Including Traditional Crops in the African Research Agenda for Sustainable Food Systems

By Dr Sussy Munialo – Postdoctoral fellow, ARUA Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Food Systems

Most of the food that we eat consists of a few crops such as maize, wheat, and rice. This is because research investments and development initiatives continue to focus on these crops, which have long been recognised as staples, despite the various cereals, vegetables, fruits, nuts, pulses, roots and tubers, whole grains, and omega-three-rich crops that are found on the African continent. Traditional crops such as cereals (e.g., sorghum and pearl millet), African leafy vegetables (e.g., amaranth and nightshade), fruits (e.g., baobab, paw-paw, loquarts, soursop), roots and tubers (e.g., cassava, yam, sweet potatoes), pulses (e.g., soybean, chick-pea), and nuts (e.g., bambara nut and groundnut) are nutrient rich and can enhance dietary diversity and contribute to food security and nutrition. However, these crops have received less research attention, leading to low production and consumption and subsequently contributing to unsustainable food systems– specifically in Africa.

Food systems, which refer to all activities from farm to fork (production to consumption of food) have remained unsustainable; that is, they have not delivered nutritious, safe, and healthy food for all people at all times. This has contributed to poor health manifesting as malnutrition (stunting and wasting) in children and non-communicable diseases  (diabetes, cancer, and hypertension) in adults. Current statistics show that the burden of non-communicable diseases in Africa increased by 67% between 1990–2017. More than 38% and 27% of African children experience stunting and wasting, respectively. Furthermore, high economic losses have resulted from non-communicable diseases (USD 1 trillion) and malnutrition (16% of GDP lost). Climate change, sporadic wars, and emerging pandemics will further expose the vulnerabilities within food systems and increase the burden malnutrition and non-communicable diseases on economic growth. Measures that increase the consumption of the traditional crops are needed to promote sustainable food systems, reduce the burden of malnutrition and non-communicable diseases, and enhance economic growth.

Recently, there has been an increased focus on the need to include traditional  crops such as sorghum, sweet potatoes, chickpea, and Bambara nuts, among others, in the research agenda to improve the sustainability of food systems. In addition to contributing to the achievement of food and nutrition security, traditional crops have multidimensional benefits. These benefits include: contributing to economic and social development, resilience to climate change, improved livelihoods and rural development, biodiversity conservation, maintaining cultural diversity and heritage, better adaptation to harsh environments (low water conditions and less fertile soil), and low-input agriculture. African leafy vegetables have been shown to generate income of up to 23% among smallhoder women farmers. The yield of sorghum and finger millet has remained stable, as shown by data collected between 1970–2018, despite the changing climate (rainfall and temperature) and rising carbon emissions. Cowpea adds nutrients to the soil, thereby improving fertility and conserving the environment. Crops such as sorghum, millets, cassava, and cowpea, among others, form an important aspect of African customary ceremonies thus conserving cultural diversity and identity. The many benefits of these crops merit their inclusion in the research agenda. As discussions around the how and why of this inclusion continue, systematic review studies that show the dietary and economic value of such crops are needed for decision-making in research and development. Such studies can show gaps and opportunities existing in research and show entry points for interventions.

In my study, as a postdoctoral fellow within the ARUA Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Food Systems (ARUA-SFS) – hosted by Future Africa – I sought to understand if including traditional crops such as finger millet, amaranth, nightshade, yam, sweet potatoes, Marama bean, and soybean in the African research agenda can improve the nutritional profile and benefits of our diets. A systematic review of research outputs on traditional crops benchmarked as the number of publications from three leading African universities (the University of Nairobi, the University of Pretoria, and the University of Ghana) was conducted. Information on the number of publications on traditional crops from each of the following clusters was collected: cereals, vegetables, pulses, roots and tubers, and nuts. The information was then linked to the nutrition content of traditional crops from each of these five groupings.

The findings showed that inclusion of traditional crops in the research agenda could increase the number of foods consumed, resulting in a greater variety of nutrients in the diet from traditional crops.

Dr Sussy Munialo – Postdoctoral fellow, ARUA Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Food Systems

The findings showed that the inclusion of traditional crops in the research agenda could increase the number of foods consumed, resulting in a greater variety of nutrients in the diet from traditional crops such as finger millet, amaranth, nightshade, yam, sweet potatoes, Bambara nut, and soybean. The diverse nutrients found in these crops, when consumed in adequate amounts, can reduce malnutrition in children and the occurrence of non-communicable diseases in adults. This will positively affect human health, contributing to the achievement of many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) such as Good Health and Wellbeing (SDG 3), Zero Hunger (SDG 2), Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG 12), Climate Action (SDG 13), and No Poverty (SDG 1).

The findings from this study can inform governments as well as policy and funding institutions to include traditional  crops within the research agenda. Research investment targeting specific crops is needed. The successful integration of traditional crops in the research agenda should be accompanied by other research and development initiatives, including policy and dissemination. Inclusion of traditional crops in the research agenda will provide evidence needed to inform policy. The low consumption of traditional crops has been attributed to unaffordability because of the high prices resulting from low production. For example, the price of traditional foods such as sweet potatoes has been shown to be between 2–10 times more compared to maize. Lack of innovation in preparation and processing of the traditional crops also contributes to low consumption, especially among the young people and urban residents. Policy formulation is needed to improve production, foster innovation and development of commercial products, and increase consumption and utilisation of the traditional crops. In addition to improving diets and health, this will create employment opportunities – especially for disadvantaged communities, women, and youth.