It may come as a surprise, but three crops are responsible for half of the calories humans consume — rice, wheat, and maize. Perhaps even more unsustainable, a mere 30 plants comprise 95 percent of the world’s food resources.
Consider the domino effect the Russia-Ukraine war has on food supplies. Countries such as Egypt, Turkey, Bangladesh, and Iran reportedly import upwards of 60 percent of their wheat from the warring nations. Lebanon, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, and Pakistan are also reliant on Ukrainian crops that have been periodically delayed, leading to global shortages.
To say this situation is untenable would be something of an understatement. That’s why the agriculture sector would be well-served to invest heavily in orphan crops to stabilize and diversify regional food supplies.
What are Considered Orphan Crops?
Orphan crops cover a wide range of plant life commonly referred to as “neglected and underutilized,” or NUS in agriculture circles. They are rarely, if ever, traded on an international level despite the fact they find their way into industrial uses such as cereals, dyes, latex, and oilseeds, among others. The fruits, nuts, vegetables, roots, and tubers that fall under the NUS label continue to be cultivated locally or harvested in the wild. These are a few examples of orphan crops that could improve regional food stability.
- Chick Peas: Sometimes called the garbanzo bean, this protein-rich legume is common in Europe, Turkey, the Middle East, India, and parts of Africa. It has been adopted on a smaller scale in the U.S.
- Cow Peas: Primarily grown in Nigeria and Niger, they are also known as black-eyed peas in the U.S. Black-eyed peas have become a regional type of orphan crop grown in the Southern states.
- Millets: This drought-resistant grass yields grains for millions in arid regions. It can be strategically employed as a catch crop in areas staples fail. Millet is susceptible to frost and germinates in temperatures between 68-86 degrees. It is widely used in flour and flatbread.
- Pigeon Peas: The vigorous legume is widely grown in sub-tropical regions such as India, Myanmar, Malawi, and Uganda. It has been introduced as an annual in states such as Georgia and by local farmers in Florida.
- Yams: Upwards of 95 percent of the world’s yams are grown in West Africa. Approximately 50 percent of the similar U.S. version, known as sweep potatoes, are grown in North Carolina.
It’s also important to note that orphan crops add to biodiversity by reducing the negative effects of monoculture. Some even improve the nitrogen levels of fields.
Benefits of Increasing Orphan Crops Investment
Advocacy to increase investment into orphan crops was once driven by the need to create reliable food sources in countries that historically suffered drought and setbacks to their agriculture landscape. Today, NUS plant life is viewed as a sustainable and proactive agriculture practice, based on the following.
- Regional Stability: War, drought, and famine can result in global food shortages because countries are overly reliant on rice, wheat, and maize. Diverse, localized crops can mitigate this vulnerability.
- Nutrition: Locally-grown crops move more quickly from the farm to the table. This improves freshness and maximizes nutritional value.
- Chemical Reductions: Large farms use intense fertilizers and pesticides to ensure the survival of mass-produced food resources. Orphan crops are typically grown on a smaller scale, reducing the need to introduce chemicals.
Orphan crops are also considered an economic opportunity for small farmers. They tend to be more resistant to pests and can be brought to market at a premium. Given there are 30,000 edible plant species and only about 7,000 are cultivated on small farms, orphan crops represent a growth opportunity.