Around the world, there are between 300,000 and 500,000 plant species, of which 50,000 are edible. Of these, around 7,000 plants have been cultivated for human consumption. But today, fewer than 20 crops account for more than 90% of global food production. And of these, three major crops – rice, wheat and maize – represent 60% of the world’s seven billion denizens’ energy intake, according to data from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
This has resulted in a monotonous, homogeneous diet devoid of many of the plants that used to form the culinary landscape of most communities. And it has sprung another concern: according to the FAO, an increasing number of the global population is being fed on diets that are energy-rich but nutrient-poor, with more than two billion people likely to be affected by one or more micronutrient deficiencies. Conversely, around 2.5 billion people are consuming excess calories (including some with insufficient nutrition).
“We need to put nutrition at the heart of our food systems now and for generations to come. Malaysians are increasingly adopting a global diet that is energy-rich and nutrient-poor. These diets are linked with an increase in the incidence of non-communicable diet-related diseases (NCDs). The double burden of over and undernutrition is a major concern globally and a ticking time bomb for the Malaysian health system,” says Professor Sayed Azam-Ali, CEO of Crops For The Future (CFF), whose guarantors are the Malaysian Government and the University of Nottingham Malaysia.
“Attention should be shifted towards policies and food systems that support the quality of food, and not solely its quantity. We have failed to consider the role underutilised crops can play in achieving this diversification of diet and the huge economic and societal benefits that locally sourced underutilised crops can bring to Malaysia,” he says.
CFF, which is in Semenyih, is the world’s first research centre dedicated to underutilised crops. The centre’s FoodPlus programme tests underutilised crops – determining their nutritional content, ability to withstand climate change and also how these crops can be developed into viable food products.
What are underutilised crops?
But you’re probably asking the question – just what are underutilised crops? Underutilised crops are crops that are native to certain countries or regions but are grown on a small scale with knowledge about its use limited to the communities that grow them. Vegetables like the winged bean (four-angled bean) native to Papua New Guinea, proso millet which is grown in Asia and Africa, and the ancient Central American amaranth are examples of underutilised crops that are considered highly nutritious but have somehow escaped widespread cultivation.
“The small crops are generally grown locally. They might be quite important locally, but they’ve never broken out into the rest of the world. But if you added them up, every country has got a lot of these local crops. And some of those local crops cross boundaries and regions, but they’re all under the radar, because they’re all small crops in local communities and generally they’re not high commercial value crops,” says Prof Sayed.
According to him, there is a very tangible need to examine how underutilised crops can be incorporated into local agriculture, as a means to reduce the reliance on food imports as well as to add to a varied diet. This is hugely important in Malaysia where the country’s 2015 food import bill was RM45bil, largely spent on fresh and frozen fruits, vegetables and meat from 120 countries, according to an article in The Star.
“For Malaysia, which is home to 5% of the world’s plant species, reliance on imported species is both risky and a missed opportunity to achieve national food and nutritional security from plants that can be grown here,” says Prof Sayed.
To that end, CFF’s FoodPlus programme is doing extensive research into two underutilised crops – the moringa tree and Bambara groundnuts, established as exemplar species for the project.
Moringa and Bambara groundnuts demystified
Moringa oleifera (the most widely cultivated species of the genus moringa) has been in recent years, dubbed the “miracle tree” for its multiple purported health benefits. Native to the Himalayas, it is also cultivated in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. It is also one of the few trees that is totally edible – from bark to leaves to flowers. The leaves are a good source of micro-nutrients, especially vitamins A, B and C and are reported to have minerals including calcium, potassium, magnesium, iron and zinc. They also contain essential amino acids. The drumstick-like fruits (which is how moringa got its common name) are popular among the Indian community, with India being the largest producer of moringa. Moringa leaves can enhance the nutritional value of daily meals, simply by adding the leaves to diets that are typically rich in starch.
The Bambara groundnut (scientific name Vigna subterranea), meanwhile, is a legume commonly found in west Africa, but also grown in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and India. The groundnut is the third most important grain legume in Africa, but is predominantly grown by small-scale farmers, as it is known as a poor man’s crop. Bambara groundnuts contain up to 60% carbohydrate, 16% to 20% protein and low levels of oil (6% to 8%) and are a rich source of minerals and essential amino acids. According to Prof Sayed, the groundnut matches the recommended nutrient intake profile for optimum health.
“While they may not achieve the yields of major staples, underutilised crops often contain more vitamins, mineral nutrients and phytometabolites than found in cereals. It is especially significant that both the Bambara groundnut and moringa are already grown on a small scale in Malaysia. This means that they have the potential to be rapidly scaled-up to provide niche products that are nutritious and marketable,” says Prof Sayed.
Climate-change resilient crops
Both moringa and Bambara groundnut can easily be grown locally (both crops fix nitrogen in the soil and don’t require fertilisation) and are extremely resilient to climate change. This is crucial, as climate change has become an inevitable reality. In Malaysia, climate change predictions by Malaysia’s Second National Communication (NC2) indicate that temperatures will rise by at least 2°C by 2050. According to Prof Sayed, this means some existing local crops will be wiped out entirely.
“We’re on a ticking time bomb. Just think of Malaysia four degrees hotter, it’s not comfortable at all. But for plants, that is critical. If you take oil palm – it will grow, it will have trunks and leaves and stems, but it won’t have any fruit, because the flowering temperature is too high – it can’t survive. So you cut out the whole oil palm industry when this happens. We used to say if, but now we say when,” says Prof Sayed.
His predictions echo the sentiments of researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute who predict that major crops like corn and rice will face production declines as a result of climate change – a 24% drop for corn and an 11% drop for rice – by 2050.
It’s a frightening prospect but one that we must grow accustomed to and brace ourselves for, because it is coming.
“With climate change, our food supply chains become more exposed to risks. In large parts of the tropics, such as Malaysia, cultivation of the major crops is increasingly challenged by high temperatures and unpredictable rainfall patterns. We can’t solely depend on major crops, either grown here or imported, but must diversify our agricultural systems in a hotter, volatile world,” says Prof Sayed.
This is why there is an urgent need to promote and cultivate underutilised crops, which have proved to be tough and resilient through all the obstacles thrown at them.
“Both Bambara groundnut and moringa are excellent as they are drought-tolerant and able to yield in poor soils when other crops fail. One of the challenges of Malaysian soils is that many areas are too acidic and drought-prone for major crops. Because underutilised crops have had to adapt to such harsh conditions, they offer climate-resilient options for areas that are increasingly marginal for agriculture.
“And we’ve got to find uses for that space – we don’t want idle land sitting around, but actually it’s not idle land, it’s just not suitable for the major crops. Let’s use it and make jobs for people, let’s produce things that are nutritious and resilient to the climate. Those are the plants that we should be looking at as our crops for the future,” says Prof Sayed.
CFF’s FoodPlus programme isn’t just limited to planting and cultivating moringa and Bambara groundnuts – it also looks at ways to expand these crops across the food chain from its raw form through to transforming it into nutritious food products that consumers can tap into.
“We can tell people that Bambara and moringa are good, but they don’t know the taste, it’s not familiar to them and the flavour may not be exciting to them. They won’t eat it. So FoodPlus has to change the mindset,” says Prof Sayed.
For the project, FoodPlus food technologist Tan Xin Lin researched and tested an extensive repertoire of dishes prepared using moringa and Bambara in many forms – from Bambara flour to moringa leaf powder. Tan found huge success in the traditional Indian snack murukku, which she successfully made using 100% Bambara groundnut flour in place of traditional rice flour. The murukku is crunchy and full of flavour, although perhaps slightly thicker than traditional iterations. Regardless, it has already found a firm fan in His Royal Highness Prince Charles who visited CFF last November and was very impressed by what he ate!
Tan has also successfully made Bambara milk (the nuts are soaked, ground, strained and boiled to make milk) which she incorporated into a velvety Bambara panna cotta. Some recipes, however, haven’t been quite as successful and require a mixture of traditional ingredients in combination with underutilised crops. Like scones, for example, which Tan concocted using 50% wheat flour and 50% Bambara flour.
“Both the Bambara groundnut and moringa have quite distinct and earthy flavours. We carry out frequent sensory analysis of the food products we develop to ensure its acceptance and palatability,” says Tan.
The centre has also developed instant moringa soup sachets made with moringa leaves dried at low temperatures. The process preserves the micronutrients in moringa, and were developed with needy communities and aid missions in mind.
“The sachets can easily be transported to displaced communities with limited access to nutritious and tasty foods. We want to make ‘fast foods’ that are easily accessible as well as nutritious to wider communities,” says Tan.
On the nutritional front, Tan says incorporating underutilised crops into certain ingredients has shown to increase the total nutritional value of the finished product. Like moringa noodles, which she made using wheat flour and moringa powder.
“Based on our preliminary analysis, some of the micronutrients such as calcium, magnesium and potassium increases as moringa powder is added to the noodle mix,” she says.
Interestingly, the products that CFF has developed can readily be utilised by entrepreneurs and commercial entities. “We make the prototype and whoever is interested can take it forward from here,” says Prof Sayed.
Ultimately, it is about joining the dots – cultivating climate-resilient underutilised crops in land that may not be viable for major crops, which in turn will reduce reliance on imported food and consequently, diversify local diets, whether that means consuming the crop in its original state or transforming it into cakes, cookies and soup.
"If we can get these foods that we know are nutritious – if we can get them marketable and desirable, these are the foods that we think the next generation should be celebrating in the future,” says Prof Sayed.