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Monday October 7, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Monday October 7, 2013 MYT 6:47:32 AM
by natalie heng
Legacy: ‘When we lose our culture, we also lose a lot of the traditional plants in our diet, and with that, nutrition,’ says Prof Sayed Azam-Ali.
The Crops For The Future research initiative is discovering a wealth of nutrition and other benefits in little-known crops.
THE professor has been studying Bambara groundnuts since the late 1980s. Drought-tolerant, nutritious and tasty, they are a staple in East Africa, farmed by women.
“There is a famous phrase: every time an African woman dies, a library goes with her,” says Prof Sayed Azam-Ali.
He has a point. As members of the older generation pass on, any knowledge that isn’t written down dies with them.
But food culture is very important.
“When we lose our culture, we also lose a lot of the traditional plants in our diet, and with that, nutrition,” adds the CEO of the Crops For The Future Research Centre.
In fact, emerging research and epidemiological evidence points to a link between a lack of dietary diversity and the growing incidence of chronic diseases.
Western-type cereal-based diets may be high in energy, but too much sugar and carbohydrate-rich products coupled with a sedentary lifestyle can kill, causing things like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Today, lifestyle-related non-communicable diseases are the world’s most significant cause of mortality; and yet, hundreds of millions suffer from micronutrient deficiencies owing to a lack of adequate nutritious foods.
One day, Sayed’s research team noticed something remarkably similar to the Bambara groundnut being grown in South-East Asia.
“We realised that people have been growing it in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia for hundreds of years!” he exclaims. It turns out on this side of the world, the Bambara groundnut has a counterpart – kacang bogor. Except here, it is eaten as a snack food and grown by men, who do most of the farming in South-East Asia.
For many years, most efforts regarding selective breeding and the promotion of the agricultural industry have been confined to a narrow range of crop species.
“The assumption is, if they are so good then why do we need any others?” says Sayed.
There are many reasons for this, it turns out.
First, the crops we rely on today are often mollycoddled.
Their high yields rely on good soil, plenty of agrochemicals and a bountiful supply of water — but we’re running out of arable land.
Adapting to the future will no doubt involve finding ways to be more innovative about our land use. for example, learning how to grow more food on marginal lands.
Drought-tolerant, nutritious plants like the Bambara groundnut are exactly what we need.
These plants will never replace crops like rice, maize and wheat, but – while we are trying to create new drought-tolerant, pest-resistant strains of our staples – why not look at promoting plants that are already resilient?
Looking at how indigenous species can be integrated as complements to our mainstream diet could be key to a more sustainable approach to achieving food security.
As far as African and South-East Asian uses of the Bambara groundnut go, Sayed’s research team is trying to bring those two worlds together, through a programme called BamYield which is being run by the centre.
“We are breeding and growing it. We are doing research on how to improve it. And we are sharing knowledge between Africa and Asia which has never been shared before, because we never knew about each other’s common interest,” he says.
In this instance, consolidating the knowledge of growers is just as key to the programme as the creation of new genetic material.
The African farmer may ask the Indonesian, what are your traditional recipes? What other uses does it have in your culture?
Those questions are the starting point for something much, much bigger.
BamYield is just one of a series of programmes initiated through the centre, which was formed in 2011 as the research arm of the global Crops For The Future entity to explore the potential of underutilised plants.
From Bambara groundnuts to knobbly hog apples, to starchy breadfruits, a core principle behind the initiative involves the documentation of indigenous knowledge, and scientific verification of the nutritional content and potential end-uses for such plants.
For example, the FoodPlus programme involves looking at how the fruits and vegetables growing at our doorstep could not only address micronutrient deficiencies in our diets, but also contribute to food sovereignty.
Sayed tells us why it is time to start paying attention to alternative crops: “The green revolution was about filling people’s bellies, keeping them alive.
“Crops like rice were very important. But the plants we eat now are not the best plants for nutrition. So, for the next generation, we need to not just look at being food-secure, but nutritionally secure.”
It’s been decades since Norman Borlaug’s green revolution changed the face of agriculture. The centre is part of the next big step.
Big in scale, big in scope, big in ambition and hopefully, big in impact too, its programmes are tackling things on an unprecedented scale.
“When it comes to alternative crops, no one has looked at how to integrate the whole value chain,” Sayed says.
“We often do a little bit of research, collect the germ plasm, put (it) in a gene bank and then go and find a market. But there’s never enough supply ... so the chain breaks down.
“Our research covers the whole value chain. And in doing that, we are linking all the scientific disciplines into each programme.”
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Making optimum use of the land
Tags / Keywords:
Lifestyle, Science & Technology, Crops For The Future Research Centre, alternative crops, University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, Prof Sayed Azam-Ali
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