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How Forgotten Crops Help Combat Climate Change

Agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, with 18.4% of global greenhouse emissions produced by agriculture, forestry and land use in 2016. Reducing its impact is a high priority for governments around the world - but how? Could moving away from the norm in food production help combat climate change? Are there existing crops that could already help us change course?

4 Main Crops Grown Today

The world’s food consumption has become very uniform in recent human history. The four main food sources – wheat, maize, rice and soybean – make up two-thirds of what the world eats, and for good reason. With their nutritional content and high yields, these foods are excellent tools for achieving the UN’s Zero Hunger sustainable development goal (SDG). 

But climates vary drastically across the globe, so some parts of the world are naturally better suited to grow these crops en masse than others. Now that these four foods make up such a significant part of our global diet, huge investments are being made in importing and exporting these goods all over the world. Trade on such a scale requires transport - and that means emissions.1, 2

The Benefits of Growing ‘Forgotten Crops’

Globalisation has many benefits, but it can also lead us to forget that for generations, people depended on locally available crops for their food - and many still do. Thousands of other crops can be just as nutritiously valuable, more hardy to extreme weathers and grown in more varied areas compared to the ‘big four', but unfortunately, many have become the ‘forgotten crops’ for many regions around the world.3


Millet - This nutrient-rich seeded grain has been cultivated since the dawn of human agriculture. It is drought-resistant and can be grown on marginal land in Africa and Asia.


Amaranth —This crop, once important in the diet of ancient South American civilizations, is drought-resistant and can produce high yields quickly.


Carob, A South American pod often compared to chocolate, is naturally sweet and caffeine-free. While the trees require ample yearly rainfall to grow fruit, they are resistant to long droughts.

Also described as ‘orphan crops’, these foods could help us achieve a number of the SDGs in addition to Zero Hunger. Relying more on resilient, local crops would reduce the need for imports, therefore reducing emissions. Increasing the use of nitrogen-fixing crops, such as legumes, which are less reliant on emission-producing artificial fertilisers, would only help this further.4,5 The resilience of these orphan crops could make them valuable far beyond their local areas, too. African crops such as teff and sorghum have lower water demands than other staple crops due to the naturally arid environments they come from, increasing their tolerance to drought.6 Using such crops in other areas of the world could prove useful as a fail-safe if climates were to take a more unpredictable and difficult turn.

There are abundant possibilities for us to find climate-resistant, future-proof foods amongst these forgotten orphan crops - we simply need to remember to look beyond the big four. Creating a culture shift in the global diet may seem imposing, but it’s worth remembering that quinoa, a now-popular nutrient-rich legume, was not found outside Peru and Bolivia just 30 years ago.
 

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