The cornucopia, overflowing with fruits and vegetables, has long been a symbol of Thanksgiving, a day when tables across the country will be covered with a bounty of food — whether the traditional fare of turkey, pumpkin pie, cranberries and stuffing or newer menu items such as pomegranate-cranberry sauce, quinoa stuffing and spiced pumpkin and amaranth bread.
Despite what seems to be a plethora of food choices available in developed countries year round, the world is actually relying on fewer and fewer food crops. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations reports (PDF) that while more than 10,000 plant species have been cultivated for food at some point, today we rely on about 90 plant crops (or fewer than 1 percent of potential food crops) for 90 percent of our global diet. In fact, for nearly 60 percent of all global food needs, the world relies (PDF) on a mere three crops: wheat, rice and corn — and of those, only a handful of high-yielding types are typically grown.
Our major crops have fed the masses for millennia and will undoubtedly continue to play important roles. But it is shortsighted to be reliant on so few crops: It increases our vulnerability to crop failures due to disease, drought or other unpredictable stresses that can lead to famine. Additionally, many major crops require tremendous energy input. Wheat, rice, corn and other major staples are annuals, which means they must be replanted every year. To achieve top yields, they require large amounts of fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides and irrigation and then must be shipped around the world to places that do not produce enough food locally. With more than 1 billion people suffering from chronic hunger and malnutrition and considered food insecure, alternatives are needed.
Conversations about how to increase global food security — “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food,” according to the World Health Organization — often invoke the necessity of converting more land for agricultural use or eking out higher yields from our major crops through genetic modification or more petrochemicals and irrigation. But these approaches don’t work everywhere, and they bring with them more problems. Efforts should focus on agricultural diversification and the development of more locally adapted, low-energy-input crops that produce more food closer to where it will be consumed.
But where do we find such crops? We can start by going down the long list of underutilized crops that have been cultivated for food and consider if they can help.
Several international organizations — such as the FAO, Crops for the Future and Biodiversity International — are already working to advance the use of underutilized crops. Many of them require lower energy input than major crops and can be produced and consumed locally in areas that rely heavily on food imports. While many of these crops need further research to meet their full potential, others already have impressive production, yield and nutrition statistics and could make a significant impact quickly.
One of these promising crops is breadfruit, a staple that was domesticated in the Pacific Islands thousands of years ago. Breadfruit trees produce cantaloupe-size seedless fruits that can be prepared much as potatoes are. The trees can live for more than 50 years, and once established, they do not require large inputs of irrigation and petrochemicals compared with our major annual grain crops. Breadfruit yield and nutrition statistics rival those of wheat and corn, and the trees are traditionally grown in multicrop agroforestry systems, which help prevent soil erosion and provide a complex habitat that can support a wider variety of wildlife and sequester more carbon than modern agricultural systems. Perhaps most compelling is that breadfruit can grow in parts of the world where food and economic insecurity are the highest, including Haiti, Liberia and Ghana.
Breadfruit is just one example of the many underutilized crops that may hold the key to a more food-secure future. Humans began domesticating plants nearly 12,000 years ago, and we have been tweaking and improving edible plants to suit our needs ever since. There is a gold mine of diversity that we could tap into to help give all people access to the food they need while minimizing the impact on our environment.
But we can’t wait. We have already lost knowledge and diversity of underutilized crops; we will only lose more as our global diet becomes increasingly homogenized and dangerously reliant on so few species.
There is no simple answer to achieving worldwide food security. It requires confronting a complicated web of social, economic, political and biological issues. But investing more broadly in global crop diversity is an important part of the solution. It will take time to diversify agriculture in a way that maximizes food production and distribution while minimizing environmental impact, but we have to start now.
To that end, we must educate ourselves about the issues and learn more about organizations working on solutions and support their efforts. (Check out Trees that Feed Foundation, Crops for the Future, the Breadfruit Institute and Biodiversity International, to name a few.) And as we sit down for Thanksgiving this year, we can diversify our foods to include a range of locally grown crops, be thankful for our bounty and try not to waste it.
- Nyree Zerega is a senior lecturer in biological sciences at Northwestern University.