A custard apple ripening on its tree. Photo courtesy of Scotland's Rural College

Could Africa’s ‘forgotten crops’ be key to a healthier, sustainable future?

Produce Business report

What do wild custard apples, bush plums, Malabar spinach, spider plants and bottle gourd have in common? They are all among a group of African fruits and vegetables highlighted as forgotten food crops by a group of researchers at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), the World Vegetable Center, World Agroforestry and other institutions. They say oft-dismissed produce, nuts and trees could be the key to unlocking “future food systems” and promoting sustainability.

In research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, the team from SRCC identifies 58 such crops (from 7 food groups) that have received little to no fanfare over the past 20-30 years but could become staples in diets across the world if growing were enhanced. That could lead to more nutrition-rich societies far into the future.

“Of the 58 prioritised forgotten food crops, many are annuals and tree fruits rich in Vitamin A and C, and a large number are vegetables high in Vitamin A, iron, folate and zinc,” Lead author Maarten van Zonneveld from the World Vegetable Center said. “Our study shows that in most locations where major staples are currently grown in sub-Saharan Africa, one or more forgotten food crops from the different food groups will be suitable for cultivation under 2070 climate conditions and can diversify major staples to support more nutrient-rich diets.”

Among those crops are a host of fruits such as sweetsop, jackfruit, mango, and avocado; vegetables that include bitter gourd, moringa, sweet potato, pumpkin and courgetti; and pulses such as lentils, sicklepod and several bean varieties.

“The special thing about our current research was that we not only modelled crop distributions, but we looked at the nutritional value of the crops and therefore more directly how their production affects diets, which is a crucial factor in support of micronutrient supply “beyond calories” that current staple crops provide,” said Dr Ian Dawson, a Reader at SURC. “In the UK recently, we have seen the problems of getting access to healthful salad crops, for example.

“As we note in the paper, the climate modelling we have done is of course only an initial step in supporting food system diversification, and many other considerations are needed to design future food systems and put these designs into practice. We need to work with producers and consumers to find out what works in bringing about useful change, but our modelling is a useful step on the way.”

An intriguing outlier from the paper is the possibility of expanding this research beyond Africa to other areas, perhaps even the UK.

“Although our paper looks at future food systems for Africa, there is no reason why similar climate niche modelling methods should not be applied to forgotten foods in other parts of the world, and that includes Europe and the UK, “Dr Dawson said. “Already, the UK is thinking about how to introduce or reintroduce unusual legume, cereal and vegetable crops into production, to reduced greenhouse gas emissions by providing alternative sources of protein to meat, and to create healthier diets. So, these moves would also help adapt our food system to the future climate we anticipate.”

Climate is a massive concern for the future of food. As researchers point out, myriad weather-related events and overall global warming have led to floods and droughts during key growing seasons. That, along with unrest in Russia and Ukraine, has impacted supply chains.

“Africa already has massive problems in achieving sufficient nutritious food supply, and climate change is expected to make the situation a lot worse,” Dr Dawson said. “Colleagues at the World Vegetable Center and World Agroforestry are committed to supporting the diversification of Africa’s food systems with a range of healthy foods.”



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