How forgotten crops contribute to the food security system

Ensuring food security has been a topic that has been on the agenda of political institutions, empirical research, economic players and the global community for decades. With the climate changing and political unrest all over the world, the question how to provide sufficient and healthy nutrients for all humankind is getting tougher to answer by the minute. But what exactly is “food security”? Back in 1996, the World Food Summit defined it as a state in which “all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. To achieve this situation, food security relies on four pillars: availability, access, utilization, and stability.

While utilization is mostly a topic of the micro level, speaking of the distribution of food in families and smaller communities, the other three components concern whole nations and communities.

National food security systems are very vulnerable to so called shocks: trade restrictions, poor governance, increased food commodity speculations and instabilities in regards to major food exporters can massively influence the availability of food supplies. But these are only the factors that are impacted by human decisions. Often, they are of a shorter duration- which does not make them any less dramatic, as the fourth pillar, stability, indicates. Still, even worse are the challenges that humankind has to face in regards to enduring and worsening situations threatening our ability to provide enough nourishment for everybody: climate change reduces the yield through natural disasters, droughts and prolonged dry seasons. Shortness in water resources leads to a competition between agricultural, industrial and human needs for water supplies.

Meanwhile, a growing world wide population and changing dietary patterns greatly increase the demand for food supplies- and the potential for civil conflict, again “shocking” the food market. This leads to higher price levels, which ultimately falls back on those who don’t have enough to feed themselves and their families.

The malnutrition subsequently leads to a vicious circle, both affecting individuals and whole communities. Mostly resulting from poverty, undernourishment goes hand in hand with illness. Insufficient intake in nutrients and calories weakens the immune system and highly increases the risk to fall sick. Even temporary malnutrition during food crisis can be responsible for health impairments that are irreparable, especially in children. This relationship is reciprocal though, as diseases like parasites or diarrhea lead to nutrient loss and decreased nutrient absorption.  All these factors combined increase the risk of morbidity and mortality, while decreasing the individuals’ income potential and schooling success. Speaking from an economical and national point of view on the macro level, economic growth is weakened and poverty worsened as a result. This is not only due to the currently reduced ability to be a functional and contributing member of society for those suffering from malnutrition, but also has far reaching effect into the future. Additionally, an increase in health system costs can not be neglected.

How can “forgotten crops” benefit the local and national food security systems?

Especially in regards to the changing conditions of agricultural land due to the impact of climate change, it becomes more and more important to find opportunities to make use of all agronomical potential there is. So called “forgotten crops”, that have been grown and tended for many hundreds and thousands of years, but have been forgotten over the modern, industrialized mass crops like maize and wheat, can be exactly that.

Ancient grains like Fonio, Millet and Sorghum fall into this category of traditional agricultural produce that have huge potential for the optimal utilization of resources.  They are traditionally grown in the region of Western Africa and made their way into other parts of the world, such as India. While focusing on the above named grains in this articles, it is important to mention that there are many more forgotten treasures that could provide enormous opportunities to increased food security!

Oftentimes, “forgotten crops” grow exceptionally well on land that is otherwise abandoned for its suboptimal conditions. This could be due to lower nutrient density in the soil, low water availability or land profiles on which it is difficult to cultivate crops at an industrial scale. The resilience for all these conditions that has been built up by specific ancient crops and grains over many centuries is one of the outstanding strengths.  While drier and hotter climate is likely to damage commodity crops, it might even be beneficial for the yields of grains like Millet, Sorghum or Fonio, that ideally adapted to the circumstances of the hot, sub-Saharan climate.

Faster growing grains, as a consequence of higher temperature, paradoxically often lead to smaller yields- this is because the filling period becomes shorter and cereals have less time to develop. However, this problem does not affect ancient grains like Sorghum, Millet and Fonio: They naturally have an extremely short maturation time. This makes them enormously useful not only in regards to food security in times of climate crisis, but also provide huge advantages in terms of stability of food supply.

The period just before harvesting season, when most crops are not yet matured but the storages are already empty, is called “annual hungry season” for good reason. The exceptionally short maturation time of specific variations of Fonio, Millet and Sorghum, spanning from 6 to 8 weeks, enables these crops to provide valuable food supplies in the times when they are needed the most. Furthermore, slower growing variations of the same grains can, if seeded at the right times, provide continuous availability of grain nearly all year round and thereby increase the stability of food supplies dramatically.

Besides their near-ideal adaptation for challenging environmental conditions, the implementation of ancient grains provides another outstanding advantage: The increasing lack of diversity that goes hand in hand with more specification and industrialization of agriculture carries a high risk for external shocks: Monocultures tend to be heavily affected by environmental happenings, parasites or disease. If this causes a crop failure, a huge contributor towards the whole yield falls short. With increasing diversification and the implementation of ancient grains and forgotten crops into the agricultural circulation, this can be prevented. Additionally, a higher diversity in crops provide more nutritional values and can thereby combat malnutrition effectively.

Fonio has once been the major crop of the Western African countries. It still supplies 3-4 million people in the region. Back in the days, the grain was considered especially powerful and reserved to feed nobility and worship ancestors.

In terms of modern nutritional values, it is just as precious! Out of all grains, Fonio contains more nutritiously valuable resources than most. This includes high methionine and cysteine: both are amino acids that are crucial for human health and do not occur sufficiently in today’s major cereals. With a high protein content from 8-11 %, depending on the variety of Fonio, highly relevant nutritional value is provided. Nearly all essential amino acids that are contained in whole egg protein can be obtained though these ancient grains- in higher concentration than the one in eggs.

In terms of global production, Millet exceeds the one of Fonio widely. Yearly, more than 500 million people depend on the crop as major nutritional source. It is specifically valuable for its enormous adaptability towards heat and aridity, therefore providing great opportunities in a world that keeps heating up more and more. Where every other crop fails, even in near-dessert like conditions, Millet still thrives. Furthermore, it is highly tolerable towards insect pests and disease, which makes it easy to grow.

Likewise, the protein content in Millet is very high, averaging at 16%, with some varieties reaching up to 21%. Just like Fonio and Sorghum, it does not contain gluten, which makes it a great product on the world wide food market for those suffering from gluten intolerance. With a percentage in fat of 5%, Millet is almost twice as nutritious than most grains in regards to fats, which is of high importance especially in regions battling malnutrition. With a content of three times as much iron and three times as much calcium as maize, Millet can indeed be considered a super food.

Sorghum is the nutritional staple for just as many people as Millet. The fact that makes it stand out most is that it grows exceptionally well both in arid and in tropical conditions. It survives heavy rainfalls, even some waterlogging. This rare quality is highly valuable in regions that are very arid but occasionally have to deal with heavy floods due to environmental crisis and rainy season. Astonishingly, it seems to even have some tolerance to salt- which is not only rare, but becomes increasingly valuable as the soil quality decreases. Its high photosynthetic efficiency enables it to mature in less than 75 days, therefore allowing three harvests per year.

While the Sorghum cereals contain less nutritional value in terms of protein that Millet and Fonio, it is a great source of B vitamins and over 20 micronutrients like potassium and phosphorus.

Potential of ancient grains

Nutritional usage options range from utilization as a porridge or couscous to baking bread, substitution for semolina or even the brewing of beers. A huge diversity of snacks can be produced by popping or cracking it. The option to make these ancient grains into products that highly resemble those of wheat or rice provide a high potential as a point of sale for costumers that are used to these convenience products.

The straw and chaff that is created as a byproduct is highly digestible for livestock, thereby closing the circulation of the agricultural value chain. Additionally, the stems can be widely used for building, crafting, fencing and weaving as well as for firewood. Furthermore, it is even possible do produce oils, dyes, waxes and industrial alcohols from the crops, as well as feeding animals with the seeds. This makes this family of ancient grains a source of incredible potential, promising to be a “living factory” on their own.

All these factors contribute to the thesis that the implementation of ancient grains and “forgotten crops” like Fonio, Sorghum and Millet have amazing potential in supporting and strengthening the food supply chains and therefore the local and international food supply systems. Building a strong link between smallholder agriculture and nutritional value chains does not only benefit the individual, but can largely contribute to combating a problem on the rise- feeding humankind in ever-changing, challenging conditions.

As the downside of the use of these ancient grains, it has to be mentioned that the processing is very difficult. This is mainly due to the small size of the grain. Therefore, the construction of specialized machines would be highly necessary to make production easier. This poses a significant problem in regions that struggle immensely to find enough capital to drive forwards such operations and investments.

Written by Lea Maria Beinbauer

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