Elisabeth Braw at the Guardian tells us about the search for sustainable crops. She says that we in the rich world focus too much on a tiny number of staple food species. But ‘at one time during the past 10,000 years, [people] used some 30,000 plants.’
Now some scientists are taking a good look at neglected (orphan) crops. For example, many people grow and eat pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) and sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) but outside the topics, we ignore those crops too often. There’s growing interest in more nutritious (biofortified) varieties of them. Varieties such as the selectively bred Iron-Rich Pearl Millet and the genetically modified (GM, genetically engineered, GE) African Biofortified Sorgum. Ms Braw doesn’t seem very impressed by GM. But that GM sorghum reminds us that biotech is still being used to develop crop varieties.
I’m grateful to my fellow blogger at Allana Potash for introducing me to another neglected crop. The Ethiopian banana or enset (Ensete ventricosum) is a staple food for smallholders in parts of Ethiopia.
There’s interest too in wild plants with potential as food. Ms Braw says, ‘While many multinational food companies promote GM plants as the best solution, a global corps of agricultural scientists and biodiversity experts – funded primarily by NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and government grants – have fanned out across the across the world to find wild species.’ That’s bioprospecting. Should people domesticate new plants? It’s a lot of work, but maybe it will bear fruit. Literally.
One kind of crop won’t fix everything. Ms Braw says, ‘[W]e westerners will have to get used to the idea that we need new crops, whether they be GM, new non-GM hybrids, or orphan crops.’