Underutilised plants hold key to future food production


Scientists and collaborators have suggested that underutilised and overlooked plants hold the key to future food production around the world as relying on a handful of crops to feed the global population has led to malnutrition and left the world vulnerable to climate change.

In a report named ‘State of the World’s Plants and Fungi’, the by the Royal Botanic Kew Gardens said “The world is in a precarious situation. To make our food systems more robust in future, we must diversify the spectrum of species used, protect biodiversity and safeguard essential ecosystem services.

This is the fourth report in Kew’s State of the World’s series, which focused on plants in 2016 and 2017, and fungi in 2018. The survey was conducted by over 200 researchers from 42 countries.

Millions of people around the world suffer from hunger or obesity as they lack a balanced, nutritious diet, the report said. This would likely rise as the global population expands to an estimated ten billion by 2050, it said.

“If humanity is to thrive in future, we need to make our food production systems more diverse, resilient and environmentally sustainable. One option for doing this is to identify future nutritious crops that are better equipped to deal with the less predictable weather conditions to come. However, to do so, we first need to know more about what edible plants exist, where they grow, and what environmental conditions they favour, tolerate or are vulnerable,” the Royal Botanic Kew Gardens said.


Though there are at least 7,039edible plants species, only 417 are considered for food crops. The most important sources of human food are almost all vascular plants, accounting for 7,014 species of the 7,039. The remainder were bryophytes and green and red algae. The report notes that the families yielding the highest number of edible plants were the pea family, palm family, grass family, mallow family and daisy family.


Of the 7,039 edible plant species in Kew’s dataset, 30 per cent appear on the 2020 International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List. The report further says that though most species (78%) are identified as “Least Concern’, more than 234 species (11%) are reported as being threatened with extinction. It notes that any food crop species grown widely is unlikely to face t5he risk of extinction. However, it says that particular populations, including some significant farmers’ landraces that are well adapted to grow under local climatic and environmental conditions, might still be threatened. The report cites the extinction of ‘Hen Gymro, which disappeared from cultivation in the 1920s.  As such, the report stresses that that future conservation priorities should reflect important local variations within species.

“The thousands of underutilised and neglected plant species, known also as orphan crops, are the lifeline to millions of people on Earth tormented by unprecedented climate change, pervasive food and nutrition insecurity and economic disempowerment,” says Dr Stefano Padulosi, Senior Scientist, Integrated Conservation Methodologies and Use at the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture.

Padulosi further added that harnessing this basket of untapped resources for making food and production systems more diverse and resilient to change should be the moral duty to current and future generations.



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