Global agriculture is at a crossroads.
Four crops – wheat, maize, rice and soy – make up 60% of the world’s food. When you put it like that, our reliance on them is very scary. In 2016, 7 out of 10 maize crops in Africa failed. The continued droughts mean farmers can’t grow enough and what they do, lacks nutritional value. This isn’t just a problem in Africa – it’s everywhere. As humans, we are eating completely unsustainably, pushing farmers to desperate measures. As our demand for food grows, farmers are forced to produce more and more.
Recently I had the privilege of visiting Crops For the Future (CFF), located outside of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. They are the first international research centre that focuses on alternative crops. Our incredible planet has over 7,000 crops. Thanks to several other established research centres, we already know so much about wheat, maize, rice and soy. CFF’s mission is to explore the other 6,996.
To steal the analogy of Professor Sayed’s, CEO of CFF - we have spent years learning more about the same thing. If we equate knowledge to light, each break-through is a bigger candle. What we need now isn’t a bigger candle – it’s a light bulb. This requires a monumental shift in the way we understand food, and CFF is confident that this lies in alternative crops.
We learned about two crops in particular during our time at CFF: bambara and moringa. Both are abundant in East Africa and parts of Asia, and can survive environmental change better than most. Interestingly, it’s a crop often farmed by African women, whose focus is on being able to feed their families whereas their husbands focus on farming “the big four” to financially support their families. There’s an African proverb that translates to when farmer dies, a library dies with her. “Her” because it is mothers and wives that farm the alternative crops; “library” because the huge amount of knowledge is vernacular and never recorded. CFF is working hard with local communities to create an interactive knowledge bank to understand crops’ yield, nutritional value and market-value for end users.
CFF’s incredible team prepared some dishes to showcase how versatile and delicious bambara and moringa can be. I quickly learnt that this isn’t some basic diet food – I’m talking moringa pesto pasta, bambara cream puffs, biscotti made from both, the list goes on… and this is just the tip of the iceberg. If these crops can sustainably provide the nutrients we need, at scale, and taste this good, then it seems like Professor Sayed is close to his light-bulb moment.
The United Nation’s number one goal for 2030 is Zero Poverty Everywhere. We won’t meet this goal by continuing down the same path… I think we need to follow the way that CFF is paving for us.
Learn more about CFF here.