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The importance of neglected and underutilized species for sustainable agriculture, their conservation and use and their contribution to food security

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Abstract

My interest in neglected and underutilized species (NUS) stems from my involvement with plant genetic resources (PGR) conservation and use, the management of genetic resources and diversity in the production systems, and securing this important human heritage for future generations and sustaining the foundation for future crop improvement. Against this background I will address the question if and how NUS can make a contribution to resolving these issues and provide alternatives. We use only about 30 species of 350,000 reported unique plant species and these provide about 95% calories used in human diets, of which only rice, wheat, maize and potato provide for more than 60%! We should note the fast growing world population; need for more food; increasing loss of arable land; unpredictable climatic conditions; drastic changes in agriculture and that yields for cereals are reaching a plateau; main breeding efforts are largely confined to major food crops; there is an increasing dependency of consumers on steadily fewer crops; an increasing use of agricultural inputs and of global competition (globalization); a continued decrease of smallholder farmers and farms; increasing legal regulation and restrictions to exchange seed and growing vulnerability of our genetically less diverse crops for pest and diseases. We also observe increasing dominance of fewer commercially available varieties of major crops. At the same time there is an increasing attention and interest for regional or local food, for traditional agriculture and organic products, and a realization that genetic diversity contributes to more resilience and sustainability and better nutrition. The increasing awareness about the importance of sustainable food production leads to the recognition of a need for more genetic diversity in the production systems, for using more traditional and new crops, and consequently to better conserve and use NUS! After examining the specific attributes and characteristics of NUS and looking at the status of NUS in 'formal' conservation, some considerations will be presented how NUS can contribute to combating hunger and to improved nutrition. After illustrating some aspects with examples from Mexico, we ask the question 'How can we raise the profile of NUS?' before concluding with proposed action points regarding NUS.
The importance of neglected and underutilized species for sustainable
agriculture, their conservation and use and their contribution to food security
Johannes Engels
Bioversity International
Maccarese/Rome, Italy
Summary
My interest in neglected and underutilized species (NUS) stems from my
involvement with plant genetic resources (PGR) conservation and use, the
management of genetic resources and diversity in the production systems, and
securing this important human heritage for future generations and sustaining the
foundation for future crop improvement. Against this background I will address the
question if and how NUS can make a contribution to resolving these issues and
provide alternatives.
We use only about 30 species of 350,000 reported unique plant species and these
provide about 95% calories used in human diets, of which only rice, wheat, maize
and potato provide for more than 60%! We should note the fast growing world
population; need for more food; increasing loss of arable land; unpredictable climatic
conditions; drastic changes in agriculture and that yields for cereals are reaching a
plateau; main breeding efforts are largely confined to major food crops; there is an
increasing dependency of consumers on steadily fewer crops; an increasing use of
agricultural inputs and of global competition (globalization); a continued decrease of
small-holder farmers and farms; increasing legal regulation and restrictions to
exchange seed and growing vulnerability of our genetically less diverse crops for
pest and diseases. We also observe increasing dominance of fewer commercially
available varieties of major crops.
At the same time there is an increasing attention and interest for regional or local
food, for traditional agriculture and organic products, and a realization that genetic
diversity contributes to more resilience and sustainability and better nutrition. The
increasing awareness about the importance of sustainable food production leads to
the recognition of a need for more genetic diversity in the production systems, for
using more traditional and new crops, and consequently to better conserve and use
NUS!
After examining the specific attributes and characteristics of NUS and looking at the
status of NUS in ‘formal’ conservation, some considerations will be presented how
NUS can contribute to combating hunger and to improved nutrition. After illustrating
some aspects with examples from Mexico, we ask the question How can we raise
the profile of NUS?’ before concluding with proposed action points regarding NUS.
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