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Addressing national needs within a global network

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

‘Go local’ isn’t just an economic development marketing catchphrase applicable to locally-owned, independent businesses in developed nations. Building a more resilient global food system will require us to start in the backyards of communities around the world.

It requires growing crops that are adapted to environments with more heat, less moisture, greater pressure from pests and diseases, frequent but irregular extreme weather conditions like droughts and floods, and inherently weak structured soils with poor nutrition.

Healthy diets that prevent deficiencies and non-communicable diseases start with the consumption of diverse foods, including whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, animal products, roots, and tubers.

Traditional — also referred to as underutilized or orphan— food crops, which are grown in the ‘backyard gardens’ of households in low- and middle-income countries, are important for dietary diversity and food security. They are often highly nutritious, and their increased production could lead to more diversified diets, helping reduce micronutrient deficiencies, child stunting, and wasting. They are essential for household food security and economic well-being, especially for women. They also present a range of environmental benefits, from being adapted to local conditions to being resilient in the face of more extreme and unpredictable weather conditions.

However, underinvestment in these crops has limited research and development of traditional crops', representing untapped potential for contributing to global goals such as food security, the protection of biodiversity and climate action. Historically, public sector plant breeding investments have been highly concentrated in cash crops and staple crops like maize, wheat, and rice. And, while there has been a surge in scientific papers over the last decade, it can be difficult to find and reconcile all the information scattered across academic literature, traditional indigenous knowledge systems, and other sources.

A Vision for Africa

In response to this, the United States Special Envoy for Global Food Security, Dr. Cary Fowler, launched The Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils (VACS) in February 2023, in partnership with the African Union (AU) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

The initiative aims to foster more resilient food systems, with an initial focus on the African continent. VACS seeks to boost the diversity of agricultural productivity and nutrition by investing in crop varieties that are currently underutilized but may hold significant potential to support public sector crop breeding programs with a series of diverse, climate-resilient crop varieties that contribute to nutrition.

Havos.Ai, AgMIP (the Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project (AgMIP) at Columbia University), the Information Training and Outreach Centre in Africa (ITOCA), and the Shamba Centre, are contributing to the ambitious VACS agenda with support from the Rockefeller Foundation.

AI-assisted insights used its integrated artificial intelligence platform, including a customized large-language model specific to agrifood systems, to assess the evidence base of 150 crops across various dimensions, including geography, outcomes, pests, and diseases. The initial group of crops examined in the review were identified through expert consultation with several global organizations including the World Vegetable Center and the African Orphan Crops Consortium. More than 160,000 articles and systematic reviews on these crops were analyzed using machine-learning models and returned an initial analysis.

Unsurprisingly, the study found that research outputs mirror production levels and that research and development dedicated to the three major crops that dominate world agricultural production (i.e., maize, wheat and rice) far surpassed that of other crops – in fact, they were twice as abundant as all of the other 150 crops combined over the past 15 years.

Some crops, however, have received a boost in research attention, including potato, tomato, barley, and sorghum. Beyond these crops, there is a steep decline in research publications, with other crops often having only double-digit publication numbers.

Next, the team modeled each crop to explore a possible intervention pathway. They mapped where research exists by geography and using machine-learning models whether the solutions offered benefits to farmers in a variety of different food systems scenarios, research trends, and outcomes.

Recognizing the potential value of focusing on 'food crop groups' and ‘solutions’ rather than prioritizing individual crops, the team also examined research on food crop groups by region. The results revealed the complexity of diversifying food systems with orphan crops and the need to consider regional variations when promoting food system diversification, rather than one-size-fits-all interventions. Research on fruits, legumes, tubers, and vegetables was strong in West and East Africa, for instance, while Central Africa has emphasized research on crops in the legume and cereal/grain categories.

Despite the potential benefits for food and nutrition security, obstacles like low yields and vulnerability to pests and diseases combined with climate variability are hindering wider adoption of orphan crops. Additional aspects of crop production were also taken into account in order to help the VACS team get a more comprehensive picture of the suitability of different crops to the region. Comparing different food crop groups with the most researched pests and diseases, the team found that research has predominantly targeted pests affecting fruits, cereal grains, vegetables, and legumes. Plant disease research, on the other hand, appears less comprehensive.

By examining crops through the lens of the outcomes they promote, a deeper understanding of their potential benefits and implications can be gleaned. With this in mind, the team also mined data for evidence of how certain crops contributed to outcomes such as Economic Growth, Environment & Climate, Resilience & Risk, Policy Change, Nutrition, and Inclusivity & Empowerment.

While the research specific to certain orphan and underutilized crops is sparse in comparison to more commercial crops, there was an encouraging increase in research output for some. By including an analysis of how orphan crops perform among additional outcomes, the evidence map affords a more cohesive and holistic comprehension of the complex interplay between crop development and societal needs, enabling more informed decision-making across multiple sectors.

However, commercial potential is yet to be realized due to a lack of knowledge and recognition of the crops’ benefits, requiring adaptation to consumer demand and farmers’ needs. Additional analysis should further investigate the facilitators, barriers, and incentives influencing various groups of farmers and other value chain actors in their production decisions, beyond profitability. Mobilizing capacity for evidence generation The role of machine-learning and AI is an important step to help us evaluate all of the available knowledge on a topic. This is an important task and has been made burdensome by the current information explosion. In 2020 alone, global research output in science and engineering was 2.6 million articles, which grew at a rate of 4% annually from 2008-2020. But the work of evidence-informed decision making, however, is not a machine-learning process. It requires the careful evaluation of thousands of papers who have been trained in this method. And, by training researchers who are subject matter experts in areas like the agricultural sciences with new methods on how to systematically review the scientific literature, we can ensure that insights going to decision-makers are high-quality. The Juno Evidence Alliance is creating the foundation to make sure these methods, and the insights, are being made available to more researchers around the globe.

One of the key partners in the Juno Evidence Alliance is the Information Training and Outreach Centre for Africa (ITOCA). For more than 20 years, they have been providing training to scientists and librarians on many research methods, including evidence synthesis.

ITOCA is a key partner in supporting the VACs initiative and is coordinating a network of more than 14 researchers from across Africa who are committed to supporting the decisions through evidence-informed decision-making. While the full-report will be made available early next year, already the researchers are pulling out some key insights on areas that, with increased investment, including advisory and extension services and opportunities to infuse more nutritious foods in existing products, like porridge for infants. Such interventions can make a big difference in the lives of farmers, mothers, infants, and children.

Mobilizing an Africa-based evidence network for the Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils

Demand-driven insights

Colleagues at the Shamba Centre for Food and Climate took the next step, facilitating a series of three focus group workshops and bilateral interviews to gather inputs from stakeholders on the potential of traditional African crops for food security, nutrition, and climate adaptation in Africa.

Participants ranged from civil society organizations, including think tanks and research organizations as well as advocacy and consumer groups, to private actors representing various parts of the value chain – from inputs to production, agro-processing, marketing, and distribution. Throughout these consultations, policy, research, inclusivity, networks, and markets were recognized as key levers for the sustainable scaling of traditional African crops.

The Shamba team recommended informed investments, targeted support, and the implementation of national policies that explicitly prioritize and support the development of traditional African crops that are adapted and have high potential in specific countries. Investment in basic infrastructure development (e.g., roads, irrigation, markets), enhancing the genetic resources conservation infrastructure (i.e., gene banks), and public awareness campaigns to increase their attractiveness and change prevailing view that they are women’s or poor man’s crops, could also help strengthen implementation.

Participants also pointed out insufficient quantity and quality of seeds, a lack of high-yielding varieties, and low crop productivity. Seed systems from traditional African crops are predominantly managed by farming communities, with limited engagement and support from other stakeholders such as research organizations and the private sector, they said. They suggested the inclusion of traditional African crops in national and international research programs along with investments in gene bank infrastructure as well as germplasm multiplication and rejuvenation.

Traditional and indigenous knowledge can erode from one generation to the next due to inadequate documentation and poor extension support. Women, who are at the center of production practices and knowledge management systems, also risk being harmed by the mechanization and commercialization processes if their interests are not actively safeguarded. The group urged the inclusion of marginalized groups in the development of ecosystem-based solutions and value chains around traditional African crops, leveraging traditional and indigenous knowledge while also sharing benefits with smallholders and women.

They also recommended the development of networks that enable information sharing and strengthen partnerships among various stakeholders for the sustainable scaling of traditional African crops, and the strengthening of extension service providers and their collaborations with private sector actors and civil society organizations.

Lastly, the group highlighted the importance of strengthening sustainable markets and resilient value chains in order to realize the full commercial potential of traditional African crops. This would involve the availability of quality seeds, enhanced food safety and traceability standards, better post-harvest loss management, consumer awareness campaigns, and access to both domestic and export markets.


A Vision for Latin America and the Caribbean

Across the ocean, another initiative, Avanzar2030, seeks to identify which solutions would best fit Latin America and the Caribbean.

Earlier this year, experts from a dozen agricultural and environmental organizations gathered at the headquarters of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) in San Jose, Costa Rica, to discuss the issue.

The Avanzar2030 project, led by IFPRI in partnership with IICA and the University of Notre Dame, seeks to identify policies, technologies, and institutions with the greatest potential to bring about sustainable innovations in the Latin American and Caribbean region.

“A huge number of innovations for sustainability food systems are being implemented across the [LAC] region. Rather than introducing more new policies, technologies, and institutions, we should build on what already works,” said Avanzar2030 coordinator Valeria Piñeiro, Acting Head of IFPRI’s Latin American region.

Learn more about the initiative in this video:

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