Opinion

Professor Sayed Azam-Ali: Taking the first bite of tomorrow’s climate-ready foods

Sayed Azam-Ali
Professor Sayed Azam-Ali, Chief Executive Officer, Crops For the Future

There are many reasons to think about what we eat. Is a particular crop really as nutritious as it looks? Does it benefit small farmers, or only big companies? Is it contributing to pressure on land, water and the Earth’s climate?

As CEO of Crops For the Future, I have to ask these questions in the context of the world’s underutilised and neglected crops. However, the first question on my mind is usually the same one you would ask yourself if you saw something new on a menu: would I want to eat it? This is a crucial question if we are to change how humanity feeds itself because without consumer demand, there is little potential for the world’s underutilised crops. 

In 1988, I established the Tropical Crops Research Unit (TCRU) at the University of Nottingham, in the UK. Our purpose was to study crops that had received scant attention from scientists and development agencies but were still grown by local communities, especially in Africa. Our first challenge was to identify which were the most promising as “crops of the future”. During a visit to Zimbabwe, a scientist gave me some hard, smooth seeds and said, “Can you do anything with these jugo beans? Our local farmers tell us the crop is very drought tolerant and the beans are very tasty.”

I had seen jugo beans before. I knew them as bambara groundnut, and had seen them thriving on the hostile margins of the Sahel in West Africa. I knew they could survive droughts, that they were nutritionally balanced and rich in protein. But I had never tasted them.

I made it a priority to eat some, but they weren’t easy to find. People who had moved to Harare from their villages left many of their foods behind in exchange for a `modern’ western diet. It meant that bambara groundnut was rarely sold in the city. Eventually we found some in a market and my host agreed to cook them at his home. As we waited at the bus station a small crowd gathered around us offering to buy our jugo beans since they couldn’t find them either. Finally, my host hid them under his jacket and assured me that after we had cooked some the rest were destined for research at the “University of Nottingham Forest.”

At his home, I had my first taste. They were, indeed, delicious. In the following years researching bambara groundnut, I learned that many people really did love it and, like me, were willing to go looking for it. I also learned that this dependable, nutritious crop had been neglected, marginalised and even stigmatised (`the groundnut of the women’) by colonial powers in Africa, who had much greater enthusiasm for high-yielding and marketable crops like maize and peanut.

Today, at Crops For the Future, the world’s first center dedicated solely to research on underutilized crops, I help coordinate efforts to give crops like bambara groundnut the scientific attention they deserve. Our agenda is part of a larger turn in recent years towards appreciating what crop diversity has to offer in a world of high-yielding – but highly vulnerable – monocultures.

A global base of supporters – including Crops For the Future – has come together under efforts like the Food Forever Initiative to call for the conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity, and showcase their work. There are many ways that greater crop diversity increases humanity’s options for adapting to the effects of climate change, and offers better nutritional choices for people all over the world. But first, there is that same old question: would I want to eat it?

More people have to like bambara groundnut, and other underutilised crops, for these to flourish. It is consumers choosing diverse diets that powers diverse agriculture and novel value chains. Crops For the Future and our Forgotten Foods Network Initiative are researching ways to connect these crops with end uses. With bambara groundnut, we are using seed collections to breed varieties that cook faster while retaining their high nutrient content. This will make them less energy-intensive to cook and easier for more people to do what I did in Zimbabwe: take that first bite.

Conserving agricultural biodiversity includes holding on to crops that can grow where maize, wheat and rice cannot; that will produce a harvest in seasons when the others fail; and that offer nutrition, not just calories. It also means embracing diversity at the dinner table, which is an essential step in the process of changing global food systems. Fortunately, it is also a joy in itself, which we wish to share with the rest of the world.

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