Scientists estimate that humans have domesticated more than 6,000 different plant species throughout human history. But over time, farmers tended to favor growing the crops that produced the highest yields. Today, only three crops—rice, wheat, and corn—provide close to half of the calories consumed worldwide.
Agriculture has become more susceptible to pests, plant-borne illnesses, and soil erosion as a result of this reliance on a small number of crops. These conditions are made worse by the practice of monoculture, or planting only one crop at a time. Additionally, it has resulted in the loss of other crops’ ability to endure drought and other natural calamities.
Farmers all across the world are rediscovering historic crops and creating new hybrids that may prove more resilient in the face of drought or epidemics while also providing essential nutrients as the effects of the climate crisis become more pronounced.
You always hear figures like, “We’ve lost 90% of our varieties. It wasn’t until lately that I understood the greatest tragedy wasn’t the loss of that diversity. Chris Smith, the creator of the Utopian Seed Project, explains that the problem is that we are unaware that we have lost our diversity.
In an effort to feed the planet as it heats, farmers around the world are currently cultivating five additional crops in addition to rice, wheat, and corn:
Amaranth: the colonization-resistant plant
The entire amaranth plant, from leaf to seed, is edible. Amaranth stalks can grow up to eight feet tall and are crowned with plumes that are packed with red, orange, or green seeds. Amaranth has traditionally been consumed as a vegetable in Africa and Asia, while Indigenous Americans also consumed the plant’s seed, which is a pseudocereal similar to buckwheat or quinoa.
When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they forbade the Aztecs and Maya from cultivating amaranth. Although it grew like a weed, many farmers collected amaranth seeds and passed them down through the centuries until their offspring were permitted to grow it once more.
Indigenous farmers are now working together to cultivate this drought-resistant grain in Guatemala, Mexico, and the US. Amaranth is not a new crop, but it is seeing a rebirth as populations adjust to the climate issue, similar to the African grain fonio. Matthew Blair, a professor at Tennessee State University and co-president of the Amaranth Institute, asserted that “everything that’s new was ancient once.”
With Ukraine being the continent’s top producer of the crop, amaranth has made its way into European cuisine.
Fonio: the traditional grain that resists drought
Farmers in west Africa have been growing fonio, a type of millet with a flavor similar to a nuttier couscous or quinoa, for thousands of years. Fonio was once thought of as the diet of chiefs and monarchs and is thought to be Africa’s earliest cereal to be grown. Fonio was served on holy days, such as during weddings and during the month of Ramadan, in nations like Senegal, Burkina Faso, and Mali.
Cowpeas are a completely edible plant.
More than 5 million acres of cowpeas were cultivated in the US in the 1940s, with the majority being used as hay to feed animals. Cowpeas, also known as southern peas or black-eyed peas, were raised for human food in west Africa before they were introduced to the Americas. Even though the US has seen a fall in cowpea output in recent years, most of Africa still depends heavily on the crop. Nigeria is the largest cowpea grower in the world.
Cowpeas are a strong contender when the climate changes because of their high drought tolerance. Blair is a member of a team at Tennessee State University researching the introduction of cowpeas to Latin America as an alternative to beans with similar flavor profiles to pinto and black beans, which may eventually become more challenging to farm.
Taro: a tropical crop adapted to cooler climates
Taro has traditionally been farmed as a root vegetable in the tropical regions of south-east Asia and Polynesia, much like the potato. Farmers in the continental US are attempting to modify the tropical perennial to grow as a temperate annual because it cannot withstand the harsh US winters. However, rising temperatures endanger the cultivation of the crop in its natural habitat.
We firmly believe that taro will provide us with a more stable food system, so we want to introduce it, adds Smith. But a wonderful side effect of that is that it also makes it possible for us to interact with crops that are traditionally grown by either Indigenous or peasant farming communities. Additionally, I believe it provides traditionally underserved communities with an opportunity to interact with the food system.
Taro is not a new crop; rather, the US food system has not yet incorporated it, like fonio, amaranth, and cowpeas. Because of this, the Utopian Seed Project teaches people how to cook taro in addition to learning how to grow it. These crops are just meals that are more deeply ingrained in other civilizations than in our own, according to Smith. Building that community and the desire for that crop requires work.
The crop developed for the climate problem is kerneza.
Some alternative crops have been developed particularly to withstand climate change, while others are simply plants that were produced elsewhere in the world decades or even centuries ago.
A wheat-like grass known as intermediate wheatgrass was discovered as a perennial cereal crop that could be produced as a replacement for annual grains like wheat in the 1980s by researchers at the Pennsylvania-based Rodale Institute. The objective was to reduce how much grain production affected the environment.
Developed from intermediate wheatgrass and branded to let farmers know they’ve purchased seeds from the official breeding program, Kernza is a cereal crop that was presented in 2019 by the Kansas-based Land Institute, a non-profit research group specializing on sustainable agriculture. Farmers in Minnesota, Kansas, and Montana are already producing around to 4,000 acres of Kernza, despite the fact that scientists are still trying to increase the grain’s yield.
Tessa Peters, director of crop stewardship at the Land Institute, stated that “growers instantly recognize the benefits of perennials on their landscapes” and added that “Kernza is highly appealing for people working in grain-producing areas.”
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