Agriculture sits at the nexus of three of the most multifaceted challenges – known as “the perfect storm” – we face today: population growth (estimated 40.7 million in Malaysia by 2050), depleting natural resources, and changing climates.
Our entire food system is in a precarious state, propped up by a narrow range of major crops – maize, wheat, rice, and soybean – that are already stretched to their limits as food, feed, and even biofuel. Not only do these challenges pose imminent threats to the productivity and yield of these crops, but they also affect their nutritional content.
I moved to Malaysia 10 years ago. Within a few kilometers away from my house, I can purchase the same fast-food and boxed cereals as I could in Britain, and they comprise the same few ingredients vulnerable to the perfect storm. Wherever we live we are increasingly in the eye of the storm.
But if we look to nature for inspiration, we can see that biodiversity provides a “green ocean” of opportunities for agriculture. There are 7,000 species of plants that have been cultivated for consumption in human history. Yet the four major crops are responsible for 60% of our energy intake. This figure is alarming to many, but with fast- emerging economies, rural-urban shifts and an appetite for global trends, the homogenization of our diets is becoming the new norm.
As a young scientist, I went to work in Africa and in India where I saw local crops being grown, harvested and consumed by people without any agricultural science background. People like me were not looking at those crops. I then came back to Nottingham, England, as a young lecturer wanting to explore these underutilised crops, but was told “if they were any good, we would have discovered them by now. They are underutilised for a reason.”
But I like a good challenge, and for 20 years I carried on working on these crops to see what hidden features and properties they could reveal to us.
Underutilized crops, such as bambara groundnut, moringa and sesbania, provide ample opportunities to diversify and nourish the human diet, as well as that of animals. While their common names may ring a bell to some, there remains a lack of awareness and scientific exploration on the health and environmental benefits they possess.
Many of us do not know that these crops are nutritious, climate-resilient, and thrive in marginal soils. Sesbania, for instance, is an example of a nonfood crop that can be used in animal feed.
We can no longer afford to take the business-as-usual route in agriculture. Malaysia’s food import bill has been steadily increasing – from RM26.3bil in 2009 to an unsustainable RM45.4bil in 2015. We are also importing a staggering 600,000 tonnes of aquaculture feed, and this is projected to reach 1.5 million tonnes by 2025. These imported ingredients mean that Malaysia is also dependent on a handful of countries for their agricultural productivity, which makes it ever more vulnerable to supply shocks and volatile prices.
Exploring the vast diversity of underutilized crops that have sustained us in the past may seem a risky move to some, but if we wish to transform agriculture for the better, we need to look to our past for answers. We must shift our current thinking of “food security” that centers around a “food production” paradigm, to one that puts nutrition at the heart of our food systems.
Imagine cultivating crops that could provide us nutritious foods and feeds, which are climate-resilient, and generate new economic opportunities for smallholders to no longer compete with big industrial markets on commodities. With the incredible diversity found in Malaysia – culture, cuisines and crops – why are we not cultivating or mainstreaming the vast diversity of our local crop species?
There are about 30,000 plant species that have been grown or collected by human beings for food. Of these, around 7,000 have been grown as crops throughout our human history. We have yet to explore even a fraction of these that have the potential to provide nutrition and income options for the new “agripreneurs” and urban farmers in climates of the future. As risks become more prevalent in our changing climates, resilient underutilized species serve as alternatives to our total reliance on the major crops that may fail in more volatile environments.
Underutilized crops are not here to replace current major staples such as rice, wheat and maize, but to provide alternatives that can ensure continuous food sustainability and nutrition security. The diversification of agriculture to benefit humanity, our health and our planet could not come at a better time.