3 Resilient Crops For Changing Climates
The dry, edible seeds of plants in the legume family (e.g. Beans, Peas, Chickpeas, and Lentils)
Rich in nutrients
Pulses are nutritionally high in protein as well as containing a range of beneficial vitamins and minerals thought to protect against a range of chronic diseases.1
Pulses have a small water footprint (roughly 19 litres per gram of protein, compared with 112 litres for beef) making them well-suited to thrive in challenging environments.2
Improve soil quality
Pulses don’t require large inputs of chemical fertilisers, due to a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria which add nutrients to the soil.
Pulses are already established in many cuisines, but less-known varieties could boost our future food security. For example, Bambara groundnuts (a staple in sub-Saharan Africa) thrive even in acidic soils and are considered a ‘complete food’ due to their balance of carbohydrates, fibre, micronutrients and essential amino acids.1
Photo: Harvested Bambara groundnuts
2. Edible Cacti
Cacti with edible fruits, flowers and/or pads (e.g. Prickly Pear, Barrel, Saguaro and Dragon Fruit Cacti)
Easy to grow
Cacti require very little water to grow and can be easily cultivated: fallen cacti leaves will often quickly produce roots and start growing entirely on their own.
Rich in nutrients
Cacti fruits, flowers, oil and cladodes (flattened shoots rising from the stem) can be very nutritious, containing a range of vitamins, proteins, fats and fibre.
Versatile to cook with
Cacti fruits, flowers and pads (depending on the species) can be eaten raw or cooked in stews and soups, transformed into pickles, juices or jams - or enjoyed Mexican-style with eggs and jalapeños for breakfast!
Their super water-storage abilities make cacti the perfect climate-proof crop, able to grow in arid lands where no other plants can. Nopales (also called prickly pear or cactus pear) are particularly adaptive and are already farmed and eaten across Central and South America, Africa and the Middle East.3
Photo: Prickly Pear cactus fruits
Small-grained grasses that are grown as cereals (e.g. Pearl, Finger, Proso and Foxtail Millet)
Finger millet is known as ‘famine crop’ since it can remain dormant during dry spells, requires little water to grow and its seeds are resistant to pests and spoilage, giving them a long shelf life.4
Millets are some of the most nutritious cereal crops, with high levels of protein, vitamin B1, fibre and calcium.
Similar in texture to couscous and with a mild flavour, finger millet grains can be eaten as porridge, milled into flour and used in bread or pancakes, or even used to brew beer.
Millets can be grown in areas with very little rainfall. Finger millet in particular is a staple cereal for many of the arid regions of Africa and South Asia, also because it can grow on low-fertility soils, without needing expensive and polluting chemical fertilisers.5
Photo: Unharvested Pearl Millet
Even if we embrace a wider diversity of crop types, this may not be enough. Climate change is altering environments and weather patterns so quickly, that we may need to go beyond the existing genetic diversity.1 Genetically-modified crops are a controversial topic, but more modern genetic engineering techniques make only small changes to an organism’s DNA, rather than introducing entire genes from other species. Potentially, this could tweak individual crop genes to quickly develop varieties that are more resistant to stresses such as pests, drought and high temperatures, or that have better yields and nutritional qualities.
Genetic engineering could therefore give us a head start in adapting crops to suit changing conditions, so that agricultural land can remain productive. For instance, rice is particularly sensitive to high salt levels – a problem that climate change is aggravating. Using a genetic engineering technique called CRISPR-Cas9, a research team succeeded in deactivating a gene linked to salt tolerance.5 The resulting plants had significantly enhanced salt tolerance, without any other traits being affected. Remarkably, this engineered crop was developed in just a year.5