LONDON, United Kingdom –Orphan crops are crops that are indigenous or native to a particular region where people have traditionally used them as a source of highly nutritious food. However, over time, people have forgotten about these crops that farmers now underutilize and consumers, plant breeders and policymakers neglect. Examples of orphan crops include grains such as sorghum, millets and vegetables such as amaranth, eggplants and kale. Bringing back orphan crops is not a particularly new topic, however, it has gained new momentum in 2023 with the United Nations (U.N.) declaring the International Year of the Millets. Orphan crops are a great solution for poverty alleviation and food security throughout the developing world increasing income and employment opportunities through the creation of new markets, improving food security and reducing malnutrition, particularly amongst children.
Improving Food Security and Malnutrition
Orphan crops are important for improving food security and malnutrition as they increase the number of food options and diversify the global market creating a more secure global food supply. This protects people from external shocks, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). These shocks include global economic crisis, political and military conflict, the changing climate, pest and crop diseases and droughts. These events all have the potential to push up food prices and send millions of people into hunger.
Allen Van Deynze, scientific director of the African Orphan Crop Consortium (AOCC), spoke with The Borgen Project stating, “37% of Africans struggle with stunting to malnutrition.” Furthermore, food price inflation in Africa as of June 2022 has exceeded 20%, “the highest it’s been since the tracking of the indicator began 20 years ago,” IFPRI reports. This has increased food insecurity as people in developing countries do not have the income to keep up with rising food costs.
Developing Plant Varieties for the Garden Crops
Started in 2011, the AOCC’s main goal is to help alleviate the stunting of people due to malnutrition in African countries through developing plant varieties for the garden crops of Africa. These are crops that people are already consuming but through sequencing the genomes they can make these crops more productive improving crop yields and increasing food and nutritional security. They currently have facilitated the genetic improvement of 101 traditional African food crops.
Examples include crops like finger millet which has “the third highest iron content of any grains” and monkey orange, a pest-resistant wild fruit tree that is rich in vitamins B and C helping to combat soil erosion. These crops therefore can help reduce the risk of hidden hunger, a form of micronutrient deficiency that affects one in three people globally. These are just two examples however, Van Deynze explained, “There is not a single crop that is going to feed you and give you the overall nutrition you need.” Therefore, in order to improve food security and malnutrition with orphan crops, people will have to implement a variety of crop species in their diets and cultivate them to be a solution for poverty alleviation and food security in developing countries.
Furthermore, orphan crops are also more “adapted at some level to the local environments, whether that is drought or flood or acidic soils and so on,” according to Van Deynze, meaning they are less likely to fail harvest. The increased variety and species of orphan crops grown also allow for better crop rotation, which further allows for the potential disruption of the cycle of some pests and diseases, reducing the possibility of infection, further increasing crop yields and improving food security.
Orphan Crops Improve Income and Employment Opportunities
For a long time, orphan crops have been economically sidelined, with “the big four” being a staple food source for 5 billion people. Due to this, there is a huge potential for orphan crops to create new markets, employment opportunities and improved income, providing a solution for poverty alleviation and food security in developing countries, according to IFPRI.
However, Van Deynze stated, “If there is no economic value, there is no pull to develop these crops into the market.” Improving income and employment opportunities would require the development and expansion of new markets, as well as putting economic value chains on orphan crops.
SOMNI and FLODESA
The SOMNI project in the arid and semi-arid lands of Kenya and Tanzania is a project that focuses on improving nutritional and income security through improving production and markets of staple household crops such as sorghum, finger millets and pearl millets. This includes scaling up of economic value chains and diversifying the utilization of sorghum, finger millet and pearl millet at household and market levels to increase income security as well as improve production.
This project has reached over 100,000 households in Kenya and Tanzania with over 40,000 farmers benefiting from the improved markets with sorghum, finger millet and pearl millet recipes products like cakes, biscuits, noodles, wine and poultry/fish seeds being sold at markets that have led to a 60% increase in household income. Better market linkages have led to an increase in farmers’ income by 30% and in Kenya due to the increased yield from orphan crop production 60% of the surplus was sold to the market to generate income to meet household expenditure needs such as school and medical expenses.
Kenya and Tanzania are not the only countries utilizing orphan crops to improve income and employment levels. In Indonesia, the FLODESA project has promoted the cultivation of sorghum crops due to its ability to withstand floods and drought through nine demonstration plots in eight villages, totaling 175 farmers. The Sorghum products produced have increased the demand for sorghum production. A group of 18 women who cook and bake have received training on making food with sorghum mainly cookies as well as marketing and product packaging. This has allowed for an increase in their family household income, the creation of new employment opportunities and an additional income stream for themselves and their families.
Orphan crops are a great solution for poverty alleviation and food security in developing countries. These crops allow for better nutritional security, increased income and employment opportunities for farmers as well as entrepreneurs looking to sell products made out of orphan crops in local and potentially global markets, the more recognition these crops get. With populations and global food systems becoming increasingly under threat due to the effects of the changing climate, orphan crops could become increasingly more important in the future within the global food system. This is due to these crops being more adapted to their local environment and resilient to the effects of the changing climate. Expanding markets for orphan crops is also important to help support farming communities through improved market access helping increase the economic potential of orphan crops as well as addressing socioeconomic disparities across the globe.
– Kishan Patel