Ouring human history, scientists believe that humans have cultivated more than 6,000 different plant species. But over time, farmers shifted to planting those with the highest yields. Today, just three crops – rice, wheat and maize – provide nearly half of the world’s calories.
This dependence on a small number of crops has made agriculture vulnerable to pests, plant-borne diseases and soil erosion, which thrive on monoculture – the practice of growing only one crop at a time. that time. It also means losing the resilience other crops have to survive drought and other natural disasters.
As the impacts of the climate crisis become more pronounced, farmers around the world are rediscovering ancient crops and developing new hybrids that may prove more resilient in the face of drought or disease outbreaks, while still delivering important nutrients.
“You hear all the stats like, ‘We’ve lost 90% of our varieties.’ It wasn’t until recently that I realized that the biggest sadness isn’t that we’ve lost that diversity. It’s that we don’t even know we’ve lost that diversity,” says Chris Smith, founder of the Utopian Seed Project.
Here’s a look at five crops, beyond rice, wheat and corn, that farmers around the world are now growing in hopes of feeding the planet as it warms:
Amaranth: the plant that survived colonization
From leaf to seed, the entire amaranth plant is edible. Standing up to eight feet tall, amaranth stems are topped with plumes filled with red, orange or green seeds. Across Africa and Asia, amaranth has long been eaten as a vegetable – while Native Americans also ate the seeds of the plant: a pseudocereal like buckwheat or quinoa.
While amaranth leaves can be sautéed or cooked in a stir-fry, the seed is usually roasted and then eaten with honey or milk. A complete protein with all nine essential amino acids, amaranth is a good source of vitamins and antioxidants.
In the Americas, the Spanish colonizers prohibited the Aztecs and Mayans from cultivating amaranth when they arrived on the continent. However, the plant continued to grow as a weed, and many farmers saved amaranth seeds, passing them on for generations, until their descendants were allowed to cultivate it again.
Today, indigenous farmers in Guatemala, Mexico and the United States work together to grow this drought-tolerant crop. Like fonio, an African cereal, amaranth is not a new crop, but one that is experiencing a revival as communities adapt to the climate crisis. “Everything new was old,” said Matthew Blair, a professor at Tennessee State University and co-chair of the Amaranth Institute.
Amaranth has found its way into European kitchens, with Ukraine becoming the largest producer of the crop on the continent.
Fonio: the traditional drought-resistant cereal
For thousands of years, farmers across West Africa have grown fonio – a kind of millet that tastes like slightly nuttier couscous or quinoa. Historically, fonio is considered Africa’s oldest cultivated grain and was considered by some to be the food of chiefs and kings. In countries like Senegal, Burkina Faso and Mali, fonio was served on holy days, such as at weddings and during the month of Ramadan.
Today, more and more attention is focused on fonio for its resilience and health benefits. As the climate continues to change, fonio’s drought resistance and ability to grow in poor soils has made it a standout crop in water-scarce regions. It also has significant nutritional value as a low-glycemic, gluten-free grain, making it a good source of amino acids for people with diabetes or gluten intolerance.
While Europeans used to call fonio “hungry rice”, European companies are now making their own fonio. Italian company Obà Food helped bring fonio to the EU in December 2018. And in the US, Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam sources fonio from aid organization SOS Sahel for his brand Yolélé, also the name of her cookbook celebrating West African cuisine.
Cowpea: the entirely edible plant
By the 1940s, more than 5 million acres of cowpea were grown in the United States – the majority, as the name suggests, for hay to feed livestock. But long before cowpea — also called southern pea or black-eyed pea — arrived in the Americas, it was grown for human consumption in West Africa. Although cowpea production has declined in the United States in recent decades, the crop is extremely important in much of Africa. Nigeria is the world’s largest producer of cowpea.
As scientists search for alternative crops, Blair said it’s important to identify those where the whole plant is edible. Although historically people ate mostly cowpea seeds, the leaves and pods are also a good source of protein.
Because cowpea is very drought tolerant, it is also a good candidate as the climate changes. At Tennessee State University, Blair is part of a team studying the introduction of cowpea in Latin America, as an alternative to beans, such as pinto and black beans, with similar flavor profiles that may soon become more difficult to grow. .
Taro: adapting tropical cultivation to colder climates
In the tropics of Southeast Asia and Polynesia, taro has long been grown as a root vegetable, much like a potato. But as rising temperatures threaten growing the plant in its native habitat, farmers in the continental United States are trying to adapt the tropical perennial to grow as a temperate annual because it cannot survive the harsh climate. cold American winters.
At the Utopian Seed Project in North Carolina, founder Chris Smith and his team experimented with tropical crops, looking for ways to help plants survive winter. Today, they grow eight varieties of taro, including those from Korea, the Philippines, Hawaii, China and Puerto Rico.
“We want to introduce taro because we really believe it will give us a safer food system,” Smith says. “But the beautiful by-product is that it also allows us to engage with foods that traditionally come from indigenous or peasant farming communities. And I think it really gives these traditionally underserved populations an opportunity to engage with the food system that they typically don’t have.
Like fonio, amaranth and cowpea, taro is not a new crop – it’s just new to the American food system. That’s why the Utopian Seed project not only teaches how to grow taro, but also how to cook it. “These cultures are just foods that are integrated into cultures around the world in a way that they’re not integrated here,” Smith said. “It takes work to build that community and the desire for that culture.”
Kernza: cultivation adapted to the climate crisis
While many alternative crops are just plants that were grown elsewhere in the world generations ago, others were grown specifically to withstand climate change.
In the 1980s, researchers at the Pennsylvania-based Rodale Institute identified a wheat-like grass called intermediate wheatgrass as a perennial grain crop that could be grown as a substitute for annual grains like wheat. The objective was to minimize the environmental impacts of cereal production.
In 2019, the Kansas-based Land Institute, a nonprofit research organization focused on sustainable agriculture, introduced Kernza, a grain crop developed from intermediate wheatgrass and registered to ensure farmers know they purchased seed from the official breeding program. Although researchers are still working to improve grain yield, farmers in Minnesota, Kansas and Montana today cultivate nearly 4,000 acres of Kernza.
“Growers immediately understand the benefits of perennials to their landscapes,” said Tessa Peters, director of crop stewardship at the Land Institute, “and for those working in grain-growing areas, Kernza is very appealing.”