By Gazelle Buchholtz
One of the primary goals for Crops For the Future Research Centre[i] (CFFRC) is to secure a greater role for underutilised crops in global agriculture, especially in developing regions of the world. CFFRC's function includes global campaigning as well as the collection and distribution of information on underutilised crops for food and non-food applications. The organisation has developed an online tool called CropBASE, a data-to-decision solution that focuses on agricultural diversification. This is free for farmers, researchers and everyone with an interest in sustainable agriculture.
The changing political scene in Malaysia over the last few years has caused instability in the organisation’s work. Established in 2014, CFFRC closed its doors in May 2020 after the Government of Malaysia’s agreed-upon period of funding support came to an end. The closure has resulted in the move of CFFRC to the UK, now known as CFFUK where it continues to work for a worldwide varied supply of food sources to benefit both people and the planet.
Biodiversity incorporated in agriculture
At Surefoot we have talked with PhD student Gomathy Sethuraman at the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. The online conversation is one of a series where we speak with people from organisations around the world, to get first-hand insight into climate change and environmentally friendly actions.
Gomathy Sethuraman has worked for about 15 years in various laboratory settings and joined the Research Division at CFFRC in 2015 as the Technical Support Manager. Her main tasks were to provide technical support in equipment setup and usage, sample analysis and data collection, including report writing related to crop studies & nutrition profiling. “Despite there being approximately 30,000 known plant species documented for human use, less than 20 species provide the world’s food and only four major crops namely wheat, corn, rice and soybean account for the majority of the world’s food production. There are at least 7000 plant species identified as food sources that remain underutilised or lesser-known; these crops are very rich in vitamins and nutrients. Whilst bringing new flavours to the meals, they also have the potential to improve both food and nutrition security. As knowledge is scarce on these underutilised crops it presents a challenge to incorporate these lesser-known crops into the agriculture sector,” says Gomathy.
Together with colleagues she has published a few papers on some of these underutilised crops found in Malaysia. One such crop is sacha inchi[ii] which is native to the Amazon rainforest but can now be found in other parts of the world including Malaysia. Its high levels of fatty acids (Omega 3, 6 and 9) and easily digestible protein are not common in other vegetable oil. The team is pleased to find out that there are farmers around Malaysia who have started working on this crop. Hopefully, this will lead to further collating of information and dissemination to a wider audience with the hope that more farmers will explore the underutilised crop that has valuable traits not only to improve diversity in agriculture but also to mitigate climate change and reduce the use of pesticide and fertiliser that contributes to the carbon footprint of agriculture.
Positive effects of more local food
“The Malaysian government’s goal of being carbon neutral in 2050, I believe is a difficult target to achieve as a large portion of the country’s food is being imported from all over the world despite it being an agricultural country. More varied and locally produced food would help to decrease carbon emissions and the negative climate effect,” says Gomathy and she elaborates on climate change in Malaysia. Monsoon is a typical recurring annual event, but now it causes more flooding than usual. Water levels can at times reach the heights of house roofs. Likewise, extreme heat is a more frequent phenomenon. The average temperature rise of 1 - 2°C doesn’t seem much on the skin of our body, but plants experience it differently. The flowering of some plants is affected by the temperature change, which directly affects the yield production. With a number of changes of government in Malaysia over the past several years, Gomathy calls out for stability for the support of environmentally friendly initiatives which aim to ease the impacts of climate change, regardless of changes in the political agenda.
Creating value out of challenges
One positive ‘side-effect’ of moving Crops For the Future to the UK, is that now the organisation has established new partnerships with other countries and has gained international recognition. Gomathy underlines the persistent effort of the CEO at Crops For the Future, Sayed Nader Azam-Ali. His book, ‘The Ninth Revolution, Transforming Food Systems For Good’ was released earlier this year, and the organisation continues to promote the Global Action Plan for Agricultural Diversification (GAPAD) through its participation in the AIRCA consortium and work with a range of partners. CFFUK is also looking into expanding its approach globally and currently working towards establishing in South Africa with hosting by the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, Pietermaritzburg and a preliminary exploration underway in Australia with the goal to create regional centres with complementary expertise that can contribute to a variety of food system research projects throughout the world.
On the question of how to support underutilised crop production, Gomathy points out knowledge sharing as an important initiative. Knowledge is an important tool for any form of advancement, and it should start in the family. Some of these crops were grown by our ancestors and they are lost in the transition of time. Gomathy teaches her daughters of seven and twelve years old who take part in growing edible plants like long beans, tomatoes, okra and some leafy vegetables in their home in Selangor. She iterates, whenever we buy food, we ask questions like, “Where is this food produced, is it coming from a local farm or has it taken a flight to come to our shelves, has there been the use of pesticides, how much has it been processed, and what kind of packaging material is used? Could there be an option for locally fresh, less processed food, with a minimum wrapping be available as a substitute?”
When Gomathy participated in Carbon Conversations conducted by Surefoot in 2009, she was surprised about the carbon footprint of food transported by plane, “It is not enough to go for vegetables and fruits, the footprint of transport is a significant factor to take into consideration when assessing the impact of our food. Educational programmes available to all would be a great help for people to find out how to choose climate-friendly food sources.” Gomathy also highlights that it does not help the situation by pointing fingers and judging people for their eating habits, especially those who consume meat or highly processed food products. Instead, we can inspire and share the knowledge towards a varied food option that is good for us and the planet since there are more than 7000 crops documented for food sources.
For more information:
[i] Gregory, P. J.; Mayes, S.; Hui, C. H.; Jahanshiri, E.; Julkifle, A.; Kuppusamy, G.; Kuan, H. W.; Lin, T. X.; Massawe, F.; Suhairi, T. A. S. T. M.; Azam-Ali, S. N. Crops For the Future (CFF): An Overview of Research Efforts in the Adoption of Underutilised Species. Planta 2019, 250 (3), 979–988. Overview of CFFRC, Malaysia
[ii] Sethuraman, G.; Nizar, N. M. M.; Muhamad, F. N.; Gregory, P. J.; Jahanshiri, E.; Azam-Ali, S. Nutrition Composition of Sacha Inchi (Plukenetia Volubikis L.). International Journal of Research and Scientific Innovation (IJRSI) 2020, 7 (9), 271–277.
Here’s a collection of some of our articles which has been in our newsletters or published elsewhere.