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There are around 30,000 edible plant species in the world, but just 30 species of crop account for 95% of what we eat. Most edible plant species – known as neglected and underutilised species (NUS), or orphan crops – are overlooked in agricultural development. These crops are often nutrient rich and perfectly adapted to local environments, making them more resilient to some of the effects of climate change, such as water stress. But, gradually, they have been overtaken and displaced by improved, high-yielding varieties of familiar crops such as maize and rice.

Neglected species – ranging from the African plum to fonio, breadfruit, African eggplant and baobab – are still grown as ‘back garden’ crops, often by women. But volumes can be small and value chains undeveloped, so the potential nutritional and economic benefits are often not fully exploited. “There are many nutritious species being forgotten and there’s a risk they could be lost,” says Gennifer Meldrum, research assistant at Bioversity International, which works to safeguard agricultural biodiversity. “Some, like bambara groundnut, are used popularly but on a small scale, and they don’t get the research and value promotion to enhance their contribution in food systems.”

Developing nutritional value chains

Developing value chains for NUS has the potential to increase overall consumption and turn the crops into a new source of income, especially for women, who may already grow the crops on marginal land. But simply increasing production is not enough: people also have to want to buy and eat them. “You have to look at the whole chain and identify bottlenecks for supply as well as demand, and raise consumer awareness,” states Meldrum.