“Ancient Crops Find New Life”

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The Story

“Ancient Crops Find New Life”
by Virginia Gewin
BioGraphic, 2017

The Pitch

Grooming orphans to feed the world

Virginia Gewin

Under the sweltering sun of Semenyih, Malaysia, sit three white-shuddered domes of Crops for the Future, conjuring images of space-age cultivation. Inside the novel research facility, however, Sayed Azam-Ali and colleagues are grooming ancient, orphaned crops for a place in modern agriculture.

Azam-Ali has studied food security for forty years. In the face of climate change, he says, the world lacks a clear-eyed confrontation of the global gamble underway—an unsustainable reliance on four major crops. Wheat, rice, soy, and maize comprise over 60% of the world’s calories. Those crops may feed vast populations now, but they won’t be able to maintain yields in the face of increased disease pressure and weather fluctuations that will come with climate change.

Despite the Paris agreement to keep emissions such that global warming will not exceed 2 degrees C over pre-industrial times, the world is on track for double that rise in temperature, says Azam-Ali. “No one has made a plan for a 4-degree world,” he says. Predictions suggest that those levels of warming will not only dramatically shift the ranges where maize and wheat will grow but will result in decreased crop micronutrient levels as well. Already, maize crops fail more than they succeed in parts of Africa, notably Zimbabwe and Kenya.

Now head of Crops for the Future, a joint venture funded by the Malaysian government and the UK’s University of Nottingham, Azam-Ali is a passionate champion of underutilized crops because he sees no other choice. “Diversification [of agriculture] has to succeed,” he says. “The big crops (maize, wheat, rice), by themselves, will not be able to deliver.“

To that end, CFF supplies the data—from the field to the kitchen—needed to find hardy, nutritious crops that could serve as future substitutes for the big crops. In one dome, they test how orphan crops will grow under controlled climate change conditions. In another dome, food scientists explore the crop’s culinary prospects, notably where they can serve as a substitute for wheat or rice. The goal—to find food supply niches that orphans can fills. For example, the team developed an alternative aquaculture fishmeal made from the black soldier larvae grown on a legume called sesbania, which yields the kind of plump larvae and desirable fat content necessary to sustain high omega-3 levels in fish. Their award-winning solution could help solve aquaculture’s dire need for a sustainable fishmeal. Currently, more fish are used for aquaculture feed than are produced by the operations.

Food scientists at CFF are finding orphan options to use in culinary products or snack foods. They’ve created a pesto and an instant soup mix out of moringa, a horseradish like shrub with high protein leaves that grows in marginal soils. Bambara ground nut added to biscotti or a traditional Asian snack mix adds a nutritious punch. Dried kedongdong tastes like candied ginger, but is a high vitamin C alternative. Despite CFF’s focus on nutrition, Azam-Ali resists the urge to dub any of these the next “superfood”, fearing that term all too often becomes overpromised and oversold.

The point, Azam-Ali says, is to find crops that increase sustainability—marrying nutrition with climate resilience. Having been overlooked for so long, even the most basic nutritional and agronomic data does not exist for many of these potential crops. CFF exists to add quantitative crop and food science data to traditional knowledge so that potentially disruptive products can be unearthed from the “treasure trove of biodiversity” in Malaysia.

Malaysia is proving an unlikely leader on agricultural diversification, having backed Crops for the Future’s efforts until they can secure a broader international funding base, and pumping funds into the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute’s efforts to domesticate local fruits that are largely wild-harvested currently.

With funding from an Alicia Patterson fellowship, I traveled to Malaysia for 2 weeks in July, where I met with Dr. Azam-Ali and others at Crops for the Future. I’d like to write a profile of this soft-spoken Brit and his sober efforts to create a global plan for agricultural diversification. I’d like to highlight how Malaysia, one of the most megadiverse countries in the world as well as the second largest producer of rainforest destroying palm oil, came to house CFF. And why it may be the perfect place to demonstrate how long-neglected crops have a role to play in food security. Industry is contacting them for solutions, as are other governments, notably Qatar and Oman.  It should be noted that CFF is also visually intriguing. With its iconic domes, which keep the inside tempers 3.8 C cooler than outside, CFF was designed to look like the future of agriculture.

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