When’s the last time you tried a kedondong berry? As changes to the climate and soils—drought, desertification, and rising temperatures—threaten production of the most common crops, scientists are looking at ways to bring back local or “alternative” crops. Today, about two-thirds of the world’s agricultural output is limited to just four crops: wheat, maize, rice, and soybeans. Growing them on a large scale might be cost-effective, but it also requires a lot of fuel—a large carbon footprint—to move them from where they’re grown to where they’re needed. The fertilizers and methods used to produce them also take a toll on the environment.
Sayed Azam-Ali, head of a research organization in Malaysia called Crops for the Future, is encouraging the spread of locally grown crops as an alternative to the big four. Many of the plants he works with—some of which CFF grows in its gardens near Kuala Lumpur—are nearly unknown outside their native environments, although they’ve been grown and eaten there for thousands of years. As Azam-Ali points out in this BBC article, more than 7,000 plant species have been grown and harvested for food somewhere in the world, and many are more nutritious than the more commonly produced ones. He is especially interested in the extremely heat- and drought-tolerant species that are suitable for growing in arid environments.
Some of CFF’s current harvest includes the tart, vitamin C-rich kedondong berry, native to Malaysia; the moringa tree, whose leaves can be ground into flour; and the bambara groundnut from Nigeria. Researchers are trying not only to popularize these little-known crops outside their countries of origin, but also to make them more acceptable to the locals who are already familiar with them. Some of the native foods are looked down on—considered fare for poor people or for older people—by a younger generation that’s grown used to processed foods. Realizing this, CFF isn’t necessarily attempting to bring back traditional dishes that use the native crops, but rather to transform them into something trendier. One of CFF’s employees is Tan Xin Lin, a food technologist and trained pastry chef, who is using the native crops to make decidedly un-native things like Italian biscotti and tortellini, instant soup, and murukku, an Indian snack traditionally made with chickpea flour. The latter, now made with bambara flour, is one of the most popular creations so far, and CFF is trying to bring it to markets around the world—hoping for a success story similar to that of quinoa, the trendy grain that was once unknown outside its native Bolivia and Peru.
It’s estimated that by 2050 we will need to grow 50% more food than we do today to feed the increasing population. How receptive do you think people will be to experimenting with unfamiliar foods? Will it be better to market them as a benefit for the environment, or as a fashionable trend like quinoa?