Increase crop diversity to boost nutrition

Lesser-known plants such as enset and amaranth can play an important role in improving nutrition while providing an alternative to the annual grains that need artificial fertilizers and costly pesticides and herbicides.

By , Food Tank

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    A farmer fertilizes her Amaranth field outside Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2009.
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It’s hard to believe, but out of 30,000 edible known plant species, just 30 – corn, rice, and wheat among them – make up 95 percent of all the food humans eat. In addition, the remaining 5 percent is made up of fewer species every year.

Ironically, while the world produces more food than ever before, the food system offers less and less diversity.  

But diversity is important – for personal health and the health of the planet. In 2014, farmers, eaters, and the funding and donor communities need to resolve to invest in a more diverse food system.

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Lack of diversity in agriculture comes at a high price. More than 2 billion people, particularly in the developing world, suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. According to AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center, lack of nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables can lead to malnutrition, stunting, and even death.

The lack of focus on more nutritious crop varieties is also, ironically, a principle factor in the overweight and obesity epidemic which now afflicts more than 1.4 billion in rich and poor countries alike.

That's why crops like enset (pronounced EHN-SET) are so important. Enset is a multipurpose plant known as the "false banana" that grows primarily in Ethiopia. As a source of nutrition, fermented enset is consumed to help combat iron deficiencies and reduce anemia, helping pregnant women to avoid premature delivery and low birth weight. And it can also be a farmer's best friend, decreasing soil erosion, providing a natural source of fertilizer, and helping keep water in soils.  

Organizations such as The Christensen Fund and farmers' groups are targeting enset as a resource in need of protection. Because the crop is not only used for food, but medicine, shelter, environmental sustainability, and income, the fund believes it is important for the livelihoods of at least 15 million people in Ethiopia.

And enset isn't the only crop creating multiple benefits.

In Kenya, the organization Urban Harvest is working with farmers in Kibera, which is believed to the world’s largest slum with roughly 1 million people. The farmers — most of whom are women — are not only growing food to consume and sell to their neighbors, they have also developed a seed-multiplication project. They grow seeds of amaranth and other indigenous vegetables and then sell those seeds to rural farmers.

Small-holder farmers in Eastern Africa often have a difficult time finding good-quality, affordable vegetable seeds, giving the Kibera farmers an opportunity to dispel the myth that urban agriculture only feeds the poor and hungry in cities. It can also be an important source of nutrients for rural areas.

In the United States, the Kansas-based organization The Land Institute is highlighting how perennial crops — crops that live more than two years — have enormous potential to improve food security, prevent soil erosion, and negate the need for costly inputs. Perennial crops tend to establish deep root systems, keeping soil in place and helping conserve water. The Land Institute is working to develop perennial grain varieties (corn, soy, wheat, and rice are annual crops, and planted from year to year).

By developing perennial cultivars for wheat and other staple crops — including Kernza, a wheat variety higher in, betaine, calcium, fiber, folate, and vitamin B-6, and lower gluten than annual wheat varieties —The Land Institute is hoping to create a more resilient food system. A system that not only produces high yields, but builds soil nutrients and reduces costs for farmers from Kansas to Nepal.

It’s clear that relying on just 30 or so crop varieties for most of the world’s food supply isn’t working — and that we need a revolution in agriculture, but not one that relies on artificial fertilizers and costly pesticides and herbicides, like the Green Revolution of years past.

Instead, the world needs to resolve in 2014 to invest in crops that nourish both people and the planet — crops that are economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable.

• Danielle Nierenberg is the co-founder and president of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank (www.foodtank.org).

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