Underutilised plant species need attention

Nari, Normal

The National, Tuesday January 12th, 2016

 By Seniorl Anzu

THE Pacific is home to a rich diversity of plant species with huge potential for food and agriculture. This diversity can make a significant contribution to the resilience of food production systems and meet food, nutritional and economic security for the 22 island countries and territories. This is so in view of recent food crisis, financial and economic losses, and the growing impact of climate change. 

However, only a fraction is cultivated, traded and consumed as food with much of the species are underutilised or neglected due to lack of information/documentation, no regional priority list of underutilised species, lack of policy support from various government agencies, and poor awareness at all levels about the value and potential of underutilised species.  

Underutilised species are those plant species with under-exploited potential for contributing to food security, health (nutritional/medicinal), income generation, and environmental services.

Globally, there are some 30,000 plant species edible to human kind and about 7000 grown or collected for food. However, less than 150 species have been commercialised. Currently, only 30 staple crops feed the world with just three crops – maize, wheat, and rice – supply half of the world’s daily protein and calories. PNG has over 200 crop species that are being utilised but information on their quantity and quality is varied. 

In light of the pressuring issues of growing population and environmental degradation, including climate change, the need for indentification and effective utilisation of underutilised crops is eminent for managing climate change and increasing local food production whilst at the same time ensuring effective conservation in the Pacific. 

Over the years, food producers have placed too much reliance on just a handful of crops. A large number of crops, which have the potential to play a much important role in sustaining livelihood and enhancing environmental health, have been overlooked. And consumers have preferred more of imported processed foods. 

Underutilised species are highly beneficial and valuable as they provide a unique opportunity to combat food and nutritional insecurity within communities. It has been well recognised that a large number of crops, that are now overlooked, have the potential to play a much important role in sustaining livelihood and enhancing environmental health, and as well support the development of niche markets for global trade in an increasingly competitive world. The nutritional value of food is an important consideration in the Pacific, where in recent years there has been an alarming increase in lifestyle-related diseases, attributed to an over-reliance on imported and nutritionally poor foods.

Creating awareness on the benefits of these underutilised species and improving access and availability will strengthen self reliance in food production, and make a significant contribution to improving the health of Pacific households and communities.

A regional consultation was held in Fiji in September 2009 to address issues concerning effective utilisation of crop diversity to manage climate change and to increase local food production and to develop appropriate strategy for effective use of neglected species from the region for sustainable food production and food security. The consultation, Crops for the Future: Towards Food, Nutritional, Economic and Environmental Security in the Pacific, was called by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, Asia-Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions (Thailand), Crops for the Future, PNG’s NARI, and Bioversity International on behalf of the Pacific Plant Genetic Resources Network (PAPGREN). Thirty representatives from 15 countries as well as regional and international organisations participated.  

The major outcomes of the consultation were the development of list of priority species and a strategy with five distinct elements (generation and collection of knowledge/research; communication and dissemination; policy advocacy, market development, and partnerships; capacity building; and institutional strengthening).

A priority list of species/species groups with justifications for the region was developed- clearly breadfruit, bananas of the Fe’i group and/or Pacific plantain, Polynesian chestnut, and tava were important.

From the country report, PNG identified about 11 indigenous species and 25 exotic fruits and nuts with interest for these crop species determined by growing conditions (agro-ecological zones). The priority species for PNG include the major staples like sweet potato and galip, noni, okari, sago, aibika, aupa, pitpit, pandanus, and kava. Galip nut was highlighted as a good example of where some progress has been made in development for commercialisation. For their success, public-private partnerships are possibly one of the major factors. Future research needs include evaluating these crops for biodiscovery and biofuels, identifying varieties that are high yielding and of high nutritive value, crops for meeting domestic and export demands, pest and disease tolerance/resistance, and those suitable for crop rotations and intercropping. Post-harvest is also seen as important in the development of underutilised crops. 

In recent past, both the International Centre for Underutilised Crops (ICUC) and the Global Facilitation Unit for Underutilised Species (GFU) have made efforts to realize the potential of underutilised species to help alleviate poverty and protect the environment. More recently, a new global body, called as “Crops for the Future” has been established which is expected to spearhead the drive to bring underutilised crops into the mainstream.

The role of these underutilised crops will become increasingly important as the vagaries of climate change become more pronounced, and countries have to diversify their food systems to ensure food and nutritional security. Through this consultation the Pacific region is well placed to take advantage of opportunities to develop these species and also to strengthen its expertise and skills in this area by building on partnerships, which can augment and supplement existing capacity.