Food Tank: indigenous crops for a food-secure world -

Food Tank: indigenous crops for a food-secure world

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Food Tank: indigenous crops for a food-secure world

Worldwide, potatoes boast around 4,500 different varieties, 3,000 of which are found in Peru alone.

In the numbers game, the potato's genetic diversity may impress but it doesn't take the cake. Individually, tomatoes and apples claim an estimated 7,500 varieties each.

Danielle Nierenberg

Danielle Nierenberg

Despite a wealth of resources, however, a tendency toward strategic, staple crops has compromised crop diversity and left many of these genetic resources extinct.

At U.S.-based think tank, Food Tank, crop diversity and preservation plays an important part of the organization's larger goal to promote a food secure and sustainable world.

Co-founder Danielle Nierenberg spoke with about the significance of indigenous crop species to promote social, economic and environmental standards.

"Indigenous crops and indigenous vegetables are a big focus area for us.  This has greatly been through our collaboration with the Christensen Fund in the United States which is very interested in the role that indigenous crops and traditional crops can play toward food security, income generation, and preserving both culture and biodiversity," Nierenberg said.

Economic preference for commodity crops such as corn, wheat and rice has discouraged investment in traditional crops, Nierenberg explained.

Although local crops can promote regional food security, many of these varieties have disappeared. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that about 75% of the planet's genetic plant resources have gone extinct. Another third could be lost by 2050.

"The funding communities have really focused on starchy, staple crops. We’ve been good at investing in foods that get people a lot of calories but we haven’t been good at investing in foods that have essential micronutrients or things that actually make the starchy, staple crops taste good," she said.

"I think that is going to change, especially as the impacts of climate change become more evident and some of these more conventional crop varieties aren't able to withstand the fluctuation of temperature and rainfall."

Whether it be a leafy green like amaranth or the "false banana" enset, Nierenberg explained that promotion of local fare can encourage nutritional autonomy and ease the strain of crop pests and disease.

"As we look at the things that work, whether it be intercropping or perennial systems or permaculture, I think the food systems of the future will be looking at what's suited to their climate and what's suited to cultural traditions to develop our food system in ways that protect biodiversity and protect the cultural identity theses crops can provide to communities," she said.

Nierenberg used the example of enset, a fruit indigenous to Ethiopia that has gone largely ignored by outside investors.


Farmer in enset field

"The crop enset has incredible potential. But when development agencies and funders and donors go into Ethiopia, they try to push farmers to grow commodity crops.

"If we really look at agriculture, we can see it not just in terms of its economic production but for all of the other things that it does like contributing to biodiversity, contributing to the health of soils, conserving water.

"We need a system that looks at these things and gives them value. Until that happens, I fear for the future of agriculture, particularly in the developing world. Farmers are pushed to grow things that might have a big economic return in the short term, but often in the long term do not."

Beyond preservation of traditional foods, Nierenberg explained that many small farmers suffer from lack of institutional support to truly address their needs.

"I think the biggest thing, if you’re focusing on Sub-Saharan Africa, is that the governments in the region are not investing in agriculture, although it often makes up a majority of their GDP. We really need to have governments investing in small and medium-sized farms, so farmers can get the resources they need," she said.

"Those things need to be in place for the food system to be truly sustainable."

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