A LARGE portion of Africa’s people rely on several indigenous plant species for subsistence. These plants are often primary food sources for people and animals, and are also used for other non-food purposes. Most are farmed as food crops and are preferred by indigenous people and farmers. They are often hardy and tolerant, which means that they can be expected to survive better under varying climatic conditions.
But their agricultural importance is undervalued and they often play second fiddle to more commercial crops. Referred to as “Orphan Crops” – they are not classified as major crops, and are under-researched and underutilised.
“Orphan Crops” are indigenous and invariably grown by small and marginal farmers under subsistence farming systems. These crops which are common and widely accepted by local farmers are highly rich in nutritional profile, good for medicinal purposes, and well adapted to suboptimal growing conditions.
By use, crops fall into six categories: food crops, feed crops, fiber crops, oil crops, ornamental crops, and industrial crops. Food crops, such as fruit and vegetables, are harvested for human consumption. Grains, such as corn, wheat, and rice, are the world’s most popular food crops.
The term “orphan” is derived from the state of neglect and abandonment of the crops by the scientific community despite their grossly underexploited food and nutritional potential that can contribute to food and nutrition security, healthy living, improved livelihood of farmers, and improvement of the environment.
“Orphan crops have a history with indigenous people and are generally accepted among the rural populace for their nutritional and health values as well as adaptation to prevailing local stresses and growing conditions,” AgroEcology Activist, Daniel Msimuko recalls.
With renewed awareness of the potential of orphan crops in terms of being nutrient-dense, amenable to diverse food systems, and tolerant of suboptimal growing conditions, research attention is beginning to shift in the direction of these crops, for which the knowledge of indigenous people would be invaluable.
It suffices to indicate that the intention is not for orphan crops to dominate the diet or compete with the major food crops, but to complement production to meet the food requirements of the fast-increasing population as soon as possible. “Orphan crops are also outstanding in performance and could thrive better than major food crops in environments where they are indigenous and widely cultivated,” AgroEcology Activist, Daniel Msimuko noted.
Despite being grown on infertile portions of farms and commonly cultivated in marginal agricultural regions; orphan crops continue to play a significant role in food security. They provide the calorie requirement of people living in areas where major food crops such as maize, rice, and wheat cannot be produced optimally. It is also noteworthy that orphan crops require low inputs by nature; thus, farmers will be spending far lesser amount of money on production compared to those of major food crops.
Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) notes that, despite their huge importance for present and future agriculture, the orphan crops; have generally received little attention by the global scientific community. Due to this, they produce inferior yields in terms of both quantity and quality.
While maize, rice, and wheat dominate cropping systems; these crops do not perform well in marginal areas. Orphan crops can be grown successfully as sustainable alternatives to satisfy the calorie requirements of communities. The use of orphan crops to occupy niches in production in multiple cropping systems has several advantages.
The selected orphan crops can be used to explore sustainable crop diversification opportunities for multiple cropping, thereby supporting yield stability; building up of disease and pest resistance, higher resource use efficiency, and intensification where conditions allow for this.
Local crop intensification and the use of diverse crop cycles have been put forward as a solution to improve food security without increasing the area under cultivation subject to site-specific productivity and actual environmental costs.
As the frequency of climate extremes increases, mixed crop production practices that include wide adaptation traits are important for maintaining food security. Therefore, the inclusion of orphan crops can increase both food security and opportunities for designing sustainable crop intensification strategies.
Alternative crops in the form of orphan crops score highly in all areas of the four pillars of food security: access, availability, use, and stability. In particular, the majority fit in sustainable production practices and support dietary diversity.
They are proven crops with enormous potential to combat food and nutrition insecurity; enrich and diversify diets and crop production systems, improve farmers’ livelihood, as well as use and improve degraded soils in marginal environments.
Complementary mainstreaming of these crops into production systems, genetic enhancement, and continuous improvement of the crops for stress tolerance and efficient use of resources through modern breeding approaches, coupled with the use of appropriate agronomic practices, will contribute immensely to increased global crop production.