more specifically, both Indian part and Pakistan part of Punjab have a lot of salinity problems, said Ismail.
“While in many locations the problems and solutions are similar, in another place, they are different. For instance, salinity can be associated with drought (water scarcity) or waterlogging (excessive water – due to rainfall or irrigation water), so under those conditions, the approach to deal with salinity is different and localised,” Ismail said.
Experience and more research
International Food Policy Research Institute’s David Spielman agrees that there are certainly opportunities to introduce many different crops as both alternatives and complements to current cropping patterns in regions facing desertification and salinisation.
“For example, there is a fair amount of experience worldwide with integrating traditional cereal cultivation systems with agroforestry, perennial crops, fodder crops, and legume rotations,” Spielman, a senior research fellow in the Environment and Production Technology Division at IFPRI who was not associated with the review, told Mongabay-India.
Many of these systems aim to increase soil fertility, control erosion and reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with intensive cropping systems. And many such experiences are potentially useful to the specific case of desertification or salinisation, Spielman said.
Manoj Prasad, a senior scientist at India’s National Institute of Plant Genome Research, said in India there are several crops that are being cultivated in marginal areas but have the potential to secure food and nutritional securities for the country in the scenario of climate change.
“For example, barnyard millet (sanwa in Hindi) is popular in southern India, especially in southern Tamil Nadu, where people consume this millet as an alternative to rice. The crop is climate-resilient and resistant to any disease. Similarly, foxtail millet is grown and consumed in selective regions of our nation even though the crop has a better nutritional profile and stress tolerance,” Prasad, who was not associated with the review told Mongabay-India.
Prasad has convened the first national conference on ‘Neglected and Underutilised Crop Species for Food, Nutrition, Energy and Environment’ in August 2019, highlighting that for several decades, researchers are working towards improving the ‘major’ crops for better adaptability and tolerance to environmental stresses but little or no research attention is given towards neglected and underutilised crops (NUCS).
He batted for further research on understanding salt-tolerant mechanisms of species that survive in saline environments.
“Several plant species are capable of surviving in saline environments like seashores and delta areas. However, these crops are not studied to decipher the mechanism of salt tolerance that operates within the plant. This study is important,” Prasad noted.
“One should look into the molecular mechanism underlying salt tolerance, and the knowledge thus gained should be translated to cultivated species to impart better survivability in saline areas. The latter could be achieved either through technology-assisted breeding or transgene-based approaches,” Prasad said.
Recognising the importance of the species India’s Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) have pledged their commitment to support the studies on these species.
DBT Secretary Renu Swarup told Mongabay-India that the department has been supporting research in underutilised crops through competitive grants, including 14 projects on millets, two projects on Amaranthus, one project on Cassava and one major network project on minor pulses in the last five years.
The network project expected to speed up the use of genetic resources for the improvement of the minor pulses using “genomic resources/markers paving the way for varietal development, increased production and productivity in the minor pulses.”
“The department has been tasked with a mission programme on minor oilseeds. Under the programme, four minor oilseeds (linseed, safflower, niger and sesame) will be supported. Department is also conceiving a mission programme on millets which will be operationalised by December, 2019,” said Swarup.
Stepping up to the challenges
Reintroducing or reviving these crops in saline environments does not happen in one fell swoop. Both laboratory, farm and market challenges remain.
First, it requires identification of crops that need or have the potential to be introduced in saline areas based on climate, soil and water quality, the extent of salinity problems.
The seeds need to be tested for appropriate agronomic (farming) practices under controlled conditions by scientists for at least two years to make sure the crop is adapted to the local conditions. They should be multiplied and stored properly.
“The crops are tested in collaboration with farmers on their farms (model farms) depending on their interests for crops (food and feed are a farmer’s first choice). This needs to be done for at least two years,” said Ismail.
Scaling up, farmers’ acceptance and market preference are the next hurdles.
“Whether the crop is actually profitable to the farmer or otherwise requires some form of strategic investment to promote its uptake. And some challenges are more cultural in nature. Will consumers actually eat the crop in question? Will they integrate it into their diets as a substitute for the crops they are accustomed to,” elaborated Spielman.
Will it confer equivalent nutritional benefits at the same cost in terms of micronutrient, protein, or caloric availability? Will agri-processors—from small millers to large food industries—integrate the crop into their industrial processes and product lines?
“The complexity of these challenges is often lost in the rush to promote a new or trendy crop as a panacea to all problems. Changes in both agricultural production and food consumption can lead to significant shifts in how an agrifood system functions, so it is important to understand the many and complex pathways from farm to plate,” Spielman said.
Scope for international co-operation and strategies
The advance of salinisation has opened up avenues for international co-operation in exploring the untapped potential of neglected and underutilised species.
The biggest scope for co-operation between the two countries (India and Pakistan) and for many others are in areas of exchange of the seeds of underutilised crops found in their countries, new crops developed through conventional breeding or genetic engineering/biotechnology and sharing genetic resources through world genome centres.
“That is the best way of cooperation. Unfortunately, the two neighbouring countries do not work together directly on such issues but are working together as part of many international projects,” said Ismail.
He emphasised the importance of research and development centres working on salinity and drought (or waterlogging) given the fact that most seed banks house collections for conventional crops that are suitable for arable areas and not for saline areas (though some centres though have genetic material from research and development organisations).
“These research centres produce ‘new’ or ‘improved’ seeds that are not available in the seed banks, in general,” Ismail said.
Conserving, characterising, and sharing genetic materials held in genebanks and genetic resource collections around the world, are among the key strategies being pursued to develop these crops and promote their adoption, said Spielman.
Another path to scale-up adoption is breeding for specific traits—and the genetic and physiological pathways that underlie those traits—through well-funded, long-term genomics, bioinformatics, and crop improvement programs that utilise these genetic resource collections.
Other strategies are working with farmers and consumers to evaluate the performance of these traits on the farm, in the market, and on the plate (under real-world conditions) and working with market actors such as traders, processors, and retailers to move these crops from production to consumption and to add value to these crops.
“Throughout the world, governments, firms, and communities are already pursuing many of these strategies,” said Spielman.
The list of public policies and investments that might advance the introduction of alternative crops could be endless: farmer-to-farmer advisory systems; digitalised extension services; automated, high-throughput processes for rapid genetic characterisation and crop improvement; public investment in the provision of better rural irrigation systems among others.
“Necessarily, all of these public policies and investments come with costs, benefits, and tradeoffs, especially in agri-food systems that are fraught with structural challenges. The key is to continuously assess and evaluate which strategies offer the greatest net benefit to society, not just in terms of financial returns, but also in terms of environmental sustainability and social inclusion,” said Spielman.
Banner: Saline area in the Western Australian wheat belt near Bannister, WA. 1981. Photo by Willem van Aken, CSIRO/Wikimedia Commons.