Adopting Orphan Crops

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After the rediscovery of quinoa almost a decade ago that sparked the worldwide craze for the Andean grain many farmers, foodies and marketers are in search for other forgotten crops like Mexican amaranth, Ethiopian teff and more recently fonio in Western Africa. This search is not concerned about food fads but looks deeply at the growth of our global population, climate changes that destroy farm yields, food becoming more processed and less nutritious, and a healthy way to feed the nine billion people expected to inhabit the world in 2050. By looking in the past for these forgotten crops could be the only way to move forward.

Subsistence farmers of Africa, South Asia, and Central and South America have been growing these crops since the earliest times of agriculture. These grains are able to be farmed in areas with marginal land without irrigation, without pesticides or fertilizers and are known to be much more resilient than modern commodity crops. The grains do not get scrutinized with genetic modification that appeals to the organic grown markets. Another major aspect of them that speaks to people is that these grains are nutrient rich and gluten-free. They are “superfoods” according to health experts that can help people lose weight and live longer.

As the costs of imported rice continues to increase a nonprofit organization, Environmental Development Action in the Third World, out of Senegal are trying to expand the drought resistant, protein-rich cereal grain – fonio, throughout the sub-Saharan African market. Fonio is one of the oldest grains on the continent. It is so old it was found in ancient Egyptian tombs and can be considered the ‘seed of the universe’ in Mali mythology. Gluten-free makes it a big added bonus to markets as wheat intolerance and celiac disease are rising. This is why heritage grains like fonio are the latest buzz.

Other heritage grains that have been forgotten like millet, sorghum, wild rice and teff for example are becoming consumers’ best friends especially in industrialized nations. Ancient wheat’s like faro, einkorn and emmer that have a low glycemic index – the measures of how carbohydrates raise blood glucose, and that they provide more protein, fibre, vitamins, and minerals can be seen in more kitchens.

All the heritage crops were neglected by the green revolution of the mid-20th century who initially promoted hybrid commodity crops that grew faster, bigger and produced more yield. However the orphan crops are the foods of the future. They need little water, no fertilizer and are capable of been grown throughout the year, in the future when water may be scarce and times are tough these crops will sustain, feed and allow the global population a second chance at life. Because the world relies heavily on our commonly eaten crops – rice, maize and wheat which account for 60% of the plant derived calories we eat from over 50 000 edible plants, any sudden catastrophe like disease to the crops, drought, floods, and anything driven by climate change could wipe them out. We need this diverse food security to grow our world into the future.